Today, their luxury vehicles, private jets and sleek yachts identify the rich and famous. But in the third century AD, the very rich – at least in Cyprus – showed off their wealth and influence with amazing mosaic floors that told stories borrowed from Greek mythology.
The entire city of Paphos, a seaport on the southwest coast of the Cypriot island, and the surrounding area, is on the UNESCO heritage list due to the exquisite mosaic remains discovered. UNESCO extended the area suggesting extensive remains are still buried underneath.
A farmer cultivating his field accidentally discovered the Paphos Mosaics in 1963. No one was aware there were mosaics in the area prior to his discovery. The excavations indicated a large and wealthy series of residences of the Roman period, the first of its type to be found not only in Paphos, but also in Cyprus as a whole. As more mosaic floors were located in the surrounding areas, archaeologists realized that such elaborate and rich mosaic floor decoration was not the exception, but rather the norm for Paphos during the mid-Roman period.
Eleni, our Cypriot tour guide, clarified that in the Roman times, especially in the mid-Roman period, most of the wealthy houses were decorated with mosaic floors. She explained that apprentices or ordinary craftsmen created the geometric frames and background filling in workshops, and the master artisans created the extremely accomplished figured compositions.
At the Paphos Mosaics, the amazing floors are featured in three third century AD noblemen’s villas – House of Dionysus, House of Theseus, and the recently excavated House of Aion – and are considered among the finest in the eastern Mediterranean. The mosaics mostly depict scenes from Greek mythology and are beautifully rendered and preserved. All are in their original location.
Also on site are the remains of Saranda Kolones Castle, an odeon, and the Castle of the 40 Pillars. Excavations are ongoing, and I observed workers slowly and meticulously scraping away layers of sand under the hot midday sun.
Eleni revealed that in 1964 near one of the newly uncovered ruins on the Paphos Mosaic site a skeleton was discovered. What was so special about it, however, was that in the skeleton’s arms was a jar of more than 2,200 silver coins from the Tollemite Period. Apparently sometime in the fifth century BC during an earthquake that destroyed Paphos – this part of the island was a notorious earthquake zone – this individual ran from his house with the jar of money and died on the spot. The jar and all of the silver coins are now in the Archaeological Museum in Nicosia, Cyprus.
House of Dionysus
This house belonged to a very rich person, according to Eleni, and was named for Dionysus because Dionysus – the god of wine – is portrayed in two of the extensive mosaic floors. The villa ruins encompass about 21,500 square feet with approximately 6,200 SF consisting of mosaic floors. More ruins outside also belong to the house.
The first mosaic we saw as we entered the covered structure was that of Narcissus. The mosaic is estimated to be about 600 years old. Eleni immediately launched into a story interpreting the mosaic pattern: “Narcissus was a very handsome man and all of the girls in the village were in love with him. But Narcissus did not love any of the beautiful girls; he seemed more intent on himself. So the maidens decided Narcissus should be punished. They told Zeus that Narcissus would spend his days sitting by the side of the river watching himself in the water. According to Greek mythology, to this day, a narcissus flower is at the bottom of the river.”
The atrium of the house depicted four stories through its mosaic floors. One of them is the love story of Thisbe, a very pretty girl, and Pyramos, a handsome man. The two were in love with each, but their parents refused to allow them to marry. The two decided to elope and agreed to meet in the forest under a mulberry tree. Thisbe arrived first. She saw a lion and was so frightened that she began running. In the process, she lost her veil. As the story goes, the lioness snatched the veil, which had some blood stains on it. When Pyramos arrived at the meeting point, he saw the lioness with the stained veil. He immediately thought the animal had killed his beloved Thisbe, so he committed suicide. When Thisbe came back, she saw her dead lover and committed suicide next to him. Does the storyline sound familiar? Shakespeare adapted it for Romeo and Juliet.
According to Eleni, the best story of the House of Dionysus is that of Daphne, again, a very pretty girl. Daphne means laurel. Apollo was in love with Daphne, but she wouldn’t have anything to do with him. Apollo continually followed her, begging her to marry him, but the nymph refused and ran from him. Apollo began chasing her. Seeing that he was bound to catch her, she called upon her father, “Help me, Peneus! Open the earth to enclose me, or change my form, which has brought me into this danger! I don’t want to be a woman any more. Let me be free of this man from this moment forward!”
Her father touched her on her legs and she turned into a laurel tree. When Apollo discovered this he said, ‘If I cannot have you as my wife, I would have you as my laurel tree.’ Since then, according to the story, the laurel tree has been the holy tree of Apollo. To this day, laurel leave crowns are presented to winners of athletic events.
House of Theseus
Construction of this building began in the second century AD and underwent many modifications. It was inhabited until the early seventh century AD. According to the excavators, the building was the official seat of the Roman governor of Cyprus.
The main feature of the House of Theseus is its gigantic floor mosaic depicting the birth of Achilles. A second composition is Theseus and the Minotaur. What makes this mosaic renowned is that unlike other mosaics depicting Theseus, this mosaic has the hero Theseus shown in the center of the picture.
Due to the immense size and proportions of this structure, the building has not yet been completely uncovered – nor enclosed to protect the mosaics from the elements. The House of Theseus is the largest residential structure of its type found on the island so far and one of the largest in the Mediterranean.
House of Aion
Excavations began in 1983 and only a small part of this house has been excavated. The uncovered rooms include the reception hall and a portion of the main room. The house was given its name because in the center of the main room is a composition of the depiction of the god Aion, the personification of eternal time. To date, most of the mosaics are in a geometric pattern.
The story behind the mosaic named Scene on the Sea depicts the three most beautiful of Nereus’ daughters. They are returning from a competition judged by the impartial judge Aion in which none of the girls won. “Although beautiful and elegant in their dresses, they are angry and dissatisfied with the result of the competition,” Eleni tells us by pointing to various figures on the mosaic. “They ride away on the back of a friendly sea centaur and a young triton, the surface of the sea. A saddened Eros is riding a bull and Zeus and Athena are watching from above.” Eleni mentions that representations of this particular story are extremely rare and those that exist do not surpass this excellent example.
It is interesting to note that these mosaic renderings were made around the middle of the fourth century AD during Christianity. Yet the Paphos Mosaics are believed to represent a deeply cultured and rooted traditional value and creed of the ancient gods, which these artists were attempting to reinstate for the old pagan aristocrats resisting Christianity, who commissioned the works.
Saranda Kolones Castle
The castle was erected around 1200 AD after the Frankish conquest of Cyprus on the site of an earlier Byzantine fort. It was destroyed by the earthquake of 1223 and was never rebuilt or cleared.
The structure was a compact fortress surrounded by a massive external continuous wall with eight towers and a moat. The approach was via a wooden bridge over the moat. The interior of the castle was rectangular shaped with four corner towers.
Tall columns remained as they fell and the arch above the main entrance still stands.
We did not have time to hike over to the Castle of the 40 Pillars, although from a distance the standing pillars were visible with the sea as a backdrop.
It’s amazing just thinking about the painstaking process of making, painting and creating the detailed mosaic patterns this site is so famous for. But then too to wonder what these people were like who lived here; the ultra rich and conservative who refused to accept Christianity. It’s almost as though their mythology-related stories told through the gorgeous mosaics represented their personal rebellion. The Paphos Mosaics site must be an archaeological connoisseur’s dream.