Cyrene, Libya


The ruins of Cyrene
Shown within Libya
Location Shahhat, Jabal al Akhdar, Cyrenaica, Libya
Region Jebel Akhdar
Coordinates 32°49′30″N 21°51′29″E / 32.82500°N 21.85806°E / 32.82500; 21.85806Coordinates: 32°49′30″N 21°51′29″E / 32.82500°N 21.85806°E / 32.82500; 21.85806
Type Settlement
Builder Colonists from Thera led by Battus I
Founded 630 BC
Abandoned 4th century AD
Periods Archaic Greece to Roman Empire
Site notes
Official name Archaeological Site of Cyrene
Type Cultural
Criteria ii, iii, vi
Designated 1982 (6th session)
Reference no. 190
Region Arab States

Cyrene (/sˈrn/; Ancient Greek: Κυρήνη Kyrēnē) was an ancient Greek and Roman city near present-day Shahhat, Libya. It was the oldest and most important of the five Greek cities in the region. It gave eastern Libya the classical name Cyrenaica that it has retained to modern times.

Cyrene lies in a lush valley in the Jebel Akhdar uplands. The city was named after a spring, Kyre, which the Greeks consecrated to Apollo. It was also the seat of the Cyrenaics, a famous school of philosophy in the 3rd century BC, founded by Aristippus, a disciple of Socrates. It was then nicknamed the "Athens of Africa".[1][2][3][4]


Summary of the founding of Cyrene, as told in Herodus

Grinus, son of Aesanius a descendant of Theras, and king of the island of Thera, had visited the Oracle and offered a hecatomb to the Oracle on sundry matters. The Oracle had offered the advice to find a new city in Libya. Many years had passed and the advice was not taken, and the city of Thera had succumb to a horrific drought and all of the crops and trees had perished. They again sent to Delphi and were reminded that the Oracle had said several years ago to settle in the county of Libya, but this time he specifically said to find a settlement in the land of Cyrene. Not knowing how to get to Libya they sent a messenger to Crete to find someone to lead them on their journey. They found a dealer in purple dyes named Corobius. He had once traveled to an island across from Libya called Platea. Grinus and Corobius sailed to Pletea, when they reached their destination they left Corobius with months of supplies and Grinus came back to Thera to collect men to settle the newly made colony. After two years of settling the colony they had little success and went back to the Oracle to get advice. The Oracle had repeated his advice to move directly to the country of Libya instead of across to Libya. So they moved to a place called Aziris. They settled there for six years, and was very successful until the Libyans visited the settlement of Aziris to convince the people to move further inward the county of Libya. They were swayed by the Libyans to move and settled into what is now Cyrene. The current king of that time Battus reigned for 40 years, until he passed and his son, Arcesilaus, took over and reigned for 16 years, with no more or less population change until the Oracle had told the third king Battus, to bring Greek citizens to the settlement and with that expansion the Libyans had lost a lot of land surrounding Cyrene.[5]

The Greek period

Cyrene was founded in 630 BC as a settlement of Greeks from the Greek island of Thera (Santorini), traditionally led by Battus I, at a site 16 kilometres (10 mi) from its associated port, Apollonia (Marsa Sousa). Traditional details concerning the founding of the city are contained in Herodotus' Histories IV. Cyrene promptly became the chief town of ancient Libya and established commercial relations with all the Greek cities, reaching the height of its prosperity under its own kings in the 5th century BC. Soon after 460 BC it became a republic. In 413 BC, during the Peloponnesian War, Cyrene supplied Spartan forces with two triremes and pilots.[6] After the death of Alexander the Great of Macedon (323 BC), the Cyrenian republic became subject to the Ptolemaic dynasty.

Ophelas, the general who occupied the city in Ptolemy I's name, ruled the city almost independently until his death, when Ptolemy's son-in-law Magas received governorship of the territory. In 276 BC Magas crowned himself king and declared de facto independence, marrying the daughter of the Seleucid king and forming with him an alliance in order to invade Egypt. The invasion was unsuccessful and in 250 BC, after Magas' death, the city was reabsorbed into Ptolemaic Egypt. Cyrenaica became part of the Ptolemaic empire controlled from Alexandria, and became Roman territory in 96 BC when Ptolemy Apion bequeathed Cyrenaica to Rome. In 74 BC the territory was formally transformed into a Roman province.

