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Historical background

The abundant natural resources found in the western part of the Kyrenia mountains created a highly favoured location for human communities during the Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods from the sixth to the third millennia BC.[1]  The Philia culture site of Vasilia-Evremann, with its Anatolian connections, no doubt prospered because of its position near the sea at the end of a possible trading route from the copper mines of the island, but also because of the already populous Late Chalcolithic communities in the area.[2]The community represented by the important Early Bronze Age (EBA) cemetery at Bellapais-Vounous, 15km to the east of Lapithos, thrived in the last few centuries of the third millennium BC. The contents of several tombs from this site will be described in another section of this Online Research Catalogue in the near future. The wealth of the Early and Middle Cypriot (EC and MC) coastal settlement buried in the cemetery of Lapithos-Vrysi tou Barba, which was rich in metal goods in particular, can similarly be attributed to its maritime position and role in the metallurgical economy of the island.[3]

Plan and cross-sections of a triple-chambered tomb from the EC–MC cemetery of Lapithos-Vrysi tou Barba. The remains of burials of the Early Cypriot period are visible on the floors of the burial chambers. (After Gjerstad 1934, fig. 24)


Late Bronze Age (LBA) activity is attested in a number of locations around Lapithos village, and more sporadically from the site of Lambousa, though this period is less brightly lit by surviving archaeological remains.[4]  An LBA cemetery is also known from the vicinity of the modern village itself, though its relationship with the older remains in the same area is unclear.[5]  Several tombs found at the locality Ayia Anastasia contain burials dating from the Late Cypriot (LC) II period, some with imported Mycenaean pottery.[6]  The prosperity of the north coast of Cyprus is commonly believed by scholars to have declined at the end of the Middle Bronze Age (MBA), as trade routes and political power shifted towards the east and south of the island during the later second millennium BC.[7]

It must be stressed, however, that the absence of official fieldwork in the area since 1974 means that our picture of the area is now very much out of date. There are hints, for example, that at least some parts of this stretch of coastline continued to be important throughout the later second millennium BC, to judge from the rich contents of a tomb found near Kazaphani village and the occurrence of Minoan and Mycenaean pottery at various coastal sites such as Phlamoudhi-Melissa.[8] 

Several tombs in the Ayia Anastasia cemetery were also used during the 11th century, representing rare evidence for the transition to the Iron Age.[9]  However, the shift in location of burial grounds to new locations away from the modern village of Lapithos during the 11th century BC suggests broader changes in the organisation of society.[10] The extensive cemeteries at Plakes and Kastros excavated by the Swedish Cyprus Expedition, whose tombs were rich in pottery and metal goods similar to those from Kourion[11],  together with nearby sites such as Karavas-Vathyrkakas,[12]  reflect the beginning of the Iron Age settlement pattern of the area in the Cypro-Geometric (CG) period, which may underlie the origins of the historic kingdom. The tombs of Plakes illustrate the new funerary architecture that appears all over Cyprus in the 11th century BC, consisting of a square chamber approached by a long entrance passage, similar to those from the necropolis of Kaloriziki discussed in the Kourion chapter of this catalogue.

Similarities with chamber tombs in the Aegean Late Bronze Age world led many scholars to suggest that the form was introduced by the first Greek-speaking settlers on the island.[13]  Gjerstad also argued that the simpler forms of burial at Plakes, which lacked the dromos, belonged to the local Cypriot population.

In reality, both tomb types probably evolved from older LC burial types, as part of a broader transformation of Cypriot funerary practices that took place at the transition from the Bronze to the Iron Age. Although newcomers settled on Cyprus, including the ancestors of the island’s Greek-speaking population, they are difficult to distinguish from the local population in the archaeological record.

Plan and section of Tomb 417 of the cemetery of Lapithos-Kastros dating to the 11th century BC, showing the new kind of tomb architecture which appears around this time. The remains of several burials accompanied by masses of pottery and other grave goods can be seen on the floor of the burial chamber. (After Gjerstad 1934, fig. 80)


The historical kingdom of Lapethos, in whose territory the cave sanctuary was located, emerged in this region sometime in the first millennium BC, perhaps as a result of the growing economic and political connections between these early Iron Age communities. Little is known about its history and development because of a lack of written records or of evidence from excavations at major centres. While the main excavated evidence for human activity in the Lapithos area discussed above comes from around the modern village, the coastal site of Lambousa to the east of Lapithos, below the village of Karavas, appears to have been the most important settlement in the area from the early first millennium BC. (The presence of LBA material here may indicate earlier occupation, but this is difficult to interpret.) The site, however, is poorly understood because of lack of controlled excavation there in modern times, owing to the ongoing political situation.[14]

