The Cyrene Apollo

Peter Higgs looks at how a monumental Hellenistic statue sheds light on culture, religion and identity in Roman North Africa.

One of the most visually stunning of all the ancient sculptures displayed in the galleries of the British Museum is the colossal marble statue of Apollo found at Cyrene, in modern day Libya. The statue was discovered in January 1861 by Lieutenant Robert Murdoch Smith and Commander Edwin Porcher, whose excavations are recorded in thrilling detail in their monumental site report published in 1864. The Apollo, standing 2.29 metres, was found broken into 121 pieces close to the large stone pedestal on which it originally stood.

Smith and Porcher's investigations in this region of North Africa were undertaken to uncover the legendary city of Cyrene, which was founded by Greek settlers from the island of Thera in 631 BC. The fact that the site had lain unoccupied for over a thou- sand years instilled in the excavators a sense of hope that many sculptures and buildings would lie undisturbed under metres of soil and lush vegetation and they were not to be disappointed. Investigating the site was not to be an easy task, however, as the local Arab population were suspicious about the intentions of Smith and Porcher; one of whose main anxieties was that any sculptural finds would be destroyed as symbols of pre-Islamic pagan times. This they tried to avoid by setting up camp in one of the numerous rock cut tombs close to the city where they were eventually to re-bury the statues they found for their protection.

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