Reaching Egyptward in the form of a mighty fist is the peninsula of Barka, the Cyrenaica of the ancients, officially known as the Mutessariflik of Benghazi, its many natural advantages of climate, soil, and vegetation making it the most favoured region in the regency, if not, indeed, in all North Africa. While of southern Tripoli and of Fezzan are distinctly Saharan, the date-palm being the characteristic tree, Benghazi is just as decidedly Mediterranean, its fertile, verdure-clad uplands being covered with groves of oak, cypress, olive, fig, and pine.
Though well supplied with rain and, as I have said, extremely fertile, the Benghazi province, once the richest of the Greek colonies, is now but scantily populated. Scattered along its coasts are Benghazi, the capital, with an inextricably mixed population and one of the worst harbours in the world; Tobruk, which, because of its excellent roadstead and its proximity to the Egyptian frontier and the Canal, Germany has long had a covetous eye on; and the insignificant ports of Derna and Khoms, the lawless highlands of the interior being occupied by hordes of warlike and nomadic Arabs [Pg 88] who acknowledge no authority other than their tribal sheikhs.
South by east into the Libyan Desert straggle the Aujila and Kufra chains of oases, marking the course of the historic caravan route to Upper Egypt and presenting the aspect of a long, winding valley, extending from the Benghazi plateau almost to the banks of the Nile. Underground reservoirs lie so near the surface of the desert that all of these sand-surrounded islands have water in abundance, that of Jof, for example, supporting over a million date-palms and several thousand people, together with their camels, horses, and goats.
Such, in brief, bold outline, are the more salient characteristics—climatic, agricultural, and geographical—of the region which Italy has seized. Everything considered, it was not such a long look ahead that the Italian statesmen took when they decided to play their cards for such a stake. Though neither soil nor climate has changed since the days of Tripolitania's ancient prosperity, centuries of wretched and corrupt Turkish rule, with its system of absentee landlords and irresponsible officials, has reduced the peasantry to the same state of dull and despairing apathy in which the Egyptian fellaheen were before the English came. If Tripolitania is to be redeemed, and I firmly believe that it will be, the work of regeneration cannot be done by government railways and subsidised steam-ship lines and regiments of brass-bound officials, but by patient, painstaking, plodding men with artesian-well drilling machines and steam-ploughs and barrels of fertiliser. It [Pg 89] may well be, as the Italian expansionists enthusiastically declare, that Tripolitania constitutes a “New Italy” lying at the very ports of old Italy, but it is going to take many, many millions of lire and much hard work to make it worth the having.