Former head of the Antiquities Department Vassos Karageorghis describes what it was like the last time Cyprus had an important natural resource to trade. It was around 3,500 years ago and the resource was copper
AFTER ABOUT six thousand years of relative isolation Cyprus started exploiting her rich copper mines at the beginning of the second millennium BC.
Copper not only changed the lifestyle of the Cypriots, who started making more effective tools, weapons, and other utensils with this new material, but thanks to technologies introduced from neighbouring countries they were able to make an alloy of copper and zinc, which resulted in a much harder alloy, bronze. Numerous such examples have been found in tombs throughout the island.
Cyprus was privileged by nature to have rich resources of copper which were very much in demand throughout the ‘Old World’ of the Mediterranean and even beyond. Written tablets from the Palace of Mari in Mesopotamia refer to Cyprus, under the name of Alasia, as a copper producing country. Cypriot copper, in the form of ingots, was exported as far as the central Mediterranean, Egypt, the Aegean, Anatolia and even the Black Sea.
The Pharaoh of Egypt, the ‘superpower’ of the Bronze Age, had a regular correspondence with the King of Alasia, who used to send him hundreds of copper ingots, in exchange for luxury goods.
In a shipwreck near the south western coast of Asia Minor dating to the end of the 14th century BC, 355 copper ingots were found weighing ten tons. Scientific analysis has demonstrated that the copper came from Cyprus and was destined for the Aegean. Ingots have also been found in Crete and the Greek mainland.
The King of Cyprus became very influential among the rulers of the great powers of the ‘Old World’. The King of Ugarit in Syria referred to him as ‘my brother’. Further loads of copper were also found in shipwrecks dating back to 1200 BC.
Installations for the smelting of copper were situated in the main urban centres along the eastern and southern coasts of Cyprus and from its harbours the precious commodity was exported to east and west. The wealth of Cyprus is reflected in the rich gifts found in tombs of the Late Bronze Age, mainly during the 14th and 13th centuries BC. The treasures included Mycenaean vases, objects of gold and silver, as well as other luxury goods, such as alabaster, and faience imported from Egypt.
The Late Bronze Age was the island’s ‘Golden Age’. It was copper which attracted the first Aegean immigrants who settled on the island and gradually caused the hellenisation of Cyprus. Copper was needed for the manufacture of weapons and all those who wanted to dominate in the Mediterranean needed large quantities of it. Cyprus could supply them.
The Cypriots were very conscious of copper’s importance in their everyday life and in preserving the ‘international’ position of the island. They did their utmost to protect their copper resources by placing the production of copper under the protection of their gods, one male and the other female, the bronze statues of which have been found. They both stand on a base in the form of a copper ingot. Small votive ingots with engraved inscriptions in the Cypro-Minoan script are also known, symbolic offerings for the blessing of the copper mines. The old gods of Cyprus did protect them.
But one wonders whether the piety of modern Cypriots achieve a similar protection for our petrol and gas.
The export of copper continued into the first millennium BC, but to a lesser degree once iron came to dominate the manufacture of weapons.
The territorial waters of Cyprus are hiding a new precious commodity – petrol and gas – which is as vital today as copper was in antiquity.
The government is trying to secure safe exploitation of this wealth, based on international law and strengthen its position through ‘alliances’ with other friendly neighbours.
Is Cyprus entering a new ‘Golden Age’? In the Late Bronze Age trade in copper was carried out peacefully and the King of Alasia was treated as a ‘brother’ and with respect by the island’s neighbours. Not so to-day, at least with regard to one neighbour. We all hope that the exploitation of the new commodity will be carried out peacefully and that our island will gain once more its ‘pristine glory’, to use the words of an inscription found in the Gymansium of ancient Salamis.