Alexandria's founded by Alexander

Alexandria's founded by Alexander the Great (by year BC): 334 Alexandria in Troia (Turkey) - 333 Alexandria at Issus/Alexandrette (Iskenderun, Turkey) - 332 Alexandria of Caria/by the Latmos (Alinda, Turkey) - 331 Alexandria Mygdoniae - 331 Alexandria (Egypt) - 330 Alexandria in Areia (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Dragiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Ai-Khanoum OR Termez, Afghanistan) - 328 Alexandria in Margiana (Merv, Turkmenistan) - 326 Alexandria Nicaea (on the Hydaspes, India) - 326 Alexandria Bucephala (on the Hydaspes, India) - 325 Alexandria Sogdia - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene / Alexandria on the Indus (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Xylinepolis (Patala, India) - 325 Alexandria in Carminia (Gulashkird, Iran) - 324 Alexandria-on-the-Tigris/Antiochia-in-Susiana/Charax (Spasinou Charax on the Tigris, Iraq) - ?Alexandria of Carmahle? (Kahnu)

Friday, November 15, 2013

Cyrene, founded by the Greeks

Although the Phoenicians from Lebanon established early in the 10th century BC three trading posts in the Tripolitania (western Libya), later known as Sabratha, Oea (Tripoli) and Leptis Magna, the Greeks, on the other hand, were the first to establish colonies in the Cyrenaica region of Libya (the east)  in the 8th century BC, i.e. the land around Cyrene. A separation line that still exists today between the regions of Tripoli and Benghazi.

It is highly improbable that Alexander the Great ever visited Cyrene since a delegation of the city met him on his way to Siwah, but he must have been aware of its importance – a reason for me to spend some time in this huge city.

After Alexander’s death in 323 BC, Cyrene and other cities of the Cyrenaica fell to the Ptolemies. It was only in 96 BC that the Romans incorporated it as the Province of Crete and Cyrene, while they were already well established in the Tripolitania. Rome’s appetite for power had led previously to several wars, especially with Cartage (Punic Wars of 264-241 BC, 218-202 BC, and 149-146 BC) which led to the total destruction of the city. By the first century BC, they finally have North Africa firmly in their grip. We know that nobody less than Julius Caesar had his mind set on Egypt and when Octavian eliminated his rival Marc Anthony in 31 BC, Egypt was definitely theirs, including the cities of the Cyrenaica. At that time, the largest export product by far was silphium, a medical and potent plant that disappeared entirely but that was in high demand, especially in Rome. When in 395 AD the Roman Empire is split up between the eastern and western empire, it is obvious that the Cyrenaica becomes part of the eastern empire while the Tripolitania remains attached to the west. This separation till exist under the Byzantine Emperor Justinian who conquers the land in 533 and rules over both regions. A good hundred years later, the Arabs occupy the territory and rule over the Cyrenaica from Cairo as it failed in power and strength to occupy the Tripolitania as well. The first attempt to link both regions is only made last century by Mussolini who constructed a 2,000 km-long highway along the coastline of Libya, the Litoranea, running from Tunisia all the way to the Egyptian border.

This is the history of Libya in a tiny nutshell. Time to take a closer look at Cyrene, which is on the World Heritage List of Unesco.

When I arrive, all I see is a high city wall with a single entrance beyond a dozen steps. Stepping over the threshold, I find myself immediately inside the Hellenistic Gymnasium also called Ptolemaion in honor of Ptolemy VIII who built it in the 2nd century BC. When the Romans arrived in the first century AD, they paved the wide grounds and turned it into a Forum, which evidently was called Caesarion. The size of this Forum is entirely in accordance with the size of Cyrene itself, i.e. an impressive 85 x 96 meters! Thanks to the efforts of the Italians who excavated the Libyan sites under Mussolini, the majority of the surrounding colonnades have been re-erected. This seems to emphasize its sheer size and makes me stop in my tracks. In the center are the remains of a small temple dedicated to Dionysus (later to Julius Caesar) that has been restored by Hadrian after the Jewish revolt of 115 AD. In one of the corners, I discover delicate black and white mosaics that have weathered heavily – such a shame!

Beyond the Forum lies the Odeon, cozily nestled in the depth, an ideal location for whatever meeting that was held here. Both the Gymnasium/Forum and this Odeon border the notable Battus Street – so striking because a covered gallery ran along its entire length over a distance of some 130 meters. High up the walls of this long Stoa windows were added, each separated by an Atlantes (the male equivalent of a caryatid) representing, in turn, Hercules and Hermes, as both gods were held in high esteem by the local athletes. It is an intriguing sight, these compact male figures that are now balancing on top of the wall. I’ve never seen atlantes figures before and to witness them here in such lavish quantities is something really special.

