Mosaic of cultures leaves rich imprint on -- and under -- the landscape

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The young washing machine repairman packed his tools, pausing to look out the window of the Nicosia high-rise. "Over there," he said, pointing, "when I was a boy, I used to play in the caves and find very old pottery and glass."

His finger swept the horizon, pointing at scrubby lots, gray concrete skeletons, and austere white housing modules.

"We'd go to the museum, hoping to get money. Yes, they would take our treasures. Then they would send us on our way."

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Today the Cyprus Museum is an expanding storehouse of archaeological treasures, while children at play still turn up an occasional antiquity. So small is the island and strategic its location that more than a dozen major civilizations have left their legacies of language, law, religion, architecture, and simple implements of daily living.

Cyprus has been inhabited since the new Stone Age. The influence of Egypt's protection in 1500 BC can be seen in the scarabs and ivory found in tombs of the period. Later, Mycenaean colonists from Greece settled at Salamis, Paphos, and Curium, establishing early Greek culture.

Phoenician traders discovered the island around 800 BC and began to settle areas not inhabited by the Greeks. In subsequent battles, the Phoenicians forfeited the island to Egypt, Egypt to Persia, Persia to local Hellenes. In 58 BC the island fell to Rome. At the division of the Roman Empire into east and west, Byzantium began 800 years of influence, -- an influence that unraveled late in the 12th century AD. Successively, Lusignan control, Venetian rule, Turkish occupation, then British, occurred.

With centuries of cultural layering, it is no wonder that tractor and spade unearth archaeological riches to this day from the thin Cyprus soil. Surveyors working on the Limassol road project turned up 30 new sites of archaeological interest. Remains of ancient walls, pagan temples, and imposing fortresses abound.

Whether the archaeology buff is interested in the most primitive societies or prefers investigating objects of Byzantine ritual, Cyprus supplies a wealth of discovery."Cyprus is a bridge between civilizations, and there is evidence of practically every major Western culture here," observes George Eliades, a Paphos archaeologist. "We also know that Cyprian culture influenced other civilizations. Enkomi, near Salamis, had an effect on Rhodes and the Greek mainland."

Possibly the best-preserved site on Cyprus is at Salamis, north of Famagusta. Here, on the water's edge, are the beautiful remains of Roman baths, theater, and gymnasium. Tall columns still stand around the exercise ground used by athletes. Roman mosaics line arched niches, and patterned floors are still intact.

Another marvel of preservation is the House of Dionysos at Paphos. In 1962, a plow scraped away the earth, accidentally exposing a mosaic which would be the first of 14 beautifully preserved mosaic floors of a Roman villa, the walls of which were destroyed during an earthquake. A structure has been built around the entire collection, with elevated walkways provided both to enhance viewing and to protect the elaborate mosaics.

Khirokitia, near Limassol, is considered the oldest site on the island, dating back to the Neolithic period. Archaeologists found ancient bowls carved of the hard igneous rock. At another site, Sotira Teppes, one has the rare chance to stand on the stones of a Neolithic foundation while observing ultramodern British base communications equipment poking up from the lonely countryside -- in a glance, a span of 5,000 years.

One can visit Chalcolithic (copper-Stone Age) sites near Paphos and Limassol where archaeologists discovered beautiful pottery and cruciform figurines. Near Episkopi, nine miles west of Limassol, pottery and gaming stones of the middle Bronze Age were found. The stone game was of Egyptian origin, called "senet" (meaning "passing"), and playyers presumed to foretell events of their afterlife through the movement of senet playing pieces.

Another Bronze Age site is accessible one mile from Larnaca, within sight of the revered Muslim shrine, the Tekke of Hala Sultan.

This summer, research teams from the United States, Britain, Germany, and even Cyprus will be tapping, scraping, and dusting away at sites across Cyprus. The German group will dig an early Iron Age site just south of Nicosia, while other archaeologists continue to unearth Apollo's temple at Curium, between Limassol and Paphos. Another team will work to uncover the Byzantine foundation and mosaics of St. Paul's Basilica.

Cyprus is truly an island teeming with archaeological interest and offerings. Each spring the soil throws out new shards of pottery, new clues. Everywhere one looks, there seems to be something old to discover. Had the washing machine repairman turned a little to his right, he would have been pointing toward a small mesa, and even there on the edge of Nicosia, evidence has been found of ancient Bronze Age fortifications.

Stuart Swiny, director of the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute in Nicosia, is enthusiastic about the potential in Cyprus: "We are fortunate that it was the custom to dig burial caves. Weapons, tools, and pottery were packed away for ages.They've provided us with much information."

Has Cyprus yielded all her treasure?

"More and more sites are being discovered," Mr. Swiny states. "The Kyrenia Range and Troodos foothills are dotted with undiscovered sites. Why, you can't take a walk without finding a bit of ancient pottery. I don't know of another island quite so rich."

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