Lying at the crossroads of the eastern Mediterranean, the island of Cyprus has long been a meeting point for many of the world’s great civilizations. Situated where Europe, Asia and Africa meet, its location shaped its history of bringing civilizations together. Many powers conquered the island, and Cyprus was ruled in turn by the Hittites, the Egyptians, the Persians and the Greeks until it was absorbed by the Romans. Cyprus is also known as the “Island of Love”. According to mythology, Aphrodite, the ancient Greek goddess of love and beauty, was born from the foam of the sea on the south-western coast of the island.
The earliest settlements in Cyprus appeared during the Neolithic era, around 7000-6000 BCE. With the development of copper between 3900 BCE and 2500 BCE, a flourishing trade brought wealth and prosperity to the island. Cyprus became a leading commercial centre between the Near East and the West. However, the event that stamped permanently the life of Cyprus was the arrival of the Mycenaeans and the Achaeans between the 13th and 11th centuries BCE. They introduced their language, customs, culture and their arts and established new cities. The strategic location of Cyprus and its natural resources attracted the attention of many invaders.
Gradually the Greek city-states fell into the hands of the Assyrians (700 BCE), the Egyptians (565 BCE) and the Persians (546 BCE). Persian rule lasted until 332 BCE following the intervention of Alexander the Great and his victory at Tyre. After Alexander the Great’s death, Cyprus became part of Egypt under the rule of the Ptolemies. During the Hellenistic period, cultural life and the arts flourished. It was a time of important public works and the city of Pafos became the capital. In 58 BCE, Cyprus was annexed by Rome. The island was given the status of Province and a period of large public building projects began. The Roman period came to an end in the 4th century CE with the division of the Roman Empire and Cyprus became part of the Byzantine Empire with Christianity becoming the official religion. Other people would later take control of the island, the Franks, Venetians, Ottomans, the British, and currently the Turks in Northern Cyprus.
Once a thriving port city and an important Greek city-state on the eastern shore of Cyprus, Salamis offers a tantalizing glimpse into the vast history of the island. According to ancient Greek tradition, Salamis was founded after the Trojan War by the archer Teukros, son of King Telamon, who came from the island of Salamis, off the coast of Attica. Half-brother to the hero Ajax, Teukros was unable to return home from the war after failing to prevent his half-brother’s suicide, leading him to flee to Cyprus where he founded Salamis. Successively controlled by various dominant powers, Salamis served as the island’s main port and capital for a thousand years. The city saw great wealth and dominated the island until its near-destruction in the 4th century CE following a series of earthquakes. Most of the ruins we see today are from the Roman period. Set along the sea-shore, they cover an area over one kilometre long. Among the many impressive sights to be seen at Salamis are the gymnasium, the Roman baths, the theatre and the basilicas.
The gymnasium was devoted to the training of athletes. Its remains, with a colonnaded courtyard and adjacent pools, allude to Salamis’ glory days. The vast exercise ground was destroyed by a number of earthquakes and was restored during the reign of Hadrian in the 2nd century CE as well as in the 4th century by the Byzantine emperor Constantius II who renamed the city Constantia. The visible remains of the gymnasium date from these two late restorations.
The gymnasium had latrines. It was a semicircular colonnaded structure with seating for 44 people. They are the largest ever found in Cyprus. East of the gymnasium lies the bath complex with a sweat-room, marble-lined pools, cold and hot rooms and an exposed hypocaust (underfloor heating system). The building was decorated with stunning mythological-themed mosaics and frescoes. One mosaic depicts the slaying of the Niobids by Apollo and Artemis while another one represents the well-known legend of Leda and Zeus. A fresco depicts Hylas, the young friend of Hercules, and a water nymph. Like the gymnasium, the baths were rebuilt in Byzantine times.
The Roman theatre is another spectacular sight. Built during the reign of Emperor Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE) and completed during the years of Trajan and Hadrian (98 – 138 CE), it originally held over 15,000 spectators. Much of it was destroyed by consecutive earthquakes and its stones were removed to provide building material for the Early Christian reconstructions of the gymnasium and the baths. The theatre has now been partially restored and occasionally hosts theatrical and other cultural performances during the summer.
THE TOMB OF THE KINGS
Heading slightly north along the coast beyond the old city walls of Paphos you will find the Tombs of the Kings. This fascinating archaeological site contains a set of remarkable underground tombs used by the residents of Nea Pafos during the Hellenistic and Roman periods (from the 3rd century BCE to the 3rd century CE). Eight tomb complexes have been opened for viewing.
Despite the name, the tombs were built when there were no more kings on Cyprus. The grandeur and magnificence of the tombs inspired the scholars of the second quarter of the 20th century CE to nickname the area “Tomb of the Kings”. Spread over a vast area covering 200,000 square metres, these impressive underground tombs were carved out of solid rock while some were decorated with Doric pillars. The burial complex contains over 100 tombs and is part of the World Heritage List together with the Pafos Archaeological Site. Prominent and wealthy citizens of Nea Pafos were buried there in pit-shaped tombs, chamber tombs and tombs with a colonnaded atrium.
Panagia Chrysopolitissa is located just east of the Paphos archaeological park where you can take a fascinating walk around the foundations of a 4th century CE Christian basilica, the largest ever excavated in Cyprus. Several magnificent marble columns with Ionic and Corinthian capitals have been re-erected while others lie scattered around the site. The floor of the basilica was covered with colourful geometric mosaics, some of which are still preserved. To the western side of the basilica stands the so-called Saint Paul’s Pillar, where Saint Paul was allegedly flogged before he converted the Roman Governor, Sergius Paulus, to Christianity.
The Sanctuary of Aphrodite (Palaepaphos) is located in the village of Kouklia, 14 kilometres east of Paphos. Palaepaphos was a city-kingdom of Cyprus and one of the most important religious centres of the ancient Greek world. Here stood the famous Sanctuary of Aphrodite, a large centre of worship established in the 12th century BCE. Already famous in the time of Homer who referred to the Goddess as Kipris (the “Cyprian”), the sanctuary remained the renowned cult place of Aphrodite until the 4th century CE. Unfortunately, all that is left of the sanctuary are its foundations and scattered columns. Palaepaphos is part of the Aphrodite’s Cultural Route which focuses on the archaeological sites dedicated to the ancient cult of Aphrodite.
Agios Georgios in Pegeia includes the ruins of three early Christian basilicas dating back to the 6th century CE with lovely mosaic floors depicting animals and sea creatures. Located near the village of Pegeia, 18 kilometres north of Paphos along the coast of Cape Drepano, it was the site of a late Roman and early Byzantine town and important harbour.