The topography of Ptolemais in travellers accounts

When the first travellers arrived to Ptolemais in the 18th and 19th centuries, the city was a vast sea of ruins. The large area (ca. 250 ha) encircled by walls had been left at the mercy of weather conditions and plentiful vegetation practically since the 7th century. The city did not suffer from damage during the Arab invasion, nor was it completely abandoned. The ancient Ptolemais has been marked on nautical charts since the medieval period. Portolani give various versions of its name: Tolometa, Tolometta, Talameta, Tolometa, Tulameta, Tolumeta, Tolmitsa, Tolmischa, Talameta. According to the 11th-century Arab geographer Al-Idrisi, it was a vast, fortified city which owed its prosperity to its port, frequented by ships from Alexandria. This is confirmed by maps of, e.g., Andrea Benincasa from 1476, who shows it “portant un pavillon ou double flamme, frangé d’azur, frangé brodé de gueules”, or an anonymous map from the 16th century, on which next to the name Tolometa there is a pictogram showing lavish Islamic architecture. Arab settlement occupied the north and west edges of the ancient city and although blocks from ancient structures were often re-used for construction purposes, the centre remained largely intact.

From the 17th century the city was completely forgotten. Only in the 18th century the first European came to this amazing ancient city. Among the travellers it is possible to distinguish those who meticulously documented their visit by conducting a detailed field survey and those who only made general remarks on the most clearly visible monuments.

 

Monuments?

Travellers?

PC WC CIA T BZ BT M NZ Mm NW TR A P M KD
GRANGER 1733

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JAMES BRUCE 1766

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PAOLO DELLA CELLA 1817

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PADRE PACIFICO 1819  

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FRATELLI BEECHEY 1821-2

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JEAN RAYMOND PACHO 1824

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WILLIAM WEIR 1830

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VATTIER DE BOURVILLE 1848              

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HEINRICH BARTH 1847

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JAMES HAMILTON 1856

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ROBERT M. SMITH EDWIN A. PORCHER 1860-1861

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GEORGE DENNIS 1863

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GERHARD ROHLFS 1868

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GIACOMO DA MARTINO 1906

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PC – Square of the Cisterns, WC – Reservoir, CIA – Cisterns and acqueducts , T – City Bath, BZ – Fortress Church, BT – Tauchira Gate, M – City walls, NZ – West Necropola, Mm- Mausoleum, NW – East Necropola, TR – Theatres, A – Amphitheatre, P – Port, M – Bridge, KD – Headquarters of the Dux

Only few travellers searched for traces of city walls. The western gate (Porta Teuchira), was seen and mentioned by most of the travellers. Although the structure was half-buried under ground until the beginning of the 20th century, hardly any visitors failed to guess its function correctly. In the work of Porcher and Smith the description was illustrated with a drawing.

The interest of only few travellers was stirred by relics of port structures. A part of them disappeared under water as a result of the great earthquake of 365 and what remained was hardly discernible. The most detailed description is owed to the Beechey brothers.

Heading eastward as they explored the city, the visitors encountered a very interesting complex whose purpose is as debatable today as it was then, so-called “Square of the Cisterns” interpreting it as a “Ionic Temple (f. ex. Granger, James Bruce), a Roman Temple (Pacho), a palace (the Beechey brothers), just the portico (Della Cella, Porcher and Smith, Dennis). The subterranean structure stirred even greater curiosity, although its function was in no way controversial and rather unambiguously interpreted as a huge water reservoir. It was reported by many of them but broader descriptions are owed to the Beechey brothers, Pacho, and Porcher and Smith.

In Ptolemais the constant water supply problem was to be solved by a whole system of large and small cisterns scattered throughout the city. 19th-century travellers, aside from the description of the huge water reservoir, also included mentions on other cisterns. On the Beecheys’ plan, outlines of cisterns are featured in the south-western part of the city, at the foot of the escarpment. Others travellers (Hamilton, Porcher and Smith, Rohlfs, and Dennis) noticed remains of another cisterns. Aditionally Pacho, the Beechey brothers, Porcher and Smith, as well as Rohlfs took an interest in the issue of the city’s water supply. Besides discussing water reservoirs, they mentioned aqueducts that conveyed water from the mountains to the city and then distributed it to various buildings. Water was conveyed to private residences and to public buildings, primarily to baths. The only visible bath complex in Ptolemais, dated to the 4th-5th century, was located in the centre of the city. In the 19th century the whole structure was not clearly visible, therefore it was mentioned by only few of the travellers, namely the Beechey brothers, Porcher and Smith, but properly identified only by Rohlfs.

