Shedding light on some Islamic sites and buildings in Cyrenaica / أضواء على مواقع ومنشآت إسلامية بإقليم برقة

Zuha Sa’d al-Sadiq (Omar al-Mukhtar University, El-Beyda)

Cyrenaica entered the Islamicate under ʿAmr b. al-ʿĀṣ (governor of Egypt) as a ṣulḥ province against the payment of a regular ḫarāǧ which amounted to 13,000 dinars. Barqa became the western [military] basis from where expeditions could be sent to the Maghreb. The futūḥāt would eventually seize Tripolitania and later build a new garrison city, al-Qayrawān/Kairouan, in order to establish a firm grip on the area. A first observation to be made is that we do not conserve ruins from this early period, maybe due to the fact that it was mainly at that time a “land of passage”.

                  The events that surrounded the campaign led by the Umayyad general Zuhayr b. Qays al-Balawī (the second of ʿUqba?) in the late 60s/680s and his desperate fight (in 76/695) to defend the east against a surprise Byzantine raid, have possibly left as remnants the Mosque of the Companions (ǧāmiʿ al-ṣaḥāba) in Derna, where he is said to have been buried. 

From the classical Abbasid era (2nd-3rd/8th-9th c.), nothing has surfaced according to widespread academia. However in al-Maḫīlī/Mechili ( some urban remains — held to have been built by the Fatimid al-Muʿizz li-Dīn Allāh (mid. 4th/10th c.) — have been re-evaluated and pre-date this caliph by ca 71 years. Al-Yaʿqūbī (d. 284/897) in his Kitāb al-Buldān mentions the site Wādī Maḫīl, its Great mosque, sūq, and forts. Other geographers provide useful information (e.g. Ibn Ḫurdāḏbih or al-Baġdādī). There is also an archeaological evidence with a grave dated to 276 AH (= 889 or 890 CE).

==> more details to be found in an article published by the author: “Dirāsa aṯariyya li-minṭaqat al-Miḫīlī bi-Lībiyā”, al-Maǧalla l-lībiyya l-ʿālamiyya, 22 (2016), available on Research Gate and here:

We have to wait until the 4th/10th c. to excavate the traces of a large-scale endeavour. Willing to prepare the logistics for a heavy attack on Egypt, the Fatimids secured the shore and multiplyed the number of wells and fortifications especially under al-Muʿizz (r. 341-365/953-975), the conqueror who started to plan the “oriental translation” in 355/966.


Located at the crossroads between two strategic routes (W-E and N-S), close to the sea (18 km), Ajdabiya was a perfect candidate for the Fatimids’ project. Al-Bakrī (scr. 5th/11th c.) details its assets: sweet water, well dug in the rocks, it comprised a Great mosque (erected by the son of ʿUbayd Allāh), baths, funduqs and sūqs, its harbour called al-Māḥūr (18 miles away) was protected by a line of three forts. 

The aforementioned ǧāmiʿ bears an inscription that situates its construction in 310 or 320 AH (i.e. 922 or 3/932 CE). Rectangular, its courtyard (ṣaḥn) is surrounded by four arcades (riwāq). A reference article has been written on it by Blake, H., Hutt, A. and Whitehouse D., “Ajdabiya and the earliest Fatimid architecture”, Libya Antiqua, 8 (1971). We add the following M.A. Thesis: Saeid Ali Buhlfaia, Historical Background of Libyan Mosque Architecture: Assessment and Criticism of Mosques in Ajdabiya City, 2006, link:


A fortified qaṣr (palace?) has also been the subject of studies (one of them by ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd ʿAbd al-Sayyid). It shares many characteristics with another one built by the Fatimid Abū l-Qāsim b. ʿUbayd Allāh (r. ca 934-946 CE) during one of the campaigns he led. Kufic inscriptions have been retrieved there, one being on the top of a column in the īwān, and it resembles the writings of the Great mosque. It has also been compared to other architectural elements (marble columns) from al-Marǧ/El Merj.

                  Its Fatimid attribution seems supported by other facts. Primo, it is typically located on an elevation with no settlement around, far from the city. There are some architectural features too, e.g. a prominent entry, writing ornamentations, saqīfa, etc. Secundo, travelers and geographers reported that after the installation of the Fatimids in Egypt, Ajdabiya declined but two qaṣrs were still operating for a long period (apud al-Idrīsī). Even Ibn Abī Dīnar (fl. end 11th/17th c.) reminds that al-Muʿizz had a qaṣr constructed for his private use in Ajdabiya. Tertio, we know that the Fatimids had the habit to engineer two qaṣrs vis-à-vis, separated by a vast place [maydān] (e.g. in Mahdia or in Cairo).

