Contemporary Cyprus is permeated with history and one oftentimes feels compelled to take a journey into its past. Our destination for today is the archaeological museum of Kourion (Κούριον in Greek and Curium in Latin). It is located on the site of one of the most important ancient city-kingdoms. Today it houses an impressive number of monuments, which have helped to solve many mysteries.
We begin our tour with a small museum exhibition in Episcopi.
The Archaeological Museum
The local archeological museum of Kourion is located in Episcopi village, which is near Limassol. It is housed inside a former private residence (1937) of George McFadden, Assistant Dean at the University of Pennsylvania, who conducted archeological research in Kourion and its vicinity starting from 1934 and until his death in 1953. The building then fell under the supervision of the Department of Antiquities of Cyprus and part of it was converted into a museum, which opened on December 15, 1969.
Its two exhibition halls house numerous archeological findings made over the course of many years of research in the area. The first hall displays ceramics (from the Geometric period) and glass-made objects (many of these items have been carefully restored), coins from the classical and byzantine periods, jewelry made of gold, peridot, amethyst and pearls, fragments of sculptures (small-size bronze sculptures, large-size limestone and marble pieces). This hall also houses Early Christian mosaics as well as copper-made household objects. Many of the objects uncovered in Kourion have become part of the collection of the country’s main museum — the Archeological Museum in Nicosia. However, thanks to the new decentralization policy it has become easier to support and create local archeological exhibitions.
The permanent exhibition is not limited to merely handmade artifacts, aerial photographs of the site and reconstructed objects. The curators wanted to make sure the exhibition had the most dramatic effect on its viewers by revealing some of the tragic aspects if this ancient city’s life. Thus, be prepared to see scorched remains of amphoras, shattered basalt pedestals, fragments of ionic and corinthian capitals, as well as remains of a family, who failed to escape a dying city and were frozen in time in an eternal embrace. Despite the passage of many centuries, it is still a devastating sight.
We continue our tour of the museum as we move through a small, but brightly lit green garden into the other hall. This part of the museum features many small-size sculptures, white and red clay ceramics. Other objects include: cylinder-shaped seals, small-size, Archaic statues, examples of Egyptian plastic arts as well as limestone figures (possibly made for the Apollo temple) and ancient gold. Jewelry made of local gemstones is particularly worthy of attention.
Museum address: Episcopi village.
Working hours: Monday-Friday, 8am - 3.30pm
Telephone: +357 25932453
Entrance fee: 2.5 euros. You can either purchase a separate ticket for this museum, or follow our advice and purchase a day pass and see the entire Kourion for just 8.5 euros.
Please note that the museum likes to keep a record of all of its visitors, so you will be asked to leave your first and last name when you visit.
It took us five minutes to reach the entrance to the Kourion archeological site. There you will be asked to show (or purchase) your ticket. You will then enter the site of the former polis, which has a large parking lot. The first place to stop at is the information hall, which houses a model of the city-kingdom that reveals the vast scale of Kourion and allows you to figure out the route you want to take exploring it. There is a souvenir kiosk and a security station nearby.
Keep in mind: your walk through the park will be quite long, so make sure you bring enough water to stay hydrated. There will be no shops or kiosks selling water once you embark on your journey through Kourion.
Kourion: a little bit of history
According to a legend, Kourion was founded in the 12th century BC by the Argives, who came here from the west following the fall of the Mycenaean civilization. Even though this polis reached the height of its popularity during the Roman period, according to some of the earliest accounts, the Kouris river had already been populated and harvested during the Pottery Neolithic (5500-3900 BC) period. At the same time, the earliest remains uncovered in this ancient city date back to the Middle and Late Bronze Ages. The land on which the acropolis sits seems to have been inhabited starting from the Classical period (475-333 BC) and up until the Arab invasion in the 7th century.
There is mention of Kourion in several ancient works, including writings by Ptolemy (v 14.2), Stephanus of Byzantium, Hierocles of Alexandria and Pliny the Younger.
