Nafusa Mountains

Nafusa Mountains
جبال نفوسة
Highest point
Elevation 968 m (3,176 ft)[1]
Coordinates 31°51′54″N 11°47′36″E / 31.8649°N 11.7933°E / 31.8649; 11.7933Coordinates: 31°51′54″N 11°47′36″E / 31.8649°N 11.7933°E / 31.8649; 11.7933
Nafusa Mountains

Location in Libya

Location Tripolitania, northwest Libya

The Nafusa Mountains (Berber: Adrar n Infusen (Nafusa Mountain), Arabic: [جبل نفوسة (Western mountain)) are a mountain range in the western Tripolitania region of northwestern Libya. It also includes their regions around the escarpment formed where the northern end of the Tripolitanian Plateau meets the Mediterranean coastal plain or the Jefara.


The area was as a major population and cultural center of the Libu, who repeatedly expanded west.

The Nafusa Mountains shelters most of Libya's Berber-speaking population, who speak Nafusi Berber.

Ibadi imamate

In the aftermath of the great Berber Revolt of the 8th century, Ibadi missionaries that had fled from the Umayyad Caliphate took refuge in the Nafusa Mountains. Preachers converted and organized the native Nafusa people into a fighting force. Under the leadership of Imam Abu al-Khattab al-Ma'afari, the Nafusa descended from the mountains and proceeded to conquer all of the crumbling Fihrid emirate of Ifriqiya - capturing Tripoli in 757 and Kairouan in 758.[2] But the Abbasid Arab governor of Egypt invaded Ifriqya, defeated the Nafusa in a battle at Tawergha in 761 (his third attempt - his first two armies had been repulsed) and put an end to their putative new state. However, the Nafusa mountains themselves remained unconquered. Throughout the 9th century, while the Aghlabids ruled in Ifriqiya, the Ibadi maintained an independent puritan republic in the Nafusa mountains. The Imamate of Nafusa was in close alliance with the other Ibadi remnant, the Rustamid dynasty in Tiaret, both constant thorns on either side of the Aghlabids, in communication with each other across the back highlands of North Africa.

In 879, the Tulunids of Egypt invaded Aghlabid Ifriqya and captured Tripoli. But the Nafusa challenged and destroyed the Egyptian army in 880. Again the Nafusa victory was short-lived. In 896-97, the Aghlabid emir Ibrahim II of Ifriqiya recovered Tripolitana and defeated the Nafusa in a great battle at Manu (south of Gabès). In the aftermath, citing them as heretics, Ibrahim II executed all the Nafusa prisoners and put an end to their independent imamate (Tahert fell shortly after, in 911). Despite the destruction of their states, Ibadi Islam remained a strong (if clandestine) faith among the Berbers of the Nafusa mountains for centuries after, down to the modern day.[3] The lingering heterodoxy of the Nafusa people has placed them frequently at odds, or under suspicion, by the largely orthodox Sunni population of the rest of Libya.

Libyan Civil War 2011

This distinct culture, suppressed and oppressed by the Libyan regime, has risen to new prominence in the course of the Libyan Civil War (2011), when their initiatives led to the Nafusa Mountains becoming a major front in that war.[4][5] The terrain and topography of the region are critical strategic factors, constraining mechanised advances from the flat plain and plateau, and favouring guerrilla tactics based on close local knowledge and the advantage of high ground. By the end of June 2011 the Nafusi people had almost succeeded in liberating themselves completely from the control of the regime, and this progress seems likely to continue.[4]


The Nafusa Mountains form the boundary between the Libyan coastal plain, known as the Jafara, to the north, and the Tripolitanian Plateau to the south. The beds (strata) of the Tripolitanian Plateau slope downwards to the south and tilt upwards towards the north creating the highest portion of the plateau as the Nafusa mountains which rise to over 750 meters.[6][7][8] The plateau ends abruptly on the north with an escarpment which has up to 350 meters of topographic prominence. A series of deep valleys which drain north toward the Jefara cut into this escarpment.[8] It extends some 250 kilometers within Libya, from just east of the city of Gharyan (about 60 kilometers south of Tripoli) in the east to the city of Wazzin at the Tunisian border in the west. Spurs and isolated upthrusts continue into Tunisia, but this region is almost unpopulated, in marked contrast to the situation in Libya.

The mountain area is rarely more than 25 kilometers in depth, from its southern boundary, the flat arid plateau some 650 meters above sea level, to its northern limit on the plain, where the land falls to below 150 meters. Much of the 500 meter drop in level is accomplished abruptly, at the escarpment, where local topographic prominences may be up to 350 meters. It is from below, on the plain, viewing the steep slopes and sharply-etched skyline that the area appears mountainous; from the plateau the land appears merely hilly, and in fact it is rather flat apart from the effects of differential erosion.

