Roman Possession

Egyptian Possession

Ottoman Possession

Italian Possession

World War II

Cyrenaica Emirate

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History and Heraldry


Cyrenaica was colonized by the Greeks from the 7th century BC. The oldest and most important foundation was that of Cyrene, established in 631 BC by colonists from the island Thera, who had left the island because of a famineTheir commander Aristoteles took the Libyan name Battos. His dynasty, the Battaid, maintained itself in spite of heavy resistance by the Greeks in neighbouring cities.

The east of the province was called Marmarica but the important part was in the west, comprising five cities, hence known as the Pentapolis: Cyrene (near the modern village of Shahat) with its port of Apollonia (Marsa Susa), Arsinoe or Taucheira (Tocra), Euesperides or Berenice (near modern Benghazi), Balagrae (Bayda) and Barce (Marj) – of which the chief was the eponymous Cyrene. The term “Pentapolis" continued to be used as a synonym for Cyrenaica. In the south the Pentapolis faded into the Saharan tribal areas, including the pharaonic oracle of Ammonium.

The region produced, amongst other things, silphium, an herb that grew only in Cyrenaica and was regarded as a medicinal cure and aphrodisiac.




In 525 BC, after taking Egypt, the Persians took the Pentapolis.

In this era coins were minted showing  the head of the ruler on the obverse and a plant of silphium on the reverse.

Coins from Cyrene, 4th century

showing the head of the ruler, sometimes bearing the horns of Ammon, and the silphium on the reverse


Tetradrachma from Cyrene, 430 ca-390 BC

Head of Zeus-Ammon and plant of Silphium perfoliatum

(British Museum, London. Dept. Coins & Medals)


The Persians were followed by Alexander the Great in 332 BC, who received tribute from these cities after he took Egypt.

Tetrobol from Cyrene, 308-290 BC

Showing a rider on horseback and the Macedonian sun-emblem. On the reverse the silphium.

 (British Museum, London. Dept. Coins & Medals)


The Pentapolis was formally annexed by Ptolemy I Soter (323-282 BC) and it passed to the diadoch dynasty of the Lagids, better known as the Ptolemaic dynasty. It briefly gained independence under Magas of Cyrene (276-250 BC), stepson of Ptolemy I, but was reabsorbed into the Ptolemaic empire after his death. It was separated from the main kingdom by Ptolemy VIII and given to his son Ptolemy Apion, who, dying without heirs in 96 BC, bequeathed it to the Roman Republic.

In this time the eagle as a royal symbol was introduced in Egypt as well as in Cyrene. Also, the silphium as a symbol of Cyrene itself was maintained. This is illustrated by coins from the end of the fourth and the beginning of the third century BC.

After the annexation one side of the coins always shows the portrait of the king (like before) and on the other side different images, for example the ptolemaic eagle, but also the silphium.

On a certain didrachme from this time, the silphium is even between two eagles, resulting in a real achievement.


Roman and Vandal Possession

52 BC-643 AD


The occupation of the province took place more than twenty years after the death of the king in 74 BC because of internal strife. The first roman governors bore the title of legatus pro praetore and quaestor pro praetore. Apparently Antonius gave it to Cleopatra Selene, the daughter of Cleopatra VII in 36 BC. After the battle of Azio (31 BC) Octavianus united it with Creta which had been annexated in 67 BC as a result of the victory of Pompeus over its corsairs, and alotted to the Senate. The governors resided in Gortyna and Cyrenae/Shahhat; the two parts having several lower administrators and their own koinòn (communities). Diocletianus separated Creta from Cyrenaica which was divided in Libya superior or Pentapolis in the west, and Libya inferior or sicca. Their governors resided in Ptolemais/Tolmeitha and Paretonios, near Marsa Matruh  respectively.

Both belonged to the Diocese of Egypt, within the praetorian prefecture of Oriens. After the earthquake of 365, the capital was moved to Ptolemais. After the Empire's division, Cyrenaica became part of the East Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire), bordering Tripolitania. It was briefly part of the Vandal Kingdom to the west, until its reconquest by Belisarius in 533. Probably the province was governed by a dux like the adjoining provinces but no information about its administrators is available. In the Notitia Dignitatum Libya Superior is represented by  the bust of a lady. [1]


Egyptian Possession



Cyrenaica was conquered by Muslim Arabs during the tenure of the second caliph, Omer Bin Khattab, in 643/44, and became known as Barqah after its provincial capital, the ancient city of Barce. After the breakdown of the Ummayad caliphate, it was essentially annexed to Egypt, although still under the same name, first under the Fatimid caliphs and later under the Ayyubid and Mamluk sultanates.

In this era the Egyptian flag flew over Libya showing a white crescent on a yellow background. In Tolmeitha the governor bore a white flag with a yellow pennon or sash, as can be seen on the portolan of Angelino Dulcerta (1339) and as announced in the Book of Knowledge:


Flag and sash as in the Book of Knowledge


Thence I came to Mon de Barcas and Bona Andrea which is in Berberia, and thence to Tolometa on the sea shore. The King has for a device a white flag with a yellow sash on a lance.”[2]


Portolan of Gabriel de Vallseca (1439) detail

showing the sash of Tolmeitha and the Egyptian flag at Barqa


This yellow sash was repeated on later 14th and 15th century portolans until the end of Egyptian rule. On the portolan of Pietro Russo from 1508, there are triangular red flags, probably the ensign of  the sultan of Tripoli. This portolan dates from two years before the Spanish conquest of Tripoli.


