Cyrenaica Archaeological Project

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Extramural Sanctuary

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Setting and Context

Cyrene was the leading city of the Libyan Pentapolis or "Region of the Five Cities." Settled by Greek colonists toward the end of the 7th century B.C., it remained an active Graeco-Roman city of distinctively Hellenic character until the time of the Arab invasions (A.D. 643). The ancient town was established about 13 km inland from the Mediterranean on the 600 meter-high crest of a limestone plateau known today as the Gebel el-Akhdar or the "Green Mountain". This plateau forms an important physical barrier separating coastal eastern Libya from the Saharan region to its south. During the winter and early spring the mountain heights block the southerly drift of water-laden clouds, squeezing from them enough rain to support a fertile, temperate northern Mediterranean environment that is just 64 km north of the Sahara, one of the most arid regions on earth.

Cyrene's agriculturally based economy thrived on the export of wheat, legumes, fruit, sheep and goat-derived products, horses, and a highly sought-after herbal plant known as silphium, which grew exclusively on the Libyan gebel. The city, enclosed by a protective circuit of stone defensive walls, has two massive hills. The southwest hill (on which lie the acropolis, the agora, and forum) is totally free of modern building. The northeast hill is largely covered with the old Arab village of Shahat, stands of reforested evergreens, and cultivated ploughlands, and remains largely unexplored.

The ancient urban center was divided by three main roads. The Valley Road follows the sloping valley between the two hills to the Sanctuary of Apollo with a monumental entrance, temples, altars, fountains, theater, and later, Roman-period baths. The second road, named after the city's first king, Battus, connects the still unexcavated acropolis zone with the city gymnasium and Roman-period forum. The third road crosses the main axis of the city east of the forum. At its intersection with the Valley Road were more temples, a basilica, and a series of important Roman-period urban villas. In the northeast corner of the walled city is an impressive Doric temple dedicated to Zeus and the city's still unexcavated circus or hippodrome. An extensive series of necropoli with well-articulated rock-cut tombs line the roads and wadis leading out of the city, especially to the north, south, and west.

To the southwest of the city in the Wadi bel Gadir lies the extra-mural Sanctuary to Demeter and Persephone, a recently discovered Greek temple and theatre complex, and the still unexplored southeastern suburbs and necropoli of Cyrene that run along the main road leading from Cyrene to Balagrae (modern el-Beida).

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