Cyrenaica Archaeological Project

Project History
Extramural Sanctuary

Capacity Building

Google Earth

The extra-mural Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone in the Wadi bel Gadir

The extramural Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone was laid out about a generation after the initial foundation of Cyrene (ca 620 B.C.) and continued in use throughout the Roman period, The Sanctuary was badly damaged by an earthquake in A.D. 262 and eventually totally destroyed by an even more severe one in A.D. 365. In its heyday, which in terms of architectural expansion seems to have coincided with the reigns of Trajan through Antoninus Pius (A.D. 98 - 161), the Sanctuary covered more than 9,000 sq m. Its structures were distributed over 20 m of abruptly rising ground, broken into three major terraced divisions designated as the Lower, Middle, and Upper Sanctuaries.

One of the largest and best-preserved sanctuaries dedicated to Demeter and Persephone in the eastern Mediterranean, the hillside sanctuary is terraced on at least three levels supported by various retaining walls. The Upper Sanctuary area is still largely unexcavated. Its importance and the richness of finds are a testament to the prosperity of the city of Cyrene: in seven seasons of excavation, a great quantity of votive materials spanning the life of the sanctuary were unearthed: these include ca 4.500 terracotta figurines, ca 750 pieces of marble and limestone sculpture and reliefs, a large amount of high quality Attic Black and Red Figure, Corinthian, Rhodian, Chiot, other East Greek, and Laconian pottery, as well as Hellenistic and Roman fine wares, small votive bronzes, Archaic gem stones and scarabs, jewelry, faience, glass, lamps, inscriptions, and gold, silver, and bronze coins.

Entry to the lower northwest corner of the Sanctuary from the nearby walled city was gained in antiquity by means of a bridge across the wadi drain. Narrow steps cut in the steep opposite face of the wadi above the bridge permitted access to the city's agora through some still undisclosed opening in the walled ramparts. A monumental staircase connected the Sanctuary's upper grounds to an unidentified walled complex installed at a higher level on the great hill rising to the south. The principal entrance to the Upper Sanctuary during the Roman period was provided by a four-columned propylaeum or gate-way, strategically positioned in front of the junction of the monumental hillside staircase and the ancient road leading back to the southeast suburban quarter of the city along the rim of the wadi. In this way, the Sanctuary grounds were architecturally linked with both the city and the countryside that lay to its south. Extensive necropoli with well-articulated architectural facades stretch along the north end of the Wadi bel Gadir and also along the main road leading to Balagrae. The proximity of these cemeteries in the area around the Wadi bel Gadir Sanctuary may all be connected to the chthonic activities of the two goddesses in their capacity to protect the dead.

The history of the cult of Demeter and Persephone/Kore is linked to that of the city. Cyrenean society was a well-documented and complex mixture of peoples, most notably Greek, Libyan, Ptolemaic Egyptian, and Roman, created by the social and cultural melding of the indigenous societies with the waves of newly arriving colonists. The architectural development of the extramural sanctuary can be seen to wax and wane with the city's fortunes.

Rural and extra-mural sanctuaries can often be expressive of the territorial sovereignty of a Greek polis-the rituals conducted within them help to define local politics, society, and culture. A sanctuary in an extra-urban setting such as the one at Cyrene has a dual nature. It is first an exclusive space-the embodiment of the sacred in the countryside, a space that marks off the city from the "untamed" world of nature or from the space of other communities. It is also an inclusive space which serves, through its festivals, cult forms, and ritual practices, as a center for civic expression and for mediating contact with the peoples of the surrounding area.

In the choice of its divinities, the timing of its foundation, and its siting, the extra-mural Sanctuary in the Wadi bel Gadir conforms to de Polignac's theories on extra-urban sanctuaries in the Greek colonial world. Founded after the first generation of colonists had arrived, the sanctuary in the Wadi bel Gadir marked the young colony's first territorial expansion into the surrounding countryside. On a hillside, near a spring, in a peri-urban location (at the base of the city walls, but outside them, near the rich farmland surrounding the city), the Sanctuary was intended to be a transitional element between city and country. It served both to link the two areas and to assert the power of the city over that of the countryside.

