We think of Libya today as a wild, hidden land. We know
charismatic dictator, its blocked oil reserves, if we don't know it's
easy to figure out that it's almost all desert. At 2½
times the size of Texas
that's a lot of sand.
There are countries that used to be different than they are now.
wooded lands have become open, wet lands become dry, isolated regions
by roads. Not Libya. Most of It has always been desert,
always been wild. The
ancient Egyptians of the earliest dynasties detested the Libyan Desert
nasty, thieving nomads who lived there and came rampaging into the
Egyptian countryside. Military expeditions were sent out regularly
extermination missions, bringing back baskets of Libyan soldier's body
lots of female and juvenile slaves.
The Egyptians never managed to make the Libyans stay in their
Pharaos were still sending out expeditions two millennia later.
something, I guess about Egyptian organizational abilities. They
all those great buildings, but they could never get a handle on their
What were the Libyans like back then? And who might they
have been? The
general opinion of the archeological world would relate these people
ago with today's Berbers, and would describe them as pastoral nomads,
mostly goats, camels, asses, and some cattle. The horse would
have entered the
picture with the Hyksos invasion of Egypt circa 1500 BCE. You
can bet the
Egyptians didn't have their horses for ten minutes before Libyans stole
Egypt was not a colonizing country, and all of the early invaders
the northeast: Hyksos and Assyrians and Persians, ran out of steam
they reached the Libyan Desert. But in the last millennium BCE
there arose two
peoples with wanderlust, who were wont to go exploring in unknown lands
chance that something interesting and profitable might turn up.
These were the
Phoenicians and the Greeks, and both of them set up outposts, which
large cities, on the Libyan coast.
The Phoenician zone was centered around Carthage, west of Libya
is now Tunisia. Carthage had been founded in the 8th century
BCE by colonists
from Tyre in southern Lebanon. Not to be outdone, Sidon sent
an expedition some
100 years later. A town, known to the Greeks as Leptis Magna,
on the western
coast, or Syrtica, from which would later be derived the name of the
Sidra. Leptis Magna became the first city of Libya proper.
Sometime during the same century, Greeks colonized the eastern
coast. The Greek colony had a wonderful climate back then, and
some of the
richest soil known at the time. The Greeks made their land into
a garden, and
sold food to Carthage.
The earliest of the Greek cities in Libya was Kyrene. Founded
BCE, it quickly came to rival Carthage in wealth. Around 100
years later Kyrene
began issuing coins. These were lumpy, archaic silvers of various
exceptionally rare. From year to year hardly any are offered
by anyone. The
coins continued in issue through some 250 years of independence.
of them show the badge of the town; the silphium plant, which evidently
multitude of uses, was exceptionally lucrative, and somehow managed
extinct during Roman times. For the inhabitants of Kyrenaica
it must have been
as if apples or oranges or potatos were to disappear in our world.
Well, in 30 years of numismania I'd never managed to actually
hold a coin
from Kyrene in my hands until Guy Clark showed me one at a local show.
(Patronize your local shows, you never can tell what you'll find!)
It is a very
And there are other cities in Kyrenaica for whose coins you can
vain: Barke west of Kyrene, and Eusperides, more westward still and
the Gulf of Sidra.
As for the Phoenician zone, they didn't use coins in the 6th
They were doing just fine with scales and assayers, thankyou.
they didn't start going in for coinage at Carthage until their grand
Sicily, where they found that they needed coins to conveniently buy
the Greeks they found there. So Carthaginian coins didn't get
started until the
late 5th century BCE. And as for wildest Syrtica, they didn't
coins there for another 400 years. We'll return to Syrtica later.
In the wake of Alexander the Great Kyrenaica became subject to
321-283 BCE. Regular coinage continued. In the year of
his death Ptolemy sent
a step-son, Magas, to be governor. Magas initiially produced
Kyrenian coins, but started adding Ptolemaic touches such as royal
The portraits provided good propaganda devices during Magas' revolt
half-brother Ptolemy II in 277 BCE. Eventually, Magas declared
himself king of
Kyrenaica. Ptolemy III ended up marrying Magas' daughter, so
the two lands were
united once again, and together they remained until Roman times.
Ptolemaic coins were struck at Kyrene, but they are rare as Ptolemaic
We must bite the bullet. We must face the facts.
Kyrenaic coins are
hard to collect.
Back to Syrtica. From the 5th century BCE Carthage was
usually at war
with some European polity. They never managed to control all
of Sicily, having
to deal with the united armies of powerful Greek coalitions.
In 264 BC Rome got
involved. After 23 hard fought years of this (from the Roman
point of view)
First Punic War, Sicily was completely lost. Both sides were
At this point in time Rome was becoming a highly organized, bureaucratic
imperial state, governing far flung territories in a fiscally efficient
Carthage was still governing at a city-state level, something like
what they had
in medieval Italy. In the Punic War Carthage had spearheaded
a coalition of
African neighbors, and in the aftermath of the loss there was violent
over whose fault it was and what to do next. Over in Libya they
raised a revolt
against Carthaginian supremacy. The war continued for 4 years,
producing silver and gold imitations of Carthaginian coins and a few
for the first time, the name "Libya." These coins are, like all
Immediately following the crushing of the Libyan Revolt Carthage
to colonize Spain. Rome was not happy about the development of
presence to the West. Relations were strained, and war again
broke out. Italy
was invaded from Spain, the Punic forces led by the great Hannibal
years of fighting in Italy the tide finally turned for Rome.
Africa was invaded
and the Carthaginians defeated in 202 BCE.
