previous next

CYRENE (Shahat) Libya.

A city NE of Benghazi, ca. 176 km, and 8 km inland on the crest of the second stage of the Gebel Ahkdar, an extended limestone plateau, 144 km long and here nearly 622 m above sea level. In ancient times it was connected to its port, Apollonia, 19 km away, by a road still visible in stretches along either side of the modern highway.

Attempts to uncover traces of trading contacts between Minoan Crete and eastern Libya have not yet met with success. While the historical annals of dynastic Egypt occasionally refer to the hostile activities of Libyan tribesmen, the real history of the region commences with the Greek colonization of Cyrene ca. 631 B.C. Herodotos (4.150f) says that Delphi directed Thera to send a small band of settlers under the leadership of Battos to found a city in Libya. After six years of living by the sea not far from the modern town of Derna (Darnis), Battos moved his people to Cyrene where they were assured of a constant supply of water and the protection of the high ground. Here the colony flourished. After a second wave of immigration from many parts of Greece organized by the grandson of the original oecist (Battos II, ca. 583-60 B.C.), the primacy of Cyrene in eastern Libya was established and a succession of Battiad kings assured. Political unrest, which had broken out with depressing frequency in the intervening period, finally put an end to the monarchy ca. 440 B.C. and a republican form of government prevailed for the next century.

After the death of Alexander the Great the entire region of Cyrenaica was annexed by Ptolemy I, who visited Cyrene in 322 B.C. Ptolemy's grandson Magas succeeded the first governor Ophellas, in 300, first as governor and then after 283 as “king,” a title he retained until his death in 250. The region was thereupon reunited with Egypt. Under Ptolemaic rule the Cyrenaican cities, including Cyrene, grew in size and were equipped with permanent defensive wall systems. The old port of Barca was laid out on a magnificent scale and took the regal name of Ptolemais. Euesperides (Beaghazi) was renamed Berenice, and Taucheira (Tocra) became Arsinoe. It was perhaps during this time that Apollonia, the port of Cyrene, first gained its independence and Cyrenaica came to be recognized as the Pentapolis or land of the five cities. In 96 B.C. the kingdom of Cyrenaica was willed by Ptolemy Apion to Rome.

With the arrival of the quaestor Cornelius Lentulus Marcellinus in 74 B.C., Cyrenaica began its development as a Roman province. Cyrene, like the other cities of the region, enjoyed nearly a century and a half of peace under Roman imperial rule until the outbreak of the Jewish revolt in A.D. 115. At that time, a certain Lucas or Andreas seized control of the city. Bands of his men systematically destroyed most of its public buildings. The Roman general Marcus Turbo was dispatched to suppress the rebellion, but before this could be accomplished some 20,000 persons were said to have been killed. Property losses were also severe.

Hadrian materially aided the recovery of Cyrene by restoring many of its ruined buildings and by bringing in new settlers to replenish its depleted population. In 134 it was given the title of metropolis in recognition of its importance within the province. From the time of Antoninus Pius down to Septimius Severus, the city appears to have made a nearly full recovery from the misfortunes of 115.

Decline set in during the troubled years of the 3d c. when Cyrene suffered from the attack of hostile tribesmen and a crippling earthquake in 262. Diocletian dissolved the old Province of Crete and Cyrenaica in 297 and reorganized eastern Libya into two smaller regions.

By the end of the 4th c. the most serious problem to face Cyrene's fast dwindling population was invasion from the desert. To meet this crisis the Cyreneans abandoned the line of their original Hellenistic defensive walls and drew back to improvise a new circuit. The reconquest of Africa by Justinian after 550 and his general policy of fortifying the countryside must have brought some indirect relief at least to the hard-pressed city. But the Arab invaders led by Amr ibn el-Aasi apparently encountered no armed resistance when they seized Cyrene along with the other cities of the Pentapolis in 643.

The excavated, visible remains of Cyrene today belong mainly to the Roman period and are either new constructions or remodelings of earlier buildings. Their urban framework, however, is essentially Hellenistic, since the laying-out of the acropolis, the agora, the lower valley street, and the Sanctuary of Apollo had all been completed by Ptolemaic times. But the initial development of each of these areas was begun in the early archaic period. And conversely most of the monuments of the E third of the city, including the forum, the city center, and the cathedral area, all belong from their inception to later times. With the exception of the Zeus Temple the pre-Roman appearance of this part of Cyrene has yet to be determined.

