The name Zliten is given to both the town and the whole area. As a town, Zliten is situated 160 km (99 mi) east of the capital, Tripoli, and about 35 km (22 mi) east of the ancient Roman city of Leptis Magna. It is about 60 km (37 mi) west of the city of Misrata and 40 km (25 mi) east of Khoms. It has spread over an area of about 8 km2 (3.1 sq mi). The ex district of Zliten is widespread and covers an area of 3,000 km2 (1,200 sq mi). It is surrounded by the Mediterranean from the north, Misrata from the east, Bani Walid from the south and Khoms from the west.
The name is derived from the name of the Isliten tribe, an old branch of the Nafzawa Berbers. Members of this tribe used to live in Libya and Tunisia, but are also known to have lived as far west as Morocco. They are mentioned by Leo Africanus in the 16th century as living in western Libya.
Zliten is home to one of Libya's most renowned Islamic universities, Al-Jamiaa Al-Asmariya (Arabic: جامع الاسمربة i.e. Al-Asmariya Islamic University). Faculties include the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Faculty of Economics and Political Sciences, Faculty of Dentistry and Mouth Surgery, and the Faculty of Education. They are all under the supervision of Al-Asmariya Islamic University. There is also a higher vocational training center covering various engineering fields.
Zliten has several modern banking institutions, a major shopping center and the Zliten Hotel, the city's top accommodation for tourists. In 2001, the Libyan Government proposed a number of state company projects for which joint ventures would be considered. These included an expansion of Arab Cement Company’s (ACC) cement plant in Zliten valued at $169 million. In February 2005, the initial public offering of shares in the formerly state-owned ACC resulted in the sale of 60% of the company. ACC proposed to build a second 1-Mt/yr-capacity cement production line at its Zliten plant. Arab Union Contracting Co. (AUCC) commissioned a 1.2-Mt/yr-capacity cement clinker plant near Zliten in December 2004; commercial production began in September 2005. AUCC began a feasibility study for the construction of a second clinker production line at its production facility. In 2004, construction began on extending a seawater desalination plant in Zliten with a total capacity of 10,000 cubic metres (8.1 acre·ft) per day using the multi-stage flash distillation process.
There are many ancient Roman sites in Zliten, such as the Villa of Omira ('Darbuk Omira' ), and the Castle in Al-Jumaa. The town also contains the Mausoleum and Mosque of Sidi Abd As-Salam Al-Asmar, a revered Islamic saint who lived and died in Zliten during the 15th century. There is some fine Arabic calligraphy in sandstone on top of the outer pillars of the building saying al-mulk-'illah ("Everything to Allah"). The town is famous for its olives, palm trees and citrus fruits along beautiful coastal shores. The Slat Abn Shaif Synagogue (Hebrew: בית הכנסת צלאת בן שאיף) in Zliten was a historic synagogue and Lag Ba'omer pilgrimage site for Libyan Jews. It was over 900 years old and was destroyed in the 1980s by Gaddafi and replaced by appartments.
On Friday, 24 August 2012 the shrine of Sidi Abdul-Salam Al-Asmar Al-Fituri suffered extensive damage at the hands of violent Salafists. This action was condemned by the Grand Mufti of Libya, Abdelrahman al-Gharyani, and 22 organisations in Libya, including Lawyers for Justice in Libya (LFJL) and Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), as well as the UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova.
Zliten has a proliferation of date palms that yield what is considered by many to be the best tarbuni (date juice) in Libya. Tarbuni is often served with asida, made from flour, boiled with salt, and eaten with olive and date juice. Asida is usually reserved to commemorate important occasions such as the birth of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Asida is also the celebratory dish of choice for Tripolitanian families when a child is born.
During the 2011 Libyan Civil War, Zliten was contested between forces loyal to Gaddafi, and opposition fighters who were trying to seize the strategically located city to allow them to advance to the capital, Tripoli. In mid-June 2011, the Zliten uprising by rebel fighters against the military garrison in the city was crushed. The town was on the front line by July as rebels from Misrata continued their attempts to take control of the town from the loyalists based there, during the Battle of the Misrata frontline. In mid-July 2011, Zliten was the site of a massive pro-Gaddafi rally when thousands of Gaddafi supporters gathered on the main square in the city to show their support to the Libyan leader.
On 5 August, the Libyan government claimed that NATO airstrikes killed 85 people, including 33 children, 32 women and 20 men, attacking a children's Hospital near Zliten. Reporters were shown 30 bodies in a local morgue, including two children. Officials claimed that the rest of the bodies were taken to other hospitals, but this could not be independently confirmed.
On 19 August 2011, the rebels made a major push and drove loyalist forces out of the city.
On January 7th, 2016, during the Second Civil War, a truck bomb killed 60+ police officers and wounded over 200 at a police training camp in the town. Wilayat al-Barqa, an affiliate of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in Libya claimed responsibility for the attack.