A Celebration of Cypriot Culture

Cyprus commemorates 50 years of nationhood and 11,000 years of civilization with an exhibition of more than 200 artifacts

Cypriot archaeologist Sophocles Hadjisavvas, with a 2000 B.C. jug, handpicked each artifact to chronicle the 11,000-year history of Cyprus. (Andrew Cutraro)
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Sophocles Hadjisavvas circles a display case containing a 4,000-year-old ceramic jug. Hand-pinched clay figures sprout from its top: a man stomping on a tub of grapes as another collects the juice, two bulls pulling a plow and three laborers kneading dough. Excavated from a tomb in Pyrgos, a town on the northern coast of Cyprus, the jug predates the earliest known example of writing on the Mediterranean island by at least 450 years. “This vessel is very, very important,” says Hadjisavvas. “It shows what life was like around 2000 B.C.”

Which is precisely what Hadjisavvas has been trying to do as guest curator for the National Museum of Natural History’s exhibition “Cyprus: Crossroads of Civilizations” (until May 1). For the show he selected some 200 artifacts—pottery, tools, sculptures, jewelry and paintings—representing everyday life from the time of the first settlers’ arrival from the Anatolia coast (modern-day Turkey) around 8500 B.C. to the 16th century A.D., when it became part of the Ottoman Empire. He handpicked each object from Cypriot museums and centuries-old monasteries—a process he compares to finding the right actors for a play.

“He makes it look effortless and easy, but it couldn’t have happened without someone of his caliber of scholarship,” says Melinda Zeder, curator of Old World archaeology for the Natural History Museum’s department of anthropology. Hadjisavvas, 66, has spent nearly 40 years excavating in Cyprus, where he was born, and where, from 1998 to 2004, he served as director of the Cyprus Department of Antiquities. Part curator, part archaeologist, he describes himself as a “museologist.”

Hadjisavvas peels back some packing material in a wooden crate to reveal a helmet and beveled wing of a 900-pound limestone sphinx, explaining how it and a matching sphinx in a neighboring crate likely stood guard 2,500 years ago at a tomb in Tamassos—formerly an important trading city that was mentioned by Homer in The Odyssey. Next, he turns a small bowl so that a glass seam faces forward. The archaeologist has an eye for detail and admits that his first ambition was to be a painter. “But my instructor told me, you can paint for yourself,” he says. “Instead, you must find some way to help your country.”

For much of its history, Cyprus has been plagued by political instability. The Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Ottomans and British—lured by rich copper deposits in Cyprus’ Troodos Mountains—successively staked claims to the 3,572-square-mile island. Though Cyprus gained its independence from Great Britain in 1960, Turkey invaded and occupied the northern one-third of the country in 1974, ostensibly to protect the rights of ethnic Turks. The region, formally named the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, is not recognized as a state by the international community. Yet the history of Cyprus, as told by the Natural History Museum’s exhibition, is more than a timeline of conquests.

The easternmost island in the Mediterranean, it was a significant crossroads for European, Asian and African cultures. “Cyprus was always a melting pot, and still is today,” says Hadjisavvas. “It was a place where Hittites met Egyptians, Phoenicians met Greeks, and Jews meet Arabs.You can see this in the antiquities.”

Indeed, the ceramic jug decorated with clay figures is an example of “red polished ware,” a type of pottery from Anatolia. The upturned wings of the sphinxes reflect a Syrian influence, while the statues’ crowns and headdresses are distinctly Egyptian. And at the rear of the gallery is a marble statue of Aphrodite (born, according to legend, in Cyprus), sculpted in a classic Greek and Roman style.

Ironically for a country known as a crossroads of civilizations, the exhibition—which opened this past September to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the nation’s independence—marks the first time that a Cypriot archaeological collection of this magnitude has ever traveled to the United States. Hadjisavvas says that though the island has a history spanning more than 100 centuries, this is the year “we are coming of age.”

A ceramic figurine, 3500 B.C. (National Museum of Natural History, SI)
Cypriot archaeologist Sophocles Hadjisavvas, with a 2000 B.C. jug, handpicked each artifact to chronicle the 11,000-year history of Cyprus. (Andrew Cutraro)
A stone figurine, 600-500 B.C., reflects the influences of several cultures. (National Museum of Natural History, SI)
Pygmy hippos, which stood about 30 inches tall, likely roamed Cyprus from the last Ice Age about 100,000 years ago until they went extinct, before the island was first settled in 8500 B.C. This pygmy hippo skull was excavated from a rock shelter on the southern coast of Cyprus called Akrotiri-Aetokremnos where at least 500 hippos have been found. (Courtesy of Cyprus Department of Antiquities)
Ceramic plank figurines of the mother goddess, a religious symbol of fertility and life, date to around 2000 B.C. (Courtesy of Cyprus Department of Antiquities)
Cypriots used clay pot bellows to smelt metals like copper and tin into bronze. The island became known for its rich copper deposits; in fact, the word “copper” comes from the Latin term aes cuprum, meaning metal from Cyprus. (Courtesy of Cyprus Department of Antiquities)
Bulls, considered a symbol of divine power, adorn many Cypriot artifacts. Excavated from a tomb at the site of Alassa, these gold earrings show the wealth Cypriots attained between 1550 and 1050 B.C. (Courtesy of Cyprus Department of Antiquities)
In 1930, Swedish archaeologists discovered this terracotta statue and more than 2,000 other warriors, centaurs and charioteers arranged in semicircles around an altar near a village in Cyprus called Agia Irini. (Courtesy of Cyprus Department of Antiquities)
“Cyprus was always a melting pot,” says Sophocles Hadjisavvas. This chariot, for instance, is Greek in style, and yet the charioteers are Phoenician. (Courtesy of Cyprus Department of Antiquities)
A terracotta ship found on the seafloor models the types of vessels used around 600-480 B.C., especially in between Amathus, on Cyprus’s southern coast, and Egypt. (Courtesy of Thalassa, Agia Napa municipal Museum)
Two limestone sphinxes that likely stood guard 2,500 years ago at a tomb in Tamassos, Cyprus, now flank the entrance to the exhibition “Cyprus: Crossroads of Civilizations” at the Natural History Museum through May 1. (Courtesy of Cyprus Department of Antiquities)
According to legend, Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love and fertility, was born in Cyprus. This statue, sculpted in her likeness, is a Roman period copy of a classical Greek original. (Courtesy of Cyprus Department of Antiquities)
Hadjisavvas handpicked this 16th century religious icon from the church of Agioi Anargyri in Phoini, Cyprus. The piece hung above candles and conservators had to clean black soot off of it to reveal its detailed depictions of Christ, the Apostles and angels as well as heaven and hell. (Courtesy of the Byzantine Museum of the Archbishop Makarios III Foundation)
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