A Look at Ancient Cyprus
By “Awake!” correspondent in Cyprus
CYPRUS is an island in the northeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea, situated about 45 miles (72 kilometers) south of Asia Minor and some 67 miles (108 kilometers) west of the Syrian coast.
It is of interest that the Bible mentions Cyprus several times. Evidently “Kittim” of the Hebrew Scriptures refers to this island. (Isa. 23:1, 12; Dan. 11:30) Because of its geographical location, Cyprus became a target of conquest for many world empires. When the apostle Paul and his companion Barnabas arrived at Cyprus for Christian missionary work about 47 C.E., the dominating world power was Rome. Two cities of Cyprus visited by Paul and Barnabas are of special interest to Christians, namely, Salamis on the east coast and Paphos on the west.
Salamis reportedly was founded around the 12th century B.C.E. by Teucer, a hero of the Trojan War. Teucer brought his native religion to Cyprus. Thus, Zeus became a principal god worshiped on this island in ancient times.
During the reign of King Evagoras (410?-374 B.C.E.), Salamis enjoyed a golden era. Distinguished orators from Athens emigrated to Salamis. King Evagoras encouraged the arts and supported commerce, and the town was viewed as “second to none of the Greek cities in civilization.”
A Cypriot fleet of 120 ships led by one of the kings of Salamis assisted Alexander the Great in his war with the Persians. Cyprus eventually came under rule by the Ptolemies, who made Salamis their seat of government. During this period, many Jews established themselves in Cyprus.
When Roman power dominated Cyprus in 58 B.C.E., the seat of government was transferred from Salamis to Paphos. Nevertheless, Salamis continued as a great commercial center in the Empire. The Romans referred to Salamis as the “Emporium of the East.”
As Salamis was famous for commerce, Paphos became known for its religion, which was the worship of Aphrodite (Venus), goddess of love, beauty and fertility. According to mythology, Aphrodite was born out of sea foam just off the coast of Paphos. This prompted the building of a temple and sanctuary to the goddess on a promontory overlooking the spot. It was the most famous of Aphrodite’s shrines in antiquity. A town known as Palaepaphos or Old Paphos grew up around the temple. The kings of the city were also high priests of the cult of Aphrodite and wielded great influence throughout the island. However, Old Paphos was destroyed by an earthquake toward the end of the 12th century B.C.E.
Approximately 10 miles (16 kilometers) west of Old Paphos, there sprang up another city called New Paphos. It was under the rule by the Ptolemies that New Paphos gained prominence and became a naval and military base. But the city reached its zenith when Rome conquered Cyprus, as already stated, in the year 58 B.C.E. New Paphos became the island’s capital and Rome’s representative resided there.
Under Rome’s domination, the shrine of Aphrodite was a focal point for pilgrims from all parts of the Empire. Among its patrons were Roman emperors. Pilgrims arrived at the natural harbor at New Paphos. At nearby Yeroskipou (Greek: Hieros-Kipos, or Sacred Garden) the pilgrims assembled for annual spring festivities in Aphrodite’s honor. To the accompaniment of music, solemn processions would make their way to the temple and sanctuary of the goddess some miles away. There were sacrifices and initiations into mystic rites. The fertility goddess was not represented as a human figure. Rather, her symbol was a conical stone object, which was anointed with oil on great festive occasions. Roman coins depict the temple and its conical idol. It is reported that the temple rites featured religious prostitution.
By the fourth century C.E., New Paphos had become the victim of severe earthquakes. Reduced to a small village, the city never did regain its former glory. Today, both the ruins of the temple of Aphrodite and New Paphos are a great attraction for visitors from all over the world. Tourists are able to see the fine mosaics of New Paphos, the ruins of the Roman governor’s palace, and the city walls.
Treasures hidden beneath the ground of the old city gradually are coming to light with various archaeological expeditions. An inscription from around 55 C.E. that includes the words “in the proconsulship of Paulus” was uncovered on the island. This supports the Bible account that Roman administration of the island was carried out through proconsuls. In fact, the proconsul of the apostle Paul’s day was named Sergius Paulus.
It is clear that this island’s inhabitants, who worshiped Zeus and Aphrodite, were in great need of the Christian message brought by Paul and Barnabas. Did the efforts of these early missionaries bear good fruitage on Cyprus? Well, consider the Scriptural account on this point:
“They [Paul and Barnabas] sailed away to Cyprus. And when they got to be in Salamis they began publishing the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. They had John also as an attendant.
“When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they met up with a certain man, a sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew whose name was Bar-Jesus, and he was with the proconsul Sergius Paulus, an intelligent man. Calling Barnabas and Saul to him, this man earnestly sought to hear the word of God. But Elymas the sorcerer (that, in fact, is the way his name [Bar-Jesus] is translated) began opposing them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith. Saul, who is also Paul, becoming filled with holy spirit, looked at him intently and said: ‘O man full of every sort of fraud and every sort of villainy, you son of the Devil, you enemy of everything righteous, will you not quit distorting the right ways of Jehovah? Well, then, look! Jehovah’s hand is upon you, and you will be blind, not seeing the sunlight for a period of time.’ Instantly a thick mist and darkness fell upon him, and he went around seeking men to lead him by the hand. Then the proconsul, upon seeing what had happened, became a believer, as he was astounded at the teaching of Jehovah.”—Acts 13:4-12.
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Ruins of Salamis