                  Its rectangular plan encompasses several rooms, the middle hall looking like a precious niche (miškāt) and the whole ensemble being framed by round towers covered by domes. Friedrich Gerhard Rohlfs saw it in a good state (1869), a decade later, G.A. Freund (1881).

==> an up-to-date synthesis can be found in: Umberto Bongianino, “The Fatimid Palace at Ajdābiya: New Data and Perspectives”, Journal of Islamic Archaeology, 2/2 (2015), link:

(Pacho, as seen in 1824).

For the sake of brevity we do not detail the technical description and provide instead above the plan retrieved from Bongianino (2015). Illustrations complete the scheme (see infra). The inner court opens on six rooms different in size and function (military and ceremonial).

A key debate is to understand the exact design of the qaṣr. It mixes defensive assets with ceremonial purposes (ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd ʿAbd al-Sayyid, in the 1960s), clearly marked by the cupola roofing. The first point — its military nature — appears salient, if not obvious, because the times were dominated by war uncertainties (karr wa-farr). Its majesty pertains to a self-evident will to manifest power and ideology: it hosted a caliph.

The qaṣr al-ʿAziyyāt deserves interest. In the Ǧabal Aḫḍar/Green Mountain, 130 km away from Derna, 37 km from al-Maḫīlī/Mechili. It is surrounded by a trench on three sides, with galeries leading under the qaṣr. The Authority of Antiquities had it renovated in 2003.

                  It is much more modest. It has two entrances, one on the eastern facade, the main one being on the southern sidewall. It contains two small rooms (south and north) and a central inner yard. It was also conceived for a temporary sojourn.

Cyrenaica stayed within the Egyptian orbit until the end of the Ayyubids. The Libyan lands played the role of a key link, even if their geographical extent opposed to their low density of population prevented them to give birth to a strong polity. The arrival of the Ottomans changed the game.

958/1551? No, 1048/1638.

In Cyrenaica, the Ottomans established themselves slowly, starting with an expedition conducted by Mehmet Pasha Sakızlı (the Dey and Pasha of Tripoli) in 1048/1638. His troops occupied Benghazi and Youssef Bey was appointed governor of the area. He decided to build a citadel (qalʿa) there. Others followed in al-Marǧ/El Merj or Derna to quote a few.

The citadel of al-Qayqab — as a first example — lies 8 km south from al-Abraq. It dates back to 1265/1852 and has been well preserved. A square shape of ca 50 m long, with four towers in its angles, its central courtyard opens to four aisles. The building stretches on two levels and was devised to accommodate a permanent troop. It is representative of the second Ottoman period.

The citadel of Tocra — as a case of a seashore site — lies 70 km north-east from Benghazi. Its high position enables the soldiers stationed inside to watch the city and the coast. It was partly built with the stones of the old Roman wall, maybe on the ruins of a previous Byzantine fort (see James Hamilton [1856] and Federico Halbherr [1910]). These barracks, developped in the last Ottoman period, are usually called qašla, derived from the Turkish kışlak (or qışlaq) which means “a wintering place” (qış is winter). There is the same type in Benghazi with the qaṣr al-Berka (1890). We seize this occasion to recall the walī Rašīd Bāšā (r. 1889-1893) who undertook a series of renovations, continued by his successor Ṭāhir Bāšā until 1905.

On the whole, the Ottomans still managed to create or develop comprehensive new towns. Derna can be seen as a showcase in this respect, benefitting from the knowledge of architects sent by Istanbul. Thus was the oratory of the Great mosque covered up by 42 small cupolas, or the permanent market (qaysāriyya) shadowed (hence its name sūq al-ẓulām). More generally, the town exhibits a typical urban layout and also distinctive characteristics in the houses.

Citer ce billet
Sébastien Garnier (2023, 20 décembre). Shedding light on some Islamic sites and buildings in Cyrenaica / أضواء على مواقع ومنشآت إسلامية بإقليم برقة. LibMed. Consulté le 23 juin 2024, à l’adresse

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