Have you noticed our penchant for visiting different villages? This is because we believe that unlike large cities (however historically-oriented they may be), villages can be a true oasis of history. And some Cypriot villages are particularly amazing in regard to preserving the past. Our destination for today is Idalium — one of the most important city-states that ever existed in Cyprus. Come join us!
Idalium (or Idalion, Ιδάλιον — in Greek) was founded on the copper trade in the 3rd millennium BC. The earliest traces of human presence were discovered in Agridi and date back to circa 7000 BC. Starting in the 18th century BC and up until the 11th century the region’s residents maintained trade connections with the nearby Mediterranean countries, which meant that Idalium (or what is now modern Dali) was constantly inhabited and visited by different people.
The emergence of a kingdom and the construction of the city of of Idalium marked the peak of its economic and cultural prosperity.
But let’s first figure out where and how the city got its name. The word "Ed-di-al" first appears in the 8th century BC on the Sargon Stele of 707 BC. And a little later it appears on the Prism of Esarhaddon (a hexagonal stone column belonging to another assyrian king who ruled the island during the period of 680-669 BC). The artefact features an inscription in a Babylonian dialect that lists the names of the rulers conquered by the assyrian king, including Ekishtura — the ruler of Edi’il (Idalion).
The first inhabitants of the polis , were known as Eteocypriots — or “true” and “original” Cypriots. The city started growing and expanding to the north of the Yialias river — in the area that we now know as Agios Sozomenos.
Starting from the 13th century BC the inhabitants of Ed-di-al took up various kinds of work on the south side of Yialias river. That area is now home to the village of Dali. In the 8th century BC the settlement turned into a large polis that specialized in copper trade.
Since the polis was run by the Assyrians (and brutally so: they would execute all rebels), who worshipped the goddess Ishtar (“Inanna” in Sumerian) in their home region, the inhabitants of Idalium too began venerating the deity. The cult of Inanna-Ishtar is thought to have emerged in the 11h century BC and continued throughout antiquity, including the Roman period. According to the classical mythology, Astarta (the name of Ishtar in Greek) was the daughter of Syria and Cyprus. (To learn more about Cypriot myths and gods, please read this).
So let’s talk about this goddess, whose cult continued to flourish here for a very long time.
Ishtar – Astarta – Aphrodite
The goddess Ishtar is a central female deity in ancient Mesopotamian mythology. Originally she was portrayed using androgynous features — the same that were later attributed to some versions of Aphrodite. Ishtar was venerated as a patroness of fertility, love and sex. But she was also associated with war. Her name, which can also be pronounced as Ashtar or Astarta in Greek (Αστάρτη), comes from the name of the planet Venus.
And so the ancient city became the centre of the worship of the Great Goddess of Cyprus, the "Wanassa" or Queen of Heaven, known as Aphrodite, and her consort the "Master of Animals.” Incidentally, according to a Cypriot antique legend, ancient Idalium is where Adonis — Aphrodite's lover — was killed.
An ancient polis
Proximity to copper deposits, which were mined in the northern part of the Troodos mountains, as well as the trade ports on the eastern and southern coasts of Cyprus helped Idalium reach prosperity quickly.
Greeks were the first people to rule the polis. This fact is reflected in the famous Idalion Tablet (which we will get back to later when we visit the Museum). The inscription on the Tablet states that the last person to rule Idalium was Stakispros, who governed according to democratic principles, creating policies and passing laws together with the Citizen Council. These laws were documented and discovered inside one of the central churches. A written record also states the ruler of Idalium was also one of its biggest landowners and his land was carefully documented and registered.
Now let’s move to the subject of city planning. The layout of Idalium included two acropolises. An acropolis (which translated from Greek means a “topmost city”) was a settlement built upon an area of elevated ground and intended for purposes of defense and protection of citizens. The city’s fortified palace was one of the biggest and most majestic castles the island had ever seen. It was built atop the Ampileri Hill in 750-600 BC. The eastern acropolis is located on an area of elevated ground known as Moutti tou Arvil, which was also home to the temples dedicated to Aphrodite, Apollo and several other gods.
The northern part of Idalium was home to a nymphaeum (also known as nymphaion or νυμφαῖον in Greek) — a natural grotto, which was turned into a monument dedicated to the nymphs. The Idalium nymphaeum features inscriptions that date back to 225-218 BC.
The majority of the population lived in the “lower” part of the city, which was either on the slope of the hill or at the foot of the elevated land. This was the most populated area in the city.
