More Early Byzantine and Late Roman Cyprus

The quantity and quality of scholarship over the last few years on Late Roman and Early Byzantine Cyprus has been quite remarkable. Just a two weeks ago, I reviewed here another edited volume, Cyprus and the Balance of Empires, bringing together a wide range of voices on Late Antique and Byzantine Cyprus. Before that review was even done, I received another volume on nearly the same topic in the Centre Cahier du Centre d’Études Chypriotes 43 (2013) on the “Archaeology of Late Antique and Byzantine Cyprus (4th-12th centuries AD).” This work is a conference proceedings from a gathering I’m honor of Athanasios Papageorghiou held in Nicosia in November 2013 and organized by M. Parani and D. Michaelides. This volume can be a bit challenging to acquire in the U.S., but it is well worth the effort.

Here are my quick notes on the highlights in the volume:

1. Insularity. Articles by Isabella Baldini and Salvatore Consentino discuss insularity and Late Antique Cyprus. Consentino’s work is the more sophisticated of the two and looks at the role of islands and insular connections within the Late Roman Mediterranean. He concludes, unsurprisingly, military requisitioning and the long tail of Late Roman trade allowed islands to prosper into 7th century, and, at least in the case of Cyprus, maybe into the 8th century as longstanding connections between regions in the Eastern Mediterranean resisted various political and military challenges. 

Baldini’s work compares the churches on Crete and Cyprus and noted the greater likelihood of direct imperial patronage on Crete. The provincial capital of Gortyn for example had two churches with liturgical arrangements similar to that of Ay. Sophia in Constantinople (including the telltale ambo in the central nave and the doomed basilica of Ay. Titus) point to close ties to the capital. In Cyprus, certain evidence for connections to churches of the Aegean basin exists in pockets on the island, but despite Baldini’s relatively optimistic reading of the links between Cyprus and the capital, the ties appear more tenuous.

2. New Excavations. Tom Davis provides a very useful summary of the first season of his new Kourion Urban Space Project (KUSP) which has begun to sketch out the extent and material culture of the Early Byzantine (post-earthquake) Kourion. Georgios Georgiou’s documents the excavations at Mazotos which revealed a lovely little baptistery. (As an aside Georgiou should be gently scolded for his rather clumsy use of 7th century coins to date the structure. Coins provide a terminus post quem and in the unstable economy and uncertain currency situation of 7th and 8th century Cyprus, they likely enjoyed a far longer life than typical coin finds). My friends Amy Papalexandrou, Brandon Olson, Scott Moore and I discuss our recent work at Polis. Eleni Procopiou provides an overview of recent work around Amathus and Despo Pilides details her work on the Hill of Ay. Georgios in Nicosia. These short treatments combined with the treatments in Balance of Empires to produce a fairly comprehensive handbook to recent work on the island.

3. Liturgical Furnishings and Decoration. One particularly useful article in this volume is Doria Nicolaou’s survey of liturgical furnishings on the island of Cyprus. As someone who came to study Cypriot churches from the relative uniformity of liturgical organization and furnishings of the southern Balkans, the diversity of floorpans and liturgical arrangements in Cypriot churches is bewildering. Nicolaou’s short article takes an important first step in sorting out the evidence for liturgical furnishings on Cyprus. Olivier Bonnerot’s work on the material used in wall mosaics adds a material science dimension to this work, and as his base of evidence expands, we could imagine this producing important understandings of the processes used to create Early Christian spaces.

4. Troodos. On Cyprus, the last frontier for understanding the Late Roman and Early Christian period are the Troodos Mountains. Tassos Papacostas provides a key introduction to the complicated situation of the mountains on Cyprus during Late Antiquity. While elsewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean during this period, increasingly marginal lands are being used and settled, on Cyprus, the Troodos mountains appear all but abandoned of significant (i.e. visible) settlement at this time. What is strange is that Cyprus appears to be prospering during Late Antiquity and settlement on the coastal plain expanding significantly. Moreover, recent work by intensive survey in the Troodos demonstrates that mineral resources continued to be extracted from long-known veins and the island contributed substantially to the increasing military requirements of the Late Roman state. So why there are so few settlements in the Troodos remains unclear. Perhaps the 4th century earthquake led to substantial population decrease or contraction of settlement leaving plenty of open land available for Cypriots at the end of Antiquity. Perhaps land in the Troodos was used only intermittently and seasonally leaving behind only very limited artifact scatters. Or perhaps, as Papacostas suggests, the large urban areas along the southern coast represented the outlets for goods from the mountainous interior and the economic centers of Cypriot settlement.

5. Early Byzantine and Late Roman Administrative Life. Charles Stewart and David Metcalf provide insights into the administrative life on the island. Stewart provides a much needed survey of the Late Roman fortifications on the island with special attention to the walls at Amathus, Salamis-Constantia, and Carpasia. David Metcalf uses the evidence from sealings to demonstrate that the island continued to be tied to the capital and Byzantine administrative structures even during the so-called Condominium period when the island was supposed to be under joint Byzantine and Arab rule.

This volume deserves place next to Davis, Stewart, and Weyl Carr’s Balance of Empires as a key recent contribution to the study of Late Antique Cyprus. For scholars interested in the next big thing, I’d start clearing space for some volumes on the archaeology and history of Hellenistic Cyprus.

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