Cyrene

cyrene archaeological sites
Map of Cyrene, Libya.

A Map of The Archaeological Sites of Cyrene

1. Entrance Gates to the Agora 8. Hadrian's Milestone 15. Triumphal Arch (Antonine) 22. Center of Roman City
2. Corner Tower of the Acropolis 9. Sacred Way 16. Theater 2 23. Byzantine Wall
3. Sanctury of Isis & Serapis 10. New Fountain 17.   Temple of Demeter 24. Tower on City Walls
4. Roman House 11. Pasage to the Fountain 18. Market Theater 25. Temple of Zeus
5. Acropolis 12. Unidentified Building 18a. South Gate 26. Hippodrome
6. Sanctury of Apollo 13. Dionysus Mosaic House 19. Cathedral 27. Hilltop Temple
7. North Gate 14. Greek Baths 20. Arab Tower ; 21. Church 28. Hospitum
       

 

Cyrene is a beautiful site situated across the hills of Libya's Green Mountain.

zeus temple in cyrene
Cyrene: the temple of the Sun-god Zeus, 6th century BC, rebuilt during the 2nd century AD.

 

Key Facts About Cyrene:

  • Cyrene: Athens of Africa.
  • Local names of the city include: Qurina, Qourinah and Shahhat.
  • Greeks' Arrival: 631 BC.
  • Cyrene was a Libyan Amazon Queen.
  • Prospered through the silphium plant.
  • Cyrene was one of the largest cities in Africa in the 4th century BC.
  • Temple of Zeus (above picture) was larger than Athens' Parthenon.
  • The rulers of Cyrene include: Cleopatra, Alexander the Great, and Marc Antony.
  • A series of turbulent rebellions sent the city in turmoil in the 2nd century AD.
  • The city recovered under the patronage of the Libyan Emperor Septimius Severus.
  • Cyrene was named Unesco World Heritage Site in 1982.
  • One of the top archaeological destination in Libya today.


The Greek Invasion of Cyrene:

The Greek invasions of Crete and Rhodes of the 9th century BC were shortly followed by their invasions of Cyrenaica in Eastern Libya. The city of Cyrene was a Greek colony, built in the seventh century BC (631 BC) upon the oracle advice of Delphi, on one of the best verdant regions of Eastern Libya's Green Mountain, by immigrants (or refugees according to some sources) from the island of Thera (Santhorini). However, there was also a failed attempt to colonise Tripolitania under the command of Dorieus, the king of Sparta, who reached the River Cinyps (Wadi Caam), just east of Leptis Magna, in 520 BC and founded a city by that name. They were kicked out three years later by the Carthaginians (Berbers & Phoenicians).

The prosperity of Cyrene was founded on the silphium plant, pictured on Cyrenaican coins, where it resembles a stylised leek or a sunflower. The plant once grew only in Libya and apparently its extinction was a grievous blow to the city's economy.



a view of Cyrene with the mountains in the background

 


Libyan Amazonian Cyrene:

The city is locally known as Qurina: (QRN) > *Qyrne > Cyrne (CRN). But Cyrene was also one of the Libyan Amazon queens who, according to legend, founded a city with that name (Cerne) along the coast. The Greek goddess Ceres, a Hellenic form of African Isis, the Corn-goddess, the goddess of fertility, was also known as Qer, Ger or Cer, and therefore Qurina appears to be the Libyan form of Qer.

 

The Greek Version of the Myth of Cyrene:

According to the Greek version of the founding myth, the nymph-huntress Cyrene, whom the Greeks knew as Kurana (cf. Qurina), was spotted by the Sun-god Apollo wrestling with and subsequently strangling a lion in the jungle, and he immediately fell in love with the courageous princess. Typical of most Greek gods Apollo did what Zeus normally does, and so he abducted the beautiful princess, threw her in his golden chariot, and flew to a site that eventually bore her name. To make the region safe for settlers, the followers of the god built the Temple of Apollo, whence probably the port of Apollonia nearby. Like Graves had brilliantly pointed out in his Greek Myths, abductions and rapes point to physical invasions in the real world, and as such Apollo's abduction of Cyrene could point us to the fact that the Greeks had invaded an already existent city with that name, which we can, with some reserve, identify with the above Amazonian city. The evidence for this could also come from the myth itself: building a temple for Apollo to protect the settlers indicate that the place originally was inhabited by locals whom the settlers needed protection from. Cyrene's Amazonian connection is also hinted at by the fact that instead of the usual household tasks of weaving and cooking, the nymph Cyrene was strongly passionate about "manly" activities, such as hunting wild beasts; and therefore the fact that Libyan nymph was seen by Apollo wrestling a lion could only point to her being an Amazon princess.

