Further Notes on Cyprus

We took a few trips outside Limassol to see archaeological sites and beaches. We were always told where we were going rather late in the game, with little information about anything and no real time to look them up (especially after I ran out of mobile data).

The first weekend, I went with a few students to Amathous, an archaeological site about 20 minutes east of our apartment (reachable by the beach road bus, #30). Entry was €2.50 (the standard for all archaeological sites there), and a series of informational placards gave us details about Cyprus’ being the mythical birthplace of Aphrodite, and the history of Aphrodite worship in the area, featuring images of Aphrodite figures from many eras. A second set of placards described the excavation by a French team in the 1960s-70s. The site itself was a large city, the extent of which could be seen from the Acropolis set on a hill above town. It had a well-preserved agora, a central road leading into town, and domestic areas built towards the hill. The Acropolis had the remains of medium-size temple with some absolutely massive stone vases, and in addition to the town, we could see the submerged remains of the ancient port. On the way down, I had the realization that the site was presented in a very midcentury manner: all the information was architectural, with no details on the people who lived there (or even the artifacts). Very “observe the wonders the ancients built!” without considering who built them or why. In light of the port, I’d expect there to be extensive evidence of overseas trade, but that wasn’t even mentioned.

Our first group trip was to Paphos, an hour to the west. The first archaeological site was the Tomb of the Kings, a Hellenistic-era mortuary site. The tombs consist of natural rock superstructures with chambers carved into them, and sometimes columns and other architectural features. It had a splendid view overlooking the sea and could be described as “low-budget Petra”. I can’t really tell you anything else, because of the paucity of information available at the site. After the tenth rock-cut tomb with a basic sign indicating its number and an architectural drawing, I decided I was hot and bored. Who were these people? The entrance sign stated they were actually wealthy people rather than kings, but where was the evidence? Were they buried with grave goods? Jewelry? Were the tombs reused over the years? Were they covered over at any point?

Next we went to the old port to have lunch and see Old Town Paphos, another site. I mistakenly decided to eat lunch first and to visit the castle (really more of a small fortress which is currently hosting a photographic exhibition), leaving only half an hour to see Old Town. It turns out that this site, while still just as low-info as the previous two, had massive mansions built by Roman governors with really impressive mosaics. The houses were destroyed in an earthquake, preserving the floors. One house built around a central courtyard had mosaics in almost every room, with realistic human and animal figures depicting scenes from mythology and complex geometric patterns. It was still a shame that there was no indication what any of the rooms were (usually judged by their location and what artifacts were found in them), as Roman homes often used mosaic themes to echo a room’s purpose. Having more description beyond the artistic/aesthetic would really make the ancient world come alive. I know site managers with the bottom line in mind will argue that people are already visiting the site and enjoying it for its great preservation and stunning views. The site has a 4-star rating on Google. But: wouldn’t it be nice if those visitors actually knew what they were looking at, and left with a greater understanding of the place of Cyprus in the Roman world? Or had an insight into the ancient mind?

On the way home, we stopped at Aphrodite’s Rock, a beach with rocky towers within swimming distance of the shore. One of them, purported to be the place Aphrodite was born from the seafoam (Zeus’ sperm), is said to have the power to unite people with their true love if they swim around it. I have a strong inclination that this is a tourist attraction and a modern (heteronormative, traditionally romantic) belief; in Greek the same feature is called Roman Rock. Anyway, I like a challenge and the water looked amazingly inviting after a long day in the sun, so I swam around it declaring “I can have many true loves of any gender!” There was also a much bigger rock that we saw people jumping off of. It took some effort to clamber out of the water and up the side; only once I got to the top did I find out that the other side had a much easier way up. I also remembered that I’m actually quite scared of jumping from heights and had to have three students swim around and coax me into jumping.