Traditional stories preserved in much later Greek sources, including the geographer Strabo who wrote in the late 1st century BC, related that the kingdom was founded by a group of settlers from Laconia in Greece led by Praxander.[15]  While these tales are not historical in nature, they reflect the wish of later communities to establish an identity for themselves through connection with legendary figures from the past. The kingdom is apparently absent from the list of ten Cypriot kings who paid tribute to King Esarhaddon of Assyria in 672 BC, but it is uncertain if this document provides a complete picture of the political structure of the island at this time: there may well have been an important local polity in this area as early as the 7th century BC which was not directly affected by the events which led to the situation described in the Esarhaddon prism.[16]

The name of the historical kingdom (Lpš) is first attested from around 500 BC on coins whose legends, though always written in Phoenician, reveal a series of rulers with a mix of Semitic and Greek names.[17]  The proliferation of coinage throughout the fifth and fourth centuries provides a good indication of the economic and political strength of the kingdom, but also of its artistic traditions: the designs they bear reflect broader developments in Cypriot culture.

The earliest known ruler is called Dmwnks, the Phoenician form of Damonikos or Demonax.[18]  Both sides of the silver coins commonly show a female figure wearing a military helmet, similar to the goddess Athena, in a style influenced by the contemporary Greek world. The king’s apparent successor, who bore the Phoenician name Sidqimilk, also used this image on his coins, as well as that of a horned goddess with military attributes. She may be the Egyptian Hathor (who is commonly shown in a similar manner) or Phoenician Anat, though these are more likely to be images of the Great Goddess of Cyprus who combined many functions.[19]  Sidqimilk also included the name of his kingdom by including the legend mlk Lpš or ‘king of Lapethos’ in addition to his own name. The cave sanctuary near Lapithos continued in use down to the reign of both these kings, into the late 6th or early 5th century BC and probably later.

Later kings include Andros and another Demonax, who both employed an image of Herakles with a bow combined with Athena as a warrior in the late 5th and earlier 4th centuries BC, as did a later king called Barikshamash. The exact dates and chronological order of their reigns, though clear in general terms, remain uncertain.[20]

An inscription from the important sanctuary site near the village of Larnaka-tis-Lapithou, on the south side of the Kyrenia mountains part of the kingdom’s territory, records several dedications made in sanctuaries of Melqart and Astarte by a local magistrate during the reign of Praxippos, son of Demonax, sometime in the late 4th century BC. The official’s name is written as Prm. As vowels are rarely written in Phoenician inscriptions, the exact form of his name is unknown, though one scholar has suggested it is not Phoenician but Greek.[21]  This sanctuary appears to have been one of the major cult places of the kingdom of Lapethos, of much greater importance than the simple cave shrine from which the British Museum terracottas derive. The mention of a number of important female divinities among the dedications, including Athena, Anat and Astarte, indicates one of the possible goddesses to whom the cave sanctuary related.[22]

There may also have been an associated settlement, to judge from the existence of several cemeteries in the vicinity of the modern village of Larnaka (not to be confused with the much larger town in the south-east of Cyprus) whose name – meaning ‘coffin’ – probably indicates the existence of ancient tombs in the area.[23]  The kingdom of Lapethos may have taken part in a major revolt against the Persian king Artaxerxes III in the middle of the century in which, according to one Greek historian, all the kings of Cyprus rose up against the Persian empire. Some scholars have argued that this resulted in another change of dynasty, though this is uncertain.

The arrival of Alexander the Great on the political scene resulted in rapid changes in the political structure of the kingdom. Although most of the local kings retained their nominal independence during his lifetime, their role was undermined by the struggle between his successors, in which they became embroiled. This is clearly visible in the coinage: bronze coins probably struck at Lapethos by Alexander’s immediate successor, Philip Arrhidaeus (323–317 BC) show familiar symbols of the new dynasty, such as the head of Alexander himself – though accompanied by the name of Philip – and the club and bow of Herakles, within which is inscribed the Greek letters ΛΑ to indicate the name of the city.[24]  King Praxippos himself was dethroned by Ptolemy I around 313 BC, when the former supported his rival Antigonas.[25]  Some members of the local aristocracy, however, continued to enjoy wealth and prestige down into the third century BC, including an apparent descendant of Prm called Yatanbaal, who served as ‘chief of the land’, probably a regional governor in the Ptolemaic administration.[26]

The proliferation of Phoenician inscriptions and king names no doubt justifies the comment of the Greek geographer known as Pseudo-Skylax. Writing in the 4th century BC, he said that the kingdom of Lapethos was Phoenician, though this may only refer to the language of the ruling class rather than the population as a whole, which was probably mixed like that of other Cypriot cities.[27]  It is commonly assumed that the ruling family was forcibly installed by the Persians after the unsuccessful Cypriot revolt of 498–497 BC, perhaps replacing a Greek-speaking dynasty.[28]  However, both the mix of names seen in the surviving king-list, and the eclectic style of the coinage combining Greek and Levantine elements, suggest that the community may always have been fairly diverse and multicultural, even if the official language remained Phoenician throughout the period for which we have written evidence.