So, for example, Pasicrates, the ruler of Kourion, is mentioned in connection to Alexander the Great, whom he allegedly helped to lay siege to the city of Tyre in 332 BC. Pasicrates was Alexander’s vassal ruler, who was overturned during the Diadochi fight for control of the throne. His fall led to the disappearance of Cypriot monarchs on the island in 310 BC (Nicocreaon, the last king of Salamis, had committed suicide to escape Ptolmey’s soldiers). In 294 BC Ptolemy succeeded in uniting Cyprus with his Egyptian territories and Kourion falls under the control of the Ptolemy dynasty.
In 58 BC the Lex Clodia de Cyprus was passed by the Plebeian Council, which annexed the island and brought it under the Roman rule. Between the years 47 and 31 BC control over Cyprus was returned to the Ptolemy dynasty, namely to Marc Antony and Cleopatra VII Philopator. In 22 BC Cyprus, which had previously been separated from the province of Cilicia, became a senatorial province. Kourion used to be one of the most famous cities during the Roman period. According to religious writings, Kourion had converted to Christianity in the middle of the 1st century thanks to St. Paul and St. Barnabas, who came here as part of their missionary voyage. In 341 bishop Zeno of Verona played an important role in the Council of Ephesus, which saw the independence of the Church of Cyprus.
The polis was destroyed in an earthquake in the year 365.
Kourion has been struck by five massive earthquakes, which took place over the course of eighty years. In the beginning of the 5th century Kourion was entirely rebuilt and a new church complex was erected in the western part of the acropolis. In 649 Arab invasions led to the destruction of the acropolis, following which the center of the region was moved to Episcopi (the village was named after the bishop’s (Episcopus) residency.
Starting in 1933, the area became the subject of intensive research (conducted primarily by the University of Pennsylvania), which continued until 1954, with a short interruption during the Wold War. In 1974-1979 the American mission from the Byzantine Studies program at Dumbarton Oaks performed archeological research in the area of the Early Christian basilica in Kourion. The period from 1975 to 1998 saw the discovery of the agora, or the so-called Gladiator House, the small basilica located near the stadium and the coastal basilica. The Department of Antiquities is currently responsible for overseeing and maintaining research in the area.
Kourion’s main objects
The magnificent Greco-Roman theater, located in the central part of the acropolis, was erected in the 2nd century BC. It sits atop the northern slope of the hill, descending into the gates of Amatusa. This positioning took advantage of the hill in order to support the weight of this massive amphitheater. It is a typical arrangement for eastern Mediterranean theaters: viewers were supposed to sit facing the sea.
The stage was reconstructed in 64-65 by Quintus Julius Cordus, the suffect consul. It became significantly larger in size and new columns appeared along its perimeter. Further renovations and additions were made in the subsequent years. In the years 214 and 217 it was converted into an arena for gladiator games. Then in the year 250 it once again became a theater. But at the end of the 4th century the theater was shut down due to continuous seismic activity.
The theater made a comeback in 1961. Extended cavea were able to accomodate a larger audience (up to 3500 people). The venue is now used to host musical concerts and theatrical performances (mostly during the summer months), making it one of the most popular locations for large-scale cultural events (so, for example, the theater is used to host the International Festival of Antique Greek Drama).
Please note: the administration of Kourion asks its visitors to refrain from consuming food and beverages during their tour of the area.
Remains of the House of Eustolios are located to the east of the theater. This magnificent building, which was first used as a private villa and then as a public recreation center, was uncovered in 1938.
The House and Baths of Eustopolis are located along the south-eastern edge of the cliffs. They were uncovered by a group of researchers during the period between 1933 and 1948. What we see today is what remains of a residence that dates back to the 4th-5th centuries. The complex includes more than 30 different facilities, some of which were used for household needs and others were designed to house the baths.
The entrance into the complex used to be located on the western side. It led into a rectangular courtyard. The welcome sign read something along the lines of «enter with a blessing». Small rooms were located on the northern and southern sides of the courtyard (vestibule). There was also a peristyle in the southern part of the complex, which surrounded a pool and served as the central element of the residential quarters. Its porticos were adorned with four elaborate mosaics. An inscription betrays the name of its architect, who happens to be Eustolios himself — a man, «who erected this complex in order to ease the suffering of his fellow Kourion citizens» (this refers to the earthquake of 365).
Another inscription names Christ as the patron of this house. The northern part of the villa, was used to accommodate the servants as well as to house food supplies and marble baths that featured mosaic-covered floors. The most famous mosaic depicts the personification of Ktisis (the Creation of the Universe), who holds an architect’s ruler. The House of Eustolios was first designed as a private villa, but at the beginning of the 5th century it was transformed into a public baths complex.
The walls of some of the «cells» (this is what the residential quarters now resemble) seem to be covered with bubbles, while the floors are bulging here and there and there is a gray coating on the walls. We assumed that this is due to very high temperatures and possibly fire caused by one of the cataclysms from the past.
Despite the fact that this early-Roman villa was considered rather moderate in size, it had several floors (you can still see the stairs descending into the darkness of what was once either a basement or underground facilities) and was lavishly decorated. These remains invite us to imagine the layout: four panels of mosaic floors (5th century) in the central room and the baths complex, which was located on the upper level of a building nearby. The recently added awning allows the visitors to enjoy the view of the mosaics all year round, while the researchers are able to continue their work.
The baths themselves were built to the north and east of the central building — this is where the cold baths are located (frigidariums). There is a small tub located in front of each bath, which was used to wash the feet. There are remains of a hypocaust, which was used to warm the adjoining space (tepidarium) and a room with a hot plunge bath (caldarium) — all of this can still be seen today. The caldarium, for example, has retained in-built reservoirs for hot baths as well as the heating cells that supplied hot air into the hypocaust pushing it through specially designed funnels located under terracotta floors.
This complex is actually a result of serious modernization, which took place in the latter days of the Emperor Theodosios’ rule (408-450).
One thing to keep in mind: you have a chance to discover all of the objects at the Kourion Archaeological Site on your own. The park offers maps and information stands (available in braille for the visually impaired), comfortable wooden flooring, as well as awnings and gazebos, which are perfect if you want to take a break from the constant wind and scorching sun or to simply enjoy the incredible views. The park also offers an audio guide.
The floors inside the so-called House of Achilles and House of the Gladiators are just as impressive. Both villas were named after the scenes depicted on the mosaic floors.
The House of Achilles is located in the north-western part of Kourion, which connects the acropolis to the hills on the north and the west. It was situated outside the city walls and next to what is presumed to have been the location of the Paphos gates.
The House of Achilles was built at the beginning of the 4th century. The villa centers around a peristyle (an inner courtyard, surrounded by a colonnade), where fragments of mosaic porticos as well as granite columns still remain.
One of the more valuable pieces of the mosaic depicts a scene, where Odyssey discovers Achilles (a character from Greek mythology) with Lycomedes, the king of Scyros, who agreed to conceal Thetis’ son in order to protect him from the Trojan War.
Another room reveals fragments of a mosaic that depicts Thetis bathing her newborn. The next room has remains of a mosaic depicting the Kidnapping of Ganymede. Even though remains of the building were first identified as those of a private house, it is possible that this was in fact a public use facility.
Please note: unlike most other archeological sites, where visitors get to see the remains either through a fence or by walking on scaffolding, Kourion allows its visitors free access to most objects, while the remaining and partially restored fragments allow for a first-hand experience of the city that is no more. History lovers are sure to enjoy this unique opportunity.
The so-called House of the Gladiators is located to the southeast of the House of Achilles. It is attributed to the end of the 3rd century and is considered by some researchers to be either an elite private home or a public palestra (an ancient Greek gymnasium, where wrestling was the main subject). The latter theory is supported by the fact that the layout is missing rooms that would be suitable for residential use. The entrance into the building used to be on the east side and was connected to the bath complex. The main wing of the House is located around the peristyle. Its northern and eastern porticos feature mosaics that portray gladiator games. The eastern portico includes two panels, where in addition to the gladiators, we can see the figure of the judge and the names of the competitors (Margaritis and Ellinikos).
The park also houses remains of a Roman agora (the central square and market). Its layout dates back to the beginning of the 3rd century. The agora is situated atop what used to be another public building, which remained in use from the late 4th century BC and until the end of the Hellenic period (30 BC).
