Communities of Practice around the South Basilica at Polis

In the spirit of my “Sumertime Fragments,” I’ve been working on a little piece on the relationship between the church at E.F2 at Polis, which we call the South Basilica, and various communities. Unlike most of my sober and frankly archaeological (and architectural) approaches to this building and space, I tried to offer something that’s a bit more interpretative and free wheeling (if not straying necessarily too far from the basic evidence).

This is a fragment, though, with incomplete citations, half-baked ideas, and a more playful tone than usual, but maybe it’s of interest to some folks. If nothing else it represents what I was thinking about on my walks and jogs around the village of Polis over the past few weeks:

The district surrounding the South Basilica represents the adaptability of the local community over time.

The basilica’s distinctive location along the northern edge of the city of Arsinoe positioned the church along a major route from the coast to the city itself. During the Roman period, the district featured a paved, north-south and east-west road which intersected at a quadrafrons arch. This demonstrated that this route from the coast to the city was likely a major intersection where a road running through the northern part of the city joined a road that connected the city to its ancient port either along the coast immediately north of the city or at the site of the modern village of Latchi (Nicolaou 1966; Leonard 2005). The South Basilica stood near this intersection and its western entrance opened onto the north-south road. Later additions to the South Basilica further emphasized its relationship with the roads in this district. The construction of a narthex monumentalized the western entrance to the church. A porch running along the south side of the church presented a series of arches to anyone traveling along the east-west road to the south of the building. The Christian identity of the community greeted anyone entering the city from the coast. Moreover, the narthex and the porch provide shade for the traveler, and a contemporary apsidal wellhouse immediately across the road from the basilica entrance offered water.

The parallels between the architecture of the church at Polis with its southern porch and the acropolis church at Amathous hints that the church may have also stood as a monument on the westward progress of pilgrims across the island. In this way, the South Basilica represented the intersection between the larger Christian community in the Mediterranean and the church at Arsinoe. Victor Turner famously argued that pilgrimage was a liminal phenomenon for participants en route to holy sites (Turner 1966). The liminality of the pilgrimage experience produced the temporary suspension of social differences and created a space of communitas where new and more egalitarian social relationships emerged. The liminal location of the South Basilica at the north side of the city, its possible association with pilgrimage, and its offer of shade and water allowed the architectural, ritual, and social space of the church to merge. The result is a shared space between the community at Polis and the weary Christian pilgrim. The modifications to the church also included the transformation of the building from a wood-roofed to a barrel vaulted church. The techniques needed to install buttresses to help the thin basilica walls could support barrel vaulting, for example, likely required specialized knowledge. On the island, this practice was most common among churches on the Karpas peninsula and relatively rare in the western part of island (Stewart 2010; Megaw 1946). If we assume that the South Basilica contributed to pilgrims routes across the island which culminated at the eastern port of Salamis-Constantia, then the connection between builders in the neighborhood of Salamis and the church at Polis hints at a relationship between the two communities beyond just the pilgrims’ travels.

The rebuilding of the South Basilica was more than simply a redesign of the church, but a construction project that involved the construction of a massive rubble fill layer. This level of large cobble, building debris, and broken ceramics was over a meter deep and functioned as a French drain which a large reservoir for water flowing down the north slope of the city toward the vulnerable south wall of the church building. This adaptation appears to have been a local solution to the particularly local problem of the church’s situation across the route of a drainage. Roman and Hellenistic construction in the area featured a number of deep drains and various pipes designed, it would appear, to control the downslope flow of water in the area. The deep drains may have no longer functioned by the Late Roman period and the French drain constructed to the south of the basilica offered a unique solution to the longstanding problems of water at this site. Moreover, the construction of this feature involved a significant investment in human energy and commitment to rebuild and modifying the damaged church. In other words, the construction of the French drain, the south portico and narthex as well as the conversion of the church to barrel vaulting represented the intersection of local labor and regional practices and like the situation of the church on the main route to the coast, provided a meeting point for local and regional communities.

It is worth noting, briefly, that the analysis of the ceramic material in the rubble level produced an assemblage that similarly reflected the intersection of regional and local preferences. The fine table wares at the site primarily derived from Rough Cilicia with small quantities of imports from North Africa and the Aegean. Some cooking pots originated in western Cyprus with the site of Dhiorios in approximately 100 km to the northeast (Catling 1972). Likewise certain forms of the ubiquitous Late Roman 1 amphora originated on the island while other utility wares manifest Aegean and Levantine origins. Comparing the assemblage from Polis to those elsewhere on the island suggests that access to particular types of pottery or the chronological ebb and flow of production do not alone explain the variation in types of pottery present in Cypriot assemblages (Caraher et al. 2019). For example, the assemblage of Late Roman fine ware associated with the smaller coastal site of Maroni-Petrera and the large urban site of Kourion produced a smaller percentage of African and Aegean imports than the inland village site of Kalavasos-Kopetra. The distinct character of the late-7th century assemblages at Polis as well as others from this period from across the island reflects certain traditions and practices in these communities that shaped their choice of table wares. The role of fine ware both in the performative aspects of domestic display and the practical aspects of food presentation and consumption means that the character and shape of these vessels speaks to personal and community identity (Vroom ????).

Over the last 20 years, the concept of communities of practice has emerged as a useful concept for understanding the emergence and structuring of educational and occupational communities (Wenger 1998). The term offers a useful way to articulate the how practice produces community, identity, and knowledge (Orr 1996). For the district around the South Basilica, evidence for practice in the Late Roman period range from habits of consumption, such as the preference for Cypriot Red Slip wares over other imported table wares, to those associated with the architectural modification of the church itself. In fact, the informal transmission of building knowledge that likely produced the buttressed walls of South Basilica reflected the existence of communities of knowledge in Late Roman Cyprus. In this context, then, the physical at the edge of the Late Roman city and its role in contact between the Christian community of Arsinoe and pilgrims paralleled the relationship between the adaptation of the church to meet the distinctive needs of the site through local bodies and itinerate builders.

The intersection of various communities at the South Basilica also extended from the living to the dead. At some point soon after the addition of the south portico, narthex, drain, and barrel vaults, the southern and eastern end of the church became an important cemetery for the Christian community at Arsinoe. A series of three well-appointed, built burials in the floor of the south aisle may have served as an initial impetus for the later graves in the area. Interestingly, the burial of a 17-25 year old male included a bronze cross which was likely reused from an earlier context. While the exact date of this burial remains unclear, it probably dated to the seventh or early eighth century and may have been associated with the addition of the south porch and narthex to the church. Moreover, the appearance of a cross in this burial appears to have anticipated the appearance of small pectoral crosses, often in picrolite, throughout the cemetery associated with the South Basilica. The growth of this cemetery and the use of pectoral crosses by the individuals buried around the South Basilica traces the reciprocal practices that defined the relationship between the church and the community. The formal burials in the south aisle of the church appear to have stimulated a wave of Christian burials around the church and expanded its function.

The changing character of the building may reflect the changing relationship of the church to the community at Polis.

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