Apollonia in Cyrenaica (modern Libya) was founded by Greek colonists and became a significant commercial centre in the southern Mediterranean. It served as the harbour of Cyrene, 20 km (12 mi) to the southwest. Today, Apollonia's installations are threatened by both erosion and urban expansion.

3D model of Apollonia (2018) - Iconem

Apollonia’s history – a short overview

Cyrene was founded by Greek settlers in the 7th century BC, and Apollonia was established shortly thereafter to function as its harbour. The rugged coastline of Cyrenaica offers very few opportunities for safe anchorage and Apollonia is one of the few locations that offers a natural and safe harbour. The settlement quickly grew into a busy and prosperous port town. While Cyrene declined in the Byzantine period, Apollonia continued to flourish and rose to be the capital of the Libya Superior, probably due to its safe access to the sea and strong defensive walls, which date to the Hellenistic period. It was abandoned by the Byzantine governor in AD 642 when the Arabs invaded the region. Although settlement continued, it was on a modest scale; the seaborne trade ceased and eventually Apollonia was reduced to a small fishing village. It became Susah in 1896 with the establishment of a new settlement to the west of the ruins that housed Muslim refugees from Crete. During the Italian occupation of Libya, military installations were established in the western part of the ancient site. It is very likely that most building materials for these installations were sourced from the ruins of Apollonia. The military hospital is the only one of these Italian installations that still exists. Today, the core of the site is protected by a fence, but the features that are located outside the old city wall are threatened or damaged by the rapid urban expansion of the modern city.

(Left) View of Apollonia looking east with the islands that once formed part of the harbour in the background (Image: Ross Burns/Manar al-Athar). (Right) Looking east along the shoreline of Apollonia, where the effects of erosion are clearly visible (Image: Saad Buyadem).

The significance of Apollonia’s port in the past and today

The harbour of Apollonia is similar to other North African harbours such as Ptolemais, but is much more complex.

Interactive map of Apollonia's harbour. The orange line denotes the former shoreline of Apollonia when it was a functioning ancient harbour in the Classical period.
Scroll to zoom in/out.

Today, many of the ancient harbour installations are not visible anymore but are located underwater. This was, most likely, caused by an earthquake in Late Antiquity that resulted in the coast sinking by as much as 3.80m. However, if you look carefully, some of the features can still be seen on satellite imagery! Present day above-water remains consist of two small, rocky islands and some reefs close to the modern harbour.

In antiquity the harbour was much more substantial. It consisted of two basins, an inner (western) basin (1) and an outer (eastern) basin (2). They were both protected from the prevailing north-west winds by the now-submerged portions of the visible islands and reefs. The ancient shoreline was very different to today's coastline and incorporated the rocky islands, which could be reached by foot until the construction of the artificial channel (3). The inner harbour, which was partially included in the city walls, was probably used for warships, while the outer harbour was used for trade vessels. A shipwreck (4) from the 2nd century BC and sherds of amphora found at the bottom of the outer basin support this hypothesis.

Over its lifetime, the harbour underwent several alterations. At some point before the 2nd century BC, ship sheds (5) were constructed on what is now the western island. Their outlines can still be seen cut into the rock with slipways steadily sloping down towards the water. These ship sheds went out of use during the early Roman period, when quays (6) were constructed for merchant ships to dock. This construction blocked the entrance to the earlier ship sheds. At some point during the 2nd century BC, before these quays were built, the artificial channel (3) was created to connect the outer and inner basins. This coincided with the blockage of the original entrance to the inner harbour from the north, using masses of large, rectangular blocks (7). Entry was now only possible through the man-made channel from the outer harbour, which would have increased the security of the port. This channel was probably kept open by regular dredging, as suggested by the earliest layer of silt in the channel which only dates from the fifth century AD . Two large towers (8) were constructed to guard this entrance. A lighthouse and large moles were probably situated on what is now the eastern island (9). Additional warehouses (10) and ship sheds (11) were probably also constructed during the early Roman period. A platform that projected out into the eastern harbour perhaps housed a temple (12). Several quarries (13) are also visible along the shoreline and on the islands. Some of this quarrying activity in the Byzantine period altered the shape of the coastline and islands significantly. For instance, much of the outer faces of the islands were cut away, while other parts of the port facilities were covered by debris. Additionally, during this period, the channel connecting the outer and inner harbours was deliberately blocked with debris, probably for defensive reasons.

The harbour of Apollonia is significant today because so many of the remains still survive underwater to a far greater extent than any other early port from the 6th and 7th century BC.

