It's appropriate that a city whose wealth was partly due to a locally grown aphrodisiac should have its rises and falls.

Cyrene, in Libya's eastern province of Cyrenaica, is the country's most intact ancient Greek city and during its heyday in the 4th century was possibly the most important metropolis anywhere in the Greek empire.

Today it is a huge, sprawling archaeological site that spills down the slopes of the Green Mountains, with panoramic views of the Libyan coastline and the Mediterranean beyond at just about every vantage point.

Perhaps anywhere else in the world but Libya you'd be sharing these magnificent ruins with hordes of tourists but here you can often clamber around temples, baths and the remains of private houses entirely on your own.


Cyrene was founded in the 7th Century BC by Greek settlers from the island of Santorini who were driven out by a combination of population pressure and political machinations. It wasn't an auspicious start for a new colony, but Cyrenaica, unlike almost all of the rest of modern-day Libya has a reasonable rainfall and fertile soil so the settlers flourished and attracted an increasing number of settlers.

By the 4th century it was a powerful and beautiful city and because of its agricultural strengths was responsible for saving Greece from famine through its exports of grain. But it was another plant that has a legendary link with Cyrene.

Silphium, which is now extinct, was an indigenous plant that was in great demand in the ancient world for its medicinal and culinary properties, but also because it was believed to be an extremely good aphrodisiac. Whether this proved to be the plant's final undoing we'll never know but it was considered so important representations of it were carved onto buildings and used on coins of the day.

It's best to start a visit to Cyrene in the upper section of the city and then amble down the hill with the Mediterranean spread out before you. One of the highlights in this top area is the Temple of Zeus which was larger than the Parthenon in Athens. Like the rest of Cyrene it was almost totally destroyed by a cataclysmic earthquake in AD365 (and had earlier been ransacked during a Jewish revolt and later by Christian zealots) but has been extensively restored by Italian archaeologists. Double rows of lofty Doric columns surround the sanctuary within which was a massive seated statue of Zeus. It's believed animal sacrifices were carried out here.

The temple stands in lonely isolation, surrounded by gently swaying pine trees and is especially beautiful in the morning or late afternoon when the stone glows golden in the sun. A short walk away is the gymnasium where the Greek used to hold races and which the Romans later converted into a forum for political meetings.

Built as they are on such an imposing scale, it can be difficult when inside these buildings to imagine daily life ticking by here more than two millennia ago. But not so in the house of Jason Magnus with its rooms opening off a central courtyard.

It's easy here to image a family gathering for dinner, or sitting in the shady courtyard, a fountain playing, during the heart of the day. It's also possible to feel deeply envious of the families that must have lived with the magnificent Four Seasons mosaic, which still lies intact (but under cover) in one of the rooms. Libya has some of the best Greek mosaics you'll see anywhere - intricate in design and detail and rich in colour.

From the house you can gazes out across the hectares of Cyrene that are still to be excavated - most is still undiscovered and our guide points out a tiny theatre on a far hill that was unearthed only a few years ago.

Lack of money and other resources means most of Cyrene is still under ground and authorities consider it better to keep it that way until they have sufficient funds to ensure that what is excavated is properly protected.

Tragically, Libya has already lost a significant number of statues, mosaics and other archaeological treasures that have been stolen in the dead of night by thieves exploiting the lack of security and in some cases the proximity of the sea for shipping away large items.

In the lower section of the city, there's a grandstand view of the Mediterranean to be had from the 1000-seat theatre that the Greeks cut into the mountainside.

The Romans later converted this into an amphitheatre, adapting the design so that wild animals could be released into the centre by means of a curved corridor just beneath the seating. Doors would be opened at random so that the hapless gladiators in the centre would have no idea from which direction almost certain death would come.

The last stop before you emerge from the cite beside the more than 2000 tombs cut into the hillside, is the Roman baths built in the 1st century by Emperor Trajan and restored by Hadrian. Beautiful mosaic marble inlaid floors and pillars of cipollino, a distinctive green and white layered marble from Italy, adorn this complex with its frigidarium, tepidarium and caldarium. Again, it often the small practical features that seem to link us most closely with the past such as being able to see the terracotta pipes which were part of the baths' heating system.

There was a freezing wind blowing on this last visit so I could appreciate how luxurious the baths would have felt to disrobed Romans.

There's was no such treat for me but just cross the road from the entrance is a small cafe, this being Libya with its Italian colonial heritage, dominated by a splendid red coffee machine, controlled by a local who makes excellent espressos and cappuccinos.

He was so surprised (or perhaps appalled) by my stumbling order delivered in Arabic that this time I was given a small chocolate bar to go with it. And that's something the Greeks or the Romans didn't get to savour.