The Romans continued to fear even a defeated Carthage, and they
to put the screws to the enemy. It finally got to be too much,
against the wall, and by 149 BC Rome wanted the wall. In the
third and last
Punic War Rome crushed Carthage, razed the city, sowed the fields with
sold into slavery all whom they didn't kill. End of Carthage.
organized the former Carthaginian territory into the province of Africa,
rebuilding the destroyed city as a Roman town. Under Roman rule
produced some municipal coppers from Leptis Magna, Oea (now Tripoli),
Sabratha, the three towns that gave the region its later name of Tripolitania.
The Sear catalog lists some of these coins at affordable prices, but
Kyrenaica, you may recall, was attached to Ptolemaic Egypt, and
Egypt went to Rome the Libyan province went along. A few imperial
were struck in the former Carthaginian lands, none in Kyrene, now styled
"Cyrenaica." All are rare. The local North African coinage
pretty much ends
after the reign of Tiberius.
Carthage was an occasional mint for provincial issues of antoniniani
such, and is a scarce mint for regular coins from the reign of Diocletian
It was held by the Vandals in the 5th century, and Vandalic coins,
imitations of Roman types, can sometimes be obtained. Retaken
by the Byzantine
emperor Justinian, It remained a mint town, gold and copper sturck
down to the
reign of Heraclius are not infrequently seen. But from the towns
proper there is nothing.
The armies of Islam swept through Libya in the mid-7th century
established no more than ephemeral control. Proselitizing was
slow; the Libyans
were not wholly converted for some 400 years. Some gold and copper
"Arab-Byzantine" style were struck in North Africa, presumably at Carthage.
These are rare and expensive. During the early Abbasid period
were struck a new town near Carthage, then called Ifriqiya. Aside
rare coppers struck at Tripoli during the time of the Umayyad caliphs,
no Libyan coinage during the middle ages.
In the early 16th century the last of the Mamluk kings in Egypt
vanquished by the Ottoman Turks. By 1551 the Tripoli was conquered
governor appointed from Istanbul. Tripoli was a mint town for
Ottoman gold at
least from the 17th century, with copper and silver following shortly
All early Ottoman coins from this mint are rare.
In the 18th century the Libyan coinage was elaborated, with a
denominations added to the menu. Large silver (billon, actually)
made. All of these are rare as well. During the reign of
sultan Mahmud II,
1808-39, a large variety of coins were struck in copper, billon, and
if you're going to find a coin of Ottoman Libya it's most likely going
to be one
of these. The mint product was quite irregular, and it was finally
Italy seized Tripoli from the tottering Ottoman Empire in 1911.
much of the interior had been occupied as well. Originally governed
as the two
separate colonies of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, the dual administrations
merged into "Libya" in 1934, and the colony annexed as national Italian
territory in 1939.
Libya was the site of a good deal of military activity during
II. Tripoli was occupied by the British, who issued military
there in 1943. The southern desert region, known as Fezzan, was
occupied by the
French. Doubtful Fezzan overprints on French West Africa paper
money are known.
In the aftermath of the war the United Nations set a target date
for independence. A National Assembly was convened, which chose
as king the
amir of Cyrenaica, Muhammad Idris Al-Senussi. It is his portrait
we see on the
common coins of 1952. I should qualify that designation; the
1952 coins were
imported in quantity by dealers in the 1960s, especially the millieme,
placed in "coins of all nations" sets. But by now all the stocks
and there is no wholesale. There's supposed to be a proof set,
but I've never
seen nor heard of one being offered.
During the 1950s Libya was pretty hard up, and it made most of
national revenue by leasing military bases to the United States and
Britain and international foreign aid. That all changed when
oil was discovered
in 1959. Big wheels started turning and there was reason to be
hopeful. In the
midst of the improvements came the coin issue of 1965. This was
issue, not made for collectors. It was not imported by dealers
in any quantity.
A bit difficult to find, those coins are.
Well, the king was not distributing the benefits of the new cash
very equitably. A large majority of the populace was living in
squalor, the well-connected were wallowing in luxury, and the Great
soldiers on the leased military bases were just sitting there, guarding
The deep distress of the people called forth in 1969 a military coup,
led by a
visionary fanatic named Muammar Kadhafy.
The new government evicted the foreign soldiers and nationalized
The internal development needs neglected by the king were addressed.
has become high, health and sanitation and transport have improved.
been something of a publicity hound in his career, and has boisterously
trouble for the rest of the world. The world has responded with
on-again-off-again boycots of Libyan oil, supposedly the "sweetest"
world, and Libya is easing toward problems again. Perhaps we
think of Kadhafy as the Crazy Horse of our time.
There are two issues of circulation coins by the current government.
1975 coins are not very easy to find, and I always charge too much
This doesn't stop people from buying them though. There's an
set that no one has had for sale in 21 years. The 1979 coins
are scarcer yet,
especially the small denominations. I remember seeing the 1979
once for $80.00 or some such price. It certainly doesn't turn
up very often.
Shall I offer to pay $10.00 and see if anyone will part with them at
1979 20, 50, and 100 dirhams are much easier to find, which in
context means I can expect to come by a couple, maybe, ever couple
And typically this last decade or so, the grade has been some sort
"circulated." These coins do not turn up in "poundage."
There are two, count 'em, commemoratives, both for the 1981 UN
Disabled Persons. I remember seeing the silver coin offered on
during the '80s. There are supposed to be piedforts. Never
Libya hasn't done anything with coins since then, though it's
through a number of paper money series. I'd like to hear from
been there about what they do for small change.