Texts and the Archaeology of Early Christian Cyprus

For those of you who suspect that I do nothing but watch cricket, write about the Bakken, and promote my digital press (CLICK HERE), I present below a little evidence for my continued interest in the history and archaeology of Early Christian Cyprus.

This is part of a chapter that I’m co-writing with Jody Gordon for the Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology. This section looks at some of the key textual sources for the history of Early Christian (and Late Antique) Cyprus. It’s not meant to be exhaustive or even comprehensive, but to give a quick (<1000 words) overview key texts for the consideration of material culture during the Early Christian era on the island. Here’s an early draft of our outline and here’s an early draft of the introduction

The Christian history of Cyprus begins with Acts of the Apostles where the close ties between the island and the Northern Levant are made clear by the ease with which Paul and Barnabas transit to the island. Barnabas was a member of the Jewish community on the island, which was quite substantial. Various sources preserve accounts of the Jewish insurrection of 115/116 which engulfed Cyprus as well as Egypt and North Africa, although the figure of 240,000 dead from Salamis alone seems exaggerated. Hagiographic sources of dubious historicity link Barnabas and his later companion John Mark to early bishops on the island including St. Auxibios at Soloi and St. Heracleides at Tamasos. Both sites appear to have become pilgrimage centers by the end of antiquity.

By the 4th century, it would appear that the island had acquired the institutional apparatus for Christianity with several prominent bishops making their mark on an empire-wide scale. According to Socrates, St. Spiridon represented Tremithos attended the council of Nicaea in 325 and Sardica a decade later. At Nicaea, Spiridon was joined by two other Cypriots: Cyrillius of Paphos and Gelasios of Salamis; eleven additional bishops paper to have attended the Council at Sardica with Spiridon indicating that the island enjoyed a robust ecclesiastical community my the mid-4th century. In many ways, St. Spiridon is more famous for his holy relics which traveled first to Constantinople in the 7th century and then to Korphou in the 15th. The Acta of the Council of Constantinople in 381 recorded representatives of the sees of Paphos, Tremithos, Tamasos, and Kition. St. Epiphanios is perhaps best known 4th-century Cypriot bishop. As Bishop of Salamis from 368 until his death in 403, he wrote extensively on heresy and participated in the various Christological controversies of that century. He died aboard ship returning from his infamous persecution of St. John Chrysostom at the Synod of the Oak in 403. His body came to rest at Salamis in a church dedicated to his honor and attracted pilgrims both during antiquity before being removed to Constantinople in the ninth century. A letter penned by Epiphanius’s ally Theophilus of Alexandria and preserved in St. Jerome’s letters (Ep. 96), records 15 bishops from the island by the end of the 4th century. Leontios of Neapolis composed a life of Tychonas who, according to the Vita served as bishop of Amathus in the late 4th century before being buried in the city. By the first half of the 5th century, Sozomen notes that both urban centers and villages have bishops on Cyprus (7.19). St. Jerome’s Life of St. Hilarion documents the end of the Palestinian hermit’s life on Cyprus suggesting that Palestinian monasticism was part of the religious landscape of the island as early as the 4th century. Like so many of his holy colleagues, his body was spirited from the island after his death.

During the 5th century, the Cypriot church managed to wrest autonomy from the See of Antioch at the Council of Ephesus in 431. While Christological debates formed a backdrop to the clash between the bishops of Cyprus and Antioch, the close relationship between the Northern Levant with its major city of Antioch and the island extended to Antioch exerting political and ecclesiastical over the island. The island stood by itself in the list of signatories to the Cannons of the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The victory for the church of Cyprus at Ephesus led to local efforts to reinforce the Apostolic origins of the church on Cyprus including such works as the Laudatio Barnabas that preserved the inventio of Barnabas. It is likely that the promotion of pilgrimage sites on the island reinforced the Apostolic succession of prominent, if ahistorical, early bishops in an effort to thwart later claims from Antioch. The proximity of Antioch and its political standing in the region required the autonomy of the Cypriot church to be restated as late as the Council in Trullo (Quinisext) of 692, albeit in a very different political circumstances.

Some sense of the political turmoil associated with the late 6th and early 7th century manifests itself in the Leontios’ Life of John the Almsgiver, the Bishop of Alexandria. John grew up in Amathus, before ascending to the episcopal throne in Alexandria. He fled Alexandria to Cyprus sometime after fall of the city to the Persians in 616 where he died and was buried at the church of St. Tychonas at Amathus. Leontios of Neapolis also wrote the Life of St. Symeon the Holy Fool which, while not set in Cyprus explicitly, presents a bustling picture of the Early Christian East at the end of antiquity. John Moschos’ who also composed a Life of John the Almsgiver, may have encountered the bishop in Alexandria. His Spiritual Meadow provides some insights into life in 7th century Cyprus including the presence of monasteries and the arrival of refugees fleeing the Persian invasion. The monophysite bishop John of Ephesus noted that monophysites refugees were granted land on Cyprus and undoubtedly complicated the ecclesiastical landscape of the island.

The mobile character of populations, saints, and relics in the history of Cyprus reinforces the deep engagement of the island with its region, political pressures, and religious conflicts. While the insularity of Cyprus did little to insulate the institutions and populations from larger trends, the ecclesiastical elite nevertheless adopted strategies designed to advance their political and ecclesiastical interests. The prominence of hagiography that celebrates bishops who represented Apostolic succession, for example, almost certainly served to reinforce local claims to ecclesiastical autonomy. These historical circumstance and hagiographic claims intersect with the archaeology of the island with emergence of pilgrimage sites at Soloi, Salamis-Constantia, Tamasos, Amathus, and other churches associated with ecclesiastical history of the island. While it would be naive to simply interpret all Early Christian archaeological finds according to the authority of texts, it is nevertheless useful to recognize that texts and archaeological objects, buildings, and landscapes work together to produce meaning.

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