This place used to be surrounded by porticos that features marble columns on both sides. A public bath and a small nymphaeum (a church dedicated to nymphs, 1st century) were located on the northwestern side. The nymphaeum was constantly renovated, while its sanctuary was the site of regular religious rituals.
Early Christian Basilica is also located in Kourion and dates back to the 5th century. The basilica has its own baptistery (an annex used for baptisms). It was subsequently destroyed by Arab pirates in the 7th century.
The Northwestern Basilica: its remains were discovered to the northwest of the acropolis. The three-aisled, triapsal basilica dates back to the end of the 5th century. It could once be accessed through the peristyle. The church complex once had a chapel, which was located to the north of the main basilica. The northwestern basilica was also destroyed as a result of Arab invasions.
The Sanctuary of Apollo Hylates is located 1.7 kilometers to the west of the acropolis. We took route B6 to get there. The sanctuary is also considered to be part of the Kourion complex. As is expected of a sanctuary dedicated to the God of the woods (Υλη means «woods») and the patron of the polis, the temple was built outside the city, surrounded by lush groves. The sanctuary was a place of worship for all of the Cypriots for a very long period (until the 4th century). Various archaeological findings confirm this fact: the complex was erected at the end of the 8th century BC and was dedicated to some «God», who was most likely associated with fertility. By the middle of the 3rd century BC the sanctuary became associated with Apollo. During the early Roman period (1st century) the sanctuary went through a large-scale renovation project. Among the new additions were a monumental prostyle and a so-called «tolos» — a circular structure that encompassed elements from the previous version.
A new central street, which led to the church and was used for public processions was also built during this period. New buildings in the northwest and the southeast were added to the complex. The sanctuary continued growing under Emperor Trajan (98-117), who came to be associated with Apollo Hylates himself, which made the temple even more popular among the Romans. News baths and buildings were added during this period on the southern side of the complex. The sanctuary was destroyed by a powerful earthquake on July 21, 365.
This is what St. Jerome, a famous scientist and theologian (320-420), wrote about this natural disaster, which shook almost the entire Mediterranean region: «An earthquake happened [...] and the sea has submerged people and cities […] of many islands». Many contemporary sources cite researchers, who have tried to measure the tremors that shook the area within the 30 kilometer radius of Petra tou Romiou (meeting point of European and African tectonic plates). These researchers claim that Kourion was hit with a magnitude 11 earthquake (out of 12 possible) on the Richter scale.
Kourion Stadium (2nd century) is located approximately 0.5 kilometers west of the acropolis. It is the only sports venue that was used to host contests, competitions and chariot races. It was able to accommodate approximately 7 thousand people. The stadium was built during the rule of the Antonini Dynasty (130-180). Seats were arranged in a U-shaped manner on the southern, western and northern sides of the stadium. The stadium measured 187 meters in length and was wide enough to fit 8 runners.
Working hours: Summer (April 16 - September 15) 8.30am - 7.30pm; Winter (September 16 - April 15) 8.30am - 5pm.
Closed during the following holidays: Christmas, New Year, Easter Sunday.
Entrance fee: 4.5 euros, groups larger than 10 people eligible for a discount.
Telephone: +357 25934250
Relax and eat:
When you leave the archeological park, simply drive down towards the sea, the vineyards, the sugar plantations and the gardens. There among surfers riding the seawaves and paragliders soaring in the sky, is a selection of three restaurants, with terraces facing the sea.
Take a break and rest after your tour of Kourion. You can either choose among the various types of outdoor activities (e.g. horse-riding, paragliding, surfing etc.) or simply go sunbathing at the Kourion municipal beach.
Kourion Park is located at 3, Eschilou, Episcopi. All of the major cities in Cyprus offer tours to Kourion.
By car from Nicosia: take the route from Nicosia — Limassol (A1), then A6. After passing Ypsonas, follow the signs towards Episcopi and Erimi. Then follow the signs towards the «Archeological Site». Total driving time: 1 hour 15 minutes.
By car from Limassol: first take route A6, then route B6. Then follow the signs, passing the Church of St. Hermogenes (25 minutes).
By bus: Bus 16B Limassol — Episcopi (through Erimi). Exit at «Agios Hermogenes» stop.
More information: www.cyprusbybus.com
See you soon!