Cyprus — Ancient Island of Copper

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Cyprus copper oxide ingot with Cypro-Minoan sign

Covering 3,570 square miles, Cyprus is situated in the northeastern corner of the Mediterranean Sea, south of present-day Turkey and west of present-day Syria. It is the third largest island in the region after Sicily and Sardinia.

Colette and Seán Hemingway of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Cyprus was famous in antiquity for its copper resources. In fact the very word copper is derived from the Greek name for the island, Kupros. Cypriots first worked copper in the fourth millennium B.C., fashioning tools from native deposits of pure copper, which at that time could still be found in places on the surface of the earth. The discovery of rich copper-bearing ores on the north slope of the Troodos Mountains led to the mining of Cyprus' rich mineral resources in the Bronze Age at sites such as Ambelikou-Aletri. Tin, which is mixed together with copper to make bronze, typically at a ratio of 1:10, had to be imported. [Source: Colette Hemingway and Seán Hemingway, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004, \^/]

“True tin bronzes appear to have been made on Cyprus as early as the beginning of the second millennium B.C. In the nineteenth century B.C., the island is mentioned for the first time in Near Eastern records as a copper-producing country, under the name "Alasia," and it continued to be an important source of copper for the Near East and Egypt throughout most of the second millennium B.C. Scholars, however, are in disagreement as to the exact meaning of "Alasia": whether it refers to a specific site on Cyprus, such Enkomi or Alassa, or to the island itself, or, less probably, to another geographic location. \^/

“Cypriot copper and bronze working was relatively modest in the Early and Middle Bronze Ages, and metalsmiths manufactured a limited range of types, including tools, weapons, and personal objects such as pins and razors. Excavations have revealed increasing metallurgical activity at settlement sites in the Late Bronze Age. Nearly all of the major centers, including Enkomi, Kition, Hala Sultan Tekke, Palaeopaphos, and Maroni, provide evidence of copper smelting, as do smaller settlements, including Alassa and Kalavasos-Ayios Dhimitrios. \^/

“Metalwork of the first part of the Late Bronze Age continued to follow earlier conservative traditions. Despite the widespread evidence for metallurgical activity, there are few examples of actual bronzework from Cyprus between ca. 1450 B.C. until the late thirteenth century B.C., the Late Cypriot II period, because the metal was valuable and metal objects were melted down in subsequent periods for reuse. However, the recent discovery of the Ulu Burun shipwreck, which was carrying over ten tons of Cypriot copper ingots when it sank off the southwestern coast of Turkey in the late fourteenth century B.C., vividly demonstrates that Cyprus was a major producer of copper for international trade. Toward the end of the Late Bronze Age, the Cypriot metalworking industry was transformed under foreign influence. Cypriot smiths produced some of the finest bronzework in the eastern Mediterranean, most notably tripods and four-sided stands.” \^/

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Prehistoric Cyprus

ancient kingdoms of Cyprus

Colette and Seán Hemingway of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: Cyprus’s “unique culture dates from as early as the end of the ninth millennium B.C., when the first permanent settlers may have arrived from southern Anatolia or the Syro-Palestinian coast, bringing with them an already developed culture. However, there is evidence for the presence of seasonal hunters of pygmy elephants and pygmy hippopotami before then, ca. 10,000 B.C. The earliest Neolithic settlers had an organized society based on agriculture and animal husbandry. Several of their settlements have been excavated throughout the island, including Khirokitia and Kalavasos near the southern coast. During the latter part of the Neolithic period (ca. 8500 B.C.–ca. 3900 B.C.), islanders began to work clay, making vessels which they baked and often decorated with abstract patterns in red on a light slip. [Source: Collete Hemingway, Independent Scholar, Seán Hemingway, Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004, \^/]

“The culture of the succeeding Chalcolithic period (ca. 3900 B.C.–ca. 2500 B.C.) may have been introduced to the island by a new wave of settlers who came from the same regions as the Neolithic settlers. Their art and religious practices were sophisticated. Clay and stone female figures, often with accentuated genitals, predominate, symbolizing the fertility of humans, animals, and the soil—the essential needs of an agrarian community. In the latter part of the Chalcolithic period, people began making small tools and decorative ornaments from the native copper (chalkos); thus the phase is termed Chalcolithic, referring to the transition from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age. \^/

“Little is known about the political system on Cyprus during the Late Bronze Age, although the island clearly maintained strong ties with the Near East, especially Syria. Urban centers with palatial structures of the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries B.C., such as Enkomi and Kition, have been excavated extensively, and rich cemeteries of the same period have yielded luxury goods in a variety of materials. From the beginning of the fourteenth century B.C., there was a significant influx to Cyprus of fine quality Mycenaean vessels, which are found almost exclusively in the tombs of an aristocratic elite. With the destruction of the Mycenaean centers in Greece during the twelfth century B.C., political conditions in the Aegean became unstable and refugees left their homes for safer places, including Cyprus, beginning the Hellenization of the island that would take root over the next two centuries.” \^/

