This would have been the scene over two millennia ago at a site that has come to be known as the Tombs of the Kings.
The name Tombs of the Kings to most people would signify an ancient burial site in Egypt and many confuse the site just outside Paphos in Cyprus with the Egyptian Valley of the Kings. The Valley of the Kings may be grander and on the face of it, more important than the Tombs of the Kings, but the Paphos site has much to recommend it in historical and archaeological terms and in many ways is not dissimilar to its more important Egyptian near namesake.
Today the Tombs of the Kings are found in a less than salubrious area, also referred to as Tombs of the Kings where low budget restaurants compete with each other, tourist tat shops sit alongside many kiosks and the night time is blotted out by acres of neon promoting junk food and strip joints.
It’s a long way from the site’s early days when it was a basilica for wealthy inhabitants of the town of Nea Paphos whose remains are found at the other end of the Tomb of the Kings Road. Then, the accepted rules on hygiene meant that the dead must be buried a safe distance beyond the town limits and relatives would make the pilgrimage out of the town to visit their departed family.
Unlike the Egyptian sites, the Tombs of the Kings never slipped entirely from view but after centuries of looting followed by centuries of neglect, the site became covered in sand and was ignored as Paphos developed and expanded. It wasn’t until the 1970s that plans were made to excavate the site carefully and Dr Sophocles Hadjisavvas began removing the debris of centuries to uncover the work of nearly two and a half millennia before.
Today the site is managed by the Cypriot Department of Antiquities and is open to the public for a small fee, allowing them entry to one of the more unusual and austerely attractive necropolises in the Mediterranean. Work continues at the site, for it is believed that it is much more extensive and visitors from decades ago who return today will notice the enlargement of the excavated area.
The Tombs Themselves
It’s little surprise that the Tombs of the Kings remained largely hidden for centuries at a time for their underground location would have meant that only those stumbling upon the site would have known about them.
From the surface there’s little to be seen from the entrance to the site apart from an uneven outcrop of rocks. It’s only as you venture around the side of the site that the use of it becomes apparent and even that wouldn’t have been so when the tombs were first constructed.
Almost completely underground, the tombs were hewn by hand from the soft limestone and excavated as rectangular rooms which would have had a near metre thick ceiling of rock above them. Looters and erosion broke through many of them allowing you a bird’s eye view of the tombs and columns below. From there you’ll see the columns and porticos that were each individually carved and rounded to support the ceilings. The walls were originally plastered with frescoes painted on them but a combination of water ingress, looting and general decay has meant that little has remained.
The more elaborate tombs have niches, a little like shelves, carved into the wall upon which would have rested the bodies whilst in one, a large slab in the middle, possibly an altar, doubled as a preparation slab for the bodies and as a table of sorts for visiting families performing the annual rite of the nekrothipno, or anniversary meal after which food was left behind as an offering to the deceased.
The complex currently has eight identified and excavated tombs of which three are of particular interest to the tourist with their exquisite design. The arrangement is in places organised and in others haphazard which must have depended on the quality of the rock at those points. Only one of the excavated tombs had escaped looting and that was because a rock fall had obscured the entrance. Upon uncovering it, the archaeologists discovered lavish grave goods including amphorae from Rhodes containing oils, wine and nuts together with gold jewellery which, together with the date seals on the amphorae enabled them to accurately date the find.
Sadly looting and the medieval poor’s habit of occupying any covered area that could give shelter meant that damage was caused to the tombs. The medieval squatters, as they have been called, even altered the arrangement of the tombs to suit their living requirements.
The worst damage was caused by quarrying from the site as home builders from the town sought ready milled stones for their houses and others saw the already partly cut rock faces as a good source of quality stone.
Despite that, the site is unique in the world and deserves as much attention for what it shows us of life in the centuries before and after the birth of Christ.
Future of the Tombs of the Kings
What does the future hold for the Tombs of the Kings?
Continued excavation of the site is likely with many archaeologists convinced that the boundaries are far more extensive than previously thought. Technology used in identifying oil and gas reserves underground has been used seeming to indicate that there are potentially many more tombs yet to be unearthed although the natural tendency for limestone to be riddled with caves and depressions means that they could be natural formations. For now there is insufficient money to explore the theory further and continued work there is funded only within the Department of Antiquities budget which has to be balanced between preservation of the already excavated sites around Paphos and the discovery of more with the added budgetary demands they would impose.
