Shahhat Libya is a small town, but it is popular among travelers because it offers access to some of the best ancient ruins in modern world. In 630 BC, Greek colonists from Thera founded the settlement of Cyrene in a lush valley ten miles from the port of Apollonia in what is now modern-day eastern Libya. The name Cyrene is derived from Kyre, a spring the Greeks consecrated to Apollo. Over the next several hundred years, Cyrene grew to become a major commercial and cultural center of ancient Libya, second only to Athens. It was here that Aristippus, a follower of Socrates, established the Cyrenaics school of philosophy in the third century BC. The area was named Cyrenaica, a name still used today. Cyrene, along with four nearby cities, became known as the Pentapolis, and many rulers fought to control this powerful, influential area.
In 96 BC, Cyrene came under Roman control and restructured its people into four classes: citizens, farmers, resident overseas nationals and Jews. The Jews responded to this oppression with a two-year long revolt, which resulted in the deaths of 200,000 Romans and Greeks and the subsequent destruction of Cyrene. The city was eventually rebuilt by order of Emperor Hadrian, but the success was short-lived. One devastating earthquake in 262 AD and another in 365 AD weakened the feeble city, making it unable to resist the Islamic invasion in 643 AD. Today, the only remains left of the city's glorious Greek and Roman past are considered to be one of the best-preserved sites of ruins in the world today.
The Libya ruins of Cyrene are a testament to the city's Roman and Greek past, where crumbling Roman columns and arches are laid out in a Hellenic pattern. Mosaic tiles still remain intact throughout the site. One of the most impressive features is the necropolis, taking up nearly four square miles between Cyrene and Apollonia. A small hike from the rest of the ruins is the Temple of Zeus, originally constructed in the fifth century to be larger than the Acropolis in Athens. The current reconstruction is the second time the temple has been put back together. It was destroyed and rebuilt by Hadrian after the Jewish revolt, and more recently by British and Italian architects in 1963 after being nearly decimated in the 365 AD earthquake.
In 2005, archeologists from Italy investigated a fallen wall of the Temple of Apollo, and discovered the remarkable preservation of 76 intact Roman statues from the second century AD. These are now housed in the Cyrene Sculpture Museum and should not be missed on any trip to these Libya ruins. Some of the most prized items on display at the Cyrene Sculpture Museum are a bust of Alexander the Great, The Three Graces in marble, and a Sphinx. In addition to Greek and Roman statues, they also display pieces thought to belong to the native Berber culture of Libya. Also considered tremendously valuable to the Cyrene Sculpture Museum is The Discus Bearer of Cyrene and statues of Cleo and Isis.
To visit these Libya ruins today, travelers must head to Shahhat, a small village with very limited accommodations. A popular option for accommodation is to camp in the many caves and rooms dug into the earth, but most travelers choose to stay in hotels ten miles further east in the larger city of Al Bayda. Buses travel between Shahhat Libya and Al Bayda regularly. Unlike in Tripoli, facilities in Shahhat Libya are rudimentary; travelers are advised to bring their own comfort items, such as tissues and hand sanitizer.