Today is the anniversary of the martyrdom of Omar Al-Mokhtar, a Libyan school teacher who led the resistance fighting against the Italian occupation of his country. Though his profession was Quranic teaching he was a particularly adept strategist and leader of the Senussi revolt against the Italian occupation of Libya for 20 years (1912-1931). Wounded in battle, he was captured on September 13, 1931, summarily tried, and hung in front of his supporters in the concentration camp at Suluq, just southeast of Benghazi. He was 70 years old.
Leptis Magna, Roman theatre, built c. 56 CE
The area of what is now Libya has a long and rich history dating from the Phoenicians, Ancient Greeks, and Romans, as represented in the still magnificent ruins, at Leptis Magna for example. With the decline of the Roman Empire, Libya was subject to the Vandals and then the Byzantine Empire. From 642 until 1551 it was a colony of various Arab Muslim rulers. At that point, and until the Italian invasion in 1911, Libya was part of the Ottoman Empire. Resistance by Libyans against the Italians began as soon as the Italians fought the Turks. The Italo-Turkish war lasted from September 28, 1911 to October 18, 1912.
Italian landing at Tripoli, October 11, 1911, Invasion against the Turks
Italian Encampment at the oasis of Tripoli
Arab Encampment,Tripolitania, Libyans fighting with Italians against the Turks
Italian troops fighting the Turks in Libya, 1911
Turkish soldiers head to battle, during the Italo-Turkish War
Damage by Italians at Tajura, 1912
Italian soldiers of an Alpine Division, surrounding fallen Libyan resisters, during the Italo-Turkish War, 1912
Omar Al Mukhtar was born in 1862 into a Mfina tribe, in the small village of Janzour, near Tobruk (eastern Cyrenaica). A young orphan, he was under the guardianship of a religious leader and statesman, Sharif El Gariani, a founder of the Senussi movement in Libya at Al-Badiya.
Fountain in Janzour, early 1900's
Janzour in 1911, at the time of the Italian invasion and the Italo-Turkish War
Sand dunes outside Janzour, 1914
The Senussi movement was an Islamic political movement originally begun in Makkah in 1837 but predominant in Libya and the Sudan. It was influenced by the Salafi movement, and saw itself as a corrective to some aspects of Sufism, while adhering to others. It became a rallying movement for resistance against European occupation of North Africa, particularly against the French in the Sahara, and then the Italians in Libya.
Resistance fighters against the Italians, in Janzour, early 1900's
Spahis, Libyan Resisters against Italy, from Janzour, at Al Marcia
Libyan resisters killed by Italian fascist troops
Libyan resisters being taken to concentration camps
Libyan civilians being taken to concentration camps
Libyan civilians forced into concentration camps
Italian soldiers with a Libyan captive 1914, Tobruk
Omar Al Mukhtar was raised in this tradition, and educated at the local mosque before studying for 8 years at the Senussi university at Al-Jaghbub. He participated along with other Senussis in the final resistance against the French in Chad from 1899 until the defeat of Chadian leader Rabih az-Zubayr in 1900. He resumed his profession of Quranic teacher, until he formed the eastern Senussi resistance against the Italian invasion of 1911. Sheik Idris, later King Idris, a grandson of the founder of the Senussi movement in Makkah headed the resistance in Cyrenaica before his exile to Egypt in 1922, from whence he continued to wage guerilla warfare against the Italians, with Omar Al Mukhtar as his delegate, and the de facto leader.
Italy, compared to other European powers was consolidated as a country late (1871) and arrived late to the collection of colonies, and the European partition of Africa. It did however envisage an Italian colonial empire from Tunisia and Libya south and east to the Eastern Horn of Africa: Eritrea, Somalia, and Ethiopia (Abbyssinia). Beginning with Italian emigration especially from Sicily and Calabria for politico-economic reasons, through the nationalism of the turn of the 20th century, and then with Mussolini's renewed fervor for colonization from the dominance of his fascist party in 1922, Italy was involved in colonization and colonial wars against the Ottoman Empire, and the other European powers (Britain and France) to create "Greater Italy".
Omar Al Mukhtar, known for his exceptional abilities as a strategist and architect of guerilla warfare in the desert, became the leader of the Senussi uprising, particularly against the renewed military efforts of fascist Italy, and of Idris' exile. From 1922 to 1928 General Pietro Badoglio was in charge of a highly repressive and punitive regime.
The Lion of the Desert
However, in 1928 Mussolini agreed to appoint Marshal Rodolfo Graziani as field marshall, on the condition set by the Marshall that he be allowed to act outside the bounds of Italian and International law. This included constructing a barbed wire fence from the Mediterranean to the oasis of Al Jaghbub to cut off supplies; the forced migration of 100,000 locals, supportive of the Senussis, from Jebel Akhdar to concentration camps in Suluq and Al-Agheila; and, conditions so poor that between 20-50% (most likely a third) of that population died of starvation and disease.