In the first few weeks, I was connected to some local performance artists through my friend Sara in London. Elena and her partner Emmidio, after finding out that I was in their town and friendless, collected me and took me to a concert in Nicosia, the capital. It was an evening of dedicated to Cyprus’ first electronic artist, and his pieces were recreated both using synthesizers and by a string quartet. I’d never before thought of electronic music as something that could be recreated live note-by-note, and this was absolutely fascinating. The performance was in an Ottoman-era courtyard, and as the sun set the music was accompanied by bats swooping and cats scampering. Elena also invited me to a music festival she was hosting at a reservoir in the mountains. It was an evening of ambient electronic music called The Gathering, featuring an opening didgeridoo meditation, visualizer art projected onto white sheets, and pillows on the sloping edge of a ravine so we could lie down while listening. (My favorite! No need to dance for hours!) The second night (and apparently third and fourth) was a rave, but I couldn’t stay for that long. The day after, I went to the Cyprus Archaeological Museum in Nicosia, which was much larger than it appeared from the outside. It was presented in the “cultural-historical” framework, investigating cultural change through the successive waves of seafaring inhabitants. The star exhibits were a recreation of a tomb containing over 1000 statues of gods and an impressive jewelry collection showing stylistic change over the centuries.

Our second trip was to the north side. Since 1974, Cyprus has been divided into north (east) and south (west); the north calls itself the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, but the south doesn’t quite agree. In between is the green zone, where nobody can live because it’s contested. I’m by no means an expert on the division, but basically as the British were leaving, the two ethnic groups on Cyprus (Greeks and Turks) had to decide what to do. Some Greek Cypriots supported a return to Greek authority, others supported self-rule. Cyprus was an independent country encompassing the entire island from 1960-1974, when Turkish forces invaded, a coup was staged, and war broke out. At the end of it, the country was divided roughly in half; currently, the north is economically depressed but has the good beaches, and the south has just made it out of poverty in the last 15 years. A friend of Elena’s told me that only recently have people been able to eat meat regularly, within her lifetime – meat being an indicator of wealth, as it costs more and uses more resources to produce. Anyway, we drove up to the border and handed in all our passports. Ten minutes went by. Twenty. Xenia got back on the bus and informed us there was a problem – three “unusual stamps” on our passports, from Somalia, Qatar, and Jordan. I am completely convinced, based on my experience with border crossings, that the people who work there take the job because they get to exert supreme authority with no actual regard for rules. I’ve had border guards confiscate food (but only snack food) because it was “not allowed”, had an entire car searched, and been held because they didn’t like the look of us. Turkey has diplomatic relations with Jordan and Qatar, so there’s no way those were an actual reason to stop us. Their goal seemed to be getting us to hire a “guide” to escort us around. So we had to wait a while for our guide to come and meet us. It turns out she was a lovely older lady called Jancal, a social worker who had recently trained as a guide.

We first stopped at the archaeological site of Salamis, another Hellenistic-Roman site. It had a colonnaded road to the sea, a rebuilt theatre, and a huge bath complex adjacent to the agora. Seriously, you could’ve fit 40 people into the caldarium. Much respect for that bath. Also near the agora was a 20-seater latrine. Still no site interpretation. Next we went to Famagusta (Ammachoustos), another port city with Venetian walls and a building called Othello’s Castle. While there wasn’t a real Othello, Shakespeare based the character on the Venetian ruler XXX, and in subsequent centuries the castle was renamed after the fictional equivalent. The town has streets of warehouses that are now tourist shops and a tasty Turkish patisserie where we had goat milk ice cream that was strangely impervious to melting. The street looked familiar, and I recalled that the 1964 film “Exodus” had been filmed there – a re-watch online showed the same street, but filled with British army vehicles, boxes of produce, and fish. The town also has a Gothic church converted into a mosque, with gorgeous asymmetrical stone cutouts in place of windows, allowing a filtering of light and a cool breeze. Finally, we went to the beach at Famagusta. Before we got off the bus, Xenia warned us: “The west side has barbed wire going into the ocean. This is the green zone. Beyond it are abandoned apartments. Do not take pictures, do no go near, do not try to cross the border, or you will be shot. Have fun!” These are the buildings that had to be evacuated in the war, and they have not yet been cleared as they’re in no-man’s land. There’s about a mile of beachfront condos with peeling paint, windows blown out, left to the elements – apparently one of the few people to get clearance to visit was the author or “The Earth Without Us”, for research purposes.

