previous next

PTOLEMAIS (Tolmeta) Cyrenaica, Libya.

About midway between Benghazi and Susa, this ancient port occupies a narrow space (2 km wide) between the sea and the lower spurs of the Jebel el-Akhdar. The harbor was sheltered W and N by a small promontory and two islets. A Greek settlement, name unknown, was established here in the late 7th c. B.C. and became the port of Barke, the rich colony of Kyrene 25 km inland on the plateau. Ptolemy III (246-221 B.C.) refounded it as Ptolemais. It came into the hands of Rome in 96 B.C., and under Diocletian became the capital of Libya Pentapolis, but subsequently it decayed and Apollonia (Sozusa) supplanted it as capital. Excavation began in the 1930s and there is now a small museum on the site.

The Hellenistic city was laid out regularly, forming a rectangle roughly 1650 x 1400 m. Two major cardines run from N to S; the standard insula measures 180 x 36 m. An imposing decumanus, the “Via Monumentale,” was given a triumphal arch and a portico in the early 4th c. A.D. Little remains of the Hellenistic wall. The standard of masonry was good, though one section of the wall, carried a short way up the hillside to include a commanding point, was built of rough blocks of stone. Some square projecting wall towers have been found but the finest surviving part of the fortifications is the Taucheira Gate, built of masonry with the marginal drafting characteristic of many Hellenistic walls. Its inner side was altered, perhaps in the 3d c. A.D. when the walls seem to have been rebuilt. Traces of another wall found near the sea may have been a Byzantine circuit protecting the harbor.

Ptolemais had an amphitheater, a hippodrome, and three theaters, one at least Hellenistic. The smallest, the Odeon, was adapted in the 4th-5th c. for water spectacles, the orchestra and stage walls being covered with a layer of watertight cement to form a swimming pool. Roman and Byzantine baths are known.

The public cisterns and reservoirs are impressive. A group of 17 Roman vaulted cisterns under a porticoed space, the Square of the Cisterns, had a capacity of 7,000 kl and may have been preceded by a Hellenistic reservoir. To the E are two later open reservoirs, which probably received at least part of their supplies from the catchment area provided by the lower slope of the Jebel. A Roman aqueduct, probably Hadrianic, coming from 20 km to the E, runs towards this quarter. Outside the town are remains of a bridge that carried the aqueduct and a road across the wadi.

Several houses, wholly or partly excavated, are of the standard Hellenistic type with peristyle. The “Palazzo delle Colonne,” pre-Roman in its origin but with numerous additions in the 1st c. A.D., had a large pillared court and two impressive oeci. It stood high, with an upper story. Its height contrasts with a large, low Roman villa. Other houses have been dug out in the N part of the city. One excavated in 1961 has a 4th-5th c. mosaic floor with Orpheus singing to the wild beasts. Further excavations are in process.

Fragments of an unexcavated Doric building suggest that it may have been a pre-Roman temple. The imposing temple tomb, Qasr Faraoun, W of Ptolemais, is Hellenistic. The chamber tombs found in great numbers in the quarries E and W of the city have yielded a few sculptured tombstones and numerous inscriptions. A number of sculptures and important inscriptions, including the price edict of Diocletian and an edict of Anastasius have come to light within the city.

A fortified Christian basilica has narthex, apse, chambers on either side of the apse, nave, aisles, and is solidly built with a single narrow doorway on the N side. A fortified building (75 x 45 m) probably 5th c., is commonly regarded as the headquarters of the Dux of Libya Pentapolis; its walls are faced with good masonry and provided with stringcourses to stabilize the rubble filling. Two other forts within the city provided some security after the old walls had decayed.


G. Caputo, “Tolemaide,” Encic. Ital. XXXIII (1937); “Protezione dei monumenti de Tolmeide, 1935-42,” Quaderni di arch. della Libia 3 (1954) 33-66; P. Romanelli, La Cirenaica romana (1943); G. Pesce, “Il ‘Palazzo delle Colonne’ in Tolemaide de Cirenaica,” Monograph. di archeol. libica 2 (1950); “Tolemaide,” EAA (1966) VII; Goodchild, “The Decline of Cyrene and Rise of Ptolemais,” Quaderni 4 (1961) 83-95; “The Forum of Ptolemais,” Quaderni 4 (1967) 47-51; R. M. Harrison, “Orpheus Mosaic at Ptolemais,” JRS 52 (1962); C. H. Kraeling, Ptolemais, City of the Libyan Pentapolis (1962); J. Boardman, “Evidence for the Dating of Greek Settlements in Cyrenaica,” BSA 61 (1966) 149-56; C. Arthur, “The Ptolemais Aqueduct,” SLS Ann. Rpt. 5 (1973-74).


hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: