Alexandria's founded by Alexander

Alexandria's founded by Alexander the Great (by year BC): 334 Alexandria in Troia (Turkey) - 333 Alexandria at Issus/Alexandrette (Iskenderun, Turkey) - 332 Alexandria of Caria/by the Latmos (Alinda, Turkey) - 331 Alexandria Mygdoniae - 331 Alexandria (Egypt) - 330 Alexandria in Areia (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Dragiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Ai-Khanoum OR Termez, Afghanistan) - 328 Alexandria in Margiana (Merv, Turkmenistan) - 326 Alexandria Nicaea (on the Hydaspes, India) - 326 Alexandria Bucephala (on the Hydaspes, India) - 325 Alexandria Sogdia - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene / Alexandria on the Indus (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Xylinepolis (Patala, India) - 325 Alexandria in Carminia (Gulashkird, Iran) - 324 Alexandria-on-the-Tigris/Antiochia-in-Susiana/Charax (Spasinou Charax on the Tigris, Iraq) - ?Alexandria of Carmahle? (Kahnu)

Friday, November 20, 2015

Traces of the Ptolemy’s at Paphos, Cyprus

Because of its copper mines, Cyprus occupied a prominent position in de production of armoury, swords, and other objects in bronze since early antiquity. The quality of those arms was already praised by Homer and we know that Alexander’s sword, a gift from the King of Kition (modern Larnaca), was extremely light and of excellent quality. Another richness of the island was its shipbuilding and its navy that made it the envy of many nations and kings. Alexander was no exception as he called upon a sizable fleet from Cyprus to assist him during the siege of Tyre in 332 BC.

Cyprus is also the birthplace of Aphrodite, so the legend goes. Nobody can visit the island without being taken to the very beach where Aphrodite rose from the sea, a spot that is forever marked by a boulder on the seashore. True or not, it is indeed a lovely place to enjoy in the quietness of a sunset.

This is not far from Paphos, not my first choice destination but the place has lots of interesting sites worth visiting, especially since it was founded at the end of the fourth century BC as the first capital of Cyprus. When the island was annexed by Rome in 58 BC, Paphos kept this privileged status till it was destroyed by the successive earthquakes of the fourth century and the capital was subsequently moved to Salamis.

One of the most appealing sites of Paphos may well be the so-called “Tombs of the Kings” although the name is very misleading. No king has ever been buried in any of these underground tombs, but the place is impressive all the same. I stumbled on this peculiar site quite by accident, surprised by the name and by its location, hardly two kilometres from today’s town of Paphos.

The “Tombs of the Kings” is a series of underground tombs and burial chambers that create the feeling of a small city – a city of the dead, that is. It started to be used as early as the 3rd century BC by Ptolemaic aristocrats and remained in use till the 3rd century AD. The burial practice was continued by early Christians who even turned one of the tombs into a chapel. Today it has been declared a World Heritage Site. The tombs are carved out of the solid rock and show a definite Greek if not Macedonian influence. This is not surprising since Cyprus was part of Ptolemy’s heritage after the death of Alexander the Great and has been fought over for decennia by his competitive Diadochi time and again.

Some tombs appear like miniature houses with a central courtyard surrounded by Doric columns shading frescoed walls. Not all columns are fluted but the architraves and door lintels often are crowned with the typical frieze alternating triglyphs and metopes, including the regulae and guttae. The walls around the courtyard and along the corridors are punctuated by empty niches that once contained the remains of individual corpses. Some of the spaces in between have been enhanced with interesting reliefs. The costly grave goods and jewellery have long since been looted, but it is not difficult to mentally recreate a lively picture. Some of these villa-like constructions are rather elaborate with arched passages and staircases running up and down. Originally most walls and tombs were covered with stucco and decorated with frescoes of which many traces have survived. It was customary to celebrate the anniversaries of the deceased loved ones with a ceremonial meal, sharing the food with the dead as so often was the case in antiquity, but here it creates a rather homely feeling.

One of the tombs has a large stone block left in the middle of the atrium, creating space for extra niches. Archaeologists have counted 18 burial sites here, all from Hellenistic times and three of them were still intact when located. One of these three contained the remains of a child buried in a terracotta pipe, while the two other tombs revealed precious gifts like a gold myrtle wreath and a fine amphora from RhodesA highly unusual site and most definitely worth a visit!

In the city of Paphos there are many more antiquities although it takes some walking around to find them.

