Text: Charalambos Nikopoulos
From the Neolithic settlements, ancient Greek, Hellenistic and Roman monuments, the Byzantine and Latin churches and monasteries to the Frankish and Venetian fortresses and castles of the 12th-16th century! The island takes you away, at first sight, just as the Greek Nobel Prize-winning poet Georgios Seferis described to his sister in 1954: “I have grown to love this place. Maybe it’s because I can find there old things that are still very much alive (...)”.
Tracing the historical memory in Cyprus, which is placed under the umbrella of the rescued treasure of world heritage of UNESCO, the journey through space and time begins at the Preceramical settlement of Choirokoitia. It began to be excavated in 1936 by the then Ephorate of the Department of Antiquities of the island, Porphyrios Dikaios, and consequently as of 1976 the excavations continued under French archaeological legation and the direction of Alain Le Brun. The settlement of Choirokitia –built on the steep slope of a hill on the west bank of the Maronios River, 6 km from the sea– is an impressive example of the early permanent settlement of the island, possibly 70 centuries BC (7000-5200 BC). The inhabitants lived in circular buildings, of which only the lower part made of stone is still preserved. The top part was made of clay, straw, bricks and stones. The roofs were flat and made of wood, branches, straw and soil. A wide fencing wall was discovered at the west side of the settlement. “We have not concluded yet as to the exact purpose of this wall”, as Eleni Mantzourani mentions, professor of Prehistoric Archeology at the National and Kapodistrian University. She has been teaching Cypriot archeology since 1986, while she was the professor who introduced this subject for the first time to a Greek university. “At first it had to be a kind of protective enclosure, but when the village of Choirokoitia extended beyond the wall, it acquired a spatial character and perhaps also social. It is undoubtedly a community work through collective action of enormous scale for that time. It is a work that allows us to assume the existence of perceptions of social asymmetry –those who lived within and those who lived outside– without however actually raising an issue of perceptions of social stratification or social classification, as these concepts didn’t appear until later”, she stresses.
The settlement of Choirokoitia, like other settlements of the pre-ceramic era, was abandoned abruptly. The site was re-inhabited during the Neolithic era when humans had learned about the art of pottery (5000 - 3900 BC). Although no architectural traces survive from this second period, the Department of Antiquities of Cyprus embarked upon the representation of five circular buildings and part of the fortification enclosure with the entrance of the ancient settlement. “Choirokoitia is an excellent example”, Mrs. Mantzouranis tells us, “of nature and the human needs that remain intact from the prehistoric era until today, both to mourn their deceased and honor them, as well their need for property once they became a food producer”.
The journey through the historical recollection of the World Heritage continues in Pafos (Palaiopafos – Kouklia and Nea Pafos). The town of Palaipafos occupied the area of today’s village of Kouklia, which is located near the mouth of the Diarizos River, 16 km to the east of the current city. The area of Palaipafos has been the target for treasure hunters since the early ages (as early as the 16th century), an activity that continued until the end of the 19th century, while systematic archaeological research began in the 1950s by a British archaeological legation. At the same time, the city of Nea Pafos –or simply Pafos, as it is called today in Cyprus– is one of the most important archaeological sites of the island. The romantic journey starts at the place of the emergence of the goddess Aphrodite, “Aphrodite’s Rock”, as Mrs Mantzourani points out: “I would suggest to the adept traveler to make a stop and observe the Museum and the Temple of Aphrodite, even though there are not many surviving elements from his prehistoric phase, a time when apparently there was a rising deity, perhaps Astarte. On the way to Pafos, one can see preserved findings of the later Temple, mainly from Roman times, plus they can also visit the local Museum. In Nea Pafos, one can see the Tombs of the Kings with their amazing mosaics, the Museum with exhibits from early prehistoric era and especially the Chalcolithic period (from the 4th millenium to the middle of the 2nd millennium BC). The cape of Maa-Palaiokastro is also of unique importance, which is considered the first station of the Achaean colonists, as a refugee wave to the East following the destruction of the Mycenaean palaces at the end of the 12th century”.
In addition to Aphrodite’s sanctuary, the most important monuments of Palaipafos are the Lusignan Manor, the Church of Panayia Katholiki, the House of Leda, the Defensive Wall and the Palace at Hadji Abdulla, the Cemeteries and the Lusignan Cane Sugar Refinery, while amongst the exceptional monuments of Nea Pafos, the House of Dionysus, the House of Orpheus, The House of Theseus, the House of Aeon, the Roman Agora, the Odeon and the Asklepieion, the Theater, the Chrysopolitissa Basilica and the Castle of Forty Columns are included.
Some of the most important monuments to the history of Byzantine hagiography and painting can be found on the imposing mountain range of Troodos, in the central part of Cyprus. These are frescoed churches that preserve to our day excellent examples of the various streams of Byzantine and post-Byzantine monument painting from the 11th to the 19th century. Nine of these churches as well as the Monastery of Saint John the Lampadistis in Kalopanayiotis have been included so far in the UNESCO World Heritage List. The unique style in frescoes testifies not only to the link between of the Lusignan Kingdom of Cyprus and the East, but also to the artistic exchanges between West- East. The temple frescoes are testament to the Byzantine civilization during the Komneno period, which is evident mainly in the frescoed ensembles at Nikitari and Lagoudera. The churches are a well-preserved example of the ecclesiastical architecture of the countryside during the Byzantine period, while their exceptional interior decoration contrasts with the simplicity of the exterior, mainly single-naved temples with a wooden roof. Only the last post-Byzantine painters, with the provincial style that characterizes them, are sometimes in harmony with this traditional architecture.
Cyprus, Archontiko Varosia, September 1955. In the note of the first edition of his Cypriot poems, George Seferis writes: “(...) And I wonder if it so happened that I found such grace in Cyprus, it is probably because this island gave me what it had to offer in a limited enough context so as to not evaporate, as in the capitals of the great world, every sense, but wide enough to fit the miracle. As odd as it seems to say it nowadays, Cyprus is a place where the miracle still works...”.