The Hellenistic defenses, which survive in only intermittent stretches, enclose two lofty hills (max. elevation 620 m above sea level) separated by a valley dropping away to the NW. The over-all NW-SE length of the walled city is just under 1,600 m, while its maximum NE-SW width is approximately 1,100 m. The SW hill (acropolis, agora, and forum) is totally free of modern buildings. However, the NE hill is today covered by the modern town of Shahat, stands of reforested evergreens, and cultivated ploughland. As a consequence, its ancient features are still largely unexcavated and poorly known.

The ancient town was divided along its long NW-SE axis by two main roads. The valley road followed the descent of the valley between the two hills to the Sanctuary of Apollo. The road of Battos connected the acropolis with the Roman forum. A third major artery crossed the main axis of the city at right angles immediately E of the forum area. Gates in the city ramparts linked all three roads with the overland routes leading to nearby Apollonia, Balagrae, Darnis, and Lasamices (Slonta), the closest of Cyrene's ancient neighbors.

The acropolis, occupying the W end of the SW hill, has been only fractionally excavated and is still virtually terra incognita. While it seems logical to suppose the original band of Thereans settled on its heights, none of its exposed remains are earlier than the Hellenistic period.

South of the city proper, at a point across the steep wadi Bel Gadir opposite the agora, is the extra-mural Sanctuary of Demeter. The lowest levels of this precinct, which is still in the process of excavation, have already yielded pottery dating as early as 600 B.C. to document the activities of the early settlers in this area. At least two sets of walls, one dating early in the 6th c. B.C. and the other toward the century's end, comprise the earliest traces of a built sanctuary complex. These were replaced in the later 3d-2d c. by a monumental walled precinct, rising over some five terraced levels, which remained in active use until destroyed by earthquake apparently in A.D. 262.

A second extra-mural discovery of marble and bronze sculptures and architectural fragments datable to the second and third quarters of the 6th c. was recently made outside the walls at the E end of the city. The material, which represents favissa remains of an early sanctuary, may have been buried at this spot after the Persians destroyed the shrine in 515-514 B.C. The massive Temple of Zeus, which was erected late in the 6th c. as its replacement perhaps, is located about 200 m inside the walls of the NE corner of the city. Its octostyle peripteral colonnade and interior (presently undergoing restoration) were extensively repaired during the reign either of Augustus or of Tiberius. Its colonnade was overturned during the Jewish rebellion. During the ensuing hundred years its cella and porches were put back into use. These were totally wrecked by the earthquake of 365, and the temple was desecrated by Christian zealots.

The agora was cleared before the Second World War to bring to light its Hellenistic-Roman phase of development. Additional work has been conducted in this area since 1957 to expose its earlier phases. From this it has become apparent that the E edge of the agora was used from about 625 B.C. as a sacred area as well perhaps as the burial ground of Battos I. Constantly transformed over the years, this area eventually was occupied by a stoa of the Doric order and a handsome tetrastyle, prostyle Corinthian temple (early 3d c. A.D.).

Stoa constructions covered the N edge of the agora throughout most of its history. The most splendid of these was a portico (2d c. B.C.), which during the reign of Tiberius was flanked by an Augusteum, honoring the imperial family. In Byzantine times prior to the invasions of 643, both sides of the agora were transformed into impoverished private houses.

The history of the rest of the agora, an open space measuring ca. 105 x 125 m, is less well known. The N half of its W side was marked by a large stoa of mixed orders, while the S half contained a smaller Portico of the Emperors and Temple of Apollo. A Hellenistic naval monument and two commemorative tholoi were erected in its open center.

The S edge of the agora was bounded by the road of Battos, connecting the acropolis with the forum. Across the street some six civic and religious structures have been excavated, including a capitolium and a prytaneum, both as presently constructed belonging to the Roman period.

