Libya Tour Guide: Cyrene

Libya Tour Guide: Cyrene Last updated on Thursday 22nd April 2010

The modern city is known as Shahat and is situated on the upper slopes of Jabal Al-Akhdar, with impressive views across the plateau towards the sea. Although Shahat itself is visually unremarkable, the nearby ruins of ancient Cyrene, are a vast visual feast for the visitor.

Cyrene dates back to the first half of the 7th century BC, when settlers arrived from the Greek island of Thera (now known as Santorini) and established themselves here. Cordial relations between the Greeks and Libyans meant a large influx of Greek settlers and much inter-marriage, resulting in considerable prosperity for the city of Cyrene. Its golden age came at the time of Alexander the Great, from about 330BC, when the city became an important exporter of grain and the valuable, but now extinct sylphium plant, which had important medicinal properties. For hundreds of years this plant was depicted on coins, so important was it deemed to be for the local economy.

On the death of Alexander the Great, Cyrenaica passed into the hands of the Egyptian ruler, Ptolemy, and by 75BC had become part of the Roman Empire. Unrest grew and various revolts flared up and were suppressed, the most serious being quashed by the Emperor Trajan in AD115. Later the Emperor Hadrian made some attempts at reconstructing the now declining city, but with no real success.

By the 4th century AD the city was uninhabited and in a state of advanced decay, It was largely ignored, except by passing bands of nomads, until the 19th century. Some abortive British attempts at excavation were made in 1838, 1861 and 1864, but major archaeological work was carried out by Italian teams in the early 20th century. Excavation work on the site is still unfinished.

The site itself is huge and complex. For simplification purposes, it can be divided into two main areas; the Sanctuary of Apollo, which contains all the buildings dedicated to this god, and the Agora/Forum area, which is the real centre of the city. The city's Apollo area attracted many visitors from all parts of the ancient world, who came to perform ablutions in the sacred fountain and to honour the god.

The Temple of Apollo is one of the city's oldest buildings, and dates from the 7th century BC, with later additions three hundred years later. Inscriptions detailing the names of the Roman priests of Apollo can still be deciphered on either side of the temple's entrance. A large altar at the front of the temple still bears the remnants of drainage channels for the blood of sacrificial animals.

Behind the Temple of Apollo is situated the Fountain of Apollo. Water from this fountain was used in purification ceremonies and was said to have curative powers. Inside the tank, seating for those undergoing purification is still visible.

The Great Baths were built in this same area, originally by the Emperor Trajan in AD98 and later, after they were destroyed in the Jewish revolt, the Emperor Hadrian rebuilt the Baths in AD119. The building is characterized by elaborate decoration, marble walls and floors, mosaic and spectacularly vaulted roofs. A large cold bath in the Great Hall is very well preserved, and is fed by pipes from the Fountain of Apollo.

The Agora/Forum area of the city contained most of the major civic buildings, as well as shops, theatre and temples. In the main square lies the tomb of Battus, the city's founder. This is the only tomb to be allowed inside the city walls.

The Prytaneum, or Town Hall was the administrative centre of Cyrene, and the building, which is constructed around a central courtyard, dates back to the city's Hellenistic period. When the city became part of the Roman Empire, Roman officials took over the building.

The Capitolium, which dates from the end of the Hellenistic period, was later converted by the Romans into a temple, where Jupiter, Juno and Minerva were worshipped. Its entrance way is characterized by four elegant, white Doric columns, and Greek inscriptions are visible, which date from the time of the Emperor Hadrian.

The Street of the Caryatids, leading eastwards from the Agora, was once flanked, as its name suggests, by many sculpted figures standing on pedestals. These are now sadly fallen and have suffered considerable damage. The street itself contains the elegant house of Jason Magnus, one of the priests of Apollo. It was built around the second century BC and has some well-preserved mosaic and marble floors.

Surrounding the site is a large Necropolis, or graveyard, which contains tombs dug out of the rock. The small caves thus formed received the bodies directly into rock-hewn coffins, and the entrances were sealed with a large stone. There is much evidence to suggest that these tombs were raided and sometimes even inhabited by nomads.

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