Portolan of Pietro Russo showing the eastern Mediterranean coast 1508 (detail).

Triangular flags, at Tripoli a rectangular flag

(Museo Maritim de Barcelona)


Ottoman Possession



Ultimately, it was annexed by the Turkish Ottoman Empire in 1517. From 1551 it was a part of the Eyâlet of Tripoli and later the of the Kingdom of Tripoli (1711-1835), from 1864 Tripolitania Vilayet. Its main cities became Benghazi and Derna.

Initially the flags seen in Cyrenaica were red with a yellow crescent. In the 17th century red flags with a white crescent were depicted in the region.




Italian Possession



Italians occupied Cyrenaica during the Italo-Turkish War in 1911 and declared it an Italian protectorate on 15 October 1912. Three days later, the Ottoman Empire officially ceded the province to the Kingdom of Italy. On 17 May 1919, Cyrenaica was established as an Italian colony, and, on 25 October 1920, the Italian government recognized Sheikh Sidi Idriss as the leader of the Senussi, who was granted the rank of Emir until in 1929. In that year, Italy “derecognized” him and the Senussi. On 1 January 1934, Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan were united as the Italian colony of Libya (comprising all of the former Kingdom of Tripoli) .

For Cyrenaica (as well as for Tripolitania) the Italians adopted a coat of arms on 3 April 1919, apparently inspired by the silphium on the ancient Cyrene coins. It is:



Arms: Azure, a silphium plant Or, in chief a five-pointed star Argent.

Crown: an ancient crown.


In the arms the silphium is of course the emblem of Cyrenaica. The star is the emblem of the Italian Army which had occupied Cyrenaica.


In Italian the arms were blasoned as follows:


Cirenaica (Colonia della) D'azzurro al silfio d'oro reciso e sormontato da una stella d'argento. Lo scudo timbrato da corona antica romana (D.L. 3 aprile 1919 - RR.LL.PP. 8 Guigno 1919) [3]




There was heavy fighting in Cyrenaica during World War II between the Allied British Eight Army and the Afrikakorps of the German Wehrmacht.


The Afrikakorps


The emblem of the Afikakorps consisted of the palmtree from the arms of  the Italian colony of Tripolitania, charged with a swastika.




Afrikakorps Feldpost Stamp

Showing the emblem of the Afrikakorps

Emblem of the Afrikakorps

From: Panzerarmee Afrika. Kalender 1943 [4]


The British Eighth Army


The British Eighth Army was formed from the Western Desert Force in September 1941. It got its number from the fact that the French had fielded seven armies previously in the same war, whilst the British had fielded the British Expeditionary Force.

At its creation Eighth Army comprised two Corps:

XXX Corps. was made up of British 7th Armoured Division, the South African 1st Infantry Division and the 22nd Guards Brigade, and the

XIII Corps. composed of the 4th Indian Infantry Division the 2nd New Zealand Division  and the 1st Army Tank Brigade.

The BEA also included the Tobruk garrison (the British 70th Infantry Division), and the Polish Carpathian Brigade. In reserve the BEA had the South African 2nd Infantry Division making a total of 7 divisions.


The emblem of the Operation Crusader of the British 8th Army consisted of a white shield with a yellow latin cross.

The commander of the Bitish Eighth Army, Field-Marshal Montgomery, flew this insignia on his car when they won the battle of El Alamein.

In 1942 the British occupied Cyrenaica and administered it until 1951


Cyrenaica Emirate

01.03.1949 - 24.12.1951


Muhammad Idrīs as-Senussi

 Emir 1949-1951


In July 1944 Cyrenaica was declared independent but this could not be effectuated. Idris as-Senussi on 01.03.1949 with British backing unilaterally proclaimed Cyrenaica an independent emirate again. This emirate of Cyrenaica was the nucleus of the Kingdom of Libya, which was declared on 24 December 1951 when Idris as-Senussi was proclaimed King Idris I.


A flag had been adopted in 1947. It was black, charged with a white crescent-and-star.The black refers to Caliph Abbas (750-754), the founder of the Abbassid dynasty. Crescent-and-star represent Islam, the state-religion of the Emirate, and the star symbolizes the 53rd Sura of the Q’uran.




The white crescent-and-star was also in the emblem of the emirate. This was :

Arms: Sable, a crescent increscent Argent.

Crown: A royal crown

Garland: Branches of olive

Motto: ةقر ﻉﻒﺭةﯚﭬ (Cyrenaica Emirate)


The emblem of state is only known from the cap badge and buttons of the Cyrenaica Defence Force:


Cyrenaica Defense Force Badge


The crown is a five-pointed crown, each point charged with a five-pointed star, with five hoops set with three five-pointed stars each and crested by a crescent-and-star.



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© Hubert de Vries 2011-10-06


[1] Fol 189v: Praefectus Augustalis

[2] Book of the Knowledge of all the kingdoms, lands, and lordships that are in the world. (ca 1350) Works issued by the Hakluyt Society. 2nd series N° XXIX. 1912. P. 23, plate 12.

[3] Rivista Araldica, 1933 pp. 318 & 336.

[4] Frontispiece. Überreicht vom Reichsminister für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda