The Archaeology of Early Christian Churches on Cyprus

As the western churches start Holy Week, it seems appropriate to post something Christian and liturgical. So here’s a rough drafty-draft of a section on churches that I wrote for a contribution to the Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology. For more on that project, go here.

Monumental architecture, and basilica-style churches in particular, remain the most visible form of Early Christian material culture. Richard Maguire’s recent dissertation on the Early Christian churches of Cyprus counts over 70 buildings dating to this period. His 2012 work stands as the best, recent synthesis and catalogue of these monuments, and expands substantially on the work of Peter Megaw and Andreas Papageorghiou who published a series of synthetic articles in Greece during the 1960s. Papageorghiou sought to prove that Early Christian archaeology on Cyprus derived from Constantinopolitan precedents and tied the island closely to the culture of the imperial capital. Megaw’s important 1974 article which addressed the question “Metropolitan or Provincial?” for Cypriot architecture comes down largely in the latter camp for most Early Christian monuments on the island assigning many characteristic features of basilica-style churches to Levantine or Palestinian influences. Maguire’s dissertation is less committed to tracing lines of influence, and instead recognized the polyvalence of influences on ecclesiastical architecture on the island. The position of Cyprus astride a wide range of Eastern Mediterranean networks makes Maguire’s conclusions not only the most plausible but also consistent with what we read in textual sources for the island.

Like most of the eastern Mediterranean, the earliest confirmed Christian buildings date to the end of the 4th century AD. The archaeological evidence for these churches remains unsatisfactory, but perhaps not entirely unconvincing. The earliest phase of the basilica associated with St. Spyridon at Tremetousia in Larnaka District has a mosaic that the excavator, A. Papageorghiou, dated stylistically to the 4th century. He combined that date with the reference to a pilgrimage church in the Vita of St. Spyridon and the bishop’s attendance at the Council of Nicaea in 325 to argue that the modest three-aisled basilica with stone columns. The 6th or 7th basilica of St. Auxibios at Soloi in Kyrenia Distract also has an early phase which various scholars have argued to be mid-4th century, again on the basis of mosaic style. An early, five-aisled basilica at the site, however, had several unusual features including a series of semicircular basins set into a flat eastern wall that caused Megaw to suggest that this building may be a nymphaeum rather than an early church, whereas Charles Stewart and the excavators have suggested that this early, hall-like structure should rank as the earliest Christian building on the island with the basins serving an unknown liturgical function. Several other buildings on the island have possible 4th century dates. Papageorghiou and Megaw have dated the massive, seven-aisled Chrysopolitissa basilica at Paphos to the 4th century based on mosaic styles, but the church remains unpublished. The basilica of St. Epiphanios at Salamis, where he was presumably buried after his death in 403. The account of the church’s construction in the Life of Epiphanios where the bishop commissioned the church before his death.

The reliance on stylistic dates for the earliest churches on Cyprus reflects a significant limits to our archaeological knowledge of the region. The great basilica of the Campanopetra at Salamis featured a colonnaded, double western atria and an atrium projecting to the east, a ambulatory surrounding a three-aisled nave, and numerous ancillary rooms. The church was almost certainly designed to accommodate pilgrims and, along with the fourth-century basilica of St. Epiphanios and the late-fifth century basilica dedicated to St. Barnabas, formed a pilgrimage center at Salamis for travelers on their way to the Holy Land. Unfortunately, we do not have published stratigraphy for any of these churches leaving Campanopetra to be dated on the basis of architectural sculpture and St. Barnabas dated on the basis of wall style. It seems likely that the churches at Salamis were built within a century of the impressive Episcopal compound at Kourion published in 2007 by Megaw. This church stood at the south end of the Roman agora on the site of fourth-century civic basilica. The earliest phase of the church dates to the 5th century but the building continued to enjoy expansion and elaboration into 6th century. Amathus, similarly featured at least two 5th-century basilicas – one, large 5-aisled church identified by the excavators as the seat of the bishop and the other, smaller 3-aisle basilica at the foot of the acropolis – although the rationale for these dates remain unclear. Despite the relative ambiguity in dating these buildings, it would appear that the 5th century saw the construction of monumental churches in urban centers of the island, and this was contemporary with the expanding resources of the ecclesiastical hierarchy across the Mediterranean and the autonomy of the Cypriot church.

The 6th century saw an expansion of monumental Christian architecture into the countryside. Marcus Rautman’s excavations at the village site of Kopetra are among the most significant in the Early Christian archaeology of the island. He revealed three basilica style churches at a village site in the Kalavassos Valley. Two date to the 6th century on the basis of rigorous stratigraphic excavation. A three-aisled church at the site of Sirmata may be associated with a monastery. Another three-aisled church is likely the main church in the village. The well-known church of the Panayia Karnakaria at the ex-urban site of Lythrankomi on the Karpas Peninsula preserved a significant, if highly fragmentary apse mosaic decorations dated by Megaw and Haskins to the end of the first third of the 6th century. The site of St. George-Peyia, an ex-urban, coastal settlement northwest of Paphos has produced three, unpublished basilicas which may all have 6th-century dates. The church at the small, rural settlement of St. Kononas on the Akamas peninsula is likely contemporary. The acropolis of Amathus saw an elaborate three-aisled basilica with numerous annexes in the 6th century, which remains largely unpublished and Paphos In an urban neighborhood of ancient Arsinoe (Polis-Chrysochous), the three-aisled south basilica dates to 6th-century on the basis of controlled excavation. The continued expansion of monumental architecture in both urban centers and ex-urban areas in the 6th century reveals the creation of a Christian landscape on the island.

Recent works has shown that the Early Christian architectural traditions did not end with the political, military, and economic turmoil of the 7th century. While the absence of rigorously archaeological dating it remains difficult to determine when the churches built in the 5th and 6th century went out of use, it is evident that the persistence of basilica-style church architecture depended upon the structure and demography of settlement on the island, the role of seismic events in compromising the fragile fabric of these buildings, and the impact of military incursions. Amidst these challenges, communities continued to build new churches as carefully excavated examples from the rural coastal site of Maroni-Petrera and the inland village site of Kalavasos-Kopetra show. At the same time, an inscription commemorates the renovation of the large basilica at Soloi, perhaps in the aftermath of Arab raids. The south basilica at Arsinoe appears to have been converted from a wood-roofed building to a barrel vaulted structure. At the site of Kiti near Larnaka, the apse of an earlier basilica was incorporated in a new church in the early 7th century and decorated with a spectacular mosaic of the Panayia. In the mid-7th century, decorated apse of the church at Panayia Karnakaria at Lythrankomi saw a similar incorporation into a new building. Charles Stewart has recently argued that the small corpus of churches converted from wood-roofed to barrel-vaulted basilicas represents an 8th-century response to depredations of the 7th-century Arab raids. Recent study of the excavations at Polis-Chrysochous may suggest that this practice started a generation or two earlier. Whatever the cause and the specific date, Early Christian churches did not vanish from the island in the 7th century, and at least in some case continued to be the focus of investment for Christian communities into the Medieval period.

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