Across the road, I discover another small theater or Odeon that is pretty well preserved. From the upper row, I have a good overview of the landscape, in fact, all part of Cyrene that has not been excavated as yet. It is huge! Far down I discern a row of Doric columns belonging to the Temple of Demeter. More to the right are the half exposed remains of a theater that was also part of Demeter’s Sanctuary with several altars on the other side. 

When I stop there the next day, I am met by a group of Italian archaeologists digging right next to this temple and exposing several new walls. I’m not allowed to take pictures but can otherwise walk around freely – a unique experience to witness this work in progress from nearby. All over Cyrene now rusted narrow train rails and small wagons are still there where the Italian archaeologists from Mussolini’s days have left them, determined to come back one day, it seems.

From the Odeon I easily enter the prestigious house of Jason Magnus, a well-to-do priest of the Sanctuary of Apollo who built his home around the end of the 2nd/beginning 3rd century. He definitely was “well-to-do” for his residence covers two entire blocks.

A mosaic carpet runs through the corridors and leads me from one room to the next. Quite special is the Triclinium, the summer dining room, paved with splendid marble in the so-called opus sectile fashion. The broad mosaic that surrounds it looks rather poor in contrast but that is because it was hidden by the couches of the dinner guests anyway. Behind the couch-area are faint hints of columns once alternated with statues of the Nine Muses of which one solitary witness remains in situ. Across from the Triclinium lies a special room where the theme of Theseus and the Minotaur is illustrated in a spiral of black and white mosaics, enhanced with the greeting epagatho, i.e. good luck! Beautiful craftsmanship.

My walk continues over the Battus Street, an avenue worthy of a king I would say simply because the sight of all these Hermes and Heracles figures, even without their protecting roof is absolutely stunning. I can’t get enough of this! I finally reach the Agora, not exactly the wide open space one would expect for it is filled with buildings, monuments and two huge altars from the 4th century BC dedicated to Hera and Zeus. It takes some figuring out. On the right-hand side of the Battus Street, I find Battus’ tomb covered with marble slabs on the Agora-side. Nearby I’m unexpectedly confronted with a winged Nikè, almost identical to the famous Nikè of Samothrace now at the Louvre. Well, well, … Upon closer inspection, I see that this victory is standing on an elaborate ship’s bow with a very recognizable bronze ram. This Nikè has lost her wings but her tunica, as can be expected, elegantly wraps around her female body as she proudly faces the sea breeze. This ensemble is resting on the back of a cute dolphin that seems to be carrying the entire ship. It is so special to find this statue in the very place where it is supposed to be!

Opposite the Agora, I notice the round Sanctuary of Demeter and Kore (Persephone), pure Hellenistic and probably from the 2nd century BC. In spring offerings were brought here to ask for the renewal of nature – probably blood from piglets was poured through the cracks in the rock. The seated women seem to represent the priestesses of this temple in a cozy meeting.

On the other side of the Battus Street – which is now much less spectacular without its atlantes – I find three public buildings: the Prytaneum where the city council met, the Capitol from the 2nd century with annex the city archives (thousands of clay-seal that were used to seal documents were found here), and a Temple of Hadrian and Antoninus Pius from the same period. Apart from overgrown mosaics and an isolated Greek inscription, the remains are unclear. From here onwards, the Battus Street simply peters out to where the Acropolis is supposed to be and close to nothing has been excavated. Cyrene turns out to be far bigger than I ever could expect!

Back on the Agora, I pass the Temple of Apollo from the 5th century BC, although the remains are clearly Roman and date most probably from the 2nd century AD. It suddenly crosses my mind that only Hollywood could restore this square to its full glory for there simply is too much-scattered debris and the remaining buildings are nothing more than bare destitute skeletons crying for lots of imagination.

Cyrene has an unexpected grandeur and I wonder in how much the commerce and export of the magic silphium played a role. In any case, the plant was important enough for Cyrene to be represented on their coins as well as on many capitals of their columns. The old Egyptians already used silphium to prevent or terminate a pregnancy and great names as Herodotus, Strabo and Pliny the Elder tell us that is was an efficient remedy against cough, fever, indigestion, wards and all kinds of other ailments – in fact, the aspirin of antiquity. There are several theories explaining why this plant disappeared: it only grew in the wild, cattle was allowed to graze the silphium fields to obtain better meat quality, a change in climate, etc. Who knows?

Just when I think I have reached the end of my visit, I discover the Sanctuary of Apollo at my feet, lovingly spread out over the flank of the hill that slowly runs down to the seashore. It looks like a separate city altogether, as Greek as seldom encountered. What a choice location, what a view! It somehow brings Delphi to my mind, although I don’t immediately know why. Maybe it is the same feeling that only the gods can choose a spot like this. Well, in my eyes the ancient Greeks must all have been gods because local history tells us that the first Greek settlers established themselves on this hillside, next to the spring that later on will be dedicated to Apollo in person – hence the appellation Sanctuary of Apollo. The first glance is definitely very promising and very impressive!

