Here’s some of what the Lonely Planet – Cyprus chapter Lemesos & The South has to say about the Akrotiri Peninsula and ancient Kourion:
“Lemesos is surrounded by some of the island’s top sights. Archaeological must-sees include the Greek and Roman remains of Ancient Kourion and Amathous, and the former Crusader castle at Kolossi; all three are within easy reach of each other.
Once a separate island and now part of the Cypriot mainland, the Akrotiri Peninsula is an intriguing corner of Cyprus. Most of it is occupied by the British Sovereign Base Area (SBA), but the only indication that you are on ‘foreign soil’ is the odd sight of British SBA police, who patrol the territory in special police vehicles.
To the west of the peninsula, you’ll come across green playing fields, cricket pitches and housing estates more reminiscent of Leicester than Lemesos. There isn’t a whole lot to see here, aside from the excellent environmental centre, which celebrates the peninsula’s geological and environment significance, and a historic monastery. The village of Akrotiri is the only true settlement within the SBA and home to a good traditional Cypriot restaurant.
The southern part of the peninsula is out of bounds as this is a military area, and the sovereign territory of the British government. When Cyprus finally received its independence from colonial administration in 1960, Britain negotiated terms that saw the newly formed Republic of Cyprus ceding 158 sq km of its territory to the British Army, now known as the Sovereign Base Areas (SBAs), comprising Akrotiri and Dekelia, near Larnaka.
Defiantly perched on a hillside, with a sweeping view of the surrounding patchwork fields and the sea, Ancient Kourion is a spectacular site. Most likely founded in neolithic times due to its strategic position high on a bluff, it became a permanent settlement in about the 13th century BC, when Mycenaean colonizers established themselves here.
There’s a small visitors centre where you can see a scale model of the whole site, which will help orientate your visit. The ticket office is at the entry gate halfway up the hill. From there the road continues to the hilltop to the visitor’s centre and ruins.
The settlement prospered under the Ptolemies and Romans, and a pre-Christian cult of Apollo was active among the inhabitants of Kourion in Roman times, as evidenced by the nearby Sanctuary of Apollon Ylatis. Christianity eventually supplanted Apollo and, despite disastrous earthquakes in the region, an early Christian basilica was built in the 5th century, testifying to the ongoing influence of the religion on Kourion by this time.
Pirate raids 200 years later severely compromised the viability of the Christian bishopric; the Bishop of Kourion was obliged to move his base to a new settlement at near- by Episkopi (meaning ‘bishopric’ in Greek). Kourion declined as a settlement from that point on and was not rediscovered until tentative excavations at the site began in 1876.
Early Christian Basilica
The early Christian basilica at Ancient Kourion displays all the hallmarks of an early church, with foundations clearly showing the existence of a narthex diakonikon (a storage area for agricultural products used by priests and monks), various rooms, a baptistery and an atrium. Some floor mosaics are also visible among the remains.
House of Eustolius
Originally a palace dating from the early Roman period, this complex was subsequently altered in the 3rd century AD and made a more communal space for the local residents, with the addition of extensive baths, courtyards and halls. Its colourful Christian-influenced mosaic floors are well preserved and make a mention of the builder, Eustolius, and the decidedly non-Christian patron, Apollo. Look for Christian motifs of cross-shaped ornaments and fish.
More interesting for its lovely coastal views than for its actual structure, Ancient Kourion’s Roman Theatre is a reconstruction of a smaller theatre that existed on the same spectacular site, high on the hill overlooking the sea, which was destroyed by earthquakes in the 4th century. Nevertheless, it gives a good idea of how the original would have been at its peak. Today the theatre is often used for cultural events and performances by Cypriot and visiting Greek singers and bands.
Northern Plateau Ruins
The ruins of Hellenistic and Roman Kourion lie on the northern plateau of the Ancient Kourion site. The Roman agora and the stoa, with its colonnade of 16 marble columns, sit alongside the early Christian basilica.
Just to the north, a wooden walkway leads you over the substantial remnants of the Roman city baths, an irrigation system and the nymphaeum. The foundations of the public baths, with the layout of the frigidarium (cold room), tepidarium (warm room) and caldarium (hot room), can still be clearly seen.
House of the Gladiators
At the northwestern edge of the Ancient Kourion site you come to the House of the Gladiators, so called because of two fairly well preserved floor mosaics depicting gladiators in combat dress. Two of these gladiators, Hellenikos and Margaritis, are shown practicing with weapons. Just to the north is the House of Achilles, where a fragment of a beautifully intricate floor mosaic depicting Achilles meeting with Odysseus has survived.”
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
Instead of heading up to the main highway, we were able to turn west after we passed back through the groves of citrus streets, on what was probably the old east-west highway before the dual carriageway was constructed. I certainly preferred driving on a less frenetic road, and the slower speed allowed me to glance at our surroundings a little bit more.
The road climbed a hill and we came upon a beautifully constructed visitor’s centre with views of the sea in the distance. We decided to stop for a moment and prepare some sandwiches from the groceries we’d purchased near the military base. It was a tailgate picnic or sorts and it meant we didn’t have to waste any time looking for a restaurant and waiting for our food to be prepared.
We went inside the visitor’s centre, used their facilities, picked up some maps of the area and studied the scale model of Ancient Kourion. We really didn’t know what to expect, but the grounds and the ancient remains had been so professionally prepared, that we ended up spending longer that we’d thought we would. In many ways, the site was even better than what we’d seen in Pafos, barring the incredible mosaics in the House of Dionysos.
I’m sure the setting had a great deal to do with it, because instead of being flat table land, the site was spread over undulating hills and it kept unfolding as we roamed around. We could see the large roof covering an exhibit quite close to the visitor’s centre, but the full extent of the mosaics were hidden from view until we stepped under the shelter.
From there we moved on to the Roman Theatre, and again, we had no idea of its size until we stood at the top level with the stairs descending below and away, and we looked out at the sea and the horizon. Our next stop was the Earthquake House and there we could see the layout of the house and the various rooms that existed before the earthquake leveled it in 365 AD. We appreciated the storyboard with a drawing of the house, and the information about the deaths of the home’s inhabitants.
I hope my photos convey the beauty of the setting and the quality of everything that has been built to ensure the comfort of those visiting this beautiful site. We walked through what remains of the grand basilica and the vast Roman city baths. We saw the separate areas where the caldarium (hot), the tepidarium (warm) and frigidarium (cold) lounging rooms once stood.
We explored the full extent of this amazing site, drawn forward by the sight of yet another architecturally pleasing modern structure built to protect the mosaics at the House of the Gladiators. It’s obvious the gladiators never had it so good, this was most likely the residence of some Roman noble, one who admired the strength and heroism of the fighting men, and wanted to be reminded of them on a daily basis.
We learned from the storyboard at the building referred to as the House of Achilles, that a decree had been issued encouraging Christian themes be used in future art works, and renouncing the pagan Gods that have previously been favoured. The mosaics in this building near the entrance to the city shows scenes of Achilles with his mother Thetis, preparing to give him his first bath.
Once again, the name Thetis came to my attention. There is a lovely lake near the outskirts of Victoria where we live that is named Thetis Lake. It’s a place that our daughter and her husband love to escape to during the warm days of summer. I never realized the origin of the name, I think I might have been under the mistaken impression that it was a First Nations word. So much to learn, so little time…