Continuing E, two complete insulae of the town plan were occupied in the 2d c. A.D. by the large House of Jason Magnus, which replaced two earlier independent structures. The W half of the house, with its central court surrounded by mosaics and triclinium richly paved in opus sectile, preserves a more public and official appearance than the E half, which appears mainly residential.

Across the road of Battos to the N is the House of Hesychius, a president of the provincial council of Cyrenaica and a devout Christian living early in the 5th c. A.D. Although small, the house attests to the continuity of urban life in Cyrene after the disastrous earthquake of 365.

The imposing Caesareum dominates the Roman forum area ca. 150 m E of the agora on a continuation of the SW hill. It was constructed as a rectangular enclosure with blank exterior walls on three sides and entered by Doric propylaea on the S and E. A complete Doric peristyle on its interior faced onto an open central court. A small temple, perhaps dedicated to the deified Julius Caesar, occupied the center of the court, while a large civil basilica lay immediately to the N. In its original Hellenistic form the complex functioned as a gymnasium, with the area taken up in Roman times by the basilica housing the traditional closed rooms. A running track, exactly one third of a stadium in length, extended W, paralleling the road of Battos. Its S facade, known as the Stoa of Hermes and Herakles, consisted of a blank curtain wall, whose upper level was pierced by windows flanked by alternating telemon figures of the two divinities providing its name. The conversion of the gymnasium to a complex honoring the dictator is attributed to the later years of Augustus' reign. The basilica, remodeled during the reign of Hadrian, was probably used for law cases. Like the Caesareum, the Stoa of Hermes and Herakles has been heavily restored. Behind it is a small covered theater or odeon, also restored. Across the road of Battos S of the Caesareum are a small Roman theater and a so-called Temple of Venus.

The valley road between the SW and NE hills descends to an open expanse of leveled ground ca. 80 m below the N edge of the acropolis, developed at an early time into the Sanctuary of Apollo. The Fountain of Apollo, which figures prominently in Herodotos' account of the foundation of the Therean colony, still pours forth its waters from a tunnel leading under the acropolis hill. The restored remains of the Temple of Apollo rise in the center of the sanctuary ground. This impressive monument was first built as a simple megaron without external columns around 550 B.C. By the end of the century it had received its first Doric peristyle, which was subjected over the passage of time to repeated restorations. Its currently standing colonnade belongs to repairs following the Jewish revolt.

Immediately W of the temple is the conspicuous Altar of Apollo, remodeled with white marble revetment in the 4th c. B.C. The S corner of the sanctuary is occupied by the fully restored strategeion, a rectangular stone building with pedimented roof, erected in the 4th c. B.C. by victorious Cyrenean generals to honor Apollo. Nearby are the remains of the partially restored Greek propylaia, again built in the 4th c. to mark the entrance into the sanctuary from the valley road, and their later replacement, the Roman propylaia (2d c. A.D.), erected a short distance to the W.

Aside from various minor shrines and altars grouped around the main Temple of Apollo and cut into the rock-cliff face of the acropolis hill, the remaining significant monuments within the sanctuary zone are the Trajanic baths and their later Byzantine replacement. The Trajanic baths (A.D. 98) covered most of the NE corner of the sanctuary, here extended on terracing supported by a massive retaining wall in order to provide space for its frigidarium. After their destruction by earthquake the baths were replaced around A.D. 400 by Byzantine baths, which today dominate the entire NE edge of the sanctuary.

The W edge of the sanctuary is bounded by the Wall of Nikodamos, set up perhaps in the late 2d or early 3d c. A.D. to separate its sacred monuments from the profane zone of the theater. Here a large-scale Greek theater with its cavea built against the N slope of the acropolis hill was radically transformed in the Roman period into an amphitheater.

The city center was built around the intersection of the valley road with the principal N-S cardo. Its E half is still unexcavated, while much of its W half is obscured by the modern town of Shahat. A triumphal arch, raised in honor of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, marked the W entrance to this area from the valley road. A small market theater has been excavated just S of the modern road. Remains of a market building and ornate propylon are visible close by, both probably erected in Severan times, to judge from their windblown acanthus capitals and the relief sculptures from the gateway.

