An Introduction to the Archaeology of Early Christian Cyprus

Hot off the word processor, here’s my first stab at writing an introduction to an article-length survey of Early Christian archaeology on the island.

The Early Christian period on Cyprus extends from the first century A.D. to the 7th-century or even later. In contrast to other periodization schemes which emphasize the island’s political relationship to either the Roman state and its attendant economic networks, or the Byzantine commonwealth and its political entanglements in the region, the Early Christian period on Cyprus reinforces a period of religious and cultural continuity that extends from the antiquity to the modern period. As a result, the focus of a distinctly Early Christian archaeology on the island favors issues of continuity with the politically tumultuous 7th-10th century on the island and the formation of a distinct political identity for Orthodox Christian Greek Cypriots in the Ottoman and modern eras. The political implications of religious component of Greek Cypriot identity has taken on a political cast since political independence and the 1974 Turkish invasion and occupation of the northern part of the island. This has led to the suspension of work at important Christian centers like Soloi and Salamis-Constantia and a focus on the urban sites along the southern coast of the island. The Christian communities in these urban centers produced monumental Christian architecture by the start of the 6th century. In the last few decades, intensive pedestrian survey and the expanding development on the island has shed light on Christian communities in rural, ex-urban, and sub-urban sites which also saw monumental Christian architecture during this period. As a result, it is possible to discuss the emergence of a distinctly Cypriot Christian culture on a regional scale.

According to Acts of the Apostles, Barnabas was a Cypriot Jew who became one of the Apostles. He accompanied Paul in his travels to various meetings of Christians in Antioch and Jerusalem and to newly founded Christian communities in Asia Minor. Sergius Paulus, the proconsul of the Cyprus, invited Paul and Barnabas to the island to challenge the teachings of the “magician and false prophet” Bar-Jesus. Later Acts tell of Barnabas and Paul having a falling out and Barnabas and John Mark traveling to Cyprus where according to the apocryphal Acts of Barnabas, he was martyred in Salamis. The travels of Paul and Barnabas to and from the island underscored the close connections between Cyprus and the Aegean Sea, Anatolia, and the Levant.

The 6th-century Laudatio Barnabas may well mark the earliest instance of Christian archaeology on Cyprus. Anthemios, the late-5th-century bishop of Salamis on the west coast of Cyprus, has a series of dreams which led him to grave of St. Barnabas. When he excavated the body, he discovered it clutching the Gospel of St. Matthew.  The discovery of St. Barnabas’s body on the island wth the authoritative (and liturgically significant) Gospel book in his hands reinforced the autocephalous character of the Cyprus church which the Council of Ephesus (431) established. The Apostolic origins of the Cypriot church set it apart from the acquisitive and heretical position of the church in Antioch especially, and, if we are to trust the late 5th-century setting of the Laudatio Barnabas, it may well point to the tumultuous reign of Peter the Fuller as a suitable occasion to excavate additional evidence for the autocephaly of the Cypriot church.

The excavation of holy personages, real or imagined, has continued to play a role in grounding communities in their Christian past across the island. The church of St. Lazarus in Larnaka, for example, marks the place where Lazarus, friend of Jesus’s body was discovered in the 9th century. The association of Lazarus with the See of Kition established a kind of Apostolic authority for the city even after the body was translated to Constantinople by the Emperor Leo VI. Later travelers observed that Cypriots sometimes prayed at caves containing the bones of pygmy hippopotami thinking them to be saints. In the 20th century Peter Megaw, the first director of the island’s Department of Antiquities, tells of villagers excavating around the floors and foundations of the church of the Panayia Skyra to appease the Panayia during a period of draught. A later director of the department of antiquities, Vassos Karageorghis told of the priest from the village of Astromeritis on Morphou Bay who visited him asking that he help the community find the bones of the 1st-century St. Auxibios who he reckoned was buried nearby. St. Auxibius was the first bishop of Soloi and University of Montreal excavated a basilica-style church probably dedicated to this early, holy bishop.

While excavation of Christian sites on Cyprus has its roots in the Early Christian era, it has continued into the era of more scientific excavation by disciplinary archaeologists. A predictable interest in the Christian past of the island characterized Peter Megaw’s term as the island’s first director of the Department of Antiquities (1945-1960) which began with his study of barrel-vaulted basilicas on the island and continued into the 21st century with the posthumous publication of the great ecclesiastical complex at Kourion (Megaw 2007). Like so much of the subsequent architectural and archaeological work on the island, Megaw sought to locate Cyprus within larger Mediterranean patterns of building style, decoration, and influence. His important 1974 article “Byzantine Architecture and Decoration in Cyprus: Metropolitan or Provincial” remained a touchstone for a generation of scholars who looked toward architectural typology a evidence for chronological and interregional continuity. Andreas Papageorgiou work to excavate and catalogue the archaeology and, above all, the architecture of Cyprus during the 1960s provided the foundation for later works exploring the Constantinopolitan and “foreign” influence on Early Christian architecture on Cyprus (Papageorgiou 1986).The long-standing interest in the development of Cyprus architecture has persisted into more recent work by Charles Stewart and Richard Maguire’s substantial, synthetic 2012 dissertation on Late Antique church architecture on the island which emphasized Cyprus’s insularity.

The long-standing interest in the typology of church architecture has shaped the character of their excavation and publication. An emphasis on architecture phases in the careful publication of the basilica at Soloi (Tinh 1985), the episcopal complex at Kourion, or the Campanopetra basilica at Salamis (Roux 1998) has followed the interest in typology in architecture. A group of recent publications, however, has expanded the context of Christian basilica churches on the island. The excavations of Marcus Rautman at Kalavassos-Kopetra (Rautman 2003), of pre-historian at Maroni-Petrera (Manning 2002) and the Princeton Cyprus Expedition at Polis-Chrysochous, have published significant assemblages of pottery, small finds, and, at Kopetra and Polis, human burials. At Kopetra, Polis-Chrysochous, and sites like Pyla-Koutsopetria, there is a growing understanding of the structure, organization, and material culture of local settlement, particularly below the level major urban centers on the island. An expanding appreciation of imported ceramic fine wares, for example, has provided insight into the economic and social networks that both shaped the taste of Christian communities on Cyprus and also connected them regional and transregional networks. Scholars have looked to understand the role of the church in the trade of Cypriot agricultural produce and the transshipment of grain from Egypt and other Eastern Mediterranean commodities. Local artistic traditions, including several examples of pre-iconoclastic figural decoration in both mosaic decoration and fresco, as well as work in under appreciated media like molded gypsum reinforce the distinct status of Cyprus as crossroads of a wide range of economic, social, religious, and cultural currents. The Early Christian archaeology of Cyprus offers significant opportunities to consider how its insular character filtered external influences and provided access to regional communities in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Finally, the archaeology of Early Christian Cyprus is inseparable from the political history of the island. An Early Christian archaeology must recognize that Christianity remains an important element of Greek Cypriot political and cultural identity, and this identity, incubated during the centuries of Ottoman control over the island, has shaped the trajectory research for over a generation. While in some ways, this work has been a boon for scholars of the Early Christian period, it is nevertheless shaped by and infused with the political baggage of the 1974 invasion and the occupied state of the northern part of the island. There is no doubt that the Early Christian period represents the start of nearly two millennia of Christian influence on the island, but this should not overdetermine the historical trajectory of communities on the island. This brief survey of the archaeology of Early Christian Cyprus demonstrates how the material manifestations of Christianity reflected a diverse, fluid, and dynamic local identity that belied the insular geography of the island.

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