Controversy surrounds the Tombs of the Kings site with the view that the site may extend much further along the coast and possibly under the Venus Beach Hotel. Some have even gone as far as demanding that the Venus Beach be torn down so the site can be explored, citing concerns over whether the hotel had permission to be built on the site. It may be many years before work reaches the boundaries of the hotel and others have suggested that careful excavation under it could work although it would be an incredible engineering project.
For now, new excavations of the site and many others around Paphos are being carried out on a voluntary basis by international archaeological missions organised and funded by overseas universities. The Australian Archaeological Mission has been active each year in work in Nea Paphos and they will return this autumn for a month of planned work.
The entire city of Paphos is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is also hoped that funding for future work may come from organisations linked to UNESCO. Paphos’ candidacy for European City of Culture may too have a beneficial effect on planning and funding with the hope that, should the town beat its only Cypriot rival, Nicosia, to the prize, more work may be carried out as a celebration of the achievement.
Offsite, work is being continued on the limited number of artefacts found at the site. Whilst many of the items can be easily dated from seals found with them, it is thought that the amphorae in particular can be used to help date other finds around the eastern Mediterranean.
The Tombs of the Kings have stiff competition from other sites in Cyprus for the attention of the archaeological fraternity and in recent years, work has focused on the main town of Nea Paphos and around Palaipaphos. Within this framework of limited available finance and high competition, the Tombs of the Kings may have to settle with the promise of potential future discoveries but for now it’s still a strong contender for one of the world’s most exciting and unusual burial sites.
History of Paphos
Even without the evidence found at the Tombs of the Kings site it would be easy to date its earliest origins. Old Paphos, known to historians as Palaipafos, was located many miles away from the current day town near the village of Kouklia. It was an important city state and its last king was called Nikokles. About two kilometres from the sea and linked to a small port by a paved road, it was thriving and populous until it is believed an earthquake destroyed much of it in the 4th century BC.
The citizens looked around their local area and whether by judgement or good fortune decided to establish a replacement settlement at Nea Paphos by the harbour of the current day town. The line along which most seismic activity occurs at the western end of the island bypasses much of Paphos and whilst extensive damage has been caused there by earthquakes over the millennia, Nea Paphos suffered the least.
The new town was destined to become capital of the island once internal strife subsided and it kept this importance until the rise of Nicosia in the aftermath of pirate raids along the coast. Once established, it quickly grew and a necropolis was needed. Little has been discovered regarding the actual tombs of Nea Paphos’ kings but the burial site that was to hold this name was built shortly after the founding of the new town. It was so named because of the grandeur of the place, not the inhabitants! The poor were buried in unmarked graves but the rising middle class paid for catacombs to be cut into the soft rock.
Initially roughly hewn, the designs became more elaborate with the influence from the Ptolemies of Egypt and more unusually that of the Macedons who had extended their influence across the Mediterranean but not significantly in Cyprus.
It would not be too long before the demise of Cleopatra and Antony left Cyprus in the hands of the Romans who set about remodelling Nea Paphos, keeping the theatre that had already been in use for over 300 years but adding villas, a lighthouse and temples retaining some of the influence of the cult of Aphrodite within their worship of Venus.
Not long after the Roman occupation, the first Christian missions to the island began under the auspices of Paul and Barnabas. They were to come to Paphos where they initially received a very frosty reception from the governor Sergius Paulus. He soon repented of having Paul whipped and converted to Christianity.
Whilst Paphos accepted Christianity, many practising Christians were still wary of persecution and the church remained quite literally, underground. The site of the Tombs of the Kings was deemed ideal for a secret church and much of the previous pagan symbolism was removed. The church there flourished and people even began to live in the catacombs. Eventually, Christianity came out into the open and the church in the catacombs was abandoned. Looters took anything of value and the site became abandoned as people adopted the new practice of burying the dead in cemeteries near the church. And so the history of the Tombs of the Kings went to sleep for nearly two thousand years.