The Beauty and History of Ancient Nea Paphos on Cyprus


View of Nea Paphos. Although much of the Hellenistic city was destroyed by earthquakes and extensive Roman rebuilding, the impressive rock-cut foundations of the city wall, gates, towers, and ramps survive from this period. Photo: Silvio Rusmigo

A little critter takes a big journey through one of the Mediterranean’s most important historical sites.


By Alexandria Sivak
Senior Communications Specialist
J. Paul Getty Trust

By Anna Zagorski
Research Specialist
Getty Conservation Institute


Introduction

On a vast and rocky coastline in the eastern Mediterranean, you might just see a hedgehog skittering along, picking its way among the rocks and shrubs. Its territory is small but full of history—if it is not too careful, it just might wobble past an ancient mosaic. The Cyprus hedgehog is one of the many rare treasures, living and non-living, that make their home at Nea Paphos, a UNESCO World Heritage site on the island of Cyprus.

Cyprus Hedgehog. Hannes Grobe/AWI. Image licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license (CC BY 3.0)

Located just south of Turkey and west of Syria, Cyprus has been a historic and cultural crossroads for over two millennia. Nea Paphos is at the southwest part of the island and played a role in the ancient history of Persia, Greece, the Roman Empire, early Christianity, and much more. Its most well-known features are the rare and dazzling mosaic pavements that decorate many of the buildings at the site.

Nea Paphos is also the focus of one of the Getty Conservation Institute’s latest international projects, a partnership with the Department of Antiquities of Cyprus that will provide more protection and conservation for the site. It is also the continuation of a long-running partnership—one of the first field projects the Conservation Institute pursued was at Nea Paphos nearly 30 years ago. This joint project will conserve the site’s mosaics and architectural remains, manage and inform visitors about the site’s importance, protect its environmental features, and much more.

The History and Importance of Nea Paphos

Ancient coastal cities like Nea Paphos held major historical importance: they were the places where ships moved in and out of busy ports, people from different regions and cultures met, goods were traded, and major conflicts were often waged at sea. Nea Paphos’ large harbor and its timber in the surrounding hills for shipbuilding made it an important naval base. The site has three parts: the main Archaeological Site (where most of the Conservation Institute’s work will take place), the so-called Tombs of the Kings, and the Fabrika Hill area, which is separated from the archaeological site by a modern commercial street.

The Getty Conservation Institute and Department of Antiquities of Cyprus are undertaking comprehensive mapping and inventorying of Nea Paphos, which includes the three areas indicated in orange: The Archaeological Site, the Necropolis (Tombs of the Kings), and Fabrika Hill, all surrounded by the modern city. Image: Carleton Immersive Media Studio

Due to its powerful location in the Eastern Mediterranean, many kingdoms and empires sought to control Cyprus over the centuries, starting with Persia, then Alexander the Great’s Macedonian kingdom, then the Roman Empire. Early Christianity took root in Cyprus beginning in the 1st century AD when the Roman governor of the island, Sergius Paulus, was converted to Christianity in Nea Paphos. This confluence of cultures has left an artistically rich legacy of archaeological remains at Nea Paphos from the Hellenistic, Roman, early Christian, Byzantine, and Medieval periods.

Exploring the Art of Nea Paphos

Diverse and beautiful mosaics decorate the floors of the island’s ancient Roman residences and early Christian and Byzantine churches and shrines. While delicate and made of thousands of tiny pieces of stone and glass, some of these mosaics have survived for nearly 2,000 years.

Among Nea Paphos’ most important Roman residences and a focus of Getty’s work are the Villa of Theseus and the House of Orpheus. The Villa of Theseus is by far the largest and most fully intact of all the excavated houses in the residential quarter of the ancient city. With evidence of many rooms, fine artwork, and water features, it is presumed that someone very wealthy once lived there, perhaps the Roman governor of Cyprus. Among the surviving mosaics are a panel from the life of Achilles, a depiction of Theseus and the Minotaur in the Labyrinth, and a bath complex with several beautiful geometric designs.

The Theseus mosaic. Photo: Scott Warren

The House of Orpheus is the closest of the excavated houses to the sea and is the much smaller neighbor to the Villa of Theseus. The Amazon and Heracles mosaic, part of which depicts the moment before the battle between Heracles and the Lion of Nemea, and the Orpheus and the Beasts mosaic, in which every living animal is gathered to listen to Orpheus’ divine music, are located here.

The Orpheus and the Beasts mosaic. Photo: Vassos Stylianou

Nea Paphos’ mosaics were created to be interior floor coverings, and are vulnerable to the outside environment. This means that they need to be protected from the weather and from the feet of visitors (hedgehog feet included). The Conservation Institute is working with the Department of Antiquities of Cyprus to develop ways to protect some of these mosaics, including an ambitious project to shelter them.

Protecting Pieces of History

Currently, some of Nea Paphos’ mosaics are protected by shelters—buildings created specifically for safe and non-invasive viewing of these fragile artworks. Over time, some of these structures became insufficient and were removed, leaving many mosaics without shelter protection.

The numerous figural and geometric mosaics throughout the sheltered House of Dionysus are the biggest draw for visitors to the site. Photo: Scott Warren

In 2019, the Conservation Institute put out a call to architecture firms all over the world, asking them how they would approach the design of a new protective shelter. Six firms were recently shortlisted to participate in the next phase of the competition and will now create their concept designs. Requirements for the design include mitigation of human and environmental threats, connecting the design to the site and setting (making sure the shelter isn’t an eyesore), using materials and labor that are locally available, and making it easy for visitors to view the mosaics without the space becoming too congested.

A single firm will be selected to build two prototype shelters that will protect the mosaics and other fragile remains at the Villa of Theseus and the House of Orpheus. Their performance will be monitored and the prototypes will be revised as needed.

Two protective shelters now on the site — one over mosaics in the House of Aion, seen on the right, and a second much larger shelter over the House of Dionysus with its red roof visible to the right of the lighthouse. Photo by Silvio Rusmigo

Mapping of the site is also in process using drone imaging, laser scanning, and photogrammetry to capture all its buildings and features. The Conservation Institute is also assessing the condition of the mosaics and structures at the site so that conservators will know where to start and focus their efforts.

The result of this collaboration will be a comprehensive document called a Conservation Management Plan, which provides a blueprint for the Getty-Department of Antiquities team to tackle present and future conservation challenges. The goal is to give the managers of the site the tools they need to move forward, long after the project’s work is completed.

The People, Plants, and Animals of Nea Paphos

Nea Paphos is a place to learn about the history and culture of the region, enjoy natural beauty, and to find refuge from the bustling, crowded modern city. It is also a place of religious and spiritual significance, from the grand ruins of the basilica of Chrysopolitissa to rock-cut chapels like Agia Solomini, where locals and tourists leave pieces of fabric or clothing tied to the doors or a tree as votive offerings to the saint. One of the goals of the project is to deepen the relationship between Nea Paphos and the community through greater accessibility to the site and education about its history.

The Christian shrine complex of Agia (Saint) Solomoni. Locals and tourists still use the shrine, leaving rags or pieces of clothing tied to the doors or a tree as votive offerings to Agia Solomani. Photo: Silvio Rusmigo

Cyprus is on one of the major bird migration routes between Africa, Europe, and Eurasia, and more than 200 species of birds regularly pass through Nea Paphos. It also contains several wild plants that have disappeared elsewhere. In the spring, fields of red poppies and yellow crown daisies put on a dazzling show, as well as cyclamen cyprium, the national flower of Cyprus. Many animal species also use the area for cover, breeding and/or feeding, including the European hare, three bat species, several species of reptile, and yes, the Cyprus Hedgehog. The continued protection of the site is necessary for these species to thrive.

The crested lark (galerida cristata), one of many birds of Nea Paphos. Photo: Silvio Rusmigo

Getty and the Department of Antiquities’ work at Nea Paphos will provide the guidance and tools needed to maintain this site for generations to come. In the coming months, Getty will dive deeper into the Nea Paphos project and provide an update on its progress. Hedgehogs and humans alike would approve.


Originally published by The Iris, 09.03.2020, under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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