Benghazi Cathedral – An Abandoned Symbol Of Libya’s Civil War

Benghazi Cathedral in Benghazi, Libya was one of the largest catholic churches in North Africa. The cathedral was built from 1929 to 1939. The building is an example of Neoclassical architecture, and was designed by Italian architects Guido Ottavo and Cabiati Ferrazza, basing the design on that of a basilica. The portico at the entrance features six Doric columns and there are two domes covering both spans of the nave. Original plans included a three story bell tower however it was never completed.

Benghazi Cathedral

The cathedral in the 1960s.

At the time of the cathedral’s construction, Benghazi was occupied by Italy. It was known as Italian Benghazi and was part of the colony of Italian Cyrenaica. In 1934, Italy combined Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan into a new colony called Italian Libya. By 1939,  35% of the population of Benghazi was Italian.

Italian Benghazi

Italian Benghazi. Note the cathedral in the background.

During World War II, Libya was at the centre of the North African Campaign and Italy, alongside Germany, fought the Allies until their defeat in 1943. Following the war, the Allies occupied Libya with the United Kingdom administering in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, and France in Fezzan. Libya declared its independence on December 24. 1951 as the United Kingdom of Libya, a constitutional and hereditary monarchy under King Idris who had been in exile in Cairo. He had previously served as the Emir of Cyrenaica until he was exiled by the Italians in 1922.

On 1 September 1969, a coup d’etat was launched by a group of rebel military officers led by Muammar Gaddafi. Benghazi Cathedral was abandoned by the Church in 1970 but was used as the headquarters of the Arab Socialist Union of Libya for a short time before being abandoned again in 1977. During the years that Gaddafi was in charge, Libya’s economy boomed and the Human Development Index became the highest in Africa. Huge infrastructure projects were undertaken including the Great Manmade River which aimed to provide fresh water to much of the country. However, the wealth was also used to fund paramilitaries and terrorist groups around the world. The United States attempted to kill Colonel Gaddafi in and airstrike in 1986 and in retaliation, Libya blew up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie in Scotland.

Muammar Gaddafi Poster

Muammar Gaddafi was leader of Libya until 2011.

On 17 February 2011, a full scale revolt broke out in Libya as part of the Arab Spring movement. Unlike neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt, the Libyan regime resisted the movement and a civil war broke out. The UN Security Council passed a resolution declaring the north of the country a no-fly zone and sanctioning the use of all means necessary to protect Libyan citizens. NATO forces began an offensive to assist the rebels and on 23 October 2011, the loyalist forces were finally defeated. Much of Libya was devastated by the war and towns such as Brega were completely destroyed and abandoned.

A National Transitional Council took over for a short time before handing over power to the elected General National Congress, however by 2014, a second civil war had broken out. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) took advantage of the situation and occupied territory but was attacked by Egpyt and by the forces of the Government of National Accord, the body officially recognised as the ruling government of Libya by the United Nations.

During the most recent civil war, Benghazi was heavily damaged, particularly in the coastal quarters. The Battle of Benghazi took place between October 2014 to December 2017 as the Libyan National Army fought the Islamist Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries and ISIL-aligned Wilayat Barqa, The LNA, supported by France, recaptured large areas of the city and the Wilayat Barqa militants fled in January 2o17. By December that year, the LNA captured the last rebel held area and fighting in Benghazi came to an end.

Benghazi Cathedral managed to survive both civil wars relatively unscathed. Even as Islamist militants destroyed British graves nearby and looted historic heritage sites, the cathedral remained virtually untouched. Efforts began in 2009 to restore it to its former glory but were halted following the fall of Gaddafi and the outbreak of war. It remains abandoned.

Location: Benghazi, Libya

Abandoned: 1977

Abandoned Cathedral in Benghazi

Children play inside the cathedral during the renovation which began in 2009.

The altar of the abandoned Benghazi Cathedral

Inside the abandoned cathedral. Despite the decoration being badly damaged, the structure itself remains sound.

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