It is likely, therefore, that the mix of cultures existed before this time, as elsewhere on Cyprus where descendants of settlers from the Aegean and the Levant lived alongside the local population. This is reflected to some extent by the eclectic influences visible in the terracottas from the cave sanctuary near Lapithos village presented below. It must be stressed, however, that these represent a very narrow cross-section of the material culture of the area, which is otherwise poorly understood for much of the first millennium BC owing to the cessation of official archaeological work in northern Cyprus after 1974.

The evidence for settlement in the area of modern Lapithos during the early Iron Age derives mainly from the burials around the modern village described above, but the chief centre of the kingdom throughout the first millennium BC appears to have been located to the south-east around the small promontory of Lambousa below Karavas village. The site is littered with the heavily eroded and quarried ruins of ancient structures and tombs, including industrial-sized fish-tanks (one of which is 30m x 12.3m in extent) and the remains of harbour works. Both probably date to the Hellenistic or Roman periods.[29]

Traces of an enclosing wall are also visible in the eastern part of the site, but its construction date and the area it enclosed are uncertain. One surviving inscription records the fortification of the town in the 3rd or perhaps 5th century AD, and towers were still visible at the site in the 18th century AD according to travellers including Pococke and Mariti, though it is unclear if the first millennium BC settlement was walled like other Cypriot cities.[30]  John Myres excavated an area in the centre of the site in 1913, which he called the ‘acropolis’, recording the disturbed remains of buildings of various dates, as well as some rock-cut tombs with stepped entrance passages.[31]

Excavations by John Myres on the acropolis of ancient Lapethos (Lambousa) in 1913. (Myres 1946, pl. 22,1)

Myres also observed pottery scattered over the site ranging in date from the MBA to the LBA and the Cypro-Geometric (CG) period, but most of the datable remains probably represent the later first millennium BC and Roman era. He suggested that the much-venerated rock-cut church of Ayios Evlambios near the monastery of Acheiropoietos (‘made without hands’, believed to have been miraculously transported from Asia Minor) was a reused chamber tomb or catacomb dating from Roman times or earlier.

Map of the site of ancient Lapethos (Lambousa). (After Nicolaou 1980 and Merrillees 2009, fig. 1; reproduced courtesy of Dr Robert Merrillees)


Overall it is difficult to write a coherent history of the town from these remains alone, or to determine how long Lambousa was the main population centre in the area. That centre may in fact have shifted location over the centuries. It is highly likely, though, that the centre of the kingdom was located by the sea throughout the period documented by the coins mentioned above and derived its prosperity from maritime activities. The site of Lambousa may have retained some degree of importance into the Hellenistic period because of its strategic position on the coast of Cyprus, which was effectively the northern boundary of the Ptolemaic kingdom centred on Egypt. A fine mosaic depicting a youth holding a tray of flowers found at the site attests to the wealth of some of its citizens, as does the fact that the city was among the list of Cypriot communities who dedicated offerings at Delphi in the second century BC.[32]

In Roman times Lapethos was the centre of one of the principal regions into which Cyprus was divided, so presumably the main site was still an important administrative centre, and a centre of the imperial cult, which is known from dedications on statue bases. Inscriptions and literary sources also record the existence of important public buildings and institutions, such as a gymnasium and possibly a theatre. Games were celebrated to mark the future Emperor Augustus’ defeat of Marc Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BC, perhaps again reflecting the likely naval significance of the site. [33]

Lambousa later became the seat of a bishop, another indication of its importance within the Roman political geography of the island. The town was sacked during the Arab raids of AD 653/4. It is possible that the famous Lambousa (or Cyprus) Treasures, two hoards of early Byzantine gold and silver objects dug up in 1897 and 1902 respectively, were buried during this period of crisis, which resulted in the abandonment of the coastal settlement.[34]  The population and the seat of the bishop transferred to the site of the modern village of Lapithos. Both Lapithos, and the village of Karavas which was also established at this time, were built using stone quarried from the ancient site. The best preserved remains visible at Lambousa today are those of later Byzantine ecclesiastical buildings erected when the site was partially reoccupied during the Middle Ages. Several, however, reuse material or parts of structures from the older settlement. As noted above, at least one of these, the chapel of Ayios Evlambios, was built within the walls of an ancient rock-cut tomb.[35]

