The study of medieval Libya in the 21st century. The LibMed project: scope and perspectives.

The study of medieval Libya in the 21st century.

The LibMed project: scope and perspectives 

Sébastien Garnier (Centre Jean Pépin) and Aurélien Montel (CIHAM)

Session I — 17 November 2021

The LibMed project aims at revisiting the history of Medieval Libya. It focuses on three key aspects: Sources, Analyses and Projects.

The sources bring us to tackle biases that can be summarized as follows. We precise that what we call “medieval Libya” encompasses the lands that compose the modern state of Libya. We distinguish three types of approaches in the texts available so far. 

Primo, we’ll talk about “a space under influence”. This is the dominant view. It can be divided into three sub-categories. First, we have the picture of a territory to cross, when we think about the conquests (Futūḥāt) or the travelogues. These genres generally describe medieval Libya as a passive route. Second, we have the picture of a buffer zone disputed between two major powers, seeing medieval Libya as a mere hinterland. Third, we have the picture of a land between two poles, denying any inner initiative to medieval Libya. As a whole, this first classical approach places the lands we study in the middle of an East-West framework (more in Session VI, April 2022).

Secundo, we will consider a “space at the crossroads” when we reconsider the importance of the networks and the roads that support them. In this regard, we exhume centres that had been minimized or dismissed and show their interconnections. Besides, it offers a new axis, more dynamic: the South-North one (more in Session VIII, June 2022).

Tertio, we will envisage “an autonomous space” as a result of taking into account internal views and narratives. These contradict the traditional centre-periphery discourse and brings us to elaborate on these periods when specific areas were enjoying a king of independence but also to identify the local actors (ʿulamāʾor saints, e.g.) who shaped regional history on a longer term. The first local history we have dates back to the 12th/18th century. It is the Tiḏkār by Ibn Ġalbūn. It raises a big question: don’t we have any older comparable text? We are quite confident that we could come across an insider testimony in the near future (more in Session II, December 2021).

Last but not least: we shall not forget non-textual research: archeology is beyond any doubt the field that will considerably enrich our knowledge on medieval Libya in the next years (more in Session III, January 2022).

The challenges to come lie in the corpuses that have been less explored — the jurisprudential (fatāwā) and biographical (ṭabaqāt) literatures opening a wide scope. We add the necessity to cross Latin and Arabic documentations: this will certainly uncover the intermediary role played by medieval Libya between two world-wide economic spaces, the Mediterranean and the Saharan. The concept of a margin seems outdated.

The analyses rely on a necessary state of the research. 

To this purpose, Aurélien Montel has created a collaborative bibliographical Zotero database that gathers the publications dedicated to the medieval period, with regular updates. The references — mostly in Arabic, English and French — are open access ( 

The Islamic era remains understudied. We wish to be associated to the research that has been produced for more than forty years by the Markaz [al-maḥfūẓāt al-lībiyya wa-dirāsāt al-tārīḫiyya, Tripoli] and other academic institutions. Their milestones deserve a greater circulation. The ultimate goal of LibMed is to help reconnecting different and parallel historiographical traditions. A basis of monographs exists and will sustain further joint undeavours on three levels: local, regional and global. 

Local. For Tripoli Idrīs Ḥmōda or Michael Brett (among others) offer good leads. Barqa has Abū Labīd and calls for more. Saharan cities (Ghadames and Ghat, e.g.) need people to continue what Qāsim Yūšaʿ initiated and develop the pre-Ottoman times. 

Regional. On top of major contributions for Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, we would like to stress that the seminal opus of Jacques Thiry, Le Sahara libyen dans l’Afrique du Nord médiévale (1995) — it has been translated into Arabic —, demonstrates what could be done with a wide range of sources. The field of Ibadi studies (Paul Love, Virginie Prevost) also plays its part on this level.

Global. The founding father of a national perspective is probably al-Ṭāhir al-Zāwī (1890-1986). We will also signal that The Markaz of Tripoli published books asking for a reprint and a better diffusion. They must be read.

The challenges to come result from the survey above. Some spaces weren’t investigated, like non-urban or semidesertic zones or the rural societies. Some eras remain a kind of blind spots, like the 2nd-3rd/8th-9th or the 9th-10th/15th-16th centuries. Some themes suffer from underrepresentation, like the insertion of the Libyan littoral into the maritime trade or the junction made between neighbouring countries.

The projects imply different settings of cooperation, none of them being pyramidal or hierarchical. They require colleagues from various horizons sharing knowledge and competence on specific issues. Here are some examples of what has begun and what is planned.

The sources being the essential material we need to sketch and figure out what happened between the 1st/7th and the 10th/16th centuries in medieval Libya, we devote much energy to their preservation and provision. We see as a necessity the design of a general index online that would involve key actors like al-Markaz of Tripoli and universities. The manuscripts have been partly inventoried (al-Markaz, 2476; Benghazi University, about 2500; Ghadames, 937) and a merging of these datas belongs to the academic expectations. 

Many collections (public and private) await their cataloging, as testifies the entry written by Mīlād Šambaš in Ropper’s World Survey of Islamic Manuscripts (vol. 4, 1994). A joint enterprise has been set up between Dār al-kutub al-waṭaniyya (Benghazi) and the Abjad database (Centre Jean Pépin, programme PhASIF) in order to catalog the ca 120 mss kept there (more in Session V, March 2022). Operations of digitization will complete the cataloging.

Some libraries have been clearly identified and documented. Besides, it should be remembered that Libyan sources are also extant abroad in foreign institutions. Implementing an access of quality to their gathering represents a way to encourage scientific studies of high level. The case of the Jebel Nafusa illustrates this aspect (more in Session IV, February 2022). As a rule, the low level of political centralization in the premodern period of our domain is reflected in the relative scattering of written artefacts of diverse nature. This suggests the existence of many unrecorded archives (linked to families or zāwiyas e.g.) and prospections have to be conducted in this direction.

The expanding digital humanities will not be forgotten: datamining medieval texts for lexicological purposes, extracting and analyzing isnāds from Ḥadīṯ literature, OCR softwares applied to Arabic corpuses, etc., the list is long. LibMed intends to use these tools and promote them.

The building of prosopographical databases is underway and we plan to relate it to a network visualization software. That way, we hope we can better grasp the relations binding notable groups like scholars, traders and sufis, to quote a few.

A spatial database documenting medieval settlements known in Libya through the geographical works as well as the archeological findings could articulate textual and ground elements. Producing maps through GIS would finalize the whole process.

As a conclusion, we invite the researchers working on medieval Libya to join the LibMed project.

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