Cyrene Libya, the Athens of Africa

by Steven Sklifas
Temple of Zeus. Cyrene. Libya.

Founded by the Greeks, Cyrene is a one of the great cities of antiquity. A designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, the vast evocative ruins of Cyrene in North Eastern Libya are one of the most impressive from the ancient world and provide a majestic insight to its wondrous and celebrated past.

In the 7th century BC, the Greek island of Thera (modern Santorini) was experiencing a severe drought which overwhelmed its limited resources, causing it great struggles in sustaining its increasingly distressed population.

Because of this, the island’s leaders sent a committee to mainland Greece to seek advice from Apollo’s Oracle at Delphi, the largest and most famous religious and spiritual centre in the ancient Mediterranean world.

The Oracle at Delphi advised the committee that to change their fortunes and to survive as a people that they had to establish a new settlement in the lush and abundant north-eastern coast of Libya, a place that rained regularly, a place that the “sky leaked through a hole in the heavens”.

So in 631 BC, led by Heroic Battus (the first Greek King in Libya) the Therans founded their new city-state, Cyrene, on the fertile highland ground overlooking the Green Mountain plateau or Jebel Akhdar uplands, 13 kilometres inland from the Mediterranean.  Note: The famous Ancient Greek historian Herodotus describes the foundation of Cyrene in his ‘Histories’ which is the founding work of history in Western literature.

Cyrene produced and traded, olives, dates, apples, grapes, and cereals and was renowned for its horses and medicinal plant silphium.

The city and people thrived in the lush environment and Cyrene quickly established a profitable maritime trade with other Greek cities. Cyrene soon became the principal and most prosperous city of Libya and because of its success; four more cities were founded in the region. Known as the Pentapolis, these flourishing cities were Cyrene, Apollonia, Teuchira, Ptolemais and Eusperides.

Cyrene was famous around the whole Ancient Greek world for its intellectual and academic pursuits and philosophy school and became known as the “Athens of Africa”.

The city was established as a Roman province in 74 BC and continued to prosper and be a major influence and important player in the Mediterranean world.  Cyrene was severely damaged in AD 115 because of the Jewish revolt and then completely rebuilt during the reign of Roman Emperor Hadrian (117 to 138).

In 365 AD a catastrophic earthquake (and subsequent tsunami) struck off the Western coast of Crete that lifted that island 9 metres. Because of this event, Cyrene and many other cities in the region were severely damaged or destroyed and many thousands of people died.

Cyrene never recovered from this and eventually declined as an influence  and fell under the Arab conquest in 643; however, by then it was only dusty footprint of its glorious and opulent past.

Famous Ancient Greeks from Cyrene:

Erastosthenes – Born 276 BC – Died 194 BC (82 years).

Mathematician, Geographer, Poet, Astronomer and Librarian.

First to prove the earth was a sphere.

The first person to calculate the circumference of the Earth.

First to calculate the tilt of the Earth’s axis.

Calculated the distance from the Earth to the Sun and invented the leap day.

He created the first map of the world and inventing the idea of latitude and longitude.

Became the Chief librarian of the Library of Alexandria: the most important library of the ancient world.


Arete – Born c 400 BC – Died c. 340 BC (60 years).

Teacher and Philosopher.

Daughter of Aristippus of Cyrene who was a close follower of Socrates.

Arete was a career teacher of natural and moral philosophy at the academies and various schools of Ancient Greece. She also wrote over forty books.

She was so highly esteemed that they had inscribed on her tomb a truly beautiful epitaph which declared the following:

she was the splendour of Greece,

and possessed the beauty of Helen,

the virtue of Thirma, the pen of Aristippus,

the soul of Socrates and the tongue of Homer.

All images, text and content are copyright Steven Sklifas.

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