The steep cliff to my right is filled with grave sites and tombs belonging to the necropolis - generally, square holes, decorated or not with reliefs, columns and goodbye scene, linked together by zigzagging paths. I do not go that way but instead follow the Sacred Road downhill, heading straight for the Greek Propylaea that from a distance remind me of the Propylaea at the entrance of the Acropolis in Athens, although less majestic. The four simple Doric columns with their restored friezes were built by Praxiades, a priest of Apollo, to mark the very entrance to the city. Nearby, the Romans later created a kind of fountain, the so-called Aqua Augusta, in fact, a succession of water basins cut out of the bare rock. A little further down, stand the remains of five round limekilns which the busy Byzantines built here to burn the marble that was widely available. The kilns are exceptionally well preserved.

Across from the stunning Propylaea stands a nicely built house in the style of the Curie in Rome, although much smaller, of course. This building is called Strateghion and dates, believe it or not, from the fourth century BC when it was consecrated to the strateghoi, i.e. the civilians appointed to lead the Greek army. The Romans later renamed it donarium, i.e. a kind of treasury house. Gee, and I am not allowed inside? I wonder how much is still original or what parts have been reconstructed …

Above me lies the Baths of Paris – or not. I am told that the debate is still ongoing whether the sitz-baths found in the caves belonged to the Greeks or are instead Byzantine placed in abandoned Greek tomb chambers. Some day we may know.

By now I have reached the last water-basin of the Aqua Augusta and clearly, can hear the sound of splashing water running from a spring somewhere further in the depth of the cave. What a pleasant place! This is the famous Source of Apollo, which must have changed course over the centuries because of the repeated earthquakes but it is still in the same general area. The cracks in the cave walls letting the water seep through are covered with mosses and green hanging gardens. The water is flowing much faster than expected running down through the city. It is no surprise to see this same water flow through man made channels into the modern city later on. Time somehow has stood still, hasn’t it?

The most imposing building is evidently the temple consecrated to Apollo in person – you can’t miss it! Again I’m seeking a comparison and this time it is the Temple of Apollo in Delphi that comes to mind although many more columns are standing upright here in Cyrene. Yet both temples date from the same period and both have been repeatedly restored. Most stunning detail is that it was here that the more than two-meters-high statue of Apollo with the Lyre was found in 121 pieces that are now reassembled in the British Museum in London.

Apollo’s twin sister, Artemis had her own temple right next to her brother’s but very little remains. On this side, however, i.e. between the Temple of Apollo and the Source of Apollo, is the place to find the small Temple of Isis that held a rare colorful statue of the goddess, now at the Museum of Cyrene. A little further down is another temple, donated by the abovementioned Jason Magnus – speaking of megalomania.

It is almost by accident that I pass the Fountain of the Nymph Cyrene, a half-round basin set against a small obelisk shaped needle flanked by two lions. It is said to have been presented to the city by a certain Pratomedes in the fourth century BC. Among the profusion of rocks, column-drums, capitals and other blocks, it seems that only this fountain and the Temple of Apollo are really recognizable. I am told that past the Source of Apollo I can find the Temple of Mithras carved inside the cliff, obviously a Roman affair.

At the bottom of the Sanctuary, a huge area is occupied by the grand scale Baths of Trajan from 98 AD that were repeatedly adapted and restored since. The wide assortment of statues now in the local museum come from here, although the best pieces found their way to the Museum of Tripoli : The Three Graces, Alexander the Great, a Hermes, a Faun with Dionysus as a Child, the so-called Venus of Cyrene, etc. It is not easy to mentally reconstruct these baths with all its trimming and decorations, but worth trying. After the heavy earthquake of 365, the baths were abandoned till the Byzantines built their own version on top and in between the remains.
Here we also find the large Theatre, probably the oldest surviving construction, although this cannot be said with certainty. Originally this was evidently a Hellenistic theater, but in the 2nd century the Roman fashion for animal fights reached Cyrene also and the first rows of seats were removed to be replaced by a protection wall. A tunnel and a corridor to the podium were added, and finally, the theater was transformed into an amphitheater. Well, that is a big statement because the theater stood near the edge of a cliff and there was not enough space to add the full half circle. The result is a kind of compromise of a theatre-and-a-half. The Romans always found a solution for their problems, didn’t they? To the visitor, it looks as if the Amphitheatre lies outside the city walls, but these walls were in fact erected, later on, i.e. end 2nd/beginning 3rd century by a certain Nicodaemus who thought it was inappropriate that the view from Apollo’s Sanctuary would be blemished by the bloody fights in the Amphitheatre. A prudishness avant-la-lettre.
It is obvious that my visit predates the Revolution of the Arab Spring and its unfortunate consequences. I have no idea what is left of this proud and extremely interesting city. I can only hope that the situation will normalize any time soon and that unique sites like Cyrene will be there to see by everyone.

[Click here to see all my pictures of Cyrene]

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