Many items from the First Cyprus Treasure are now preserved in the Department of Prehistory and Europe at the British Museum. This collection consists of: 25 spoons engraved with wild or mythical beasts in the bowl and three vessels; two deep bowls, one bearing the figure of a military saint such as St Sergios; a smaller hexagonal vase, possibly a lamp or incense burner given the suspension loops, decorated with the face of Christ, the Virgin Mary and several saints.[36]  A pair of earrings contemporary with this material acquired by the British Museum in 1957 is believed to have come from the Second Cyprus Treasure, much of which is now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

  • ^ [1] - Myres 1946, 73; Catling 1963, 133; Adelman 1976, 45; Stanley Price 1979, 102ff and fig. 21; Held 1992, 85ff and maps 196–8; Şevketoğlou 2000 passim.
  • ^ [2] - Hennessy et al. 1988, 40–1; Webb et al. 2009, 247–54.
  • ^ [3] - Gjerstad 1934, 33–162; Herscher 1975; Swiny 1989, 27; Keswani 2004, chapter 4 passim; Webb et al. 2009, 250–2.
  • ^ [4] - Catling 1963, LC sites nos 149–56.
  • ^ [5] - Catling 1963, LC site no. 149; MC site no. 109; EC site no. 95.
  • ^ [6] - Catling 1963, site no. 149; Gjerstad 1934, 162–72.
  • ^ [7] - Catling 1963, 142, but see Cambridge Ancient History II, 2 (1975), 189.
  • ^ [8] - Nicolaou and Nicolaou 1989; Smith in Smith 2008, 61–4.
  • ^ [9] - Pieridou 1966; 1972; Iacovou 1994, 152.
  • ^ [10] - Pieridou 1966; 1972; Iacovou 1994.
  • ^ [11] - Gjerstad et al. 1934, 172– 276.
  • ^ [12] - Pieridou 1964.
  • ^ [13] - Gjerstad 1948, 238; Vanschoonwinkel 1994.
  • ^ [14] - Myres 1946, 72–8; Nicolaou 1980.
  • ^ [15] - Strabo 14, 6, 3; Gjerstad 1944; Fortin 1980; Vanschoonwinkel 1994.
  • ^ [16] - Reyes 1994, 58–9; Lipiński 2004, 62–76.
  • ^ [17] - Hill 1904, liii–v, 29–31 and pls VI–VII; cf. Karageorghis 1998, 150–2.
  • ^ [18] - Lipiński 2004, 80–1.
  • ^ [19] - Robinson 1948, 40–5; Masson and Sznycr 1972, 97–100; Karageorghis 1998, 150–1. Cf. Karageorghis 1998 passim.
  • ^ [20] - Robinson 1948, 45–7, 60–5; Masson and Sznycer 1972, 97–100; Greenfield 1987; Karageorghis 1998, 150–2.
  • ^ [21] - Lipiński 2004, 84 and note 265.
  • ^ [22] - Masson 1977, 327; Ulbrich 2008, 153–5, 374–5 (LA 4).
  • ^ [23] - Lipiński 2004, 86; Greenfield 1987; Masson 1977.
  • ^ [24] - Price 1991, 381 and pl. CXLIX (P127–8)
  • ^ [25] - Diodoros Siculus XIX, 59, 1; 62,6; 79,4.
  • ^ [26] - Parmentier 1987
  • ^ [27] - Ps-Scylax 103; Cf. Lipiński 2004, 267–8.
  • ^ [28] - Gjerstad 1979.
  • ^ [29] - Nicolaou and Flinder 1976; Strabo mentions an anchorage and dockyards (Geography, XIV, 6, 3).
  • ^ [30] - Nicolaou 1980, fig. 1; Pococke 1743–5, vol. II, pt. 1, 223: Cf. Cobham 1908 [1986], 261 citing Mariti 1769, vol. 1, 125.
  • ^ [31] - Myres 1946, 76–7 and fig. 3; also pl. 22,1; Harrnanta in Harmanta and Stylianou 1969.
  • ^ [32] - Harmanta in Stylianou and Harmanta 1969, 10 and fig. 2; Nicolaou 1980; IG XII, 1 no. 867 (cf. Masson 1977b, 328).
  • ^ [33] - Ptolemy, Geography V 13, 50. Cf. Mitford 1980, esp. 1325–7 for an overview of the evidence for Roman Lapithos; also Harmanta in Stylianou and Harmana 1969 passim.
  • ^ [34] - Merrillees 2009 for a full history of the discovery of the First Treasure.
  • ^ [35] - Stylianou in Stylianou and Harmanta 1969.
  • ^ [36] - House 1979.
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