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The Two Tripolis: A Tale of Two Cities

posted on: May 7, 2021

The Two Tripolis: A Tale of Two Cities
Tripoli, Libya

By: Lindsey Penn/Arab America Contributing Writer

When you hear the name Tripoli, it is sometimes easy to forget that there are two Tripolis: two cities with the same name in both Lebanon and Libya. Tripoli (or طرابلس in Arabic) has a long history in both countries. Although both cities have the same name, they are each unique in their own right. Each Tripoli has played an important role in its respective country and continues to be significant to this day.

Tripoli, Libya

The Two Tripolis: A Tale of Two Cities
Aerial shot of Tripoli – (Tripoli, Libya)

You may have heard the song called “The Marines’ Hymn”, an official song for the Marines adopted in 1929. In that song, they reference “the shores of Tripoli”. That references the First Barbary War, when the United States fought the North African states, which they called the “Barbary States”. The Tripoli, in this case, is Tripoli, Libya.

Also called the Western Tripoli, it is located in northwestern Libya on the Mediterranean coast. It is the capital of Libya and is Libya’s largest city and seaport.

Demographics

The population of the city is estimated to be almost 1.2 million people. The number is a huge increase in the population from what used to be 100,000 people in 1950. As the capital of Libya, it has the most people and also has the highest population density. The entire city is 200 square miles, so there are about 12,000 people per square mile. Most of its population is Muslim and of Berber origin. There are some Christians and people with Arab or mixed ancestries, though. Tripoli is a center for banking, finance, communications, fishing, and the commercial industry. It was a hotspot for tourism up until recent years when the Libyan Civil War affected the city’s economy.

History

The Two Tripolis: A Tale of Two Cities
Roman ruins (Libya)

Tripoli has changed hands multiple times throughout history. The Phoenicians founded Tripoli in the 7th century, which was called Oea at the time. The city was one of the three cities forming the North African region of Tripolis or ‘Tripolitania.’ The Romans took over the city of Oea in 146 BCE and continued ruling until around 450 CE. At that time, the Vandals (Germanic people) gained control of all of Tripolis and destroyed the other two cities in the trio. Previously the weakest and smallest of the three, Tripoli began growing more than the other two cities. In the 6th century, the Byzantines controlled the city up until 645 CE, when the Arab Muslims invaded and conquered the city.

The Arab Muslims had been led by Amr ibn al-As, who had conquered a large part of North Africa and spread Islam. Tripoli remained a territory for the Arab Muslims until 1551, apart from a brief period of 12 years when Sicilian Normans took control of the city (1146-1158).

The Two Tripolis: A Tale of Two Cities
The Ottoman siege in 1551

In 1551, the Ottoman Turks invaded and conquered Tripoli. At that point, the city was made a colonial capital, and remained that way until the fall of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. Once the Ottoman Empire collapsed, the Italians occupied North Africa, including Tripoli. This is part of what makes Tripoli (and Libya) different: Italy had a few stable holdings in North Africa and the Middle East, while most other countries were occupied by the British and French.

The Italian occupation ended in 1943, but the British occupied Libya after that. Finally, in 1951, Libya gained independence from Britain and kept Tripoli as its capital.

Places to Visit

The Two Tripolis: A Tale of Two Cities
Arch of Marcus Aurelius (Tripoli, Libya)

Since Tripoli has a long history, there are many historical sites to see. For example, there is the Arch of Marcus Aurelius. The Arch was built by the Romans and is one of the lasting remnants of Oea. It is also right next to Tripoli’s old city, which is a site in and of itself.

The Two Tripolis: A Tale of Two Cities
Assaraya Alhamra

Another historical site is the citadel, also known as Assaraya Alhamra, which was built under Italian colonization. The building itself is interesting and has many artifacts on display that might be fascinating for anyone interested in colonial history.

Tripoli, Lebanon

The Two Tripolis: A Tale of Two Cities

Also known as the Eastern Tripoli, the city lies on the Mediterranean coast in northwestern Lebanon, about 40 miles away from Beirut, the capital of Lebanon. Like the Libyan Tripoli, the Lebanese Tripoli is a port city as well.

Demographics

Tripoli’s approximate population is a little under 750,000 (the number is approximate because Lebanon has not had a national census since 1932). The population is mostly Sunni Muslim, although there are Christians in the city. Tripoli is a commercial and industrial center, as well as a beach resort.

History

The Two Tripolis: A Tale of Two Cities
Christian siege of Tripoli, Lebanon

Tripoli, Lebanon was founded after 700 BC. In 300 BC, the Persians controlled the city, and it became the capital of the trio of city-states called Sidon, Tyre, and Arvad/Arvadus. Throughout time, the Seleucids, and then the Romans, controlled the city. In about 638 AD, the Muslims took control over the city and ruled over it until the First Crusades, when the Christians besieged the city. When they besieged it, they partially destroyed it, but when the Christians officially took control over the city in 1109 AD, they rebuilt it.

Then, in 1289 AD, the Mamluks destroyed the city and began to rule over it. They ruled it until 1516 when the Ottomans invaded and took over. The Ottomans then ruled Tripoli until World War I, when the British took Tripoli. They joined the city with Greater Lebanon in 1920. During World War II, the British and French-occupied Tripoli. Lebanon gained independence in 1946.

Tripoli, a mostly Muslim city, was the center for the revolt against the central government dominated by Christians in 1958 and 1975-76. During the Lebanese Civil War, Tripoli’s economy tanked, and only started recovering in the late 1980s. In 1982, the city was a headquarters for the Palestine Liberation Organization for a brief period of time.

Places to Visit

The Two Tripolis: A Tale of Two Cities
The Great Mosque

Similar to Libya’s Tripoli, there is quite a bit to see in the city. There is the Great Mosque, built by the Mamluks in 1294 on the site of a cathedral. What makes this mosque unique is not only its age, but the architecture of the mosque. It is different because many parts of the cathedral were converted to the mosque rather than built from scratch.

The Two Tripolis: A Tale of Two Cities
The Lion Tower

There is also the Lion Tower, another Mamluk building, but this one protected the port. It was built in the 15th century, and is considered a good example of military architecture from the Mamluks.

Although the two cities bear the same name, their history and placement makes them very different. Both are amazing cities to visit to learn about history of the Arab world.

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