The goddesses Demeter and Kore/Persephone and their agrarian festival, the Thesmophoria (known to have been celebrated at Cyrene), must have been important to Cyrene, whose economy was heavily dependent on the production of grain and livestock. The rites of the Thesmophoria, with their emphasis on the recurrent cycling of the seasons, symbolize the ancient city's concern or a secure future-the birth of an abundant number of healthy citizen children and the growth of sufficient crops to feed them. Married women were placed in charge of the festival's conduct in accordance with the Greek view that, despite many societal restrictions, females had one inviolate power-the control of reproduction.

The Thesmophoria were of interest to the women of both the city and the countryside as well as to the local Libyan tribes who also farmed and pastured flocks. At Cyrene, this celebration may have included a procession which began in the Demeter temple in the city's agora and ended in the extra-mural Sanctuary, a procession that perhaps inspired the Cyrenean poet Kallimachos when he composed his "Hymn to Demeter", while serving as librarian to the Ptolemaic court in Alexandria. The physical movement of the women from within the city walls to the wadi outside would have a symbolic resonance. Their procession linked the "inner city" to the "outside territory" and displayed the potential fertility of the Cyrenean citizenry to those outside the polis. Rituals such as this serve both to clarify and to bridge societal gaps.

The main celebration of the Thesmophoria at Cyrene seems to have been held in the Wadi bel Gadir Sanctuary, where the remains of piglet sacrifices and the broken crockery from the ritual meals have been found. The networks of alliance, solidarity, and dependence instituted in the Thesmophoria were strengthened by the ritual meal shared by the participants. These sacrificial meals were an opportunity for the assertion of authority by persons controlling access to food, most particularly meat. In the Wadi bel Gadir Sanctuary, the leading female citizens of the polis had this power and probably used it to advantage to extend their authority over the inhabitants of the region. It was advantageous for the city's land-owning elite to control the Wadi bel Gadir cult, whose rituals symbolically protected the territory around the polis.

The extra-mural Sanctuary in the Wadi bel Gadir provides a detailed look at localized cultic activity spread over more than 800 years. The first six centuries of its architectural development display a gradual accumulation of separate parts-outer walls, terraces, gateways, steps and access doorways, "storage" rooms and other miscellaneous but all too frequently unidentifiable utilitarian structures, water works, and, above all, individual independent shrine houses, whose collective appearance appears to be the consequence of practical requirements present from the outset of the cult. To a large extent the execution of the various separate parts exhibits a pervasive conservatism. In perhaps equal measure their final assembly betrays a form of topographical determinism in which the site, as opposed to any set of abstract religious/aesthetic theories, governs the cumulative architectural result. The close link with the surrounding agricultural region has been argued to be both physical through the mechanism of monumental stairs that led to a second architectural complex on the hilltop to the south and economic based on revenues derived from the adjacent fields and grazing lands that in part may have been owned by the priesthood or were at least subject to their taxation. The extent to which the sanctuary in its final form "faced" north in the direction of the walled city or south toward the grain fields and pasture lands stretching toward ancient Balagrae will be determined by future work.

The extra-mural Sanctuary appears to have been the preserve of the city's elite for most of its existence. The emphasis on a traditional Greek cult practice, with some local variations, squares with what is said of Cyrenean culture in general-that it is a combination of traditional Hellenic, contemporary Greek, Roman, and Libyan elements. This conservative city was controlled by a land-owning elite, who sustained many of their agrarian interests through the worship of Demeter and her daughter Persephone in the extra-mural Sanctuary in the Wadi bel Gadir, and who, through the rituals practiced within that Sanctuary, extended the authority of their polis over the surrounding region.

Copyright © 2012 Cyrenaica Archaeological Project. All rights reserved.