Writing a Site Guide for Polis (Part 2)

Yesterday, I started to put some words on the page for a guide book to the excavations at Polis on Cyprus that Joanna Smith is spearheading. I focused on the site EF1 on Tuesday and today, I thought I would take a swing at the somewhat more formidable task of describing the neighborhood of the South Basilica. This also dovetails with my July writing project which involves turning my “The Chrysochous Valley in the Long Late Antiquity” paper (here’s a PDF) into an article.

So here goes:

In the sixth century, the South Basilica come to dominate the district known as EF2 on the basis of the Princeton excavation grid and it continues to be the most prominent structure visible in this area today. Originally constructed as a three-aisled basilica with three eastern apses and a wood roof. Fragments of mosaics found during excavations suggest that the apses likely had light catching mosaic decorations. The walls of the central nave stood higher than those of the flanking aisles and almost certainly had windows that bathed the central nave with light and both decorative and figural wall painting. 

The church underwent a series of modifications over the course of its six hundred years of existence. The most significant adaptation occurred in the 7th or early 8th century when it received a narthex to the east and porch that ran along the entire south side of the building. Originally, a series of arched opening supported the south porch which joined the narthex in the square annex room visible today to the south of the narthex. At the same time, the wood roof was replaced by barrel vaults supported by series of buttresses that are visible along the walls of the center aisle. The area between the south porch and the road was an open courtyard that stood atop a two meter deep fill of rubble which served as a drain designed to prevent the flow of water down the hill from undermining the church’s walls. It may be that the downslope flow of waters against the south wall of the church caused damage to the first phase of the church and led to the construction of the barrel vaulted second phase. Whatever the cause, it is notable that barrel vaults, narthexes, and south porches remain common features in the churches on Cyprus. 

At some point in the building’s history, the church itself and the surrounding area becomes a burial ground. The three well preserved burials stand in the south aisle of the church. These burials likely represented individuals with either a close connection to this particular church or status in the community or the ecclesiastical hierarchy. One of these individuals was buried with a decorated bronze cross suspended from a bronze chain. These burials may be the earliest around the church. The next few centuries saw over 150 interments to the south, east, and west of the church and these individuals represented a cross-section of Late Roman and Medieval Arsinoe. The burials are notable for the presence of personal effects especially stone pectoral crosses that marked out the piety and faith of the deceased.

The Medieval history of the building remains less clear. It appears that at least part of the western side of the church collapsed by the 11th century. It may be, however, that the central nave continued to stand and function as a truncated cemetery church for another century or so.  

The church building was not the only Late Roman and Medieval buildings in the area of EF2. To the south of the church stand the so-called “Southeast Rooms.” The earliest phase of these rooms appears to predate the basilica and might date to the 3rd or 4th century. They were modified in the 5th or 6th centuries and the large room was divided into two smaller rooms that appear to open onto the east-west road to the south of the basilica. These rooms were destroyed and covered with the cobble fill as part of the second phase of the South Basilica.

To the west of basilica on the west side of the north south room stood a small well house. This building appear to be contemporary with the basilica and is part of a larger transformation of this area in Late Antiquity. Fragments of mosaic found in the well itself indicates that the apsidal shaped well-house was probably covered by a half-doom decorated with mosaic. That and its elegant shape suggests that this building was an attractive contribution to the neighborhood of the church. The water from the well and the arched south porch of the church offered a welcome site to travelers entering the city from the coastal road.

The well-house and basilica marks the transformation of this area from being an industrial suburb of the city to a more monumental space. This transformation likely began with the construction of the quadrafrons arch at some point after the second century. The construction of the church marked would have marked Polis out as a Christian city and advertised the power of its bishop, the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and the Christian community. The subsequent growth of the cemetery demonstrated that the practice of burying the dead outside of the town’s center continued from antiquity and the significance of this Early Christian monument persisted for nearly a half-millennium. 

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