Starting from the visit of the Beechey brothers, almost every account contained observations on entertainment-related structures such as the amphitheatre and theatres. The amphitheatre, located in the western part of the city, was very poorly preserved, but its form and rows of seats hewn in the rock were discernible. Wiliam Weir, Hamilton, Rohlfs – travellers who undoubtedly used the Beecheys’ account as a guide (they mention it repeatedly) made note of this structure also in their accounts. Other visitors omitted it entirely. The Beechey brothers followed by other travellers made also note of the theatre located to the south of the Square of the Cisterns, the so-called “larger theatre”. In the 19th century it was much better preserved than nowadays, although it probably had collapsed during an earthquake already in antiquity. Some drawings by Beechey testify this observation. The two other theatres in Ptolemais are recorded also in the accounts of Wiliam Weir, George Dennis and Gerhard Rohlfs. James Hamilton only writes about the remains of one. A theatre was also referred to by Giacomo di Martino already in the beginning of the 20th century.

Of much interest to the travellers were also Late Antique buildings and the one described most often was the headquarters of the Dux, called “caserne” or “barracks”. This Late Antique fortress (one of many in Ptolemais) became famous thanks to an inscription placed in its northern facade. It was a copy of the edict of Emperor Anastasius I (from 501) regulating the military organisation of Cyrenaica. The first mention on this building appears in the account by Granger, who calls it a “castle”, while the inscription was first identified by James Bruce as early as 1766. The Beechey brothers saw a “huge structure” with a completely destroyed interior. They also made a note about the Greek inscription. To J.-R. Pacho this was one of the most important monuments in the city – he described it as Roman barracks and drew its plan. The French traveller was the first to copy this famous inscription. Than Vattier de Bourville, the French consul in Benghazi, transported it to Europe (Paris, Louvre). Barth still saw the inscription in situ and he was probably the last one to do so. This action was very negatively regarded by the later explorers: James Hamilton and Gerhard Rohlfs. The imposing building, referred to as “barracks”, was mentioned by Porcher and Smith as well as George Dennis.

Among other ancient remains of Ptolemais the greatest number of mentions concerns the necropolis. Several cemeteries were found to the west of the city walls, but the most representative free-standing tombs were located along the road. Unfortunately, even as early as the 18th century only the outlines of these structures were usually visible. The best-preserved was a complex of several tombs located in a pit of one of the quarries, among which the most complete was the so-called mausoleum. Granger was the first to mention the monument. To Paolo Della Cella, in terms of style the building resembled Egyptian tombs. In the account of the Beechey brothers besides the description (“a huge, square family tomb, partly hewn in rock, lacking an inscription that may have originally been found above the doorway”) there was also an illustration depicting the monument. Pacho made a note of the decoration adorning the outer walls of the building and his standard description is supplemented with illustrations showing the plan and facade view. Detailed descriptions of the monument are owed to Porcher and Smith (supplemented with two drawings), Barth, Dennis, James Hamilton and Gerhard Rohlfs. In its closest vicinity, in the stone pit, where other tombs were located, there were much humbler tombs, though several travellers (Barth, Padre Pacifico, Dennis) also mentioned other, smaller but also free-standing mausoleum-type buildings. The western necropolis was an object of special interest to Barth. He gave detailed descriptions of the architecture and decoration of the tombs carved in isolated rock formations. Much more detailed remarks are owed to George Dennis, but the western cemetery, which he of course inspected in detail and briefly described, initially did not provoke his enthusiasm. Dennis conducted the exploration of the eastern necropolis, of course in order to acquire artefacts, and provided information on the tombs he explored. Despite opening the tombs “one after the other”, the explorer was less than satisfied with the finds, which included plain pottery, poor-quality jewellery and broken diot?.

Only few travellers noticed the remains of a basilica, of which only a fragment of the apse and several arches of the south nave were visible during the 18th and 19th century. It was interpreted as a part of the city fortifications by Granger, as a church by the Beechey brothers, Hamilton, Dennis and Rohlfs. This ruin was drawn by Beechey.