Our third excursion, also to the north, was to the Castle of St Hilarion and Kyrenia. This time we drove through the border at Nicosia and had no problems. On the south face of the mountains just north of the city are massive flags made of painted rocks – one of the Turkish flag and one of the TRNC flag – clearly visible from the city, just so you know what’s what. As the bus climbed higher into the mountains, my sinuses felt worse and worse. We reached the pinnacle of a mountain overlooking the sea with St Hilarion perched on top and had an hour to explore. It was built in Lusignan and Venetian times, and is stretched over the ridge of a few mountaintops. While attempting to maintain the necessary bits to indicate “castle” – keep, quarters, kitchens, courtyard, walls – it struggles to maintain them all in the usual post-medieval order due to the terrain, making it a fascinating obstacle course of stairs and narrow, angled chambers and steep cliffs (for the closest imaginable fictional representation, it’s the Aerie in Game of Thrones). We saw a goat inside at one point. We drove down the mountain to Kyrenia Castle, which was more of a portside fortress, with sloping ramps for troops rolling cannons and a moat and drawbridge. There wasn’t much information about the castle, but we had a good walk around the walls and then ice cream outside.

Finally, the last weekend my friend Cynthia was in town and we went to visit the archaeological site of Kourion. It was also easy to get to by public bus (the #16B from Limassol Bus Station), although we forgot to push the stop button and were dropped off at the beach instead. After realizing our mistake (and having beach lunch) we began the hike uphill to the site. I decided it’d be quicker to hitchhike instead of walking in the hot sun, so I stuck out my thumb and were soon picked up by some beach visitors going home, who graciously dropped us off at the top of the hill (maybe a 2km walk). The whole site, spanning the Hellenistic to Byzantine periods, is on a hill overlooking the sea and some dramatic cliffs. The reconstructed theatre is still in use, and can seat up to XXX for performances of music and traditional Greek drama. The site has a few well-preserved houses and mosaics, the best-interpreted of which was destroyed by an earthquake, killing the family inside and their donkey. It is an unfortunate fact of archaeology that the fastest devastation leaves us with the best picture of ancient life. Afterwards, thoroughly sun-blasted, we walked back down to the beach to cool our feet and wait for the bus.

Overall, the sites in Cyprus suffered from a lack of interpretation. While there must be differences in finds and interpretation between Amathous, Salamis, and Kourion, as it stands the only difference presented is the scenery. I’d be hard pressed to tell you why each of them is special and worth a visit. I did feel like Cyprus lacks a strong identity, both in archaeology and in my daily interaction with culture. In Greece, Egypt, and Israel, (the latter two of which you can see on a clear day!) you know where you are. They are proud of their heritage, and sites are presented thoroughly, if idiosyncratically. Cyprus has an interesting archaeological history as it’s in the middle of a number of Mediterranean cultures, and obviously has strong feelings about land and heritage. But I didn’t get a sense of what Cyprus is all about. I’m not sure if this was a result of my not moving in the right circles, talking to the right people, having so little free time to explore, so much Western influence (almost all the mall shops and restaurants were American or British brands), or the inevitable tourist tat takeover. I did find the Cypriots (and immigrants to Cyprus) I talked to friendly, giving, open, and argumentative. But unlike Greece, where every other sentence is about how great Greece is, nobody was really stressing what Cyprus has going for it.

Finally, I didn’t get to talk to many people about the north. Compared to other divided places I’ve been, nobody really piped up about it. I found a few posters and graffiti in Nicosia indicating that the north is an occupation, not a legitimate country, but I wasn’t expecting the plaque in the departure hall of Larnaca airport. It was a piece of wall art from the Nicosia airport, abandoned since 1974, with an interactive display of photos of the airport. It was nothing special, really – another modernist architectural piece from the early 60s – but the display mourned its loss, remarking that “the north part of Cyprus still remains under impermanent Turkish occupation.” Perhaps there’s an undercurrent I didn’t pick up on.

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