Across the Wine Dark Sea: Egyptian Influence in Cyprus


Dr. Nancy Serwint, is currently an Associate Professor in the School of Art at Arizona State University, at Tempe, AZ. She holds a BA in Classics from the University of Illinois, an MA in Art History from the University of Chicago, a second MA in Classical Archaeology from Princeton University, and a Ph.D. in Classical Archaeology also from Princeton. She has excavated at Corinth, on the Athenian Agora, and in Sicily, and since 1983, has been the Assistant Director of the Princeton Cyprus Expedition at Polis [ancient Marion], Cyprus. From 1996 to 1999, she was the Director of the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute in Nicosia, Cyprus, and has been the Classical Editor for the
Atlas of Archaeological Sites in Cyprus since 1993.

Dr. Serwint opened her lecture by providing the audience with an overview of the history and geography of the island of Cyprus, and commented that Cyprus truly epitomizes the statement, "geography is destiny". The sea currents and proximity of the island were especially favorable - though sometimes unfortunate - for Cyprus as it is located less than 50 miles from the Anatolian and Levan-tine coasts. As a result, The Anatolians, Mycaenean Greeks, Assyrians, Hittites, Canaanites, Turks, Phoenicians, Egyptians and a host of others found it desirable.

Cyprus was first settled about 10,000 years ago by people from what is today Syria. The island is 138 miles long and 60 miles wide - roughly 3500 square miles, which is about 2/3 the size of Crete, making it the second largest island in the eastern Mediterranean. The Kyrenia mountain range in the north, and the Trodoos Range running northwest to southeast through the middle of the island, are separated by the Meseroia plain, which has for millennia been devoted primarily to agriculture. It was this rich plain that was particularly attractive to the ancient settlers. Strabo tells us that the island was second to none in the production of wine, olive oil and grain.

It was the riches to be found in the mountains, however, which caused Cyprus to be coveted by others. Cyprus boasted one of the richest deposits of copper in the world, with ore bodies estimated to have ranged in magnitude from 50,000 to 17,000,000 tons. Beginning in the Chalcolithic or Bronze Age, major mining operations - both open pit and shaft mines - were in full operation. Oxhide shaped ingots of copper were shipped throughout the Mediterranean for centuries.

Cyprus was also exceptionally rich in timber - cypress, oak, pine and cedar which rivaled the famed Cedars of Lebanon - which was used not only for firing smelters, but for major ship building operations. Timber was so abundant that those who wished to clear land for farming could do so tax free.

A wide variety of Cypriot-made items were traded throughout the eastern Mediterranean, but apparently not by Cypriots. By 2000-1900BC Syrian traders were coming to Cyprus and actively trading Cypriot-made goods in Egypt. Dr. Serwint suggested that they may have been acting as middle men for Cypriot craftsmen. Likewise, Egyptian-made objects and Egyptian motifs began to appear outside Egypt, including in Cyprus. For example, an Egyptian scarab containing the name of Queen Tiye, a ring with the cartouche of Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten, and a later scarab with the name of Ramses II, have all been found in the tombs of wealthy Bronze Age Cypriots. Faience vessels of various types, and a variety of ivory objects such as a furniture leg in the form of the god Bes, are all of Egyptian origin. A game box from Enkomi, and dating to the 12th century BC features the ancient game of tjau on one side and a senet board on the other. Gold in any form found in these wealthy tombs is probably of Egyptian origin as well, according to Dr. Serwint.

Between 1500BC and 1050BC, there was a marked increase in Egyptian goods in Cyprus and Cypriot goods in Egypt. Especially numerous are Cypriot-made, so called "poppy juglets", found in exceptionally large quantities to Egypt, and thought to have been used as opium containers.

Late Bronze Age correspondence in ancient Egyptian and Cypriot sylabic scripts, perhaps carried back and forth by Syrian merchants, further attests to an active trade going on between the two countries. Another suggestion of an active interchange is found at Medinet Habu, Ramses III's mortuary temple at Thebes, where a list of the states in subjugation to Egypt is inscribed. Among them is Aleshia, thought to be an ancient name for Cyprus, with a list of its city states. The Amarna letters contain letters between Amenhotep III and IV and the king of Aleshia. And, of course, the "Tale of Wenamun" ends with Wenamun's ship being blown off course and the hapless traveler finding himself on the shore of Aleshia, where the people are "great sailors", and he asks the Queen for help. Hittite documents mention Aleshia, which was near the Hittite homeland and not far from the sea routes between Assyria and Egypt.

