The photograph above is from my parents wedding in Tripoli, Libya in 1963. I wrote about why they were there, and my own journey through Libya decades later, in this article for Travel + Leisure. But with the war in Libya reaching a critical juncture this week, it has all of us thinking about how things were in Libya then, are now, and questioning how they will be in future.
My uncle sent me this video (embedded below) of Tripoli in 1964, which he found on YouTube and captures some of the feeling of place that he had when he lived in Libya as child at that same period. The extensive footage of arriving fighter jets was shot at Wheelus, then the largest overseas American base and (it is rumored) where nuclear-armed bombers were stationed for runs on Moscow.
It should be said that Libya looks more comprehensively modern in this video (and the others) than the reality merited: the modern town built by the Italians is quite small and, beyond it, they did very little to develop the country’s infrastructure. The Italians were a weak European power and came late to colonial empire, finding themselves with the leftover bits in Africa that others didn’t want or couldn’t conquer. Libya was a desolate, poor, and (until the discovery of oil) mostly undesirable stretch of North Africa with a few great ancient Roman ruins like Leptis Magna but little in the way of settled communities, being one of the only truly nomadic societies in the region. This unsettled history is still evident: on my month-long travels through Libya in 2004 I drove south from Tripoli 600km without seeing a single extant example of indigenous or vernacular architecture. Everything was reinforced concrete with brick in-fill, of recent vintage and fairly shabby.
Here are some more archival videos of Libya as it used to be.
An automobile race in Tripoli in 1938 (in Italian):
Libya in the 1950s, depicting a modernizing country:
Archival news footage of the Italian invasion of Libya in 1912 and change in policy under fascism:
Strange and unconvincing propaganda film (in Italian) about the conquest — note the sideways glance by a praying Libyan (or impostor) at 0:47 as if to say, “Am I doing this right?”
Also, click here to read the article I wrote and photographed for Travel + Leisure to gain a sense of what Libya felt like to experience on the ground. Or here for an excerpt from my Libya journals about the surreal experience of running through the Tripoli medina with a human rights activist. Or here for a look inside my copy of Gaddafi’s infamous Green Book.