Coastal changes over time: from sea level rise to shoreline changes

Apollonia was visited in the early 19th century by the Beechey brothers as part of a wider survey of the Libyan coast. Even at this time coastal erosion appears to have been a problem. The Beecheys noted that “portions of the elevated ground on which the front of the town has been built are continually falling in from this cause” (Beechey & Beechey 1827: 572). They also mapped the site in enough detail to show many of the ruins which are still visible today. Although the map is not accurate enough to quantify coastal change, it does allow for a qualitative impression. The most noteworthy changes are:

  1. The conversion of a natural bay, containing submerged ruins and possibly a quarry, into the modern harbour.
  2. The loss, or submergence, of a peninsula and associated structures which extended from the West Gate Tower.
  3. The possible loss of walls or structures seaward of the Roman baths and a Byzantine industrial building.
  4. A bulge in the central part of the site. This is an incipient tombolo created by sediment accumulation. It is still visible today, albeit broader and shorter than on the historic map. The map also hints at ruins extending into the tombolo and which are not presently visible.
Comparison of the Beechey’s 1827 map (Beechey & Beechey 1827:536) with a 2019 satellite image (Maxar; data provided by the European Space Agency)
Scroll to zoom in/out.

Quantification of coastal change is possible with more accurate data, such as high-resolution aerial or satellite images taken over a period of time. These enable us to identify and trace the eroding coastal edge and compare its position between successive images. This in turn allows calculation of how fast the eroding edge has moved over time.

From such imagery, we can identify a long-term trend (between 1949-2010) of very slow erosion or stability west of the incipient tombolo. Analysis of the most recent images suggest that the rate of erosion may have increased in the last 10 years. This means that the archaeological material here is at considerable risk particularly since many structures lie on or very close to the exposed coastal edge. The western side of the incipient tombolo has the fastest rates of retreat, up to 0.5m/year. This is clear from both long term and recent results, and again the rate may have increased slightly in the last decade. Although buildings are not evident near this eroding shoreline, unrecorded material buried within the tombolo is at high risk. In contrast, the eastern side of the tombolo appears to have been relatively stable over the past decade, though it has experienced erosion in the past. To the east of this, the slopes above the rocky foreshore appear to have been relatively stable over the long term, but now appear to be retreating more rapidly. Finally, the situation around the theatre is less clear. There appears to be a long-term trend of stability or advance which has given way to more variability including both advance and retreat. The imagery suggests that this more complex pattern may be due to movement of a beach berm rather than erosion.

Comparison of the rate of coastal change at Apollonia. Top shows changes from 1949 to 2010, bottom shows changes from 2010 to 2019. Transects placed over the shoreline show the rate (by colours, in meters per year) and magnitude (by length) of change. Blue indicates stability/advance, warm colours show retreat. Background satellite image is from 2010 (Maxar; data provided by the European Space Agency)

In short, these data suggest that whilst Apollonia has experienced long-term erosion, there is a strong risk that this will increase in the future. One reason for its survival has been the protection created by the outlying islands and reefs. These were instrumental in creating a sheltered harbour when it was an ancient port, and have helped protect the onshore parts of the site since its submergence. There are three main problems. Firstly, these reefs are starting to break down. For example, a section of wall created by quarrying on the West Island was destroyed sometime between 1959 and 2003. Secondly, rising sea-level allows waves to pass more easily over the reefs. They lose less energy and reach the shore with greater force. This will probably affect the western part of the site first as the reef here is already deeper (i.e. the gap between the modern harbour and West Island). This trend is already suggested by the erosion west of the tombolo vs. stability/accumulation on its eastern side. Thirdly, if storm impacts increase in intensity or frequency with climate change, this will likely lead to enhanced flooding or erosion.

Comparison of the Apollonia shoreline from a 1949 aerial photo (Hunting Survey, Society for Libyan Studies Archive, Barry Jones Collection) with a 2019 satellite image (Maxar; data provided by the European Space Agency)
Scroll to zoom in/out.

The West Island at Apollonia. Left) photo taken in the 1950s and showing the intact quarry wall. Right) photo taken after the quarry wall was broken (photos courtesy of Nic Flemming and Jean-Pierre Mission).

Terrestrial threats to coastal heritage: urban expansion

Unfortunately, the danger to Apollonia does do not only come from the sea. Urban expansion of the modern town of Susah is another major factor that threatens and damages cultural heritage in this area. Susah has grown exponentially over the last 20 years, and urban growth is still ongoing as you can clearly see in the timelapse below.

