The archaeological site of Kourion, on the south coast of the modern Republic of Cyprus, has a long history by any standard. Herodotus, writing in the 5th Century BC, records that the site was founded by Achaean colonists from Argos in Greece, a claim that is supported by modern archaeological excavations revealing Mycenaean expansion in the Late Bronze Age (13th Century BC). The settlement developed rapidly and is attested in 12th Century Egyptian inscriptions. Kourion, along with the other kingdoms of Cyprus, later underwent occupation or political domination by the Assyrian, Egyptian and Persian Empires between the 8th and 5th Centuries BC. Under Ptolemaic and Roman rule, Kourion, (Curium in Latin) remained a prosperous but provincial center. The tragic recent events in Haiti serve as a reminder of how devastating a major earthquake can be to a relatively isolated island community. Badly damaged by the great quake of about 365 AD that devastated so much of the Eastern Mediterranean, the City was rebuilt and served as the seat of a bishopric in the Christian era. It was eventually abandoned after a series of Arab raids from North Africa in the 7th and 8th Centuries.
The excavated parts of Kourion, situated on high ground overlooking the sea, today straddle two kilometers of spectacular coastline. The modern visitor typically approaches the site from the town of Limassol, on Akrotiri Bay, traveling west for just a few kilometers along the coastal road. Along the way one may observe many rock cut tombs, mainly of the early Iron Age, in the local limestone hillsides. At the westernmost end of the site is the famous Sanctuary of Apollo Hylates (Apollo of the woodlands) and its many associated buildings, while at the eastern end of the site is the impressive Theatre and the House of Eustolios. Between these are the Roman Forum, an early Christian Basilica and several late Roman houses famed for their mosaics. In this Travelogue installment, I will describe the Sanctuary of Apollo, the Theatre and House of Eustolios.
The Sanctuary of Apollo seems to have been a sacred place even before the cult of that god was imported by the Greeks, as votive offerings of the 7th Century BC have been found. The term “Hylates” was not applied to the sanctuary until the mid-3rd Century BC. In its heyday during the 1st and 2nd Centuries AD, the sanctuary would have included a palaestra (exercise court), a bath, several buildings that may have served as dormitories for pilgrims, and a colonnaded processional street that led directly to the Temple of Apollo. The partly reconstructed remains of this building are thought to date to the reign of Nero. To either side of the processional street were an Archaic altar and an early tholos building enclosed in a small sacred grove.
For the modern archaeological visitor, it is difficult to imagine a more picturesque setting. The Temple complex stands on high ground with a view out to the shore and the Mediterranean almost directly below. The skies are free of pollution and the ruins often bathed in brilliant sunshine. While the partly reconstructed ruins of the Temple are impressive for their simplicity of line and solitude on the highest point of ground, one should not overlook the subsidiary buildings. The bath is especially well preserved, and one may observe in detail the sub-floor and interior wall heating technology (hypocaust system) used in a typical Roman bath. There are no real amenities at this part of the site but there is ample parking for those who have rented a car.
At the east end of the site is Kouion’s Theatre and several important associated residential structures. The Theatre itself seems to have originated in the 2nd Century BC but was greatly enlarged around AD 50. After suffering damage in an earthquake in AD 77, the structure was repaired and took on the form the visitor sees today. It continued in use until the great earthquake of AD 365 and was then gradually stripped of much of its stone, including most of the seats, the colonnade and the stage building. Partly restored by the Cyprus Department of Antiquities in 1961, the building is still used today for plays and concerts. The setting is, like so much of Kourion, spectacular.
Adjacent to the Theatre at Kourion is an important private residence dating from the late 4th to mid-7th Century AD. This structure, built upon the ruins of an earlier palatial residence, is the House of Eustolios, named for its builder / owner. Eustolios seems to have been a major patron of Kourion in the Christian period and contributed significantly to reconstruction of the town. Among his contributions were repairs to the Theatre and construction of a public bathing facility. Upon entering the House, one sees a Greek mosaic inscription welcoming the visitor with “Enter for the good luck of the house.” The House’s east hall features a fine and well preserved mosaic panel featuring fish and various birds (all early Christian symbols) amid geometric motifs and an inscription proclaiming the Christian nature of the residence. The bathing facilities provided by Eustolios are well preserved and contain one of Kourion’s most famous mosaic panels. This is in the frigidarium or cold room of the baths and depicts a medallion with the head of a young woman holding in her right hand a measure equivalent to one Roman foot. The inscription reads “KTICIC”, meaning Creation or Founding Spirit. This is a highly unusual representation in mosaic art and may be a direct reference to the rebirth of the City following the great earthquake of AD 365.
This end of the site has excellent amenities, including plenty of parking, restrooms, a small gift and bookshop, and snack bar. There is much more to see at Kourion, including many more fine mosaics, and many important finds housed in the site museum at the nearby village of Episkopi. Signage is generally good throughout the site and access from Paphos or Limassol is easy. I definitely recommend a visit. For an excellent review of Kourion’s history and excavation, I suggest David Soren and Jamie James, Kourion, The Search for a Lost Roman City, Anchor Press Doubleday, NY, 1988. Also very useful is the site guide by Dr. Demos Christou of the Cyprus Department of Antiquities, Kourion, Its Monuments and Local Museum, Filokipros Publishing, Nicosia, 1996.