27 Mar 2006 - Cyrene and Apollonia
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Temple of Zeus, on the edge of Cyrene Cyrene Greek gymnasium, later a forum in Roman times Tantalising glimpses in the valley beyond the fully excavated city 
A short ride today of only about 30 minutes to reach the ruined city of Cyrene, and a bit further on, its companion ort of Apollonia. They were both founded by Greeks in the 5th century BC and remained occupied, with later stages of building, for the best part of 1000 years.

Cyrene is situated on the edge of a plateau with a commanding view over the plain below, though this did not become apparent until later in the visit. First off was the Temple of Zeus, larger even than the Parthenon in Athens, though in a more ruined state. In fact, when first discovered in the 19th century it was completely in pieces, thanks to the 365AD earthquake and reuse of much of the stone for later building. The reconstruction has just been enough to give some impression of the grandeur of the original building, with concrete making up for missing parts.

Here we picked up our guide for the day, who certainly knew his stuff having worked on the excavations himself and taught his son to be a guide too. He was certainly well dressed for the cold, with coat and scarf, for it was truly cold and grey - the heat of Tripoli seemed a million miles away.

After a short ride in the bus - we could have walked really - we were into the main city of Cyrene, where the excavated remains cover several hectares, and with a good deal more yet to be properly uncovered. Public buildings, shops and houses are densely packed, while across a valley scattered excavations give tantalising glimpses of further temples and a theatre. I can imagine that in 10 or 20 years, once Libya has opened up and become more developed, that places such as this will be much more excavated and touristified. I'm sure that we'll no longer be able to walk on precious mosaics - although some have been transferred to museums or cordoned off, it is both a privilege and a worry to be able to wander at will over the rest.

Towards the north east the city reaches the edge of the plateau, and here are located the caves of the old necropolis (city of the dead), and below, the Spring (or Sanctuary) of Apollo. The caves of the necropolis were too valuable just to hold the dead, so at some stage the bodies were moved out to allow the cool earth to store food and provisions.

After Cyrene we descended from the plateau onto the plain we had seen earlier, then down a second escarpment onto the coastal plain. As will be confirmed later in our travels, Libya does not appear to have hills and mountains in the normal sense, but consists of a series of plateaus at different levels separated by steep escarpments. It was also pleasantly warmer and sunnier in Apollonia than it was up in Cyrene.

Apollonia was also closely packed ruins, but the deep blue Mediterranean made a beautiful backdrop to the brown ruins and rocks. The harbour, the original purpose of Apollonia, is now largely hidden beneath the sea, the land having sunk by 2.5m in the 365AD earthquake.

At the east end of the city, just outside the old city wall, lies an impressive rock cut theatre - as with Leptis Magna it seems the Greeks were lazier than the Romans and made use of natural depressions for buildings such as these, rather than building them up on the flat.

A 5pm return to the hotel in Al Bayda, pleasantly early for a change, gave some time to catch up with this journal. After a rather spartan communal dinner in the hotel - not a patch on last night's jolly in an Egyptian cafe - we found a nearby internet cafe to upload some words and photos, and catch up on emails.


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