Ancient Feast Seating Carved in Bedrock Found At Paphos, Cyprus
A team of French and Polish archaeologists exploring ancient ruins in Paphos, Cyprus have discovered a ceremonial seating area carved into the bedrock next to the foundation of a now-destroyed religious temple, as reported by the Polish Nauka W Polsce press agency. Individuals gathered for ceremonial feasts would have perched on these bedrock benches, eating the meat of sacrificed animals and drinking large quantities of wine to honor the gods and bring good luck to their village.
“It was a place for open-air religious banquets, the characteristic semicircular outline of which is referred to in archaeology as a stibadium,” explained Jolanta Młynarczyk, an archaeologist from the University of Warsaw who’s been managing the joint Polish-French exploratory project. “Its central point was a circular depression with a drain, used for libations in honor of the deity.”
The archaeologists believe the temple, banquet area, and other related ruins were built sometime between the second century BC and the mid-second century AD, when Paphos was under first Greek and then Roman control.
Although similar structures have been found elsewhere in the world, this is the first time a ceremonial structure of this type has been found on the island of Cyprus, Młynarczyk pointed out.
A view of the open-air banquet area (in the foreground) recently discovered carved in bedrock at the entrance to a collapsed ancient Paphos temple on Fabrica Hill. (Anna Kubicka / Nauka W Polsce)
Paphos Bedrock Banquet Benches Found on Fabrica Hill
This important addition to the greater temple complex was discovered on the peak of Fabrica Hill, in the sprawling Paphos Archaeological Park, which is located along western Mediterranean coast of Cyprus.
Nea Paphos was once part of the city of Paphos, and its inhabitants left behind an impressive collection of ancient monuments that was officially designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980. The oldest of these monuments was constructed in the fourth century BC, while the newest were erected during the Middle Ages.
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As of now, the archaeologists are unable to determine what god or goddess the Paphos temple and ceremonial banquet area may have been built to honor. They think it is likely, however, that the temple and associated structures on Fabrica Hill were constructed to facilitate the worship of Aphrodite.
The Greeks believed that Aphrodite was born in the sea off the Cyprian coast near Paphos, and that the first time she set foot on land it occurred right there. Archaeologists have found the ruins of a large sanctuary dedicated to Aphrodite in another area of Nea Paphos, so it seems reasonable to conclude that the temple on Fabrica Hill was also constructed by worshippers of this goddess.
Mosaic from the House of Dionysus (Greek god of wine) located in the Paphos Archaeological Park, dating from the 3rd century AD. (Georgeg / Public domain)
Nea Paphos in Graeco-Roman Times
Nea Paphos is a popular site among archaeologists seeking insights into Cyprus’s rich historical past. At various times, the island was occupied by the Mycenaean Greeks, the Assyrians, the Persians, the Egyptians, the Romans, and the Ottoman Empire.
Cyprus is strategically located in the eastern Mediterranean, and made an attractive target for Middle Eastern, southern European, and Western Asian powers looking to control the sea lanes in the region. Consequently, it has produced archaeological finds from multiple cultures and empires.
At the time when the temple complex on Fabrica Hill was built, Nea Paphos had assumed its identity as a Graeco-Roman city. After Alexander the Great conquered the island in 333 BC, Cyprus remained under the authority of the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt until the year 58 BC. The island was then acquired by the Roman Republic, and it remained under Roman Empire or Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire rule until well into the 12th century.
Interestingly, the temple on Fabrica Hill is not surrounded by the typical columns normally associated with Greek temples. Based on the outlay of its foundation, its shape appears to have been somewhat different than the traditional Greek temple. This would be surprising if it were indeed associated with the worship of Aphrodite.
The walls of the temple were long ago removed and have not been found. They may have been inscribed with pictures or messages that would have revealed more about the purpose of the structure and the surrounding temple complex. The latter included a courtyard built on a rock platform, and a monumental altar located just a few meters away from the temple.
Everything found on Fabrica Hill seems to have some sort of religious purpose, which reveals its ancient identity as a sacred site. Archaeologists believe the temple was likely destroyed during an earthquake that occurred in the area in approximately 150 AD, after which a new temple may have been constructed at another location further inland.
A panoramic view of the Paphos Archaeological Park. (Sergey Galyonkin / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Searching for the Founders of the Fabrica Hill Cult
Could the temple, altar, and ceremonial banquet area have been built during the time when the Romans were occupying Cyprus? Perhaps the temple complex was constructed to honor Venus, the Roman version of Aphrodite. This might explain why the ancient temple didn’t seem to quite conform with the usual Greek model.
Notably, some of the best preserved and most spectacular ruins found in the Nea Paphos archaeological park can be traced to the Roman era. These include four large and impressive Roman villas, which feature striking mosaic floors and other features popular with Roman elites at the time.
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While the current research season at Nea Paphos has ended, the archaeologists plan to return in the future to continue searching for answers.
"Our archaeological team is currently facing further tasks related to the comprehensive examination of the sacred area at Fabrica, leading to the final identification of the cult of deities or deities worshiped here in the Hellenistic and early Roman periods,” Professor Młynarczyk said.
With enticing ruins to explore that cover more than a thousand years of history, it will be a long time before archaeologists stop finding mysteries to solve at Nea Paphos.
Top image: The ruins of the Forty Columns Fortress in the Paphos Archaeological Park, Cyprus, not far from where the carved bedrock banquet area and ancient was recently unearthed on Fabrica Hill. Source: dudlajzov / Adobe Stock
By Nathan Falde