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 Ghaddafi and one automatically associates it with Libya.

Mention the name Belisarius and you will draw a blank. Forgotten it appears, yet 1500 years ago this was a name associated with Libya, a name that the ancient Greeks coined. 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 their former leader Ghaddafi 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/ Kyrenaika. 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 Cyrene. On the advice of the Oracle of Delphi, 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 630 BC, 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.

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Cyrene was the birthplace of Eratosthenes the mathematician who calculated the circumference of earth and invented the Leap Day, while 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 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 epoch 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).

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Today there remains over 100 Greeks, led by Metropolitan Theofylaktos, and Dimitris Anastasiou, president of the Greek community in Tripoli, and of course the ruins in the Cyrene. Before the civil war, I was actually planning to visit my Greek/German-Australian buddy Will, who was working in Libya as an engineer. He was one of the last foreigners out of the country as the borders closed. Fast forward to the present and Libya remains at war. The precarious government signed an illegal oil and gas deal with Erdogan. A nice way to ‘thank’ the Greeks for our contribution to Libya.

It’s possible that there existed an almost unbroken connection from the ancient Hellenes to the present. These would have been reinforced by the Byzantine rule and Greek merchants living there over the centuries under various Muslim entities, especially under the Ottomans, as well as Christian occupation including the Normans, and then Spanish followed by the Knights of St John in the 1500s.

If Battus were alive today, I wonder what he would make of Libya? One thing is certain, Cyrene remains a place of Greek history and accomplishments of our ancestors, which we cannot ever forget.

Billy Cotsis is the author of the ‘Many Faces of Hellenic Culture’