During the Iron Age the Phoenician era began. After Ramses III defeated the Sea People Egypt began to withdraw from the "world" political scene, and the vacuum was filled by the Phoenicians who were traders renowned for establishing mercantile and trading bases throughout the Mediterranean. One was established at Memphis and in the 9th Century BC several were established in southern Cyprus, specifically at Kition - the first colony established - Idalion and Amathus. Large quantities of Phoenician juglets, and metal objects made by Phoenician craftsmen, were imported into Cyprus. As the center at Kition developed, metal working became an important craft.

During the Iron Age, Cyprus divided into city kingdoms and by the 5th Century BC there were well established kingdoms at sites such as Amathus, Kition, Idalion, Tamassos, Lapethos, Salamis, Paphos, Enkomi, and, of course, Marion on the far northwest coast. The presence of a vast copper mine at Lemni which began to be worked well before the Bronze Age, and continued in operation through the Iron Age, into the Roman period and until 1972, was the source of Marion's wealth.

Faience amulets found in abundance at Kition, a wood and ivory segment featuring a striding sphinx wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt - possibly from a king's throne - found at Salamis may have been brought to Cyprus by Phoenicians, or perhaps interpreted by them and manufactured locally.

Another influence may have come from Assyria. Since the 9th Century BC, Assyria had been extending its power throughout the Near East, until King Asherhadin ultimately succeeded in subjugating Egypt. As Assyria's influence grew, so too did the impact of its artistic motifs on art forms throughout the Near East.

In the 6th Century BC, Egypt's Pharaoh, Amasis, went south to conquer Nubia, taking Greek mercenaries as a large part of his fighting force. After Nubia was subdued, the king gave Naucritus to the Greeks to set up a commercial center. The new Greek population set up temples to such Cypriot deities at Aphrodite, who it was believed had emerged from the sea on the shores of southern Cyprus. Cypriot limestone statues of the goddess have been found at the site of Naucritus. Egypt's King Apries defeated the Cypriots and Syrians at sea after which he put Egyptian officials in charge of governing the island and imposed tribute payments, which were paid between 570 and 545 BC. During this period masses of Egyptian material appeared in Cyprus. Quantities of both Cypriot and Phoenician pottery demonstrate reinterpretations of Egyptian motifs in their decoration. Though Egyptian religion never made headway into Cypriot culture, Egyptian religious motifs are frequent, particularly renditions of the god Bes and the goddess, Hathor. Interestingly, Hathor heads from Cyprus often carry a typically Cypriot headdress, known as the nieskos headdress.

Greek/Cypriot artists at Naucritis were influ-enced by the Egyptian statuary they saw there, and ultimately blended/merged the two artistic traditions, creating what is often referred to as East Greek facial features. Cypriot artists appreciated the colossal statuary they saw in Egypt and embraced the form. Quite suddenly we have colossal sculpture appearing in Cyprus, but made from terra cotta rather than stone. At the Marion site excavated by Princeton, a colossal statue made of terra cotta, in several sections which could be clamped together, was found. Were it complete, it would have stood 13 feet tall; the largest such colossal statue yet found in Cyprus. Dr. Serwint postulated that Cyprus may well have been the transmittal point for colossal statuary into the Classical world.

Other statuary found in Cyprus is very like statuary from Nubia. Herodotus says that Ethiopians were filling Administrative positions in Egypt during the period Egypt controlled Cyprus. As early as the Bronze Age, black Africans were being portrayed in Cyprus, and by the Iron Age, more and more black Africans are represented in statuary such as a head found at Marion.

During the Ptolemaic period, Cyprus was exploited by Egypt, and in return, the island was guaranteed "peace". The island was placed under a stratogos, who was responsible for collecting tributes, but also for setting up sanctuaries for making offerings to Greek deities, many bearing a marked resemblance to Queen Berenike. Neo Paphos was established as the capitol under the Ptolemies and a vast necropolis of rock cut tombs such as those found in Alexandria, Egypt, are still visible near the city. Known today as the "Tombs of the Kings", they were, in fact, tombs cut for Ptolemaic officials who governed the island for the Egyptian ruler.

The Ptolemies held Cyprus until 58BC when it was annexed by Rome. The island reverted back to Egyptian control, however, when Julius Caesar gave it to Cleopatra VII as a gift. After Cleopatra's death in 30BC it again fell under Roman jurisdiction, and all Egyptian influence ceased.

In summary, Cyprus and Egypt are separated by just 260 sea miles, yet the great numbers of Egyptian objects found in Cyprus seem not to have arrived there via direct trade. Rather they seem to have entered Cyprus through middle men such as the Syrian traders and their successors, the Phoenicians. Why Cypriots did not engage in more than minimal direct trade with Egypt is still a mystery.
Nancy Corbin

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