“We then left the town of Gabes making for Tarabulus (Tripoli) and were escorted for some stages of our journey thither by about a hundred or more horsemen. There were also in the caravan a troop of archers with the result that the roving Arabs, in fear of them, avoided their vicinity, and God preserved us from them.”
Ibn B. says nothing at all about the city of Tripoli except to mention that during his stay he celebrated Eid al-Adha (the 3-day celebration which marks the end of the Haj) and he got married.
A Brief Look at Tripoli
Medieval travelers in general had little to say about Tripoli, and indeed Al-Abthery, a traveler who passed by about 60 years prior to Ibn Battuta was scathing in his denouncement of the city as a cultural wasteland. Tripoli may have been nominally under the control of the Hafsids in Tunis, but while they were strong enough to provide for its defense, the city being frequently the object of local power struggles between competing Berber tribes, it remained far removed from the great intellectual centers of medieval learning. (In Roman times, a succession of castles and watchtowers was built across an area in the hinterland from the coast called the ‘limes’, which was essentially the dividing line between civilization and the ‘barbarians’ or Berber tribes, throughout North Africa.) In the 11th century the Fatimid dynasty in Cairo unleashed two tribes into the Maghreb; the Beni Hillal and the Beni Sulaim – both originally from the Arabian peninsula. This was an act of revenge due to the local Fatimid ruler in Mahdia (in Tunisia) having converted back to Sunni Islam from Shi’ism. Nomadic Berber tribes (there were – confusingly - settled Berber tribes also) joined with the two invading Arab tribes in an orgy of destruction and much of what was left of the Roman and Byzantine civilizations was destroyed and abandoned. The three Roman centers of Tripolitania; Oea (Tripoli), Sabratha and Leptis Magna, did not escape and today there is only an arch left of the original Roman city in Tripoli, the arch of Marcus Aurelius.
The Spanish, who were briefly masters of the Mediterranean, annexed Tripoli in 1510, it then passed to Malta in 1530 and eventually fell to the privateer Dragut in 1551. From then until the end of WWI, Tripoli and the ‘Barbary Coast’ were under Ottoman control, or at least the control of the Ottoman-appointed beys. The oldest buildings in Tripoli date from this period, namely Dragut’s Mosque, al-Saraya al-Hamra (Red Castle), and Nagha Mosque, said originally to have been built during the time of the Fatimids in the 10th century, although the existing building dates from1610. The medina is similar to other North African medinas in its plan of narrow streets leading to cul-de-sacs and courtyards for the privacy of residents, but unlike other medinas it is not usually roofed, but there are exceptions to this. Some streets and alleys are heavily buttressed which not only hold up the walls but give a degree of protection from the sun.
Like all other medieval medinas there was a Jewish section, here called the hara, which has now largely fallen into ruin although a synagogue still stands. In the wake of independence in 1951, many families moved out of the medina and it now tends to house the poorer segments of Libyan society as well as immigrant workers from sub-Saharan Africa, Morocco and Algeria. If much of the housing needs attention, Mosques, former churches, banks and important houses have been renovated and an organization has been set up dedicated to the historic preserve of the medina.
Minarets in Libya are very different from those of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, and one does not find here the solid square Almohad or Almoravid style minarets. (Firstly, Libya lay outwith their area of control, and secondly it has no mosques dating back as far as their era of the 11th and 12th centuries.) Mosques here have more slender round or octagonal minarets often capped with green ‘witch’s hats’ much more in keeping with those found in Turkey; the Ottomans who controlled the area introduced their building style even if the schools of Islam were different.
The advent of the Italians
The ‘Villa Moderna’, lying west of Green Square which links the old and new cities, is the city laid out by the Italians who declared Libya a part of Italy in 1939. The architecture of Tripoli’s new city is in parts magnificent, and was built in a variety of styles. Some public buildings such as the Post Office are in grandiose Fascist 1930’s style, others such as the cinema have a decided late art deco look, galleries recall those of Milan, while many streets are fronted by elegant Italianate arcaded buildings. (Sadly, some of this eclectic architecture is in a state of considerable deterioration and it is to be hoped that efforts are made either publicly or through the emerging private sector to restore what is, after all, part of the country’s heritage before it is too late.)
The School of Islamic Arts and Crafts
One building in the ‘Villa Moderna’ not built by the Italians, is the School of Islamic Arts and Crafts. Built in 1898 in traditional courtyard style, it was paid for by local Libyans who wanted to educate and train the poorer members of society in ways that would enable them to earn a living. (Legend says that every woman in Tripoli gave up a piece of gold towards it.) The school first opened in 1901 and today it still educates orphans (male) and boys from low-income families. The boys are trained in carpentry and furniture-making, ceramics, leatherwork, tailoring and metalwork, graduating after 3-4 years.
In the summer computer courses are held and girls can attend those and different other classes. I walked in on one mixed class of boys and girls being trained in calligraphy – the exquisite art of Arabic script being fashioned into something far beyond mere writing. The class is taught by Abdul Majeed Shafah who designed the calligraphic form of my name that can be found on my website title. I was very graciously, at short notice, given a private tour by architect, Azza Al-Shahah, who teaches at the school. The school is located on September 1 street and within its arches are small shops, the rent of which pays for the running of the school. It receives no other funding other than this and charitable donations. The school will shortly have its own website detailing its considerable history, and examples of the students’ work is available for sale in the school. What is required is ongoing funding as well as work for the students when they graduate.