Trade in Prehistoric Cyprus

Colette and Seán Hemingway of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The unique geographic location of Cyprus at the crossroads of seafaring trade in the eastern Mediterranean made it an important center for trade and commerce in antiquity. Already in the Early Bronze Age (ca. 2500 B.C.–ca. 1900 B.C.) and Middle Bronze Age (ca. 1900 B.C.–ca. 1600 B.C.), Cyprus had established contacts with Minoan Crete and, subsequently, Mycenaean Greece, as well as with the ancient civilizations of the Near East (Syria and Palestine), Egypt, and southern Anatolia.[Source: Collete Hemingway, Independent Scholar, Seán Hemingway, Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004, \^/]

“From the first part of the second millennium B.C., Near Eastern texts referring to the kingdom of "Alasia," a name that is most likely synonymous with all or part of the island, attest to Cypriot connections with the Syro-Palestinian coast. Rich copper resources provided the Cypriots with a commodity that was highly valued and in great demand throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. Cypriots exported large quantities of this raw material and other goods, such as opium in Small Base Ring Ware jugs resembling the capsules of opium poppies in exchange for luxury goods such as silver, gold, ivory tusks, wool, perfumed oils, chariots, horses, precious furniture, and other finished objects. \^/

“During the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1600 B.C.–ca. 1050 B.C.), copper was being produced and exported on a massive scale, and Cypriot trade expanded to include Egypt, the Near East, and the Aegean region. Correspondence between the pharaoh of Egypt and the king of Alasia, dating from the first half of the fourteenth century B.C., provides valuable information about the trade relations between Cyprus and Egypt. The Cesnola Collection has a number of objects of faience and alabaster that were imported into Cyprus from Egypt during this period. The scope of Cypriot maritime trade at this time is best exemplified by the fourteenth-century B.C. shipwreck at Ulu Burun recently excavated off the southwestern coast of Anatolia. Archaeological remains indicate that the ship was sailing west, having perhaps called at other harbors in the Levant, and that it had loaded 355 copper ingots (ten tons of copper) in Cyprus, as well as large storage jars, some of them containing fine Cypriot pottery and agricultural goods, including coriander. \^/

Culture and Art in Prehistoric Cyprus

Cypriot statue

Colette and Seán Hemingway of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: ““The pottery of the prehistoric Cypriots, especially that produced in the Early and Middle Bronze Ages, is exuberant and imaginative in shape and decoration. Terracotta figurines were also produced in fairly large numbers and placed in tombs throughout the Bronze Age. As in the Chalcolithic period, they most commonly depict female figures that symbolize regeneration. Other funerary objects, especially those buried with men, include bronze tools and weapons. Gold and silver jewelry, and cylinder seals appear on Cyprus as early as 2500 B.C. The island had a highly developed glyptic art, which shows influences from both the Near East and the Aegean region. \^/[Source: Collete Hemingway, Independent Scholar, Seán Hemingway, Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004, \^/]

“Undeniable influence of the Aegean on Cypriot culture during the Late Bronze Age can be seen in the development of writing, bronzeworking, seal stone carving, jewelry production, and some ceramic styles, especially in the twelfth century B.C., when intermittent Mycenaean settlers were arriving on the island. From about 1500 B.C., the Cypriots began using a still undeciphered script, which very much resembles the Linear A of Minoan Crete. Long examples exist on baked clay tablets and other documents found at urban centers such as Enkomi (on the eastern coast) and Kalavasos (on the southern coast). Engraved and pointed characters of the script appear on a number of vases in the Cesnola Collection at the Metropolitan. \^/

“During the Late Bronze Age, Cyprus was also an important center for the manufacture of works of art that show an amalgam of local and foreign influences. Stylistic features and iconographic elements borrowed from Egypt, the Near East, and the Aegean are often mixed together in Cypriot works. Undoubtedly foreign motifs, and the significance they held, were reinterpreted as they became part of distinctive local artistic traditions. Cypriot artisans traveled abroad as well, and in the twelfth century B.C. some Cypriot metalsmiths may have settled as far west as Sicily and Sardinia.” \^/

Cyprus Under Assyrian, Egyptian and Persian Controls (1200 and 500 B.C.)