 

marble relief of Libyan Amazons

One of several pieces found in Cyrenaica, which show the Libyan Amazons.
This particular one, currently on display in Tolmeita Museum , was found in Wadi Khamish.

 

Archaeological Evidence:

But given the advanced state the city had attained during its short period of Greek occupation, and given the fact that Leptis Magna, Sabratha and Tripoli were all in existence well before the arrival of the Phoenicians, and later on the Romans, one can safely assume that the city was in existence way before the Greek invasions. During the excavation of the Roman Theatre, it was found to have been built on top of an old market, which one is naturally led to think that it was a Greek market. But then archaeologists have further discovered that this market itself was also built on an earlier market or structure. In fact this practice was so rife in the ancient world that almost all the religious sites, like temples and churches, were built over the earlier pagan temples, for more than one reason: to prevent the locals from continuing the worship of their gods and goddesses is one of them. Recent researchers were also puzzled by the fact that some of temples and tombs found in Cyrenaica were far more advanced than similar ones from Greece; indicating a south-north flow of culture rather than the presumed north-south.

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temple of the goddess  Demeter in cyrene
The Temple of Goddess Demeter.



Two hundred years later, the Greeks established four more cities: Apollonia (Sousa), Ptolemais (Tolmeita), Taucheira (Tokra) and Berenice (Benghazi). When the Romans took over, or were handed over, the Cyrenaican area in the first century BC, they called the region the Pentapolis (The Five Cities). Among the best attractions are the landscape of the area, the Eastern Basilica, some ancient Greek inscriptions and mosaics, and the Roman rock grottos, which cut into the scarp of the rock and separated from the Sacred Way by a retaining wall. Three of them formed a sort of nymphaeum, made of chair-like baths cut out of the rock, in which the bather sat in a niche, each containing a recess for a lamp. In the Sacred Laws of the sacred stelae, discovered by the Italians, the nymphaeum were used in connection with Artemis, where girls go down to the nymphaeum of Artemis in rite of purification on the eve of marriage.



a view of the caves dug in the mountain

Cyrene's Necropolis encompasses hundreds of tombs expertly cut into the hills.


The Venus of Cyrene:

In ancient times Cyrene acquired the status of being one of the largest cities in the Mediterranean, and reached its peak in the 4th century BC. In the 2nd century AD. a series of violent rebellions sent the city in turmoil. After the massacres of the Jewish Revolt of 115 AD, the city began to recover, especially under the patronage of the Libyan Emperor Septimius Severus. But its final blow arrived with the   great earthquake of 365 AD, where the city was reduced to ruins; only to be rebuilt again.




Venus of Cyrene

The Venus of Cyrene is back home

During the recent meeting between the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Col Muammar al-Qaddafi Italy has agreed to pay Libya US$5 billion as compensation for its occupation of the country from 1911 to 1943. Apparently, as a gesture of goodwill, Berlusconi would also hand over to Libya the statue of Venus of Cyrene, an ancient statue taken by Italian troops from the ruins of Cyrene during the wars.

 


headless goddess
A damaged statue of a goddess still standing in the open air.

 

 


The three graces statue

The Three Graces.

The elegant three sister goddesses of beauty, elegance and magic, now on display at the Assaraya Alhamra Museum in Tripoli, were found in the city of Cyrene. They must have been of unimaginable beauty when the statues were in their original state.

 


Silphium Plant:

 

 

the ancient and extinct silphium plant from Cyrenaica in Libya
This drawing of the Silphium plant is on display in Apollonia Museum, Cyrenaica, Libya.

The Silphium plant, or silphion, member of the giant fennel family (Ferula), once grew only in Cyrene, in a mountainous strip of land along the eastern coast of Libya. Classical physicians and herbalists recommended the plant as both contraceptive and abortive, as well as a remedy for coughs. An image of a woman touching the plant with one hand and pointing to her genitalia with the other, found on a 5th century BC Cyrenian coin, was said to indicate the contraceptive property of the plant. In addition to its use in cooking, the plant was also used to treat stomach aliments, sore throat and fever. The plant was heavily cultivated, where it became more valuable than its weight in silver, and became an important product of Cyrenaican economy that eventually led the plant to go extinct by the second century AD. The plant is similar to the modern silphium laciniatum (compass flower), a Silphium species native to east-central North America, closely resembling sunflower plant, with the distinctive large yellow flower at the top; and hence the association in ancient times of Silphium with the Sun-God.

 
 
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