By Waylon Fairbanks
THREE THOUSAND years of invasion does have its perks. From the Mycenaean Greeks to the Ottomans, the list of Cyprus’ occupiers reads like a who’s who of western civilisation. Now long gone, we can enjoy the ruins left scattered across the island.
Without context, however, even the most majestic ruins can resemble massive piles of rubble whose past remains indecipherable to the layman. And with tourism now presented as the panacea for our economic ills, I headed to Kourion to investigate how user friendly one of the island’s most important ancient historical sites is for the tourists who visit.
“Archaeological sites and ancient monuments are like the elderly,” said Yiannis Violaris, district archaeological officer. “They require constant care everyday!”
How well those elderly rocks at Kourion are actually treated – given their historical and economic significance – is the real question. Is Kourion a dingy old nursing home where old-timers move to die, or is it a stately representation of what once was? And is the Antiquities Department doing its bit to make Kourion an accessible, interesting place to visit?
Kourion lies on a bluff about 15km west of Limassol overlooking the sea. The city was founded by the Argives and subsequently passed through Hellenistic, Roman and Christian periods.
For chartered tour groups or rental car owners, getting to Kourion is easy. For the thousands of tourists who visit Cyprus yearly without their own transport, Kourion is an overpriced cab ride away.
Public transportation is skimpy. There is no advertised shuttle between Limassol and Kourion, but the public Bus 16 runs past the site for a mere 1.30 euros. The Antiquities Department plans to work with the Cyprus Tourism Organisation to improve the route.
The driver dropped me near a wooded area at the base of a hill and motioned with his fingers to walk up. Up the 200m gravel trail was the main road, which coils round the shrubby hill till the large admissions gate marks the entrance.
Although the gate marks the entry into the site, the information bureau and main sites are at the end of that road. For buses and cars, it is simple to follow, but the pedestrian only comes upon the main information bureau last, and there was no information to tell me I should head there first.
As I ascended up the road the gigantic theatre appeared on a cliff to the right and the azure sea slowly crept into sight on my left. Signs began to indicate the various monuments ahead. I obliged, and walked up the path neatly cut from the tall surrounding grasses.
Ancient debris appeared, precisely outlined with stones and with information signs near every monument. The signs were in both Greek and English, though I reckon they were both translated from a drab language that only archaeologists use.
Many small ruins occupy the southwest portion of Kourion, but the largest is a 5th century Christian Basilica – or what little remains of one. There are many other structures of interest, but invasions left them dilapidated. It was difficult to work out how the Basilica must have once looked as the information signs provided no pictorial reconstruction on the information signs. Other sites, including the Agora and “Earthquake House”, only became significant when reading the signs. Otherwise, it was fancy rubble.
“Visiting the monuments other than the theatre and House of Eustolios depends on the interest of the visitor. Those monuments are also more popular because they are next to the car park, so one does not have to walk a bigger distance in the summer sun of Cyprus,” joked Violaris.
The most impressive part of the southern section is where the bluffs give way to massive cliffs that descend to the beach. The view east toward Limassol is fantastic, as farmland patches together the 15km stretch. Few could doubt why invaders conquered the tranquil hilltop so often.
The path then weaves through various ruins till it arrives at the renowned theatre.
The Greco-Roman theatre is without doubt the ancient city’s best-known site. To be sure, the theatre is completely renovated and looks nothing like it did in recent centuries. But what it lacks in authenticity, it gains in novelty. The theatre hosts concerts cultural events, including the International Festival of Ancient Greek Drama. Its 3000 person capacity is astonishing.
When Cyprus held the European Union presidency in 2012, the theatre held the opening ceremony, so it was renovated even further.
From the theatre, one cannot miss the House of Eustolius – a Roman villa heralded for some of the best intact mosaics on the island. The entire complex is covered by a canopy and a wooden walkway allows you to observe the brilliant mosaics at close quarters.
The mosaics alone are worth the price of admission. The mosaics portray alluring women, feasts of fish, warriors and gods. The monuments and structures at Kourion are also impressive, but their decay provides a sense of how alien the respective civilisations are to today. The mosaics, however, display just how similar the aesthetic tastes are between visitors today and the residents of 1700 years ago.
Near the House of Eustolius is the main information bureau. Inside, one can grab a snack, pick up a map or examine a model of the entire site, to exact scale. There is also a small gift shop with glossy books, handmade trinkets and jewellery.
From 2002 to 2004, the Antiquities Department overhauled Kourion and implemented a “master plan”. Renovations included building the canopies to protect certain archaeological remains, visitor’s centre, pathways, information signs and increasing the indigenous vegetation at the site.
Of the archaeological sites I have visited in Cyprus, Kourion succeeds most in both content and presentation. Yet despite providing an adequate customer experience, there are aspects on which the Antiquities Department would like to improve, namely, providing a WiFi application that would act as a mobile guide and improving access for visitors with disabilities.
“There is always more to be done, especially with today’s rapid change in technology,” said Dr Marina Solomidou-Ieronymidou, acting director at the Antiquities Department. “We must be careful not to proceed with dramatic changes or actions which will significantly alter the historical aura, which is an intangible value. These matters require a very thin, acrobatic balance.”