Kourion The Ancient City-Kingdom

Aerial view of Kourion's ancient city center, with the Agora, Basilica, Baths, and the House of the Gladiators marked

Set high atop south Cyprus’ coastal cliffs, Kourion must certainly have presented an imposing sight to prospective invaders during the height of its power as one of the island’s 12 City Kingdoms in the 5th century B.C. Kourion is without doubt a site of great antiquity.

Herodotus tells of Kourion in his Terpsichore.  Epigraphs found at Medinet Habu in Egypt date the founding of the city to around 1200 B.C, which puts it to about the time of the Trojan War.

Herodotus  describes the Curians when they were fighting against the Persians, during the height of their power in the 5th century B.C. In 332 B.C, Kourion is mentioned again when its last king aided Alexander the Great in the siege of Tyre, on the coast of Lebanon.

Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s generals established the Ptolemeic Dynasty when Alexander’s Empire was carved up after his death. It controlled Cyprus and the whole eastern Mediterranean until the arrival of Pompey Magnus  who annexed the island for Rome in 58BC.

 

kourion-amphitheater

Panoramic view of the Agora at Kourion

Kourion was much the same as other major cities of the region which were influenced by Hellenistic, Ptolemaic, and Roman city planning, except Kourion’s expansion was limited to the top of the plateau-like area.

The agora was central, public baths, municipal buildings, temples, villas and other dwellings developed out from and adjacent to the central agora.

Underfloor Heating System at Kourion Baths

Underfloor Heating at Kourion Baths

Mosaic depicting Achilles discovery by Odysseus

Mosaic from the House of Achilles

Kourion had a diverse population made up of ethnic groups from the neighboring countries, but it was mostly Hellenistic. By the 4rd century there was a Christian quarter in Kourion, though exactly where is unknown.  A small bronze ring with Chi-Rho found in the ruins of the earthquake of 365AD indicates a Christian presence.

Archaeologists are not sure if the House of Achilles was a private residence or a civic reception hall, but whatever its use the building had lovely, high quality mosaics which indicate a place of high standing.

The House of the Gladiators was a complex where gladiators lived and trained, in the Palaestra. The names of perhaps some of the most famous fighters are preserved even today in what’s left of the mosaic floor.

Mosaic depicting gladiatorial combat between Margaritis and Ellenikos, from the House of the Gladiators at Kourion

Mosaic from the House of the Gladiators

Although Kourion’s political and economic fortunes may have somewhat declined during the first centuries of the new millennium, one thing it had retained throughout this time was its status as one of the most important pagan cult-centers in Cyprus.

The Sanctuary of Apollo is located only a mile to the west of the city. Under the Romans, Apollo’s prominence grew stronger. The birthplace of Aphrodite and her sanctuary, even older than the Apollo, was only a day’s journey west on the Roman road. Thus Cyprus was a prime pilgrimage destination of the Roman Empire.

The five large dormitories accommodated large numbers of pilgrims simultaneously at the Santcuary of Apollo.

kourion-apollo-templeThe Temple of Apollo partially reconstructed
kourion-apollo-temple-columns

Dormintories

Stone Arches at Kourion Basilica

The Christian period began in Kourion in the late 4th century. Bishop Zeno of Kourion, oversaw the building of the great basilica which was constructed over the ruins of a major temple. After 380AD when Theodosius I proclaimed Christianity the only religion of the Roman Empire, Christian architecture began to flourish throughout the island and the empire.

It would not be until 391AD, however, that funding to temples from the empire would stop, and the ancient Temple of Apollo that had been a cult center for over a 1000 years would finally be abandoned; paganism had finally come to an end. In the 5th Century many of the most beautiful basilicas of Christendom were built over the ruins of the pagan structures.

READ MORE: Kourion: Temple of Apollo   Kourion: The Gladiators

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