In the 5th century BC the so-called “lower city” was similarly fortified with a wall and a rampart. The kingdom continued to thrive until the 5th century BC, when its capital was besieged and conquered by the Phoenician kings from Kition.
The first mention of non-Cypriot population in the area dates back to circa 550 BC and is part of the Phoenician inscriptions discovered inside the Adonis sanctuary located in the eastern acropolis.
In 450 BC the city was besieged and conquered by the Phoenicians, who arrived from the nearby Kition. The Idalium Palace became their administrative headquarters and later during archaeological research conducted in the area scientists discovered a whole “archive” of tax records. Under the Kition rule the polis became the center of worship for the cult of Aphrodite and the Greco-Phoenician Reseph-Apollo.
Starting from approximately 300 BC the palace and the western acropolis became abandoned and the urban center shifted to the eastern acropolis closer to the temple of Aphrodite and Adonis, whom the residents of Idalium continued to worship.
We know that the polis also survived through the Hellenic and Roman periods, but the extent of its reach and importance remains unknown.
There is occasional mention of Idalium in the poetic elegies written by a Latin poet Sextus Propertius (50-15 BC). He refers to the city as being “drenched in the scent of rosemary.” Other poets to celebrate Idalium call it a place where Venus (the Greek goddess Aphrodite) met her lover Adonis (several sources claim that originally Adonis was her husband and patron).
This place is particularly valuable because it is a rare example of a historic site that hadn’t been pillaged and whose artifacts remained untouched up until the second half of the 19th century. This enabled scientists to get a better picture of the city and the time period.
However, things didn’t progress so well afterwards, when Luigi Palma di Chesnola — an American consul of Italian descent, brought his “black archeological” methods to the island. During his time in Cyprus (1865-1877) he managed to export a large collection of ceramics and limestone statues from Dali, bringing them to the US. More than 3000 burial sites had been cleaned out as a result of his involvement. Three ships loaded with their content had left the coast of Cyprus shortly afterwards. Though one ship had subsequently sunk in the Mediterranean sea, the other two safely made it to New York. The artifacts they carried are now part of the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The museum’s first director, who was an ardent researcher and diplomat, had published several books on the subject of Cypriot antiques and received a number of awards from Columbia and Princeton University.
At the same time, in 1868 British consul Hamilton Lang began putting together a private collection of antiquities during his time on the island. As Wikipedia states, he conducted “his own excavations” in 1871-1872 specifically around the village of Dali, or what was then known as Idalium. He discovered a sanctuary that had been classified as the “Temple of Apollo,” which housed 142 limestone sculptures bearing inscriptions in the Phoenician and Cypriot languages. Obviously, most of them are now part of the expansive collection of the British Museum. The rest of the artifacts, which weren’t acquired by the British Museum, made it into the Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow. Similar to the director of the Metropolitan Museum, Lang would publish literature on the history of Cyprus.
Following the passing of a law in 1905, which prohibited the removal of antiquities from the island, things started to slowly change. In 1927 a separate joint expedition conducted by a group of Swedish and Cypriot researchers began its work on the island, specifically focusing on Idalium.
The researchers were able to locate the remains of the city walls close to the western acropolis. They also identified six different periods of city planning in the history of the polis and came to a conclusion that the area may have been first inhabited as far back as 1200 BC.
They also uncovered parts of the palace as well as sculptures and other artifacts from what used to be the Adonis Temple. One of their most significant discoveries was the famous Idalium Tablet (5th century BC), which we will get back to later when we visit the Museum.
Idalium — an archeological site
We began our visit by stopping in front of the remains of what once was a large ancient polis. Heat isn’t a problem here since most of the pedestrian areas and excavation sites are covered by an awning to protect from sunlight and precipitation. Meanwhile, metal bridges, podiums and passageways make you feel like you are soaring above this historical site.
Recent excavations have only revealed the basic buildings and facilities (or rather their remains) that played an important role in the life of the city. Later on, when I was at the Museum one of its employees told me that every year the surfaces of these remains are treated with a special solution (a mixture of ground rock and cement) that preserves them.
The archeological site of Idalium has been quite carefully catalogued and its remains have been systematized and incorporated into museum collections across the island (including the Museum of Cyprus). There is modern infrastructure for the visitors and a museum, which is also the information center. At the same time, work still carries on here and there is plenty to be uncovered and researched.
This open air exhibition invites its visitors on a relaxed tour of its grounds: each section is numbered and catalogued (the Cyprus Department of Antiquities has published a report on the findings). The site seems to have everything except for one thing: there are no descriptions. But it is still a work in progress and you might just see the new descriptions when you visit Idalium.
One of the areas available for viewing is the central part of the ancient capital located on the slope of a high hill. It is the perfect spot to survey the surrounding fields, gardens and the nearby villages of Dali, Pera Chorio, Nisou and others.
And since the site is situated in a rather remote location and reality is almost imperceptible here, it is easy to pretend for a moment that you are seeing the island the way it was centuries ago and the city behind you is still alive and thriving. Try it out — it’s fun!
Walking down the suspended metal passageways that oversee the ancient streets, we see remains of the foundations and walls and one can try and imagine how they were once part of real buildings and facilities. The remains of the buildings found in the vicinity of what was once an agora will surprise you with the massive scale of their building blocks, which were mounted on top of each other. Clearly, Idalium was at the forefront of technological innovation, which included urban planning practices as well (the municipal water supply system, whose fragments are still present, serve as proof of that).
I was impressed to see the level of skill with which the archeologists have been able to study and preserve tall buildings. We can now stand at ground level and peek into their basement facilities that reveal fragments of pipes, drains, wells and drainage basins.
And even without additional information, you can easily figure out that there was a large square in the center of the polis surrounded at the perimeter with buildings of different use. Buildings of public importance and wealthy private houses were located nearby. The farther one moved away from the square, the smaller the buildings became. Meanwhile, the presence of stone mills and interconnected reservoirs suggests unmistakably that these were once craft studios and olive production shops.
As I mentioned before, the city was once surrounded with a massive wall, which reminds me of the Venetian art of fortification. Guarding Idalium — now a city of ghosts — from the rest of the world, it is still as impressive as it must have been in the past.
There is a path running up the hill towards an excavation site where archaeological work still continues. It is possible that the area will soon be available to the visitors.
It is best to come to Idalium in the morning when the heat is still at its minimum and you have enough time to roam around and enjoy the site as well as its surroundings. But it is a worthy destination no matter when you end up coming here.
Towards the end of my visit I received a piece off unsettling information from the staff: it turns out that the asphalt road that connects the central street of Archbishop Makarios III to the polis on the hill runs through the graves of the common people. The contents of these graves have been extracted, researched and laid back to rest. Pretty creepy, if you ask me.
All these interesting facts are also important because thanks to them we know that Idalium had once reached farther than the acropolis — the only thing we can see today.
The site is connected to the museum via a nice unpaved road. As I strolled down the hill I enjoyed the view of the fields, the old olives and the apiaries.
It was founded in 2007 with the goal of promoting the valuable research taking place in the area that was once the ancient city Idalium. With time it began to function as an information center for the visitors coming to see one of the most significant archeological sites in Cyprus. Museum staff will most likely say that the excavation process is over and all of the findings can now be viewed within the walls of the museum, with the exception of a few unresearched spots, which the archeologists are planning to get to soon.
The modern steel-frame building features a minimalist design, which serves as a perfect framework for an archeological exhibition. There is a patio with a large olive tree in the center of the building that turns into a walk-through hallway. The hallway resembles a magical portal, which in a way invites its visitors on a journey into the past. Afterall, aren’t museums supposed to do just that?
As soon as you enter, you will be greeted by very polite security personnel, which in our case turned out to be pretty decent tour guides too.
I was shown the museum of Lambis and Kiryakos. But before that I was invited to watch a 15-minute long documentary about Idalium, which talks about the history of the area and the research conducted here.
The exhibition is divided into different chronological periods in the history of Idalium. The objects on display here are all a result of old and new research conducted both within the limits of the city (inside the administrative, public and private buildings as well as the homes of local craftsmen) and in the local necropolis.
The first exhibition hall is also a lecture room: you will be introduced to the history of the city through various texts (in English and Greek) and photographs. Displays feature information on how the city came to be researched and the results that the research yielded. The curators also chose to include information on the artifacts that were recovered in modern Dali, but later ended up in foreign museum collections, where they remain to this day.
The first significant museum objects are two proto-aeolic, limestone column capitals decorated with a floral relief that date back to the 6th-5th centuries BC. The columns used to stand inside the burial complexes and also decorated the palace of Idalium. Overall their decor and design are a prototype of a capital of an ionic order. In addition to that, there are two typical examples of the art of engraved gems.
