The city was known as Oea in ancient times and was one of the original cities (along with Sabratha and Leptis Magna) that formed the African Tripolis, or Tripolitania. Occupying a rocky promontory overlooking the sea and located due south of Sicily, the city was founded by the Phoenicians and later controlled by the Romans (146 BCE until about 450 CE), the Vandals (5th century), and the Byzantines (6th century). During the invasions by the Vandals the walls of the cities of Sabratha and Leptis Magna were destroyed, and this resulted in the growth of Tripoli, which had previously been the least important of the three cities. In 645 the city fell to Arab Muslims led by ʿAmr ibn al-ʿĀṣ, and it subsequently remained under Arab control (except from 1146 to 1158, when it was taken by Sicilian Normans). It was stormed by the Spanish in 1510 and was conquered by the Turks in 1551, after which it was made a colonial capital of the Ottoman Empire. From 1911 to 1943 it was in Italian hands, and from then until Libya’s independence in 1951 it was occupied by the British.
The city is divided into old and new quarters. The ancient walled city, or medina, lies along the harbour and is dominated by a 16th-century Spanish castle. The old quarter contains the marble Marcus Aurelius triumphal arch (163 CE) and the mosques of Gurgi (1883) and Karamanli (18th century), with its distinctive octagonal minaret. The al-Nāqah Mosque, or “Camel” Mosque, dates from the Middle Ages to the 17th century. Many historical structures benefited from restoration programs in the late 20th century. The modern city, which experienced rapid growth from the 1970s, contains many of the official buildings, theatres, and hotels, as well as the former royal palace (later called the People’s Palace), which houses a library. Universities in Tripoli include Al-Fāteḥ University, founded in 1957 and previously part of the former federal University of Libya before its split in 1973, and Open University, founded in 1987. Libya’s Department of Antiquities, which oversees the country’s museums and archaeological sites, is also located in Tripoli, as are the national archives, several research centres, and the majority of the country’s publishing houses.
Tripoli is a major coastal oasis serving a region growing olives, vegetables, citrus fruit, tobacco, and grains. Fishing is important, and several canneries in the city process the catch. Tripoli’s industries include tanning and the manufacture of cigarettes and carpets. An oil depot, motor vehicle assembly plants, and a gas-bottling plant are also located there. With its port, nearby international airport, and road connections, Tripoli is a busy transshipment centre. Important among its major roadways are the coastal highway linking the city with Banghāzī and Cairo and another that runs inland connecting Tripoli with Sabhā in the south. Tripoli is the centre of the most densely populated region of Libya. Pop. (2005 est.) city, 911,643; urban agglom., 2,098,000.
Whilst it has an undeniable cosmopolitan feel, Tripoli is still a fairly quiet place to visit during the daytime. In the early evening, however, the city starts to come to life as families and visitors take advantage of the cooler temperatures to enjoy its restaurants or simply take a stroll along the seafront.
Tripoli’s architecture and atmosphere are something of a mixture of the Mediterranean and Arabic worlds that have helped to create the city we see today.