Several ancient structures have been identified in the area ca. 200 m long and B of the modern shops of Shahat and below the old post office. The latest is a stoa dating after A.D. 365, whose Corinthian portico ran parallel to the N curb of the valley road. Three small temples lay across the valley road to the S, occupying the front of a complete city block. The central temple housed the imperial cult, the easternmost was dedicated to the eponymous nymph Kurana, while the third is unidentified. In later times the first two were destroyed and then ritually purified by fire by Christians. In addition the city center contained two basilical churches, apparently 6th c. The first is in the SW corner of the zone; the second is found E of the intersection of the valley road with the N-S cardo.

The most important monument of the period of Christian ascendency at Cyrene is its large cathedral, situated at the E end of the city not far from the main east gate. The basilica proper was connected to a baptistery in its NE corner. Its broad nave was paved with mosaics depicting animal and rural scenes. The apse was originally placed at the E and the church entered through three doors on the W. The church was later rebuilt so that its entrance was on the S and its apse located at the W end. The entire structure was fortified with thicker and loftier walls in its final stages. During these troubled times the Byzantine circuit did not take in the cathedral, and it had to double in function as a kind of advanced phrurion to protect the E face of the city. This sector lacked the protection of rising ground and was especially vulnerable to attack from the interior. The remains of a Byzantine defensive tower (Gasr Sheghia) have survived to be excavated about 150 m to the NW. Its initial erection probably coincided with the fortification of the cathedral. It was rebuilt in Early Islamic times.

The unexcavated hippodrome lies directly N of the cathedral just within the circuit of the Hellenistic defenses. South of the cathedral and just exterior to the line of the defenses is an elaborate vaulted cistern complex, built in the Roman period.

The extensive necropoleis of Cyrene cover many square meters of territory on all sides of the walled city. Numbering in the thousands, the burials are located in four main groups. The N necropolis is found on either side of the road to Apollonia. The E necropolis occupies the rolling plain between Cyrene and the modern Beida crossroad. The S necropolis lies beside the ancient track to Balagrae (Beida). The W necropolis is built into the steep slopes of the wadi Bel Gadir either side of the Sanctuary of Demeter. The types of burials vary from one area to the next. The least complicated are the simple cist burials with stone cover slabs and the rock-cut sarcophagi with removable lids. A more elaborate form is the stepped burial, which has a stepped pedestal carrying a stele. Then there is a rich series of rock-cut chamber tombs with cut-stone masonry facades, which are occasionally decorated with the Doric or Ionic order, as well as free-standing circular and rectangular masonry tombs. All periods of urban occupation are represented, from archaic to Christian. Many of the graves in the Hellenistic period were surmounted by a bust of a veiled female figure symbolizing death. Occasionally these busts are rendered faceless. In Roman times funerary portraits of the actual deceased became extremely popular. Many examples of both classes of representations are displayed in the local sculpture museum, as is a full selection of major sculptures from all other phases of the clearance of the city.


Notiziario Archeologico del Ministero delle Colonie I-IV (1915-27) passim; Africa Italiana, I-IV (1928-35) passim; G. Oliverio, Gli scavi di Cirene (1931); J. Thrige, Res Cyrenensium (1848), republished and translated into Italian by S. Fern (1940); P. Romanelli, La Cirenaica romana (1943); F. Chamoux, Cyrène sous les Battiades (1953); E. Paribeni, Catologo delle sculture di Cirene (1959)I; “Cirene” in EAA II (1959) 655-92MPI; S. Stucchi, L'agora di Cirene (1959)MP; G. Traversari, Statue iconiche femminile cirenaiche (1960)I; E. Rosenbaum, A Catalogue of Cyrenaican Portrait Sculpture (1960)I; R. G. Goodchild, Cyrene and Apollonia. An Historical Guide (1963)MP; R. G. Goodchild, Kyrene und Apollonia (1970)MPI.

See also S. Stucchi, Cirene 1957-1966. Un decennio di attività della Missione A rcheologica Italiana a Cirene (1967); L. Beschi, “Divinità funerarie cirenaiche,” ASAtene 47-48, NS 31-33 (1969-70).


hide References (1 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (1):
    • Herodotus, Histories, 4.150
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: