Picture Cyprus in 1973, the year before division, when the island was still whole. Salamis, the vast ruin on the northeastern coast, was just beginning to be mapped out and dug up. Kourion – or Courium, as it’s sometimes called – was a spare, scattered collection of rocks and pillars. Much smaller than Salamis, it had always been considered something of a secondary site. Not much had been unearthed, Limassol hadn’t become a tourism destination yet.
Thirty-nine years later, Salamis is much the same. Kourion, on the other hand, is spick and span, with a plush visitors center, immaculately kept mosaics and a reputation for tour-group crowds. When we visited, there weren’t too many people, but it was all so clean - was this a ruin or a museum?Set in hardpacked, much brushed dirt, some of the finest old mosaics on Cyprus lie. The red soil (as fine as velvet) holds gleaming bits of stone and tile - perfectly clean. The best of them are protected from rain and sun by arched, wood-beamed canopies. Walkways have been installed so that visitors can pass over them without damaging the tiles, information plaques give details about each scene. It’s all in strange contrast with unprotected, unadorned Salamis, where it took us almost forty-five minutes just to find two small scraps of mosaic.
Kourion was built along a ridge above these lime cliffs, just in off a stony beach. The position is one of the more easily defended spots along the southern coast, and there’s evidence of Neolithic man inhabiting the same place, and a formative city being built as early as 1300 BC. High up, with spectacular views, the complex eventually became a Byzantine religious site, which is when it was likely at its peak. A grand basilica was built in the fifth century, but there are surprising suggestions – found in jewelry, most importantly – that Kourion was predominantly Christian as early as the third century.
The spot gained notoriety in the 1860’s, when an American man supposedly dug up a trove of gold, silver and jeweled objects – which he then sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Many people, even at the time, are skeptical that the objects were actually found at Kourion, but the intrigue was such that other archaeologists were drawn down to the southern coast. Much of the excavation work was done shoddily, and not a whole lot was really discovered at first. The focus for a long time was on finding artifacts – there are so many ancient ruins in this part of the world that Kourion’s buildings themselves didn’t espouse much enthusiasm. By the 1950’s and 60’s, the focus had shifted to the much larger and more important ruin at Salamis.
Then, in 1974, Cyprus was divided. Salamis fell on the northern side, Limassol grew from a town into a city. Tourism boomed in the south, and the Cypriot government started looking for new attractions.
In these warm, sunny March days, we bleached-skin visitors from the cold aren’t an overwhelming presence on Cyprus. Life is still fairly local, the high season is another month away. But the mark of tourism is on everything – from the “luxury apartment” for-sale signs, aimed at Brits, to the cruise ships lurking offshore. Kourion is no exception. It’s been spruced up and beautified, with elegant walkways and benches looking out over the sea.
And every square inch of interesting tile has been brushed and restored and preserved. Cyprus climbed its way out of destitution on the backs of foreign guests. The country is well aware that attractions like this need to be invested in.The frustrating thing for us – and for many archaeologists – is that Salamis possesses a trove many times the size of Kourion’s. After the Turkish invasion, though, virtually all excavation and study was halted at the northern site, and almost no researchers have been given access since. It’s almost a given that further exploration would uncover works just as important as the ones at Kourion – the two sites are just so unequal in terms of size and importance. When this little rocky hilltop was at its peak, Salamis was one of the principal capitals of the eastern Mediterranean. One look at the Salamis bath ruins will tell you how much there is still uncovered – they alone feel almost as large as the entirety of Kourion.
We walked in the sun for a while, looking at broken pillars and bath house floors. Down along the beach, kiteboarders had unfurled colorful sails. In the meadows below, a few horses grazed on the spring-green grass. We looked at the much-touted basilica, which was ruined by an earthquake not long after being built. Kourion was largely abandoned in the sixth and seventh centuries – drinking water was scarce, the threat from pirates had increased, life was easier further inland.
After hearing and reading so much about the place, Kourion felt a little disappointing. If it wasn’t so close to Limassol, if it wasn’t in the tourist-clogged south, it wouldn’t be what it is today. Local children would probably be climbing on the rock, mushroom pickers would be walking through the uncut grass, the whole thing would lie exposed to the elements. That’s what Salamis is like – as though no-one really cares about the treasure they have. Though it’s impossible to blame them, people care about Kourion a little too much. It’s what they have, after all.
It’s funny how several millennia can be clouded by the current politics of place. As we drove back to Limassol, we talked about the difference between the two places, and realized that we were talking less about the ancients and more about the present.