Libya

Cyrene

Cyrene was an important Classical city of ancient north-east Libya. Originally founded by Greek settlers in the 7th century BCE and continuing as the pre-eminent city of the region through the Roman period, the ancient site of Cyrene is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, there are many parts of the site outside this area which are under threat of damage and disturbance. The rapid expansion of the modern city of Shahat immediately south-east of Cyrene is a main cause of this damage.

Comparison between historic cartographic data and recent satellite imagery. Use the slider button to compare ; scroll to zoom in/out.
Landsat-5 image courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey, accessed via Google Earth Engine. 22 August 2008.
Kh7 images courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey. DZB00403800042H024001, 7 June 1967.

1. The Southern Sacred Zone

On the south side of the ancient city, beyond the walls and across the Wadi Bil Ghadir was a large sacred area, centred on the Cult of Demeter and Kore, with multiple temples and sanctuaries. Following a processional route from the urban centre of Cyrene, this area was entered through a monumental gate (propylaeum), leading to a Temple of Demeter, an altar, a theatre, another enclosed building dedicated to Demeter and Kore, and many other structures. This sacred area lies outside the current boundaries of the World Heritage Site of Cyrene and is under immediate threat from urban development, which has increased especially since 2014.

Sanctuary of Demeter and Kore, facing SE (2010, Mohamed Kenawi/Manar al-Athar).

Sanctuary of Demeter and Kore and Theatre, facing S (2010, Mohamed Kenawi/Manar al-Athar) – NB the terracing and agricultural fields immediately behind the excavated monuments.

2. Ancient farms and field systems

In ancient times, the area around Cyrene comprised some of the richest farmland in Libya and was intensively developed with farms and field systems. The expansion of the modern city of Shahat and modern agricultural activities have meant that much of evidence for these ancient suburban and rural sites is under immediate threat or has already been destroyed. One example can be seen on a plateau immediately southwest of the ancient city, where the 1967 historic image shows the remains of possible ancient field boundaries, but which have now been covered or destroyed by modern agricultural development.

3. Southwest Zone

Further southwest of the Sanctuary zone are the remains of several sites. Several quarries and tombs can still be seen on the imagery on either side of what remains of an ancient road. Evidence of other tombs and farms have also been found in this area. In the 1967 historic satellite image we can see that this area was relatively undisturbed, but in recent years, it is clear that substantial new areas of modern housing have been laid out there and the ancient sites in this area are subsequently under immediate threat.

An abandoned quarry later used as a tomb with Greek inscriptions in the area of the Southern Necropolis, seen here with evidence of recent re-use and now believed to be destroyed by urban expansion (Ahmed Buzaian)

4. North Necropolis

A well-known feature of Cyrene is its north necropolis, featuring hundreds of tombs covering the north slopes of the site, dating from the 6th c. BC until the 5th c. AD. Urban expansion and road widening is encroaching on these tombs. Issues such as graffiti and looting are also a problem here.

North Necropolis, general view, facing E (2007, Nichole Sheldrick)

A tomb with graffiti (2010, Mohamed Kenawi/Manar al-Athar)

5. NE Zone: Temple of Eluet Gassam and Italian Fort

Just inside the northeast edge of the World Heritage Site boundaries, north of the Temple of Zeus and Hippodrome, are the remains of the lesser-known Temple of Eluet Gassam, probably dating to the 4th c. BC, and which was incorporated into an Italian fort in the early 20th century. The fort and temple are now surrounded by modern agricultural development and activities and is susceptible to the removal of materials from both the fort and the ancient temple for modern construction activities.

The Italian Fort built on the foundations of the Temple of Eluet Gassam, facing N (2010, Mohamed Kenawi)

6. East Necropolis and the Katiba

The Katiba is an area of modern military barracks on the eastern side of modern Shahat. Long inaccessible to archaeologists, this area contains many well-preserved tombs from the Hellenstic and Roman periods. Much of the rest of the eastern necropolis has disappeared under the expansion of Shahat, so the ancient structures of the Katiba compound that have been relatively well-protected are of the highest importance. However, in the years since the 2011 revolution the area has become more accessible. While this has given archaeologists new opportunities to survey the sites and structures, the area is now also under increasing threat from looting, vandalism, and urban development. The area to the east of the Katiba compound in particular, has rapidly developed over the last 10 years, evident when we compare low-resolution Landsat-5 imagery from 2008 to more recent images.

3D model of Cyrene (2019) - Mission archéologique française de Libye (MAFL)

References

  • Abdrbba, M.O.M. 2019. Outside the Walls: Cyrene’s Suburban Zone between the Greek and Roman Eras. PhD Thesis. University of Leicester.
  • Al Raeid, F., Di Valerio, E., Di Antonio, M.G., Menozzi, O., El Mziene, M.A.S.A., & Tamburrino, C. 2016. “The main issues of the Cyrene necropolis and the use of remote sensing for monitoring in the case of the eastern necropolis”. Libyan Studies 47: 7–30.
  • Kenrick, P. 2013. Libya Archaeological Guides: Cyrenaica. Silphium Press.
  • Judith S. McKenzie et al., Manar al-Athar Photo-Archive, Oxford 2013–, available here