September 16: Omar Mukhtar Day: Libya’s Lion of the Desert

September 16, 1931 The indomitable Omar al-Mukhtar, religious scholar and leader of Libyan desert fighters who’d fought a European colonial power to a standstill for twenty years, was martyred. He was 73 years old, still fighting, when he was wounded and captured by troops of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

Mussolini aka Il Duce, bent on returning Italy to its glory days of the Roman Empire, wanted to further his plans by colonizing  Libya with Italians. Desert tribesmen fought a fierce guerilla campaign, humiliating Italy again and again with hit and run forays on horseback. (as a side note: Italy had attacked Libya in 1911, just fifteen years after another indigenous people the Italians thought they could beat, Ethiopians, had destroyed the Italian army at Adwa. Possible the sting of that defeat may have affected decisions to take Libya.)
Trying to break the resistance in Libya , the Italians resorted to war crimes. They launched a genocide against the indigenous people, both fighters and civilians, young, old, male and female it made no difference. Using tanks, airplanes, chemical warfare, summary executions, destroying crops and wells, seizing land and cattle, the Italians displaced the civilian population to concentration camps where tens of thousands died of exposure, hunger,and  disease. Or they died on the way as they were forced marched through the desert. Those who couldn’t continue were shot. The resistance fought on.

Mukhtar considered the fighting a religious war, Jihad and fought in it as such. Extremely intelligent, tough, and fair, he earned the respect of his people and his enemies alike.

After being wounded and captured on September 11, he was offered a deal. The Italians would let him leave the country if he’d tell the tribesmen to lay down their weapons. He refused. At that, the Italians held a sham trial, sentenced him to be hung in front of his people.  At the gallows the great man read his last verse of the Koran and went to heaven with quiet dignity.

He made a prediction before he went to the gallows that he would live more than his hanger. And truer words were never spoken.  Today Omar Mukhtar is remembered with reverence and respect in Libya, and throughout the Islamic world. Every September 16th. Il Duce, on the other hand, destroyed much of his own country by aligning with Hitler, became Hitler’s puppet, spent the last years of World War II waiting for his end. He was the most hated man in Italy by the time he was shot dead by his own people and hung upside down in a Milan  square at the age of 61.


Anthony Quinn’s greatest role was when he played Omar Mukhtar in “Lion of the Desert” that came out 50 years after Omar Mukhtar’s martyrdom.