The Idalion Tablet
One of the main objects on display at the museum is the bronze tablet located in the first hall. It is an exact replica of the Idalion Tablet — a 5th-century BC bronze tablet engraved with a Cypriot syllabic script. The original tablet was discovered by a farmer, who was working his land in Dali in an area that was once western acropolis.
Shortly after its discovery the tablet became a valuable part of the private collection of then French consul Duc De Luynes, who later gifted the tablet to the National Library (the Cabinet des médailles collection in Paris). Experts say the tablet is of exceptional importance to the history of the Cypriot kingdoms. It contains important information on the island’s political system and socio-economic conditions during the war with the Phoenicians, who came here from Kition. The script of the tablet is in the Cypriot syllabary, which is written from right to left, and is engraved on both sides. There is a Greek translation underneath the tablet.
The inscription includes an agreement between king Stakispros and the citizens of Idalium on one side and a physician named Onasilon on the other. The physician promises to provide free medical treatment to those wounded in the war (478-470 BC), when the Persians and the Phoenicians tried to conquer Idalium.
The king offered to pay Onasilon back with either a silver ingot or a plot of tax-free land. The text also reveals the fact that the king was a major landowner, since the land that he offered to the physician used to be his own. In addition to this, we learn that the authorities recognized and kept a record of private land borders, which is equivalent to the modern cadastre.
Finally, the tablet informs us of the fact that the high priestess in the temple of Aphrodite was among the other landowners. Historians say this confirms the theory that religion played an important role in the life of the state and had control over relations of production.
The tablet was kept at the temple of Astarte-Aphrodite — located at one of the acropolises. This
was a joint decision by the ruler and the citizens — a fact that reflects the emergence of democratic principles in the political system of the kingdom. Meanwhile, the government’s concern for its people exhibited in the king’s keenness to provide free medical care to the wounded during the war is one of the first examples of government-provided social assistance.
The second hall begins with an exhibition of inscriptions — records of how the kingdom was conquered. This part of the museum also contains a part of the archive kept by the Phoenician government, various burial monuments as well as everyday household objects from different time periods of the kingdom’s history — everything is accompanied by a written description. The exhibition also includes the artifacts brought from Attica as well as typical examples of pottery and stone sculpture.
Among the objects that we found of particular interest was a white stone stele with a syllabic inscription. It dates back to 425-400 BC and belongs to Baalmelek II — the Phoenician king of Kition and Idalium.
Сeramics, which date back to the geometric period, small pottery, sculptures and various tools are exhibited on the right side of the hall. They are arranged in a chronological order.
Larger objects are exhibited on the left side next to the stele and include pithoi (storage containers) and a krater (used to mix water and wine) made of white stone and engraved with what looks like the faces of two Phoenician men.
The heart of the exhibition is a black krater (carefully pieced together by the restoration artists just like all the other clay objects in the room).
At the end of the hall there is a separate section dedicated to numismatics, jewelry and plastic arts. There are quite a number of curious statues on exhibit here (anthropomorphic male figures made of limestone and zoomorphic ceramic figures), large human-sized sculptures that are predominantly limestone-made (e.g. a male torso), etc. The first and the second halls contain a couple of lovely female and male heads — such objects usually draw the attention of adults and children alike.
Compared to other museums in Cyprus, this one is relatively small. But it was designed with so much thought and care that you will most likely want to stay here a little longer, gaining new knowledge and expanding your horizons.
The space where you will purchase your ticket also contains a small gift shop selling books on archeology, history and art as well as greeting cards and other memorabilia.
The foyer has several water fountains and benches.
We have talked about researchers from the past, but what about contemporary findings? The year 2012 was one of the most productive years in this regard.
At the end of 2012 the Ministry of Transportation together with the Department of Antiquities announced the completion of the 22nd excavation session conducted on the Ampileri hill — the location of the palace. As you know already, during Idalium’s later historical period, this used to be its administrative headquarters. Continuous archeological research was conducted here under the auspices of Dr. Maria Hadjicosti — the director of the Department of Antiquities. She was assisted by Stavros Lagos, senior technical director, and Kiryakos Capitanis, who put together the landmap of the kingdom.
The session continued for 9 months every year and involved two prominent foreign archaeologists: Dr. Anna Satraki and Harris Papadopoulou. Numerous other Cypriot and foreign archaeologists, students and volunteers took part in the process.