Apollo Kitharoidos from Cyrene. Roman statue from the 2nd century AD now in the British Museum.
Detail of the Cyrene bronze head in the British Museum (300 BC).

Roman period

The inhabitants of Cyrene at the time of Sulla (c. 85 BC) were divided into four classes: citizens, farmers, resident aliens, and a minority population of Jews. The ruler of the town, Ptolemy Apion, bequeathed it to the Romans, but it kept its self-government. In 74 BC Cyrene was created a Roman province; but, whereas under the Ptolemies the Jewish inhabitants had enjoyed equal rights, they now found themselves increasingly oppressed by the now autonomous and much larger Greek population. Tensions came to a head in the insurrection of the Jews of Cyrene under Vespasian (73 AD, the First Roman-Jewish War) and especially Trajan (117 AD, the Kitos War). This revolt was quelled by Marcius Turbo, but not before huge numbers of people had been killed.[7] According to Eusebius of Caesarea the outbreak of violence left Libya depopulated to such an extent that a few years later new colonies had to be established there by the emperor Hadrian just to maintain the viability of continued settlement.

Plutarch in his work De mulierum virtutibus ("On the Virtues of Women") describes how the tyrant of Cyrene, Nicocrates, was deposed by his wife Aretaphila of Cyrene around the year 50 BC[8]

The famous "Venus of Cyrene", a headless marble statue representing the goddess Venus, a Roman copy of a Greek original, was discovered by Italian soldiers here in 1913. It was transported to Rome, where it remained until 2008, when it was returned to Libya.[9] A large number of Roman sculptures and inscriptions were excavated at Cyrene by Captain Robert Murdoch Smith and Commander Edwin A. Porcher during the mid nineteenth century and can now be seen in the British Museum.[10] They include the Apollo of Cyrene and a unique bronze head of an African man.[11][12]


Christianity is reputed from its beginning to have links with Cyrene. All three synoptic Gospels mention a Simon of Cyrene as having been forced to help carry the cross of Jesus. In the Acts of the Apostles there is mention of people from Cyrene being in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost.[13] According to the tradition of the Coptic Orthodox Church, its founder, Saint Mark was a native of Cyrene and ordained the first bishop of Cyrene. The Roman Martyrology[14] mentions under 4 July a tradition that in the persecution of Diocletian a bishop Theodorus of Cyrene was scourged and had his tongue cut out. Earlier editions of the Martyrology mentioned what may be the same person also under 26 March. Letter 67 of Synesius tells of an irregular episcopal ordination carried out by a bishop Philo of Cyrene, which was condoned by Athanasius. The same letter mentions that a nephew of this Philo, who bore the same name, also became bishop of Cyrene. Although Cyrene was by then ruined, a bishop of Cyrene name Rufus was at the Robber Council of Ephesus in 449. And there was still a bishop of Cyrene, named Leontius, at the time of Greek Patriarch Eulogius of Alexandria (580-607).[15][16] No longer a residential bishopric, Cyrene is today listed by the Catholic Church as a titular see.[17] The Greek Orthodox Church has also treated it as a titular see.[16]


Cyrene's chief local export through much of its early history was the medicinal herb silphium, used as an abortifacient; the herb was pictured on most Cyrenian coins. Silphium was in such demand that it was harvested to extinction ; this, in conjunction with commercial competition from Carthage and Alexandria, resulted in a reduction in the city's trade. Cyrene, with its port of Apollonia (Marsa Susa), remained an important urban center until the earthquake of 262, which damaged the Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephon in Cyrene. After the disaster, the emperor Claudius Gothicus restored Cyrene, naming it Claudiopolis, but the restorations were poor and precarious. Natural catastrophes and a profound economic decline dictated its death, and in 365 another particularly devastating earthquake destroyed its already meager hopes of recovery. Ammianus Marcellinus described it in the 4th century as a deserted city, and Synesius, a native of Cyrene, described it in the following century as a vast ruin at the mercy of the nomads. Ultimately, the city fell under Arab conquest in 643, by which time little was left of the opulent Roman cities of Northern Africa; the ruins of Cyrene are located near the modern village of Shahhat.


