Benghazi is the second largest city in Libya and the capital of the Cyrenaica region. With 950,000 inhabitants (2004 estimate), Benghazi is located on the Gulf of Sirt, a part of the Mediterranean Sea. The city has some agriculture producing cereals, dates, olives, and livestock for wool and flesh. Its main exports are sponges, hides and wool. Important industries include salt processing, oil refining, food processing, cement manufacturing, tanning, brewing and sponge and tuna fishing. Fresh water is provided by one of the world's largest desalinization plants.
The city was traditionally founded in 446 BCE by a brother of the king of Cyrene. However, the city got the name Berenice when it was refounded in the 3rd century under the patronage of Berenice, Magas daughter - king of Cyrene. Later on, the city was given the name Hesperides, in reference to the Hesperides, the guardians of the mythic western paradise. Benghazi later became a Roman city and prospered for 600 years. It superseded Cyrene and Barca as the chief center of Cyrenaica after the 3rd century and during the Persian attacks. Nevertheless, when the Arabs came in 642-643, the city had dwindled to an insignificant village among magnificent ruins.
In the 1200s, the small settlement became an important player in the trade growing up between Genoese merchants and the tribes of the hinterland. In 1578 the Turks invaded Benghazi and it was ruled from Tripoli by the Karamanlis from 1711 to 1835, then it passed under direct Ottoman rule until 1911. Under Ottoman rule, Benghazi was the most impoverished of the Ottoman provinces with neither a paved road nor telegraph service, and the harbor was too silted to permit the access of shipping. In 1858, and in 1874, Benghazi was devastated by bubonic plague.
In 1911 Italians invaded Benghazi and the local population of Cyrenaica under the leadership of Omar Mukhtar resisted the Italian occupation. Cyrenaica suffered ruthless oppression, particularly under the fascist dictator Mussolini and about 125,000 Libyans were forced into concentration camps, two-thirds of whom perished. Heavily bombed in World War II, Benghazi was later rebuilt with the country's newly found oil wealth.
Benghazi is one of Libya's major economic centers. It is a bustling port and commercial centre. Tourism is still in its very early stages in Libya. Majority of the tourists coming to Eastern Libya use Benghazi as a base for which to explore the Greek ruins in Cyrene or desert excursions south to Kufra. A good connection of speedways and flyovers was built by Skanska in the decades after the revolution and this has made the transport of goods between Benghazi and other cities easier. Air transport from the city is via Benina International Airport.
Education in Benghazi, as is throughout Libya, is compulsory and free. There are many public primary and secondary schools scattered throughout the city as well as some private and international schools. Benghazi is home to the country's first university, the former Al-Jami'a al-Libiya
By Purity Njeru
Ms. Njeru is an African Executive staff writer
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