Libyan resistance to Italy
El Agheila concentration camp, one of many where Libyans were confined in the desert after forced marches; many died on the marches and in the camps, of thirst and starvation; along with killings by the Italian military between 1928 and 1932 half the Bedouin population was put to death
Omar Al Mukhtar, 2nd bearded man from left, head of the Senussi resistance; Pietro Badoglio, officer with arm band at centre, Governor of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica; Domenico Siciliani, in white 2nd from right, Vice Governor of Cyrenaica--Meeting at Sidi Rhuma, 1929, of resistance leaders with Italian leaders mediated by Omar's former guardian Sharif El Gariani; a failed effort at truce
Omar Al-Mukhtar being shackled at the time of his capture, September 13, 1931
Omar Al-Mukhtar, captive, and a prize for the Italian forces
Omar Al-Mokhtar was captured by a Libyan squadron in the service of the Italian Army, after being injured in the arm, and unable to lift his weapon. A Libyan soldier for Italy had aimed and was about to kill him, when he stated "I am Omar Al Mokhtar", whereupon he was held captive instead.
The Trial, held as a military tribunal
From the secret proceedings of the trial, available in English here
Hanging, September 16, 1931, Suluq
With the death of Omar Al-Mokhtar the Libyan resistance was effectively broken, and in 1934 Italian Libya was established, comprised of the 4 provinces of Tripoli, Benghazi, Derna, and Misurata, each with a capital city of the same name, plus the southern military territory with its capital at Houn. These provinces were considered an integral part of Italy (The Fourth Shore), and under Mussolini the populace was given new rights, and various encouragements to join the fascist movement, and the Italian armed forces. Italians were also encouraged to move there, and to integrate the colony, which many did, up to 150,000 or 20% of the total population until the defeat of the Italians in WWII.
Postage stamp for Italian Tripolitania, 1934
The King of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele III, visiting "Bengasi" in 1938
From 1943-51 Libya was a British and French protectorate, until King Idris was made the hereditary monarch of the United Kingdom of Libya (Tripoli, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan, the latter a former French colony), a constitutional monarchy.
King Idris, first and only King of the United Kingdom of Libya which he declared autonomous on December 24, 1951, with UN approval
Shortly after his "bloodless coup" against King Idris, in 1969, Gaddafi expelled all 20,000 Italians from the new Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. Intergovernmental tensions with Italy have remained high.
An ongoing inspiration, a mujahed
Omar Al-Mukhtar is celebrated as a resistance hero throughout the Arab world, and serves as an inspiration against invading foreign powers. He is most respected for his bravery, ability, and integrity as a warrior, and his dignity when captured, replying to all questions with Quranic verses, and then when led to his death. His final words were the Quranic verse: Innā li-llāhi wa innā ilayHi rāgiʿūna (To Allah we belong, and to Allah we return). Many cities throughout the Arab world have a street or a square named after Omar Al-Mokhtar. The Libyan 10 dinar note has long carried his image.
Libyan 10 dinar banknotes from: 1971, 1981, 1991, 2001
In Libya a village has been renamed in his honour. It is located near the caves where he and his resistance fighters hid from the Italians, and where a monument has now been erected in his honour, in Wadi Al-Kuf, Cyrenaica.
Omar Al-Mukhtar was the subject of a major film, Lion of the Desert (1981), by Moustapha Akkad, starring Anthony Quinn as Omar Al-Mukhtar, financed by the Libyan government, and shot simultaneously in English and in Arabic versions. The film was banned in Italy, until the recent visit of Gaddafi in 2009.
Related Posts (on the film Lion of the Desert)
Reel Arabs and Saudis: How Real Are They? Part II--Arab Cinema(s)
Reel Arabs and Saudis: How Real Are They? Part II--Arab Cinema(s)Overview
Your comments, thoughts, impressions?
Addendum--Related Posts (on the Libyan uprising of February 17, 2011):
Saif Al-Islam Alqadhafi's PhD Thesis from the London School of Economics (LSE); Libyan Funding of LSE; Response of the University; LSE Student Sit-In
Whence Gaddafi is Getting His Mercenaries: His Influence in Subsaharan Africa
Outstanding Resource: LIBYA 17TH FEBRUARY 2011--LIBYANS FOREVER IN UNITY. FROM BENGHAZI TO FEZZAN
Lockerbie and Libya: Scapegoating? The Silence of the Arab League--Doha Debates Chez Chiara