A city near the north-eastern coast of present-day Libya is the oldest and most important of five ancient Greek cities in the region. It is currently under threat from land grabbers and culture vultures.
Cyrene was founded by Greeks from Thera (today’s Santorini) who left their island to escape famine. The leader of the Greeks who moved to Cyrene about 631 BC was Aristoteles, a descendant of Euphemus, helmsman on the ship commanded by Jason of the Argonauts. Aristoteles took the Libyan name Battos. So say the legends.
From 631 to 440 BCE, Cyrene was a trading centre ruled by the Battiad dynasty. Less than a century later it became a republic under Persian suzerainty before submitting to the rule of Alexander the Great. Later under the rule of the Egyptian empire, in 96 BC the city was given to the Roman people, but in 37 BC restored to the Ptolemies by Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony), when his daughter by Cleopatra VII of Egypt was made queen in Cyrene.
The man who invented the discipline of geography as we understand it came from Cyrene. Eratosthenes (c. 276-195 BC) was a mathematician, geographer, poet, astronomer, and music theorist. He also worked out with remarkable precision the diameter of the earth. Eratosthenes was a custodian of the Great Library of Alexandria, the centre of science and learning in the ancient world, and died in Alexandria, then the capital of Ptolemaic Egypt.
In 365 AD an undersea earthquake occurred in the Eastern Mediterranean with its epicentre near Crete. Today’s geologists estimate the quake to have been of magnitude eight or higher, causing widespread destruction in central and southern Greece, northern Libya, Egypt, Cyprus, and Sicily. The earthquake was followed by a tsunami which devastated the southern and eastern coasts of the Mediterranean, particularly Libya, Alexandria and the Nile Delta, killing thousands of people and hurling ships inland.
In 2005, Italian archaeologists discovered 76 intact Roman statues at Cyrene dating from the second century AD. During the 365 AD earthquake a supporting wall of the temple fell on its side, burying the statues, which remained hidden under rubble and earth for 1,630 years.
Now, according to a report in the online edition of The Art Newspaper (4 September 2013), several ancient tombs at Cyrene have been bulldozed to clear space for a residential complex. Local farmers have begun to demolish a large part of the site in the hope of selling parcels of land to real estate developers. Although the Libyan authorities have been alerted, the country’s chaotic political situation has left them unable to intervene.
Some 200 vaults and tombs and part of a second century viaduct have been destroyed and ancient artefacts thrown into a nearby river. Libya has five World Heritage Sites, including Cyrene and the Neolithic rock art of the Acacus Mountains. The farmers are clearly seizing the moment in order to line their purses, but the country’s heritage risks being vandalized if not entirely lost to future generations.