Cyrenaica, the Greek region of Libya


Arabic charm, Berber tribesmen, Islamic traditions, Mediterranean coast, pariah in the West. These are some of the tags we can ascribe to Libya when we think about that country.

Mention the name Ghadafi and one automatically associates it with Libya…

Mention the name Belisarius and you will draw a blank… yet 1500 years ago this was a name associated with Libya. In fact before the coming of Islam in the Seventh Century AD, northern Libya was a Greek-speaking Byzantine territory. It had been Greek speaking for almost a millennia in certain parts.

I will not bore you with details about the great Byzantine general Belisarius and how he restored Greek speaking rule over North Africa in 533 AD, instead I will give you an overview of the Greek history of Libya… well before the flamboyant uniforms of Ghadafi and his famous female bodyguards.

People in the ancient world would have been mystified to arrive in a place like Alexandria or Cyrene in northern Africa to be greeted by non-Hellenes. For in those days, these were authentic Greek territories! Whilst I have been known to indulge in mythology and drink the odd Mythos beer or Lesvos ouzo, I’m not making this up. The northern tip of Libya was dominated by numerous Greek colonies, with Cyrene being the most prominent.

In 630BC which is well before my birth, due to population pressures, the island of Thira (Santorini) sent out colonists under Battus to establish the city of Cyrene – which became the most prominent of the five cities making the Cyrenaica. According to Herodotus, Cyrene was the second Greek city established in Africa with Naucratis in Egypt being the first.

Battus (born Aristoteles) became the first king of Cyrenaica. On the advice of the Delphi Oracle, he spent a few years in Libya searching for a suitable place to establish a colony. The Berbers in Libya encouraged Battus to settle the eastern part of Libya and by 630BCE, Thira had sent out several hundred people to help establish the new colony.

The port of Cyrene was Apollonia, named after Apollo whilst the rest of the Cyrenaica was comprised of Arsinoe (Tocra), Euesperides (near modern Benghazi) and Barce (Al Marj). The five cities were affectionately known as the Pentapolis whilst the name Cyrenaica was officially used until the 1960s to describe the eastern part of Libya.

Cyrene was the birthplace of Eratosthenes the mathematician who calculated the circumference of earth and invented the Leap Day, whilst a number of philosophers lived here including Socrates’ pupil Aristippus who founded the School of Cyrene. St Mark the Evangelist was born here as was the Bishop Zopyros who attended the famous Christian Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.

The poet Pindar of Thebes tells us that Cyrene was the daughter of King Hypseus Lapiths in Greece. Cyrene fought a lion which had threatened to eat their sheep. This impressed Apollo so much that he took her to Libya and founded a city in her name. A number of ancient myths make reference to Libya, especially the tasks of Hercules.

It should be noted that the reference to Libya in the myths essentially means northern Africa (excluding Egypt) rather than the modern country.

The Cyrenaica was ruled as a republic until it was captured by Alexander the Great – there weren’t too many places that he or his military didn’t capture! After the death of Alexander, one of his closest friends, Orphellas, was sent to govern the area in 322 BC by Ptolemy. He was succeeded by Magas, the son-in-law of Ptolemy, the Greek ruler of Egypt. Like many sons-in-law, Magas proved to be disloyal and soon formed alliances against Ptolemaic Egypt by around 276. Once again, the rule of being greedy in the ancient world and looking to bring down your fellow Hellenes down is in evidence here. Interestingly about King Magas is that he was a priest representing Apollo, ensuring that the people revered him.

He had hoped a coalition with the Greek Seleucids of Asia would bring about the ruin of Ptolemaic Egypt. After initial pressure, Egypt withstood both adversaries. When Magas died in 250 the Ptolemies sought to regain control of the area which they did within a year via a marriage alliance between his daughter and Ptolemy Euergetes of Egypt. Here ends the brief independence of the Cyrenaica during the Ptolemaic reign which lasted until the Romans officially annexed the Cyrenaica in 74 AD. Thus Greek rule was interrupted for several centuries by toga wearing Romans until the arrival of Byzantines forces which reintroduced direct Greek speaking rule (Constantinople).

Today there remains a number of Greek speaking communities and of course the ruins in the Cyrene, Libya. At a stretch, it is possible that there existed an almost unbroken connection from the ancient Cyrene Hellenes to the present. These would have been reinforced by the Byzantine rule and the Greek merchants living there over the centuries under various Muslim entities. Only a small number of Greek speakers remain in Libya.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Elena says:

    Amazing article ! People tend to forget history…. or don’t want to remember…some think it’s useless some think it’s against their political agenda etc but we can’t erase history no matter how hard we try…. I come from Crimea, which used to be a Greek Colony but how often do we remind ourselves that? Not at all….

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