The town of Susah has expanded substantially over the last 70 years from a small settlement to the substantial town it is today. Unfortunately, much of the surrounding area of ancient Apollonia remains unexplored and undocumented, and many heritage features that are located outside the core of the archaeological site of Apollonia have been damaged or destroyed (created using Google Earth timelapse).

Today, much of the core of the ancient city is protected by a fence that surrounds the site. However, elements of the site that lie outside this protected zone, such as cemeteries or extramural buildings, are exposed to the threat of urban expansion. On the 3D model and the drone footage it is clearly visible how close some of the modern buildings are to the core archaeological site. In places, these reach up to the protective fence, and the construction of access roads suggest that further building is planned right up to the current perimeter of the core site.

Drone footage of Apollonia (©Fouad El Gumati)

Unfortunately, much of the area outside the core of the ancient port city remains undocumented and some features will be, or have already been, lost. One example is the western cemetery of Apollonia. In 2000 a modern hotel complex was built on top of the western necropolis. Contrary to planning law, this construction destroyed at least 20 cist tombs. What remains today are, for example, some rock-cut tombs that are integrated into gardens that face the hotel. No adequate record exists of this site, but the content of the tombs that was handed to the Department of Antiquities includes pottery from the 4th century BC.

Acknowledgements for imagery used in this online exhibition

First of all, we would like to thank Fouad El Gumati from the Department of Antiquities, Cyrenaica, for taking photographs and for producing the drone videos. Furthermore, we would like to thank Dr Ahmad Emrage for supplying us with images on coastal erosion at Apollonia, and Saad Buyadem for taking those photographs. Furthermore, we would like to thank: the HEIR Project Digital Image Archive at the University of Oxford, and in particularly Dr Sally Crawford, Dr Janice Kinory and Dr Katharina Ulmschneider, for giving us permission to reproduce photographs from their collections; the Amar Al Athar archive at the University of Oxford for its online collection; and the Society for Libyan Studies Archive for the permission to reproduce some of their images. Finally, we thank the European Space Agency for provision of high resolution satellite imagery.

References/Further reading

  • Flemming, N.C. 1959. Underwater adventure in Apollonia, Geographical Magazine 31, 497-508.
  • Flemming, N.C. 1960. Apollonia revisited, Geographical Magazine 32, 522-530.
  • Flemming, N.C. 1964. Underwater survey of Apollonia; preliminary report, in Taylor, J. du Plat (ed). Marine Archaeology. London: Hutchinsons, 168-178.
  • Flemming, N. C. 1971. Cities in the Sea, New York: Doubleday & Co.
  • Hesein, M. A. H. 2015. Bridging the Eastern and Western Mediterranean: The Roman Harbour Sites on the Coast of Cyrenaica, North-Eastern Libya. Unpublished Ph.D.Thesis, University of Leicester.
  • Laronde, A., 1996. Apollonia de Cyrénaïque : Archéologie et Histoire, Journal des savants, Janvier-Juin, 3-49.
  • Kenrick, P. 2013. Libya Archaeological Guides, Cyrenaica. London: Sylphium Press.
  • Laronde, A. & Queyrel, F. 2001. Un nouveau portrait de Ptolémée III à Apollonia de Cyrénaïque, in Comptes Rendus de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, 145e année, N° 2, 737-782.
  • Little, J. H. and Jones, B. 1971. Coastal Settlement in Cyrenaica. Journal of Roman Studies, 61, 64-79.
  • Morhange, C. 2014. Ports antiques et variations relatives du niveau marin, Géochronique 130, 21-24.
  • Queyrel F. 1987. Le motif des quatre osselets figuré sur des jas d’ancre antiques, Archeonautica 7, 207-212.
  • Queyrel F. 1997. Le motif des quatre osselets sur un jas d’ancre du Musée d’Apollonia de Cyrénaïque, Libya Antica 3, 113-117.
  • Sintés, C. (2010). Les neosoikoi d’Apollonia de Cyrénaique. In Blackman, D. and Lentini, M. (eds.). Ricoveri per navi militari nei porti del Mediterraneo antico e medievale. Edipuglia: Bari: 83-96.
  • Tsimplis, M., Spada, G., Marcos, M., And Flemming, N.C., 2011. Multi-decadal sea level trends and land movements in the Mediterranean Sea with estimates of factors perturbing tide gauge data and cumulative uncertainties, Global and Planetary Change 76, 63-76.
  • Yorke, R.A., Davidson, D.P. 2017, The Harbour at Ptolemais: Hellenistic City of the Libyan Pentapolis. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 46, 48-71.