In 322 BC, the year after Alexander’s death, Ptolemy I who had established himself as ruler of
conquered five Libyan cities. They are collectively known as the Pentapolis and include beside Egypt Cyrene, the cities of Apollonia, Ptolemais or Barca, Arsinoe or Taucheira (modern Tocra) and Euesperides or Berenice (near modern ). In those days, Cyrenaica was part of greater Benghazi Egypt and often simply assimilated to itself. The region was very fertile and produced wheat and barley, as well as olive oil and wine; the orchards in turn were filled with fig and apple-trees; sheep and cattle roamed widely; and above all, this was the only place in the world where silphium grew, a natural medicine, a contraceptive and aphrodisiac. Egypt
In an earlier post, I already wrote about Cyrene (see: Cyrene, founded by the Greeks), so this time I’ll concentrate on Apollonia, now renamed Susa in today’s eastern Libya, the most obvious choice since it was the harbor for majestic Cyrene only some twenty kilometers further inland.
Apollonia was founded by Greek colonists as early as the 7th century BC and during the fourth century BC the harbor facilities were widely improved, sheltering the berths against the strong northern winds. On the west side a new inland port was constructed, protected by two towers while on the most eastern island a lighthouse was installed. It was only in the first century BC that Apollonia became a city in its own right. Not for long, however, since upon Ptolemy III’s death in 96 BC the entire Pentapolis, including
Cyrene and Apollonia was bequeathed to the Romans who just moved a step closer to itself … Egypt
Today’s visitor to Apollonia will only find half of the antique city as the other half lies under water.
Northern Africa has suffered badly from a devastating earthquake that occurred in 365 AD, causing the entire coastline to drop by four meters. The phenomena is clearly visible here in Apollonia where the old harbor is entirely drowned and the three off-shore islands is all that remains of the northern pier. This explains why the city doesn’t have the appeal of a harbor, and certainly not one to serve a city as important as . Apparently shipwrecks from the fourth century BC have been located in the antique harbor where French archeologists were diving during my visit in 2010. I hate to think about what has happened since. Cyrene
Anyway, Apollonia’s remains are mainly Byzantine, with three Basilicas: the western Basilica with three naves; the central Basilica with five naves; and to the far end the eastern Basilica, the largest, from the 6th century with an exceptional Baptistery because it counts six steps instead of the normal three. My local guide tells me that in the Byzantine era the purpose of this Baptistery was not to baptize people in order to convert them but to receive forgiveness for their sins. One submersion would cleanse the believer from small sins, but for more serious offenses five or six submersions would be required. I never heard of this theory but it may be a logical explanation for the great number of baptisteries in these churches.
Next to the central Basilica are the remains of a Roman Bath, whose lay-out, except for the entrance gate, is rather confusing. That is no surprise when you think how the Byzantines liked to re-model Roman buildings or re-use their stones elsewhere.
Alongside the Byzantine city wall and approximately across from the Roman Baths, lies the Palace of the Dux, the Byzantine governor Hekobolius from the 6th century, i.e. the time when Apollonia was the capital of the Pentapolis. The palace itself has not much to offer but the story that goes with it is rather interesting. For nearly six years, this Hekobolius kept an extremely good looking mistress called Theodora. One day she happened to be dancing in Constantinople for Emperor Justinian who fell in love head over heels and married her soon after. This is how Empress Theodora arrived at the imperial court where she lived happily ever after … Well, this marriage lasted about twenty years and Theodora died before Justinian, on 28 June 548.
There are more remains of Apollonia that have not yet been excavated, including the Acropolis at the far end of the site. Outside the city-wall lies the inevitable Roman theater (although built on an earlier Greek one) that now lies near the shoreline. According to an inscription found near the podium, it was built in 92 AD during the reign of Emperor Diocletian. This is the best preserved theater of the
Cyrenaica in spite being used as a quarry by the Byzantines.
Walking back along the coastline, my attention is drawn towards four large round pits carved in the rock. These pits were used to marinate fish in order to make the famous garum or fish paste, a delicacy for the Romans. How interesting!