Mosaics and sheep – Paphos, Cyprus

Property 79 – Paphos (Cyprus)

I spent the dying days of last millennium in Cyprus, working on an archaeological dig. Real, professional archaeology bears little resemblance to Indiana Jones, much as I wish it were different. It’s a lot of digging holes, followed by months of work collating and running statistical analysis on the findings. It’s not glamourous, but shared hardship builds bonds, and my team of colleagues and I became quite close over the eight weeks of the dig. On our one day off per week, we usually made plans to travel elsewhere on the island and be tourists for the day. Very dirty tourists.

On one particular Sunday, my colleagues Pete, Miriam, Michael and I packed ourselves up in a little rented car and tootled off to Paphos, on the western edge of Cyprus. Pete, being the only one with an international drivers’ permit, nobly volunteered to do all the driving. We had an unorthodox plan – as we were all notionally students of archaeology we hoped to visit the famous mosaics at Paphos, largely so that we could feel like we had done our duty. However in our time in Cyprus we had developed a fascination with the local animals, and had been seeking them out whenever we could. A refuge for maltreated agricultural donkeys was a particular highlight, but we had heard that near Paphos there was a bit of protected forest containing mouflon, the semi-native wild sheep of Cyprus.

Scan 8
The Byzantine-Era Paphos Castle

Paphos is an ancient site, inhabited since neolithic times and built on an easily-fortified hill. It seems that quite early on the site became a centre of worship for the goddess Aphrodite, competing for primacy with the island of Kythera near the Peloponnese. Both claimed to be where she first came ashore after being born, but disagree about the nature of her origin. The Kytheran camp attest that she was germinated in the sea from the castrated genitals of the primeval sky god Ouranos. The rather less gruesome version, adopted by the Paphians, presented her as conventionally born from a union of Zeus and a minor goddess called Dione. Interestingly, the identity of Aphrodite seems to have been imported from as far east as Sumeria (in the form of Inanna/Ishtar), and propagated West by the Phoenicians. Both Kythera and Cyprus were likely to have been stopping points along the way, resulting in the differing origin stories.

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Paphian ruins of the cult centre of Aphrodite

Unfortunately most of the ancient cult centre of Paphos has been significantly ruined, as worship at the site stopped in the fourth century CE under the newly Christian Roman Emperors. No doubt much of the stone was reused for other constructions in the vicinity, a practice from which even the Pyramids aren’t exempt. The place presents as a bit of a wasteland of sandstone lumps and semi-reconstructed bits of temple. Even in the middle of winter it was blazingly hot and uncomfortable.

By far the most impressive remains of the site are the Roman-era mosaics which were laid on the floors of several grand houses. The houses seem to have been used until somewhat after the cult of Aphrodite was abandoned, which explains their better standard of preservation. The mosaics show a variety of scenes from classical mythology in great and impressive detail, but they are surprisingly hard to take decent photographs of. Given that they’re made with small stones laid out with a careful hand, the images are  much more expressive than you’d expect.

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Detail of the Paphos mosaics

But after a certain point, mosaics all start to look the same to me. I found myself slightly distracted and wandered off to take some photos of the ruins instead.

We lunched on octopus and then set out in our little car in search of the mouflon. According to genetic research this animal isn’t exactly a variety of wild sheep, but is actually an escapee from the domestication process. They bear some of the genetic hallmarks of human influence, but have not undergone as much taming as the sheep that we’re familiar with, hence retaining a pair of impressive horns. Given the Cypriot people’s delight in shooting their wildlife whenever possible, it’s remarkable that any of the mouflon survived, but a few refugees have been rounded up and are stored in a kind of zoo near Paphos. We managed to glimpse a few from a walking path, but the poor light and spooky reflective goat-devil eyes meant that none of the photos came out.

To be perfectly honest, the best part about visiting Paphos was the fun of the road trip. Unless you are a particular aficionado of mosaics or have never seen a ruined Mediterranean city before, I can’t commend it too emphatically. But it got me out of the dirt for a day and I was able to see another part of this small, strange country, so I shouldn’t complain too much.

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