The result: scientists uncovered large facilities such as storage areas, workshops and water supply rooms, which expand our understanding of the palace and its use as an administrative center, but also a palatial complex.
The following excavation sessions covered a larger area (5.5 square kilometers) and continued to the north and west of the terrace on the Ampileri hill.
Contemporary research promises to transform this site into a large archeological park that includes the museum of the ancient Idalium, which was founded in 2007 and opened to the public in 2008.
The research conducted in 2012 focused on one of the interior courtyards and two neighborhoods located to the south of the road. The scientists put together descriptions of the objects and their exact size. The artifacts were presented to the public.
The results of this excavation session confirmed many of the ideas that ensued from the earlier research. So, for example, traces of a major fire were discovered on both floors of a roadside building. Similar traces were also detected on the steps of a narrow passageway, which led to the inner courtyard. The artifacts discovered inside this building mostly included weapons and horseshoes — all of this pointed to the fact that this used to be a garrison tower.
Meanwhile, the buildings that stood adjacent to it were intended for high-ranking officials of Idalium.
The southern neighborhood, which was pretty big, revealed the absence of symmetry present in the northern neighborhood. This neighborhood was home to metalwork shops. Water canals, reservoirs and pools were also discovered here. One of the facilities housed large amphoras and pithoi used to store water, oil, grains, fish. This space was most likely a storage facility serving the nearby towers. The ceramics discovered in Idalium include examples of locally produced objects as well as those imported from abroad (e.g. the numerous pointed amphoras that were popular in Hanaan, Phoenicia).
There is a limited amount of decorated ceramics and a huge amount of slag discovered in the southern part of the excavation site. Among other things discovered by the researchers were attic ceramics, weaponry, metal tools, bronze sheets, shield decorations, coins, a small number of stone and ceramic statues as well as stone tools and bowls.
Particularly noteworthy are the numerous inscriptions found in the center of the square and inside some of the rooms of the southern building. These inscriptions belong to the Phoenician government and pertain to various economic issues.
You can watch this video dedicated to an expedition by members of Lycoming College (Pennsylvania) to learn about some of the later findings (e.g. those made in 2015).
Sources and reading list:
- Radner, Karen. The Stele of Sargon II of Assyria at Kition: A focus for an emerging Cypriot identity?
- Mitford, Terence (1980). The Nymphaeum of Kafizin: the inscribed pottery. Walter de Gruyter. Retrieved 2010-04-25
- Cypro-Syllabic script Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa
- Marie-Louise Winbladh. Idalion — abode for the goddess of love and war. The work of the Swedish Cyprus Expedition
- Chadwick, John (1987). Linear B and Related Scripts. Reading the Past. London and Berkeley: British Museum and University of California Press
- Mitford, T. B. The Nymphaeum of Kafizin. The Inscribed Pottery. Kadmos Supplement 2. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1980
- P. Gaber «The History of History: Excavations at Idalion and the Changing History of a City-Kingdom» NEA Vol.71, 2008
- L. Stager, A. Walker, American Expedition to Idalion Cyprus 1973–1980, Oriental Institute Press, Chicago 1989
- L.Stager, A. Walker, and G.E. Wright, eds. American Expedition to Idalion: First Preliminary Reports: Seasons of 1971 and 1972. ASOR, Cambridge, MA.
One last thing I want to mention before wrapping up my story is a small request for those, who want to visit Cypriot museums on their own.
Please pay attention and try not to touch any of the objects on display (including those that are openly displayed either because of their large size or by the curator’s design). I hope you understand the reasoning behind this.
We hope you enjoy your visit to the Museum in Dali as well as the numerous other museums of Cyprus.
Entrance fee: 2.5 euros.
Working hours: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday 8:00 – 15:00; Thursday 8:00 – 17:00.
For additional information please visit the Department of Antiquities’ website: www.mcw.gov.cy.
More information on Dali and Idalium: www.dali.org.cy.
Getting to the museum and Idalium:
By car: it takes 20-25 minutes to get there from Nicosia. Take Route A1 (Nicosia-Larnaca/Limassol). Follow the signs and take the exit for Route B1 (Lemesou Street). Then take Route B2 (first left turn after the Bank of Cyprus down Archbishop Makarios III Street) until you reach the Museum and its parking lot.
If you turn right before reaching the Museum, you will reach the archeological site of Idalium.
See you soon!
 To learn more about Cypriot polises read this.