There is, for instance, a very large basilica with seven naves that was built using spolia from antique buildings destroyed during the severe earthquakes of 332 and 342 AD. Excavations of this Panagia Chrysopolitissa have revealed a number of geometric mosaics and remains of columns in different types of marble including cipollino. At some time during the 6th century the basilica was reduced in size, probably because of the dwindling population. By the 11th century a small Byzantine church, the Agia Kyriaki, was built in the apse of the old basilica. Here we also find a stub of a column which reportedly is the column where St Paul was flagellated while on his missionary tour of the island. The small church we see here today dates from around 1500 and still functions as an Anglican Church.

Another intriguing place is a large pistachio tree covered with hundreds of white pieces of cloths that belongs to the church of Agia Solomoni. The tree is said to be sacred and is still being used by those seeking help with their health problems; it will cure whoever hangs a personal votive offering on its branches, in particular those having eye problems. It is a sign-post for ancient catacombs, used by Christians in the second century or, as believed by others, originally dug out during Hellenistic times. One of the tombs has been turned into the Chapel of the Seven Sleepers that was particularly popular during the Middle-Ages. It is dark inside but there are still remains of the 12th century’s frescoes, including graffiti left by the Crusaders. Interestingly, the locals refer to this cavern as the Tomb of Ptolemy, without specifying which one of the pharaohs is meant.

The Agora, in turn has not much to offer except some foundations giving shape to the open space and the surrounding four porticos. The West side is best preserved and it is here that we find the Odeon, which has undergone some restorations so it can be used for various cultural events. This section dates from the second century AD.

The theatre in turn was built around 300 BC and remained in use till the end of the 3rd century AD. It has gone through several stages of remodelling and renovation over the centuries, but knew its heydays in the second century AD when the stage façade was entirely clad with marble. It could seat as many as 8,000 spectators. Excavations are underway and I am looking forward to what new information the Australian Archaeological Mission may bring to light.

Most popular in Paphos is the impressive collection of mosaic floors unearthed among the houses located south of the Agora. It is not often that we see so many of them still in situ. They all clearly belong to the villas of the Roman rich and famous living here between the 2nd and 5th century AD. They generally show compositions from Greek mythology and were created using a combination of tesserae and glass paste. These mosaics really stand out and are of much better quality and finesse than what we usually find in Roman buildings after the second century AD.

The first villa I encounter is the House of Aion, only partially excavated but it treats the visitor to a most spectacular floor mosaic from the fourth century. It is divided in several panels and shows The birth of Dionysus, Leda and the Swan, the beauty contest between Cassiopeia and the Nereids, Apollo and Marsyas, and the Triumph of Dionysus. Each and every composition deserves our full attention!

Next stop is at the House of Theseus built at the end of the second century AD on top of earlier Hellenistic and Roman buildings. This large villa that was occupied till the 7th century counted at least one hundred rooms, leading scholars to believe that this was the residence of the governor of Cyprus. Most of its floors have mosaics with geometric patterns, but three rooms are most remarkable since they show human figures.

The oldest and most striking mosaic depicts Theseus and the Minotaur, a very well recognizable labyrinth with Theseus at its centre. It dates from the end of the 3rd/early 4th century AD with obvious restorations probably carried out after the repeated earthquakes. The mosaic showing Poseidon and Amphitrite was created about a century later and seems to belong to a bedroom. At the beginning of the fifth century a new mosaic floor was laid out in the reception area where only the scene of Achilles’ first bath has survived. Another typical floor has a geometrical pattern with at its centre a picture of The Three Horaes, goddesses of the seasons.

Last but not least, there is the Villa of Dionysus also built at the end of the second century AD and abandoned after the severe earthquakes that destroyed so much of Paphos in the fourth century. The construction is Greco-Roman with the rooms arranged around a central courtyard. One quarter of the 2,000 m2 floors is paved with mosaics in very lively colours and there is one blue vase that truly catches my eye. There is a large collection of lovely hunting scenes with tigers, bulls and boars; and a collection of figures set in round and square frames; and, of course, several mythological figures.

In the end, although I was very sceptic about visiting Paphos, I was in for many unexpected but pleasant surprises. It really pays off to venture out and about instead of following the beaten path of organized tours.

[Click here to see all the pictures of Paphos]


  1. “Tombs of the Kings” is one of my favorite places! For the first time I've read about it here. At a first glance it may seem like you only get to see the holes were the dead were buried but with the plaques around explaining everything it was very informative.