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Cyrene: The Stunning Ancient Greek City of Libya

Cyrene ancient Greek city
The ruins of the once-great city of Cyrene. Public Domain

Cyrene, the ancient Greek and later Roman city near present-day Shahhat, Libya, was the oldest and most important of all five Greek cities in the region.

It gave eastern Libya the classical name of Cyrenaica that it has retained into modern times. Located nearby is the ancient Necropolis of Cyrene.

More than two thousand years ago, a group of Greeks from the island of Thira (also known as Santorini) headed south, searching for a new place to live. Their journey ended in the northern part of Africa, in modern-day Libya.

These Greek settlers established a new city, calling it Cyrene. The city, which was founded in 631 BC soon had its first King, Battus, ruling over it.

Battus was the first powerful figure in what later became the famous dynasty of Battiads.

Cyrene ancient Greek city
Cyrene, in northern Africa

The Battiads ruled Cyrene for eight generations, until 440 BC. Under their rule, the port city of Apollonia was founded, along with Berenice, today’s Benghazi.

Cyrene was prosperous and had trade ties with every Greek city in what is now the modern Greek mainland and islands.

It was one of the principal cities in the ancient Greek world, with its temples, tombs, agora, gymnasium and Cyrene Amphitheatre all thought to be inspired by the historic structures at Delphi.

The city became a Republic in 460 BC, following the political tradition that Athens had established.

Cyrene ancient Greek city
The Temple of Zeus at Cyrene. Credit: David Stanley, CC BY 2.0/Wikipedia Commons

Philosophy flourished in ancient city of Cyrene

Cyrene contributed to the intellectual life of the ancient Greek world through its renowned philosophers and mathematicians.

Philosophy flourished on the Cyrenaican plateau at the School of Cyrene. “Cyrenaics” developed here, a minor Socratic school founded by Aristippus, who was perhaps the friend of Socrates, though according to some accounts a grandson of Aristippus with the same name.

French Neo-Epicurean philosopher Michel Onfray has called Cyrene “a philosophical Atlantis” thanks to its huge importance in the creation and initial development of the ethics of pleasure.

Cyrene was also the birthplace of Eratosthenes, who determined the circumference of the earth. The great thinker later went to Alexandria. Statues of philosophers, poets, and The Nine Muses, and a bust of Demosthenes have been found in Cyrene, attesting to the great culture which once flourished there in Northern Africa.

When Alexander the Great died in 323 BC the Cyrenian Republic became subject to the rulers of the Ptolemaic Dynasty and a few centuries later it became part of the Roman Empire as a province.

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.

Cyrene’s ruins remain there as a reminder of the region’s rich past, which was shaped by Greeks and Romans alike.

Included on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1982, Cyrene today ranks among the List’s most neglected and endangered sites in the Mediterranean Basin, due to improper restoration and extensive looting of its Greek artifacts.

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