Cyrene was the birthplace of Eratosthenes and there are a number of philosophers associated with the city including Aristippus, the founder of the School of Cyrene, and his successor daughter Arete, Callimachus, Carneades, Ptolemais of Cyrene, and Synesius, a bishop of Ptolemais in the 4th century AD.

Cyrene in the Bible

Cyrene is referred to in the deuterocanonical book 2 Maccabees. The book of 2 Maccabees itself is said by its author to be an abridgment of a five-volume work by a Hellenized Jew by the name of Jason of Cyrene who lived around 100 BC.

Cyrene is also mentioned in the New Testament. A Cyrenian named Simon carried the cross of Christ (Mark 15:21 and parallels). See also Acts 2:10 where Jews from Cyrene heard the disciples speaking in their own language in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost; 6:9 where some Cyrenian Jews disputed with a disciple named Stephen; 11:20 tells of Jewish Christians originally from Cyrene who (along with believers from Cyprus) first preached the Gospel to non-Jews; 13:1 names Lucius of Cyrene as one of several to whom the Holy Spirit spoke, instructing them to appoint Barnabas and Saul (later Paul) for missionary service.


Cyrene is now an archeological site near the village of Shahhat. One of its more significant features is the temple of Apollo which was originally constructed as early as 7th century BC. Other ancient structures include a temple to Demeter and a partially unexcavated temple to Zeus There is a large necropolis approximately 10 km between Cyrene and its ancient port of Apollonia. Since 1982, it has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site.[18]

In 2005, Italian archaeologists from the University of Urbino discovered 76 intact Roman statues at Cyrene from the 2nd century AD. The statues remained undiscovered for so long because “during the earthquake of 375 AD, a supporting wall of the temple fell on its side, burying all the statues. They remained hidden under stone, rubble and earth for 1,630 years. The other walls sheltered the statues, so we were able to recover all the pieces, even works that had been broken."[19]

Beginning in 2006, Global Heritage Fund, in partnership with the Second University of Naples (SUN, Italy), the Libyan Department of Antiquities, and the Libyan Ministry of Culture, has been working to preserve the ancient site through a combination of holistic conservation practices and training of local skilled and unskilled labor.[20]

Apart from conducting ongoing emergency conservation on a theater inside the Sanctuary of Apollo through the process of anastylosis, the GHF-led team is in the process of developing a comprehensive master site management plan.[20]

In May 2011, a number of objects excavated from Cyrene in 1917 and held in the vault of the National Commercial Bank in Benghazi were stolen. Looters tunnelled into the vault and broke into two safes that held the artefacts which were part of the so-called 'Benghazi Treasure'. The whereabouts of these objects are currently unknown.[21]

Notable Residents

See also


  1. Temehu (Cyrene)
  2. Global Treasures: Cyrene
  3. Shahhat or (Cyrene) City by
  4. للغة العربية اضغط هنا
  5. "Internet History Sourcebooks". Retrieved 2016-12-03.
  6. Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War (The Landmark Thucydides edition, Robt. B. Strassler, editor), Touchstone, New York, 1998, sec.7.50
  7. Cassius Dio, lxviii. 32
  8. Plutarch. De Mulierum Virtutibus (Loeb Classical Library, Plutarch III) 1931. Retrieved February 2008.
  10. British Museum Collection
  11. British Museum Highlights
  12. British Museum Highlights
  13. Acts 2:10
  14. Martyrologium Romanum (Typographia Vaticana 2001 ISBN 978-88-209-7210-3)
  15. Michel Lequien, Oriens christianus in quatuor Patriarchatus digestus, Paris 1740, Vol. II, coll. 621-624
  16. 1 2 Raymond Janin, v. Cyrène in Dictionnaire d'Histoire et de Géographie ecclésiastiques, vol. XIII, Paris 1956, coll. 1162-1164
  17. Annuario Pontificio 2013 (Libreria Editrice Vaticana 2013 ISBN 978-88-209-9070-1), p. 870
  18. "21 World Heritage Sites you have probably never heard of". Daily Telegraph.
  19. "Interview with archaeologist Mario Luni". The Art Newspaper. Retrieved 2009-05-22.
  20. 1 2 Global Heritage Fund (GHF) Where We Work. Retrieved 2009-04-27.
  21. "Benghazi Treasure". Trafficking Culture Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2012-09-06.
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