Kourion – Curium in Latin – was an important city state in Ancient Cyprus. It flourished during the Ptolemaic and Roman eras, until it was almost completely destroyed by two earthquakes in the fourth century CE. A rebuilt Kourion was an easy target for Arab raiders, who destroyed the city and its Christian basilica in the seventh century. The residents then relocated to a place some two kilometres northeast of Kourion, which they named Episkopi, after the Greek word for ‘bishop’. Although Kourion was deserted hundreds of years ago, many important archaeological remains can still be seen today. The best way to get there is to take the old B6 coastal road from Paphos to Limassol.
Sanctuary and stadium
Approaching from the west, the visitor first arrives at the Sanctuary of Apollo Hylates. This was a very important Pan-Cypriote place of worship in Antiquity. There has been a sanctuary at this location since at least the late eighth or early seventh century BCE. The remains that are open to the public are from the Roman period and date back to the first and second century CE. The sanctuary was a complex of buildings, of which the temple dedicated to Apollo Hylates was at the centre. The name of the god can be translated as ‘Apollo of the Woods’, although Hylates may originally have been a separate deity who was later equated with the Greek god Apollo.
The remains of the temple of Apollo Hylates that we can see today are the result of a partial reconstruction, which comprises two columns and parts of a wall and a pediment. The geographer Strabo in Book XIV of his Geography wrote about Kourion and “a promontory, whence are flung those who touch the altar of Apollo”. Worship was taken quite seriously at this location. The sanctuary was popular with pilgrims until about the middle of the fourth century CE. The rise of Christianity, the two earthquakes and the Arab raids mentioned above were all responsible for reducing this once thriving site to a heap of stones and rubble.
About a kilometre further to the east are the remains of a large stadium from the Roman era. It was built during the second century CE. The stadium is just 17 metres wide, much to narrow for chariot races. Mind you, this is not the Circus Maximus: the stadium was used for athletic competitions. The pentathlon took place here, the games in which the contestants participated in running, wrestling, the long jump, javelin throwing and discus throwing. The participants were exclusively male and they competed completely nude. Since nudity was frowned upon by Christians and the stadium was seen as a symbol of paganism, it was closed when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire at the end of the fourth century CE.
Once you have arrived in Kourion proper – another kilometre or so east of the stadium – a good place to start is either the Roman theatre or the House of Eustolios. The theatre was first built in the second century BCE, but it was reconstructed and enlarged during the Roman era. The present structure is from the second century CE. It is still used for open-air performances today and known for its wonderful acoustics. The view of the Mediterranean Sea from the theatre is magnificent.
The House of Eustolios is just to the east of the theatre. It was the fourth century private residence of a Christian Greco-Roman Cypriot who was obviously quite wealthy. The house was presumably built after the two fourth century earthquakes had devastated Kourion. It had some thirty rooms, most of which are centred around a peristyle. There is even a private bathing complex. This is somewhat exceptional. Kourion, like all cities in the Roman world, had a complex of public baths, which are some 500 metres west of the House of Eustolios. Private baths were only for the wealthiest citizens and apparently Eustolios was one of them.
His house is furthermore known for its mosaics of exceptional quality. One of them shows Ktisis. She is not a Greek goddess, but rather the personification of an abstract idea, in this case ‘creation’ (Greek: κτίσις). The woman in the mosaic is holding a measuring device, a kind of double machinist square.
Eustolios’ House is clearly Christian in nature, which is demonstrated by the texts in some of the other mosaics. The small, somewhat damaged mosaic on the right is near the entrance to the complex. It has a text that – when reconstructed – reads (in Greek):
ΕΙΣ(ΑΓΕ) ΕΠΑΓΑ(ΘΩ) ΕΥΤΥΧΩΣ ΤΩ ΟΙΚ(Ω)
Which roughly means:
“Enter and bring good fortune into this house.”
A longer text is found on the large mosaic in one of the courtyards or peristyles. It uses the dactylic hexameter and reads:
ΑΝΤΙ ΛΙΘΩΝ ΜΕΓΑΛΩΝ, ΑΝΤΙ ΣΤΕΡΕΟΙΟ ΣΙΔΗΡΟΥ
ΧΑΛΚΟΥ ΤΕ ΞΑΝΘΟΙΟ ΚΑΙ ΑΥΤΟΥ ΑΝΤ ΑΔΑΜΑΝΤΟΣ
ΕΙΔΕ ΔΟΜΟΙ ΖΩΣΑΝΤΟ ΠΟΛΥΛΛΙΤΑ ΣΗΜΑΤΑ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΥ
You do not have to know a lot of ancient Greek to understand that ΧΡΙΣΤΟΥ (Christou) refers to Jesus Christ. I found a good translation here:
“In place of big stones and solid iron, gleaning bronze and even adamant, this house is girt with the much-venerated signs of Christ.”
Other parts of Kourion
Further to the west are city’s agora – main square – and the public baths I mentioned above. The baths were built in the second century CE and they surrounded a holy area dedicated to water nymphs (Nymphaeum). When I visited Kourion in July of 2013, it was exceptionally hot (at least by my book – we bought some bathing gear in Paphos earlier that day and the store owner told us that temperatures were actually not that high…). My better half and I were ready to go back to the car, but I really wanted to see some more mosaics. I had read about the House of the Gladiators and the House of Achilles in my travel guide. So while my better half returned to the visitor’s centre to find a nice and cool spot in the shade, I went further west and found the House of the Gladiators. I was not disappointed.
The mosaics in this house show gladiators engaged in combat, which according to the Cypriot Department of Antiquities is rare in Cyprus. The image on the right shows three figures, two gladiators and a third figure, perhaps the referee. He is called ΔΑΡΕΙΟΣ – Dareios or Darius – like some of the Achaemenid Kings of Persia. Dareios is wearing a toga with a broad purple stripe. The gladiator on the left is called ΛΥΤΡΑΣ, but the name of his opponent has unfortunately not survived (as has most of the opponent himself by the way). Lytras is equipped in the fashion of a Thraex type of gladiator. He is wearing a loincloth and no suit of armour, but his sword arm is protected by an arm guard and his legs by greaves. The best protection for his body is his square shield, while he fights with a short sword or sica. The most striking feature of this type of gladiator is his helmet, which covers the entire head and has a face visor. Enough of Lytras’ opponent has survived to conclude that he also fought as a Thraex, or perhaps a Murmillo (his shield appears to be slightly different; note the large shield boss in the centre).
Another room shows ΜΑΡΓΑΡΕΙΤΗΣ fighting ΕΛΛΗΝΙΚΟΣ. Judging by their helmets, I would say both gladiators are Secutores. This type of gladiator was usually paired with the retiarius, the gladiator who fought with a trident and fishing net. Secutores did not usually fight each other, but perhaps the owner of this houses paired both thraeces and secutores for artistic purposes. Note that there is no referee in this fight.
On the outer reaches of ancient Kourion, near the B6 coastal road, one can find the House of Achilles. It has an interesting fourth century mosaic that has been partially preserved. In the centre, we see Achilles as a young man. On the left of Achilles is Deidamia, the daughter of King Lykomedes of Skyros. Achilles’ mother had hidden her son at the king’s court so that he would not be recruited for the Trojan War. Thetis full well knew that her son would not turn down an invitation to fight for the Greeks at Troy and she also knew what fate awaited him there. According to Greek legend, she dressed Achilles as a girl and concealed him among the king’s daughters.
The man on the right in the mosaic is most definitely Odysseus. Shrewd and clever Odysseus knew how to find the young warrior among the maidens. He placed a spear and shield among some adornments and musical instruments he had brought along as gifts. The king’s daughters immediately went for the girly things, but Achilles enthusiastically grabbed the war gear when Odysseus had his men sound a war trumpet, thus revealing his true identity. Odysseus effortlessly drafted him into the Greek army and took him to Troy, but not before Achilles managed to make Deidamia pregnant. Their son Neoptolemos – also known as Pyrrhus and the legendary ancestor of Pyrrhus of Epirus- fought in the Trojan War as well.
Part of the important early-Christian Episcopal precinct in Kourion were an imposing three-aisled basilica, the bishop’s palace and a baptistery. The basilica was built in the fifth century, when Christianity had become the state religion. Not much is left of the complex; it was destroyed during the Arab raids of the seventh century and the Christian inhabitants of Kourion moved further inland (see above). Still, one can easily imagine what the precinct would have looked like. The apse of the church is still visible, and so are the contours of a hexagonal baptismal font. A few columns and arches are still standing, but only traces of the mosaics which once adorned the precinct have survived. The lack of decoration is fortunately compensated by the wonderful panoramic sea view.
Update 27 August 2016: some of the pictures of mosaics were of inferior quality. They have been edited and replaced.