Cyprus: a pot­ted his­tory

Ce­ramic Art of An­cient Cyprus

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Christo­pher Allen

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

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