17-19 May 2014. A few thousand years ago, or more likely in some mythological land where time has no meaning, Aphrodite, the ancient Greek goddess of love and fertility, arose from the sea near Paphos at Petra tou Romiou, just like Honey Ryder in the movie Dr. No, only without the suggestive white bikini. Aphrodite’s name arose from aphros, the Greek word for (sea) foam. Like most ancient Greek gods and goddesses there are several versions of her miraculous beginnings. This is the story of the Cypriot cult of Aphrodite. The story goes like this: Kinyras was the priest-king and first consort of Aphrodite. They had a beautiful daughter called Myrrha. Aphrodite, the original spiteful mother, was jealous of her daughter’s beauty and turned her into a bush. Adonis was born from the wood of the bush and became Aphrodite’s lover. I don’t know what happened to Kinyras. Perhaps he found solace with the ritual sacred “prostitutes” in the temple.
Like most stories of the gods, it was written by the people, and reflects their society at the time. The men of the Kinyradai Dynasty “married” Aphrodite by having sex with the sacred “prostitutes” at the temple, and then married their own daughters when their wives died. There was never a shortage of “prostitutes” since every young woman had to go to the temple at least once and have sex with a stranger who threw money at her feet while invoking the goddess. The less beautiful girls could wait years to fulfill their duty before they were chosen.
The remains of the Sanctuary of Aphrodite are situated some 14 kilometers from Paphos. It is believed to have been a site of worship of fertility goddesses as long ago as 3800 BC. By 1500 BC the temple to Aphrodite had been erected, and the town of Palai (old) Paphos grew up around the sanctuary. The cult became so well established that Old Paphos developed into a notable Cypriot City-state and the most celebrated place in the ancient world for the worship of Aphrodite. The glory days of the sanctuary and the cult of Aphrodite lasted several hundred years. It was one of the leading places of pilgrimage of the ancient world. Not much more remains today than the hallowed ground on which it stood. In the 4th century the Roman Emperor Theodosius outlawed paganism, from Byzantine times the local population used it as a “quarry” for building materials, and in the Middle Ages a sugar-milling factory was built on the foundations, destroying nearly everything that was left above knee height. Like everything else on this earth: it arises, it falls away.
Back now in the 21st century – a snippet from Don’s journal: The drive from Troödos to Paphos took us first on back roads through beautiful mountain country and then across a valley to see the ruins of the Aphrodite temple at Kouklia before heading along the A6 into Paphos. Finding our hotel was a bit of a challenge, but we managed to get there eventually without much stress. The owner, Andrea, who looks a bit like a pirate, with long grey hair, an eye patch and a pronounced limp, was very welcoming, and gave us a free upgrade to a room with a sea-view on the fourth floor. There was an upmarket restaurant with a wonderful view of the ocean right across from the hotel, and we ate most of our meals there: good food at reasonable prices, within easy walking distance. Paphos from our room.
Prior to Cyprus becoming part of the Byzantine Empire in 395 AD it had been colonized by the Greek Myceneans, solidified into 10 city-states, conquered by the Assyrians, declared its independence from the Assyrians, conquered by the Egyptians, declared allegiance to the Persians, rebelled against the Persians, re-conquered by the Persians, conquered by the Phoenicians, conquered yet again by the Persians, rebelled again, aligned with the Macedonians and Alexander the Great, and conquered by the Greek Ptolemaic Empire of Egypt. And that only takes us to 58 BC when it became a province of Rome. Plus there were major earthquakes that destroyed much of the island’s cities in 332, 342 and 365 AD. Quite near Paphos is a huge desert wasteland overlooking the eternally blue Mediterranean Sea. And beneath it are the tombs of the aristocracy dating from about 300 BC until about 300 AD, initially during the time when Cyprus was part of the Ptolemaic Empire and later when it became part of the Roman Empire. This huge underground necropolis, dug out of the solid rock, contains tombs for over one hundred Ptolemaic aristocrats, and in the Greco-Egyptian style of the time they were built as houses for the dead, though big enough to be houses for the living, with separate rooms, Doric columns, and walls adorned with frescoes. Although the site is known as the Tombs of the Kings, there’s no evidence that royalty were ever buried there. It was a fascinating exploration as we climbed down steep steps into the underground rooms, and at times clambered through narrow openings from one room to another. The number and variety of tombs astounded us, each it seemed, more ostentatious and surprising than the previous one.
Today plenty of pigeons think the tombs make fine homes.
We were wandering down towards the busy harbour one day, on our way to do a little more time-travel, on this occasion back to the 3rd century, which was just about at the time they stopped building huge underground homes for the dead, when we were stopped by dancing. Once again on our travels we had lucked into a performance of traditional dancing, this one taking place on an outdoor stage near the entrance to a time warp back to the ancient Roman era. There were about twenty dancers and half a dozen musicians performing the traditional dances of Cyprus. The Greek influence is unmistakable, but the dances have their own Cypriot flavour that has developed over centuries. We watched entranced as the men took turns, dancing with scythes and handkerchiefs. Then it was the turn of the women. There was the feeling that this kind of dancing traditionally takes place in a bar, or a barn, or at a wedding, with tables set up for those not dancing.
Down by the harbour in 1962 a farmer was plowing his land and discovered a most remarkable sight: mosaic floors dating back to antiquity. I imagine at the time he had no idea exactly what it was he had come across, or how far-reaching and significant the find would be. Extensive archaeological excavation unearthed the surprisingly well-preserved remains of the grand houses of the Greco-Roman Empire of the second to fourth centuries, houses of the living, not the dead. They are a testament to the wealth of the town at the time. Of greatest significance are the well-preserved mosaic tile floors. The intricate, detailed floors are made of marble and stone and depict the stories of Greek mythology. The Villa of Dionysos alone covers nearly 6000 square feet consisting of fourteen rooms. Five mansions were discovered, and although little remains of the houses the beautiful tile floors are almost completely intact. Each house is truly grand in scale covering many thousands of square feet. Archaeologists identified courtyards, reception halls, and many other facilities.
This was early days during the spread of Christianity. Paganism, and belief in the old myths still prevailed amongst about half the population, and yet with the mixing of differing beliefs and customs, apparent contradictions can be resolved. This mosaic of the birth of Dionysos could be the nativity of Jesus if you remove the wings on the head of Mercury, and change the names of those in attendance.
The scale of these houses is stupendous; the tiled floors works of art, created from a grand vision by skilled craftsmen. We imagined living in such ostentatious surroundings, walking daily over these beautiful floors. And finally, in our time-travel back to ancient times, we visited the city of Kourion, founded by the Greeks in the 13th century BC and destroyed by the earthquake of 365 AD. At the time it was an important city-kingdom set in a prominent place on the coast a little west of the modern city of Lemesos.
This is the remains of a hypocaust, which provided under-floor heating. The floor was built above the pillars, and the space beneath the floor, and in the walls, was heated with a wood furnace. Hypocausts were usually only found in the homes of the wealthy, and in public buildings.
If you are now thoroughly confused about the history of Cyprus, don’t worry, so am I. This island, being so strategically located at the eastern edge of the Mediterranean was coveted by, and seized by, every ancient empire and a few more recent ones. Human habitation dates back ten thousand years so every site we visited had layer upon layer of traditions, and communities, each new society overlaying the previous one while at the same time incorporating their customs in new ways. To say Kourion was founded in the 13th century BC is an over-simplification. People had lived there for a few thousand years before that. But no longer. Like everything else on this earth: it arises, it falls away. This is the final post about Cyprus. On May 28th we flew home to Vancouver. Next post: Back in our Canadian home town.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.