Cyprus: a potted history
Ceramic Art of Ancient Cyprus
Ian Potter Museum, Melbourne, to October 7
ALL the important islands of the Mediterranean have fascinating and complex histories, usually with overlapping themes as they have been subject, successively, to the dominations of different peoples and often have been the battle grounds for the bitterest rivalries, as was the case with Malta, where the Knights of St John repelled a massive and brutal Turkish invasion in 1565 — and where the British and Maltese, almost four centuries later, withstood the equally furious onslaught of Nazi Germany.
Sicily, too, has played a central role in the history of the Mediterranean — it was of decisive importance to Athens and Rome and was a focal point of events in the Middle Ages — but even Corfu (Corcyra) has a rich tradition that weaves through myth and literature as well as political history: it was the traditional home of the Phaeacians, the hosts to whom Odysseus recounted his adventures, before playing a part in ancient and medieval history and finally becoming a part of the Venetian empire.
The pattern is similar in the island of Cyprus, the easternmost part of Europe and this year the holder of the presidency of the EU, an important responsibility for a very small nation, part of which has been occupied by Turkey after an invasion in 1974, which was followed by one of the first cases in modern European history of what has since been called ethnic cleansing.
In mythology, Cyprus has been associated since time immemorial with the cult of Aphrodite. Hesiod, Homer’s contemporary, tells her story in the Theogony, a poem in which he attempts to weave the various and regionally divergent traditions concerning the gods into a single comprehensive genealogy. First were Heaven (Ouranos) and Earth (Ge), and as he lay with her she conceived a multitude of children; but fearful that one of his offspring would overcome him, he would not allow them to be born.
Ge, filled with her progeny but unable to give birth, complained to the unborn gods and titans in her belly. One of them, Kronos — thereafter known as angkulometes, crookedcounselled, volunteered to avenge his mother. She produced the new element of iron and formed it into a sickle; when his father came to lie with his mother that night, the boy cut off his genitals and hurled them across the sky. They landed in the sea, frothing up in the salt water, and from the foam ( aphros) arose the goddess Aphrodite. She first came to land at Cyprus and was hence known as cyprogeneia, Cyprus-born.
The Greeks probably associated Aphrodite with Cyprus because of the importance there of the earlier Phoenician cult of Astarte, similarly a goddess of sexual love, just as the prominence of bulls in myths concerning Crete no doubt reflects the role of the bull in the preGreek Minoan civilisation. But in any case Paphos, on the western end of Cyprus, was the traditional spot of the divine landfall and became a centre of the worship of Aphrodite.
Historically, Cyprus came under Greek domination in the classical period, then was part of the Ptolemaic Egyptian kingdom in the Hellenistic age before being absorbed into the Roman Empire. It continued to be ruled by Byzantium after the fall of the western empire, was taken by the Arabs and retaken by the Byzantines, and eventually conquered by Richard the Lionheart. He gave it to Guy de Lusignan, a crusading nobleman said to be a descendant of the fairy Melusine.
While all the rest of the Crusader conquests gradually fell back into the hands of the Saracens, Cyprus remained a stronghold of Christianity in the east. The Lusignan dynasty ruled for three centuries (1192-1489) so that gothic cathedrals in the French style, for the Latin and Catholic rulers, were built side-byside with Byzantine churches for the majority of the population who remained Orthodox. At the end of the 15th century the Lusignans finally lost their grip; after a period of instability, the Venetians restored the last of the line and married him to a Venetian noblewoman, Caterina Cornaro.
Following his death, they persuaded her to cede the island to the Republic of Venice and to retire to a palace at Asolo, northwest of Venice, where the painter Giorgione and others flourished in the refined setting of her court. The Venetians ruled the island — Crete was another Venetian possession — until it was overwhelmed by a Turkish invasion in 1570-71, only five years after the Turks had been repelled at Malta and at the same time as they suffered their first great naval defeat, at the hands of the Venetian and Holy League fleets at Lepanto. And all of this forms the background to the story of Othello.
The archeology of a land such as Cyprus is extraordinarily rich and complex, a palimpsest of the remains of successive civilisations, beginning with the great technological advance of humanity in what is called the Neolithic Revolution, about 10,000 years ago. This was when cereal crops were first domesticated, the precondition of life in urban communities. The cultivation of crops made larger populations possible and, because it required the labour of only part of the community, freed others to develop crafts and to defend or administer the city. One of the most important of human crafts, almost but not quite co-extensive with the history of civilisation itself, is ceramics: vessels are required to store grain surpluses and the seed grain for the following sowing; and later, with the domestication of trees and vines, they are needed to store olive oil and wine. And it is certainly the importance of the vessel that strikes the viewer entering the early Cypriot pottery exhibition at the
Ian Potter Museum, in part
Red polished ware with incised decoration from Lapatsa
Red polished twin-spouted double-bowl, Lapatsa