Mentions on other monuments of Ptolemais appeared only sporadically. This “sea of ruins” offered endless possibilities for observations and various interpretations, although at present secure identification of the abovementioned buildings is impossible without the support of systematic excavations: according to the words of the Beechey brothers: and to the westward and south-westward of this building [headquarters of the Dux] are many interesting remains of private dwelling-houses, palaces, baths &c, which require a great deal of excavation.

Ptolemais, though less prominent than Kyrene, was almost always in the itineraries of journeys through Cyrenaica and faced with its vastness and traces of past splendour none of the visitors ever felt disappointed.

Monika Rekowska

SHORT BIBLIOGRAPHY OF TRAVELLERS’ ACCOUNT:

  1. A. Laronde, Aspects méconnus du voyage de Granger en Cyréna?que au XVIIIe si?cle, Bulletin de la Société des Antiquaires de France, 1990, p. 185-199

  2. D. Cumming, James Bruce in Libya, Libyan Studies 1, 1969, p. 12-18. + J. Bruce, Travels to discover the sources of Nile in the years 1768, 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772 & 1773, vol. 1, Edinbourgh-London 1790 , p. XL-XLI.

  3. Paolo Della Cella, Viaggio da Tripoli di Barberia alle frontiere occidentali dell’Egitto, Genova 1819 (Citt? di Castello 1912?);

  4. [P?re Pacifique], Relation succinte de la Pentapole Libyque, par le révérend P?re Pacifique de Monte Cassiano, Préfet apostolique de la mission de la sacrée propagande ? Tripoli de Barbarie, traduite de l’italien par M. Delaporte, Vice-Consul ? Tanger, Recueil de voyages et de mémoires, publié par la Société de Géographie, vol. 2, Paris 1825, p. 28-31

  5. Frederic W. Beechey, H.W. Beechey, Proceedings of the Northern Coast of Africa from Tripoly eastward in MDCCCXXI and MDCCCXXII comprehending an account of the greater Syrtis and Cyrenaica and of the ancient cities composing the Pentapolis, London 1828, p. 361

  6. [Jean-Raymond Pacho], Relation d’un voyage dans la Marmarique, la Cyrena?que et les oasis d’Aujelah et de Marad?h accompagnée de cartes géographiques et topographiques et de planches représentant les monuments de ces contrées par M. J. R. Pacho. Ouvrage publié sous les auspices de J. E. Le Ministre de l’Intérieur. Dédié au Roi, 2 voll., Paris 1827

  7. J. Vattier de Bourville, Coup d’oeil sur la Cyréna?que ancienne et modern, s.l.a.; Rapport adressé ? M. le Ministre de l’Instruction publique et des cultes, par M. J. Vattier de Bourville, Bengasi, 27 mars 1848 = Extrait des ?Archives des missions scientifiques?, 1re série, vol. 1, [Paris] 1850 ; Extrait d’une lettre de M. Vattier de Bourville, agent consulaire a Benghazy, adressée ? M. Jomard, Bulletin de la Société de géographie de la France, Juillet-décembre 1848, n? 10, p. 172-180; Lettre de M. Vattier de Bourville ? M. Letronne sur Les premiers résultats de son voyage ? Cyr?ne, RA 5, 1848, p. 150-154, p. 433 sq;

  8. Heinrich Barth, Wanderungen durch die Küstenländer des Mittelmeeres, Berlin 1849

  9. James Hamilton, Wanderings in North Africa, London 1856, p. 143

  10. [Edwin A. Porcher, Robert Murdoch Smith], History of the Recent discoveries at Cyrene made during an expedition to the Cyrenaica in 1860-1861 under the auspices of her majesty’s government by captain R. Murdoch Smith, R.E. and commander E. A. Porcher, R.N., London 1864, p. 65-67, pl. 50-54.

  11. Gerhard Rohlfs, Von Tripoli nach Alexandrien: Beschreibung der im Aufrage Sc. Majestät des Königs von Preussen in den Jahren 1868 und 1869 ausgeführten Reise, Bremen 1871,p. 161

  12. George Dennis, On Recent Excavations in the Greek Cemeteries of the Cyrenaica, Transactions Royal Society Literature of the United Kingdom, Second Series IX, 1870, p.135-182

  13. Giacomo Di Martino,Cirene e Cartagine, Bologna 1908