Cyprus and the Balance of Empires

I was pretty excited to pick up at the ASOR annual meeting the volume titled Cyprus and the Balance of Empires edited by Tom Davis, Charles Stewart, and Annemarie Weyl Carr. The volumes consists of a series of papers focused on the period from Justinian I to the Coeur de Lion originally presented at Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute in a 2011 conference.  This work should be read alongside the recently published volume from the Cahier du Centre d’Etudes Chypriotes on the “Archaeology of Late Antique and Byzantine Cyprus (4th-12th centuries AD)” to provide a sweeping overview of recent research on Late Antique and Byzantine Cyprus.

As per usual, I will not provide a full review of this volume, but make some quick observations. I’ll mainly focus on the first eight chapters which focus on the Late Antique and Early Byzantine period on the island. 

1. Churches. Like Cypriot archaeology, this volume is very interested in churches. It contains summary publications by D. Michaelides on his newly excavated church at Ayioi Pente in Yeriskipou, E. Procopiou from her martyrium at Katalymata ton Plakton on the Akrotiri peninsula, and a massive synthetic article by Charles Stewart on the development of Byzantine architecture on Cyprus.

The most famous of these churches is the massive martyrdom at Katalymata with its western facing apse. Procopiou interpretation of this building as a 7th century martyrdom with clear architecture ties to both Egypt and the Levant is almost certain correct, and reinforces the position of Cyprus as a major center of pilgrimage in the 6th and 7th centuries with important churches at Amathous, Salamis-Constantia, Limassol (Neapolis), and now on the Akrotiri peninsula.

D. Michaelidis publication of the salvage excavations at Ay. Pente expands the corpus of Early Christian churches on the island and provides particularly useful parallels for the basilica at Polis-Chrysochous which I’ve been working to publish. Both the Ay. Pente church and the South Basilica at Polis are surrounded by graves and the stone lined ossuaries at Ay. Pente are similar to those a basilica EG0 at Polis. The relationship between contemporary burials and cult activities across the island in the 7th century is quite clear and consistent. I was similarly intrigued by what appears to be a south porch on the basilica at Ay. Pente which is another feature shared with the South basilica at Polis. Unfortunately the plan of the church at Ay. Pente is pretty disturbed so it is difficult to understand whether this south porch was associated with a southern atrium like at the South Basilica. I’m beginning to wonder whether these south porches provided sheltered access for rituals attached to important burials on the island. 

2. Architectural Development of Churches on Cyprus. Charles Stewart’s sweeping review of church architecture on Cyprus deserves its own number in my non-review. His survey was, as one would expect, thought provoking. Stewart began his work by critiquing the dichotomies that have structured past studies of church architecture on the island. Starting with Megaw who asked whether Cypriot architecture was “metropolitan or provincial” and continuing through Curcic who asked whether Cypriot architecture was provincial or “regional” in character. Of course, Dikigoropoulos 1961 dissertation located Cyprus “betwixt Greek and Saracen” and numerous subsequent scholars have found both productive and reductionist parallels between the islands current divided political situation and its historical place a crossroads in the Eastern Mediterranean. 

Stewart, then, was right to critique the overdetermination of these binary readings of Cypriot architectural history. In its place, Stewart argued that throughout the Early Byzantine period Cyprus’ place in the Mediterranean shifted according to local political, economic, and religious influences. There was no single core for which the island stood as the periphery, but multiple cores and peripheries that shaped the island as an architectural space.

Without getting into the detail of Stewart’s article, I do wonder whether he replaced on set of dichotomies with another. He seemed inclined divide architecture influences between those from the island and those from outside the island creating a Cyprus: Not Cyprus dichotomy. While historically this makes sense, as the corpus of basilicas on Cyprus have generally been seen as unique, I do wonder whether we should look at the communities on Cyprus as independent actors rather than simply individual representations of some island wide tendencies. I suspect that some communities on the island looked at their neighbors for inspiration while others looked far beyond the island’s shores. 

3. Survey and Early Byzantine Cyprus. Marcus Rautman’s article provides a nice overview of the work done by regional surveys to illuminate the Late Roman and Early Byzantine periods on the island, and the rural landscape in particular. A key point in this article is that the late 7th century and 8th century landscapes may be much more elusive from an archaeological perspective. Rautman argues that the disruption of region trade, particularly sponsored by the imperial government, created a landscape dominated by short-term settlements rather than substantial and stable investments on the countryside characteristic of 6th and early 7th centuries. These short-term settlements and more contingent practices are less visible to the archaeologist and sometimes misinterpreted as population decline or abandonment.

4. Chronology and Ceramics. It was pretty remarkable that a collection of articles dedicated to the Late Romana and Early Byzantine period on Cyprus did not include a single article focusing exclusively on ceramics. David Metcalf’s article on seals and coins and Maria Parani’s all-too-short contribution on everyday life reminded us that small finds can play a key role in understanding the island’s economic, social, and administrative context. The lack of an article dealing specifically with locally made cook pots, the long-lived Late Roman 1 amphoras, or the regionally produced Cypriot Red Slip table wares, speaks to archaeological traditions on the island that despite well-known contributions by no less a scholar than Hector Catling or David Soren, continues to be dominated by students of architecture, icons, styles, and top-down history of church patrons, imperial officials, and bishops. Davis’s and Stewart’s overview of the study of Byzantine archaeological work on Cyprus emphasized the long-standing nature of existing research agendas despite the continued inroads of scholars like Marcus Rautman, Michael Given, and … err… me, Scott Moore, and David Pettegrew.

The book has much to offer the student of Late Roman and Byzantine Cyprus and contributes to the impressive and growing body of knowledge about the island during these periods. Now, we just need to get scholars from outside the island of Cyprus to read and consider the work done on Cyprus, and for archaeologists who work on Cyprus to continue to work to place the island within a wider context. 

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