Engomi ruins in Cyprus

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The most important development on Cyprus between about 1200 and 1050 B.C. was the arrival of successive waves of immigrants from the Greek mainland. These newcomers brought with them, and perpetuated, Mycenaean customs of burial, dress, pottery, production, and warfare. At this time, Achaean immigrants introduced Greek to Cyprus. An Achaean society, politically dominant by the eleventh century B.C., most likely created the independent kingdoms ruled by wanaktes, or kings, on the island. The Greeks progressively gained control of major communities, such as Salamis, Kition, Lapithos, Palaeopaphos, and Soli. In the mid-eleventh century B.C., the Phoenicians occupied Kition on the southern coast of Cyprus. Their interest in Cyprus derived mainly from the island's rich copper mines and its forests, which provided an abundant source of timber for shipbuilding. At the end of the ninth century B.C., the Phoenicians established a cult for their goddess Astarte in a monumental temple at Kition. [Source: Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004, \^/]

“A stele found at Kition reports the submission of the Cypriot kings to Assyria in 709 B.C. Under Assyrian domination, the kingdoms of Cyprus flourished and Cypriot kings enjoyed some independence as long as they regularly paid tribute to the Assyrian king. A seventh-century B.C. inscription records that there were ten kings of Cyprus who ruled over ten separate kingdoms. Some of these kings had Greek names, others had names of Semitic origin, testifying to the ethnic diversity of Cyprus in the first half of the first millennium B.C. Royal tombs at Salamis suggest both the wealth and foreign connections of these rulers in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. \^/

“In the sixth century B.C., Egypt, under King Ahmose II, took control of Cyprus. Although the Cypriot kingdoms continued to manage relative independence, a significant increase of Egyptian motifs in Cypriot works of art from this period reflects the intensification of Egyptian influence. Elements such as the head of Hathor appeared in quantity for the first time, especially at Amathus. \^/

“In 545 B.C., under Cyrus the Great (r. ca. 559–530 B.C.), the Persian empire conquered Cyprus. The new rulers, however, did not interfere with established Cypriot institutions and religious practices. Cypriot troops participated in Persian military campaigns, the independent kingdoms paid the customary tribute, and Salamis ranked as the foremost kingdom. By the late sixth century B.C., Persian control over Cyprus tightened, so that by the beginning of the fifth century B.C. the island was an integral part of the Persian empire.” \^/

Classical Cyprus (ca. 480–310 B.C.)

Cyprus ring from the 5th-4th century BC

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Throughout the Classical period, Cyprus was under the control of the Persian empire, which occupied the island sometime around 525 B.C. It was part of the Persian empire's "Fifth Satrapy," linking it with Phoenicia and Syria. Like the Phoenicians, the Cypriots were recognized as expert sailors and thus contributed men and ships in the Persian war against Greece in 480–479 B.C. [Source: Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, July 2007, \^/]

“As allies of the Persian kings, the Phoenicians had considerable economic and political influence on Cyprus. During the fifth century B.C., three of the island's kingdoms—Salamis, Kition, and Lipithos—had Phoenician kings, Amathus was a Phoenician stronghold, and Idalion and Tamassos were under the Phoenician ruler of Kition. \^/

“The Phoenicians introduced their own gods and goddesses to Cyprus. Many of these deities correspond to Greek gods. For example, the Phoenician god Melqart closely resembles Herakles, and the war goddess Anat bears striking similarities to Athena. The Phoenician goddess of fertility and sexuality Astarte was eventually assimilated with Aphrodite, the Great Goddess of Cyprus. According to tradition, Cyprus was the birthplace of Aphrodite; the goddess was worshipped in monumental temples at Kition, Paphos, Amathus, and Golgoi, as well as in rural sanctuaries. But, unlike their Greek counterparts, Cypriot statues of Aphrodite depict the goddess fully clothed, and she typically wears a crown decorated with nude female figures that most likely represent the Eastern goddess Astarte. \^/

“Because of its political and economic ties with the Persian empire, Cyprus was for a long time cut off from the mainstream of Greek culture and trade. It was only from the late fifth century B.C., under the patronage of the philhellenic king Euagoras I of Salamis (r. ca. 411–ca. 373 B.C.), that friendly relations with Greece, particularly Athens, were restored. During his reign, Greek artists and intellectuals were welcomed in Cyprus, although there was always more incentive for Cypriot sculptors, philosophers, and writers to move from Cyprus to the Greek mainland. \^/

“For two centuries, until Alexander the Great liberated Cyprus in 333 B.C., the Cypriots fought for their independence. The Greeks joined them in their efforts to oust the Persians, and their presence on the island had stylistic implications for Cypriot art, particularly sculpture, which reflects a mixture of native and foreign influences. \^/

Art in Classical Cyprus (ca. 480–310 B.C.)