Towns in the mountains include Gharyan, Yafran, Zintan, Jadu, Kabaw, Al-Qawalish and Nalut, which have all been the sites of military action during the 2011 civil war. Since 2007, the mountains stretch across two districts: Jabal al Gharbi District and Nalut District.


The mountain villages raise primarily goats, olives and grain, but also have fig and apricot orchards.[9]

Ethic composition of the Libyan population in 1974. The orange arc in the Northwest shows the Berber population in the Nafusa Mountains.

2011 Libyan civil war

The Nafusa Mountains became first a hotbed for anti-Gaddafi protests (with protests breaking out relatively early in Nalut and Zintan) and then a rebel stronghold, an island of rebel control in the mainly Gaddafi-controlled western part of the country. During the early stages, forces allied to the national transitional government succeeded in evacuating most non-combatants into Tunisia; the Wazzin border crossing was captured and held to ensure supply lines from Tunisia; all the mountain towns were retaken; and the front extended to the plains, cutting regime communications lines and allowing electricity to be restored. They were the first rebel combatants to be supplied with arms by air-drop.[10]

In the course of the civil war, many towns in the area were subjected to shelling by artillery and rockets from both sides, with much damage to infrastructure. Regime forces cut off electricity and water supplies. Médecins Sans Frontières sent a team in Zintan to help the large number of wounded.[11] Al Galaa was without electricity and water for seven weeks, and more than 45,000 refugees fled for safety to the adjoining Tunisian region of Tatouine, where many had relatives.[12][13]

Cultural renaissance

As towns and villages in the Nafusa Mountains and surrounding areas were liberated from control by forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi in early summer 2011, and while fierce fighting continued, Berber exhibitions and workshops sprang up to share and spread the Tamazight culture and language, after four decades during which there were severe punishments for speaking and writing Tamazight openly.[14]


  1. Willeitner, Joachim (2001). Tripolitanien, Syrtebogen, Fezzan und die Kyrenaika. DuMont Reiserverlag. p. 14. ISBN 3-7701-4876-2.
  2. C.A. Julien, (1931) Histoire de l'Afrique du Nord, de la conquete Arabe à 1830, vol. 2, 1961 edition, Paris: Payot. pp.31-32
  3. Julien (1931: p.39)
  4. 1 2 Laub, Karin (15 August 2011). "Libya's western mountain rebels taste success". CNS News. Associated Press. Retrieved 18 August 2011.
  5. Map of situation on 28 June 2011 at
  6. Asketell, J. M. and Ghellali, S. M. (1991) "A palaeogeologic map of the pre-Tertiary surface in the region of the Jifarah Plain: its implication to the structural history of Northern Libya" in Salime, M. J. et al. (ed.) (1991) The geology of Libya. Volume IV-VII : Third Symposium on the Geology of Libya, held at Tripoli, September 27–30, 1987 Elsivier, Amsterdam, volume VI, pp. 2381-2406, ISBN 0-444-88844-6
  7. El-Zouki, Ashour V. (1980) "Stratigraphy and lithofacies of the continental clastic (Upper Jurassic and Lower Cretaceous) of Jabal Nafusah, NW Libya" in Salem, M. J. and Busrewil, M. T. (ed.) (1980) The Geology of Libya: Symposium on the Geology of Libya (2nd : 1978 : Tripoli, Libya) Academic Press, New York, volume II, pp. 394-418, ISBN 0-12-615501-1
  8. 1 2 Megerisi, Mohamed and Mamgain, V. D. (1980) "The Upper Cretaceous-Tertiary formations of northern Libya" in Salem, M. J. and Busrewil, M. T. (ed.) (1980) The Geology of Libya: Symposium on the Geology of Libya (2nd : 1978 : Tripoli, Libya) Academic Press, New York, volume I, pp. 67-72, ISBN 0-12-615501-1
  9. Faul, Michelle (23 May 2011). "High-level US diplomat meets Libyan rebel leaders". CNS News. Associated Press. Retrieved 18 August 2011.
  10. Spencer, Richard (29 June 2011). "France supplying weapons to Libyan rebels". The Telegraph. Retrieved 18 August 2011.
  11. "MSF expands operations in response to growing needs in Libya". Médecins Sans Frontières. 18 May 2011. Retrieved 18 August 2011.
  12. Robertson, Nic (22 May 2011). "Libyan begs NATO to save his small town". CNN International Edition. Cable News Network. Retrieved 18 August 2011.
  13. "More than 45,000 Libyan refugees in Tataouine". Tunisian News Agency. 21 May 2011. Retrieved 18 August 2011.
  14. Simpson, John (5 July 2011). "Waiting game for rebels in western Libya". BBC News. Retrieved 18 August 2011.
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