Cyrene was an ancient Greek city on the North African coast near present-day Shahhat, a town located in north-eastern Libya. The precise location of the ancient city was thirteen kilometres from the coast.
A Greek Colony
Cyrene owes its birth to a Greek Island named Thera in ancient times and which today is known as Santorini, located in the Southern Aegean Sea. As a result of the rise in population that took place in the Greek world during the 8th and 7th century BCE, the Therans became concerned about the effects of overpopulation and dispatched an expedition to the North African region. The traditional date for this event is 630 BCE. During the expedition, some citizens were relocated to an offshore island, not far from the North African coast. The natives that lived in Libya welcomed the newcomers and showed them an inland site more auspicious and the Greeks chose a spot marked by the presence of an abundant spring to found a new city.
The name of the city is rooted in one of the many myths about Apollo’s love affairs with young women. In this case, Kyrene was the daughter of a Thesalian King named Hypseus and a water nymph. She was a young virgin huntress who lived in the woods of Mount Pelion and protected her father’s herd from beasts of prey with the aid of a sword, a spear and two hunting dogs that were given to her as a gift by the goddess Artemis. Apollo saw her fighting a lion with only her hands and fell in love: he took Kyrene to North Africa and they got married. The springs where the Greeks chose to found the city were identified as the domain of the Kyrene (since her mother was a water nymph), hence the city’s Greek name Kurene. The Latin version of the name that the Romans used is Cyrene. The best known version of this myth comes from Pindar’s Pythian (9.5).
The famous Greek historian Herodotus describes the difficulties of the Theran’s agriculture shortly before they dispatched the expedition to North Africa: for many months, there was no rain and almost all trees in the island died. On the other hand, Cyrenes’s agriculture was very generous according to Herodotus description:
The territory of Cyrene [...] has three amazing seasons. First the crops of the coastal region ripen and are harvested. When these have been collected, those of the middle region beyond the coastal area [...] become ripe for gathering. After the crops of the middle region have been collected, the high inland area ripens and bear its products. And so the first crops have been consumed just when the last ones are ready to harvest. Thus harvesting occupies the Cyrenaeans for eight months of the year.
Relations with Egypt & Persia
During the Twenty-sixth dynasty of Egypt, Cyrene and Egypt engaged in a military conflict. During the time of the Egyptian Pharaoh Wahibre Haaibre (whom Herodotus refers to as Apries, possibly Hophra of the Old Testament in Jeremiah 44:30), who ruled from 589-570 BCE, a large Egyptian army was sent against Cyrene. The Greeks defended their city successfully and the Egyptian force suffered severe loses and turned back into Egypt. According to Herodotus, the Egyptians who were defeated held the Pharaoh accountable for this disaster and once back home, they recruited the friends and family of the men who had died and revolted against their ruler.
During the Greco-Persian wars, Cyrene (along with Egypt, Libya and Barke) became part of the Sixth Province of the Persian Kingdom during the time of Darius I (r. 522-486 BCE). Herodotus even describes the details concerning the tributes that the inhabitants of the province had to send to the Persians:
From the sixth provincial district, which is Egypt, the Libyans bordering Egypt, Cyrene, and Barke (since the later two are assigned to the province of Egypt), came 700 talents plus silver from the sale of fish obtained from Lake Moeris, and also 120,000 measures of grain which was supplied to the Persian garrison and their mercenaries stationed at the White Fort of Memphis.
After this, Cyrene gradually gained political independence until it became a republic in about 460 BCE. During the Peloponesian war, Cyrene supported the Spartan army by providing them with ships and sailors. The city lost its political independence again during the time of the Ptolemaic dynasty, after the death of Alexander III of Macedon (323 BCE). Finally in in the year 74 BCE, the city became under Roman control.
During the time between the foundation of the city and the Roman occupation, Cyrene had an uninterrupted Greek character and its prosperity led to the foundation of four cities on the coast: Eusperides, which the Ptolomeis renamed “Berenice” in modern Benghazi); Taucheira (renamed Arsinoe); Ptolemais (founded by the Ptolemaic dynasty) and finally Apollonia, which was originally the port of Cyrene but eventually, due to its growth, became a city in its own right. The name Cyrenaica normally refers to the region surrounding Cyrene containing the five cities, sometimes referred to as Libya Pentapolis by the Romans.
The Roman occupation actually helped Cyrene to increase its status: the Ptolemaic rulers administered Cyrenaica from the city of Ptolemais and the importance of Cyrene declined during their time. The Romans, on the other hand, granted Cyrene the title of metropolis and turned the city into the local centre of administration; Cyrene prospered once more. The beginning of the end of this new prosperity period came towards the last days of Emperor Trajan’s reign (r. 98-117 BCE), when a revolt led by the local Jewish community against the Romans took place. This was a major episode of social disorder which suggests that the local Jewish community increased significantly during the Ptolemaic period and early Roman occupation. The conflict lasted from 115 to 117 CE and it had a disastrous impact on the economy and demographics, in addition, causing serious damage to the city's buildings.
The Roman Emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138 CE) did all he could to restore Cyrenes’s former glory: he encouraged the migration of new settlers in Cyrene and made funds available to rebuild the most important structures ruined during the revolt. Despite these imperial efforts, the city never fully recovered and even some of the major buildings remained unrepaired seventy years later. During the late third century, the city was at war with some of the Libyan tribes of the interior. Under the name of Libya superior, Cyrenaica was made a province in its own right by the Roman emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305 CE). By this time, the Libyan neighbours still remained on hostile terms with Cyrene and the city rapidly declined. Things got even worse after two earthquakes (262 and 365 CE). The Roman soldier and historian Ammianus Marcellinus, reported by the end of the 4th century CE that Cyrene was deserted. It may be the case that Ammianus is actually referring to the civic life, which at that time was non-existent. However, archaeological studies indicate that during that time, and for a while after, Cyrene was garrisoned by an army unit and the forum had been turned into a fortress. During the Arab period, no surviving record mentions Cyrene.
Several famous figures are recorded in history as coming from Cyrene: it was the birthplace of Eratosthenes, an important ancient Greek Alexandrian scholar. Aristippus, a disciple of Socrates was also born in Cyrene: The Cyrenaics, a famous school of philosophy in the 3rd century BCE founded by Aristippus, was based in this city. About 250 BCE, the Third Buddhist Council took place in India: Ashoka the Great, the famous Indian emperor who ruled form 268 BCE to 232 BCE, encouraged and supported Buddhist missions all over the Indian Mauryan empire and even beyond as far as Greece, Egypt and Syria. Cyrene is one of the many cities which received Buddhist missionaries.
During the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, according to the gospel of Mark, Cyrene receives a mention:
A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross.
The ruins of Cyrene rest on the edge of an escarpment overlooking the coastal plain. Four theatres have been found. The spring that attracted the original Greek settlers is situated in a triangular area that was filled by monuments during antiquity: shrines, temples, fountains and baths. The north-eastern hill holds the largest building: the Temple of Zeus, the circus and the city’s cathedral, which was built in the late period.
The intramural area of Cyrene is of about 110 hectares, which means that the city had room for 10,000 people. The population that Cyrene had, is just a matter of speculation, but 5,000 people is a likely guess for a city located at the margin of the Greek world. This population level might have been sustained from 300 BCE to 250 CE. The archaeological site of Cyrene is considered part of the UNESCO World Heritage.
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