Peter Jones

Ancient and modern: The two Libyas

Classical wisdom is reasserting itself

The Foreign Office is contemplating the possibility that — as in Iraq, where the 1992 no-fly zone allowed the Kurds to take control in the north — the current intervention may split Libya. It would revert to what it had always been up till 1911: two entirely separate administrations, one eastern and one western. A very sensible idea, too. In the 7th century bc, Greeks colonised Cyrene on the north African coast. Herodotus tells the story. A deputation from Thera (modern Santorini) had gone to Delphi to consult the oracle on various matters and was told to found a city among the Libyans. By Libyans, Greeks meant the people who inhabited north Africa. But since no attention was paid to this command, Thera suffered a seven-year drought.

A mission to Delphi to discover the reason was reminded of that command, and, after some help from Crete and many false starts, a settlement was finally founded at Cyrene in 630 bc. Despite some hostility from local berbers, other Greek towns sprang up — one was Berenice, modern Benghazi (c. 250 bc)—and the whole region became known as Cyrenaica. Cyrene itself was the jewel in its crown, a magnificent city famed for its medical school and philosophers.

Meanwhile, since the 9th century bc, other interlopers in north Africa had been making hay some 700 miles by sea to the west (1,200 miles by land). These were Phoenicians (modern Lebanon), led by queen Dido, who settled in the magnificent harbour site of what they called Qart Hadasht, ‘New City’. This was later latinised by Romans into Carthago, as was ‘Phoenicians’ (Greek Phoinikes) into Punici. They were looking for metals and had Spain in their sights.

Punic influence now spread slowly east among the berber peoples along the Gulf of Syrtes.

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