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Cypriot sculpture flourished during the early Classical period, and a number of unique examples in the Cesnola Collection of the Metropolitan Museum betray both Greek and Eastern stylistic tendencies. As Cyprus lacks a local source of marble, most sculpture produced on the island is made of local limestone, or terracotta. Only the wealthiest patrons could afford sculpture, such as the sarcophagus from Amathus that is made of marble quarried on the Greek island of Paros. A limestone sarcophagus from Golgoi is carved in low relief with scenes that have parallels in Greek art but show variations in style and detail introduced by local artists. For example, the combatants depicted on this sarcophagus are common motifs in Greek art. Here, however, the Cypriot sculptor has conflated a battle scene with a hunting scene, and has taken more liberties with the scale of the animals than is usually found in Greek art. [Source: Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, July 2007, \^/]

“Freestanding sculptures reflect Greek traditions, but in an exotic and somewhat less naturalistic manner, more like East Greek sculpture of the late sixth century B.C. Standing figures are often depicted wearing typically East Greek costume with a close-fitting, finely pleated linen chiton and wool himation. The soft modeling of the face, the delicate smile, and advanced left foot derive from East Greek art of the late sixth century B.C. Many of these freestanding Cypriot sculptures were made as votive offerings dedicated at sanctuaries to the gods. \^/

“Cypro-Classical jewelry, especially delicately rendered gold pendants and earrings, demonstrates a blend of Greek and local traditions. Carved gems often depict characteristically Greek representations. At the same time, Cypriot pottery shows a certain independence maintained by local craftsmen on the island. But the large quantities of Greek pottery that have been found in tombs at Marion, Amathus, and Salamis most likely indicate that a number of Greek potters and painters also were working on Cyprus during this time. \^/

Hellenistic and Roman Cyprus

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Although Cyprus was liberated from the Persians by Alexander the Great in 333 B.C., the island did not enjoy a long period of freedom. After the death of Alexander in 323 B.C., his successors, the Diadochoi, quarreled and Cypriot rulers became entangled in antagonisms with tragic consequences—for example, the annihilation of the royal family of Salamis in 311 B.C. The wealth of its natural resources and its strategic position on the principal maritime route linking Greece and the Aegean with the Levant and Egypt made Cyprus a major prize for the warring Hellenistic rulers. [Source: Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004, \^/]

“Eventually, in 300 B.C., the whole of Cyprus came under the control of the Ptolemies, who introduced the political and cultural institutions of the Hellenistic world to the island. The Ptolemies ruled Cyprus from Alexandria through high officials who resided in Paphos, which was easily accessible by sea from Alexandria. They abolished the independent kingdoms of Cyprus and established a unified rule and a single currency. Although the Cypriot syllabic script continued to be used and the native "Eteocypriot" tongue survived, largely as a spoken language, Greek became the dominant language. \^/

“At the beginning of the Hellenistic period, Attic influence was still evident in Cypriot art and funerary architecture, but Egyptian elements gradually prevailed. By the end of Ptolemaic rule, in 58 B.C., when the Romans annexed the island, local cults assimilated with Egyptian gods and goddesses, most notably Isis and Serapis. Cyprus continued in its age-old role as an intermediary between the Greek world and the Near East, with sculptors, craftsmen, and merchants from all over the eastern Mediterranean introducing diverse artistic styles and traditions. In ceramics, sculpture, and jewelry, the Cypriots followed the styles of the Hellenistic koine, inspired by the Alexandrian school. Stone sculpture continued to be produced, and portraiture, especially depictions of the royal family, became the main form of representation. \^/

“Roman involvement in Cypriot affairs began as early as 168 B.C., although Cyprus became a Roman province only in 58 B.C. During Roman rule, Paphos retained its position as the island's principal city and gained much fame from the temple of Aphrodite, which it advertised on its coinage. Amathus and Salamis were the two other major Roman centers, with temples to Aphrodite and Zeus respectively. Under the Romans, the island prospered and, apart from the time of the great Jewish revolt in 115/6 A.D., enjoyed the fruits of the Pax Romana. Numerous large-scale public buildings (temples, gymnasia, theaters, baths, and aqueducts) were erected, especially in the Antonine and Severan periods (mid-second to early third century A.D.). In arts and crafts, Cyprus became fully Romanized; in sculpture, ceramics, and glassmaking, one can see clearly that local producers followed styles common to the whole of the Roman world. Cyprus retained its position as an important link in the main maritime routes across the eastern Mediterranean, and its prosperity declined only when the Arabs disrupted these routes in the seventh century A.D.” \^/

Copper and bronze weapons and tools from Cyprus

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks ; Canadian Museum of History ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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