Sanctuary of Aphrodite (Palea Paphos)
In the ancient Greek world, Palea Paphos was one of the most important pilgrimage centers due to its famous Sanctuary of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and fertility. Today, virtually all that remains is the holy ground itself.
The cult of Aphrodite was officially established on Cyprus in 1500 BC, with the building of a hilltop temple on this site.
However, idols of a fertility goddess dating from as early as 3800 BC have been found at Palea Paphos. The cult may owe its origins to Achaean colonists, who adopted the worship of a native fertility goddess named Astort (the Canaanite form of Ishtar), who they Hellenized as Aphrodite.
Although the worship of Aphrodite seems to have come from the east, it was soon identified with Cyprus. Homer referred to the goddess as the "Cyprian" as early as the 8th century BC, and she was called the "Paphian" in the 6th century BC. Inscriptions at Palea Paphos call her simply Wanassa, "the lady."
The Temple of Aphrodite stood on a knoll about 2km inland, overlooking the sea. The town of Palea Paphos soon sprang up around the temple.
According to ancient tradition, the hero Kinyras was the first king and consort of the goddess Aphrodite after she emerged from the sea at nearby Petra tou Romiou. The couple had a beautiful daughter named Myrrha, who was turned into a fragrent bush by her jealous mother. Then Adonis, born of its wood, became Aphrodite's lover.
This incestual myth was actually grounded in reality, as the Kinyrid dynasty both "wedded" the goddess Aphrodite through her temple prostitutes and married their own daughters upon the death of their wives. Royal descent was matrilineal. This arrangement was at least better than that of neighboring Asiatic love goddesses, who demanded the sacrifice of their consorts after ritual love-making.
Ritual prostitution seems to have been a significant part of the cult of Aphrodite at Palea Paphos. It was said that every young maiden went once in her lifetime to the sanctuary to make love with a stranger. The man chose his maiden, and threw some money at her feet (the sum was unimportant) and pronounced the formula, "I invoke the goddess upon you." Beautiful maidens were able to fulfill their duty quickly, while the ugly had to wait sometimes as long as four years to get it over with.
The memory of these rituals remained strong long after the destruction of the shrine. In the mid-14th century, the German priest Ludolf of Suchen described the ancient pagan pilgrimages in which
During spring festivals for Aphrodite and Adonis, separate processions of garlanded men and women walked along the Sacred Way from Nea Paphos to the shrine of Aphrodite at Palea Paphos, where there were games and contests of music and poetry. This tradition survives (except for the prostitution) in the modern spring flower festival, Anthistiria, which is especially popular in Ktima Pafos.
The Sanctuary of Aphrodite continued to flourish in the Roman era. Several Roman emperors honored the shrine, and it was visited by Titus in 69 AD when the future emperor was on his way to Egypt. He consulted the oracle of Aphrodite, and was told that he had a great future. The sanctuary was rebuilt by the Romans after the earthquake of 76/77 AD, in a design that preserved the oriental layout of the original.
The cult of Aphrodite survived at Palea Paphos until the 4th century AD, when Emperor Theodosius outlawed paganism. It is not known when the cult of Aphrodite was suppressed or if the local population resisted the edict.
The site fell into ruin. Shortly before Theodosius' law, a wealthy Roman built a private villa adjacent to the Archaic shrine (bits of the mosaic floor of the Roman villa are still visible), doing some damage. From Byzantine times onwards, local villagers used the ruins as a quarry for building materials. Virtually every old building in Kouklia incorporates a stone or two from one of the most important shrines in the ancient world. Finally, in the Middle Ages, sugar-milling machinery was built atop the stone foundations, destroying anything remaining above knee level.
The sanctuary of Aphrodite was first excavated in 1887 by the Cyprus Exploration Fund, with some of the finds going to the British Museum. It was explored by the British Kouklia Expedition in 1950-55 and has been dug by a Swiss-German expedition since 1996. Excavations continue on the site of the sanctuary, the city and the necropolis of Palea Paphos.
What to See
The ancient Sanctuary of Aphrodite consisted of rustic, relatively impermanent buildings, like most temples in the pre-Hellenic Middle East. This, in addition to the damage done to the site over the centuries, means that little has survived of the temple except the low foundations on the north.
What little that does remain dates from the 1st century AD reconstruction by the Romans. Preserving the ancient Oriental layout, it differed from Greco-Roman temples by having the shrine of the deity in the open air. The goddess was worshipped in the form of a conical stone (now in the Cyprus Museum in Nicosia). Fragments of several smaller marble cones, possibly votive offerings, where found at the site. A picture of the shrine survives on a Roman coin issued under Caracalla between 198 and 217 AD (now in the British Museum; see photo above), which shows the cult stone under a tower-like structure.
A short path from one corner of the precinct leads to the Leda Mosaic House, which has a replica of a mosaic depicting Leda emerging from a stream and baring her behind to the lustful Zeus-swan, who is tweaking her garment in its beak. The 2nd- or 3rd-century AD original was stolen from the site and later recovered in London. It is now in the Cyprus Museum in Nicosia. According to the Greek myth, Leda was the daughter of the king of Aetolia and was pursued by Zeus in the form of a swan. They somehow managed to make love, and she laid two eggs. From theese emerged two pairs of children: Castor and Pollux and Helen and Clytemnestra.
The site museum is housed in La Cavocle, a Lusignan manor that was the headquarters of the Crusaders' surrounding sugar plantations. It continued to be used as the manor house of a large farm in Ottoman times, and gave its name to the modern village of Kouklia. The exhibits include one of several betyls or phallic monoliths that have been found in Cyprus (the largest is in Nicosia), which were anointed with olive oil by local women well into modern times. Gallery II displays finds from Palea Paphos in chronological order, including a huge chalk bathtub (complete with soap dish) dating from the 11th century BC.
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- Marc Dubin, The Rough Guide to Cyprus, 5th ed. (2005), 181-83.
- Bernard McDonagh and Ian Robertson, Blue Guide Cyprus, 4th ed. (1998), 104-07.
- Sanctuary of Aphrodite, Palaipafos Museum, Medieval Manor - Visit Cyprus
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