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The ancient kingdom of Lapethos

The pretty villages of Lapithos and Karavas nestle in the foothills of the Kyrenia mountains close to the north coast of Cyprus. Behind them rises the dramatic peak of Kyparissovouno, one of the Pentadaktylos or ‘five fingers’, as the Kyrenia range is sometimes called. The surrounding countryside, with its fertile agricultural land, citrus orchards and extensive grazing, has supported human life for thousands of years. The landscape here is well watered, thanks to the numerous streams and wells fed with rain captured by the steep mountains behind. The facing sea adds further to the natural advantages of the area, and has also played a crucial part in the life of the local populations over the centuries. As a result of these natural advantages, the area around Lapithos and Karavas, and also further east towards Kyrenia and Bellapais, are rich in archaeological sites, which attest to millennia of human occupation.[1]

This chapter focuses on objects from the British Museum collections illustrating the history of the kingdom of Lapethos (Λάπηθος in Greek or Lpš in Phoenician), which flourished in the area of northern Cyprus now centred on Lapithos and Karavas, together with the village of Larnaka-tis-Lapithou on the south side of the Kyrenia mountains. Of particular importance is a collection of 20 small terracotta figurines of worshippers or priestesses, found in a cave sanctuary close to the modern village of Lapithos. The shrine flourished from the sixth century BC onwards and appears to have been dedicated to a goddess concerned with sex, fertility and childbirth.

In addition, the British Museum preserves numerous beautifully designed examples of coinage issued by the rulers of Lapethos, which illustrate the history of the area during the 5th and 4th centuries BC. The main centre of the kingdom appears to have been located at the coastal site now known as Lambousa below the village of Karavas. It was at Lambousa too that another extremely important find from the area, also preserved in the British Museum, was found at the very end of the 19th century. This is the exquisite hoard of silver ecclesiastical objects known as the First Cyprus (or Lambousa) Treasure. It was probably buried for safekeeping during the Arab raids of the 7th century AD. Around this period the ancient capital was abandoned and the population moved inland to the site of the modern villages of Lapithos and Karavas.

Note: In this chapter, Lapethos with an ‘e’ refers to the ancient kingdom and its main centre, whereas Lapithos with an ‘i’ is the name of the modern village. The ancient Greek form also varies, but the transliteration here is based on the spelling Λάπηθος (see Masson 1977b for an account of the name).

  • ^ [1] - Myres 1946, 73; Catling 1963, 138; Herscher 1978,1; papers in Smith 2008.
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