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The Tombs of the Kings
The spectacular city of the dead in Paphos, Cyprus
“As I approached the city, all I could see were some rocks scattered about the plain. To my great surprise, when I drew near I saw that each rock had been expertly carved out on the interior to form chambers. My surprise was even greater when I realized that this was a replica of a subterranean city carved out of the rocks… One can take these buildings for catacomb[s]…”
—Don Domingo Badia - Y Leyblich (“Ali Bey”), 1806
In an island filled with antiquities from every era, it is difficult to single out individual sites for their superlative grandeur. That said, the Tombs of the Kings may be one of the most impressive and arresting antique sites in Cyprus. A subterranean tomb complex dating to the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt, the Tombs of the Kings are one of those features that seem pulled from a Lara Croft video game, or that silly adventure movie with Tom Holland. Due to the number of burial chambers found, the site forms what might be called a necropolis—a city of the dead.
Alexander the Great conquered most of the Near East in the fourth century B.C.E. Following his (mysterious) death, his Greek-speaking empire was broken up between his generals—these included the Seleucid dynasty (based in Persia, modern-day Iran), the Antigonid dynasty (Anatolia, modern-day Turkey), and the Ptolemaic dynasty (Egypt). The Ptolemies took control of Cyprus and made their capital at Paphos. The Tombs of the Kings became the grand burial place for the regime’s elites. Despite the modern naming convention, though they were tombs, the entombed weren’t kings so much as lords or nobles.
In constructing subterranean tombs with Doric columns usually associated with Greek temples such as the Parthenon, the Ptolemaic lords on Cyprus followed the tradition of their Macedonian culture. Perhaps the most impressive extant example of this style of tomb is the site at Vergina, Greece, where the tomb of Philip II (Alexander the Great’s father), was discovered intact in 1977—the gold treasures miraculously undisturbed, the bright colors of the facades preserved by the soil which encased it.
The Macedonian tomb style usually featured a hill called a tumulus that covered the entry to the underground complex. In Cypite common before the Ptolemaic invasion, but according to Sophocles Hadjisavvas, a former director of the Cypriot Department of Antiquities, the Hellenistic ornamentation of the Tombs of the Kings are a clear export of Ptolemaic hegemony.
On the other end of the island, in Ayia Napa, are more underground tombs alongside the water—the Makronissos site that dates back to the Roman and earlier Macedonian period. Now wedged between beach resorts, the Makronissos tombs indicate a pattern of that time period’s tomb architecture—carved into the rock, by the soft whisper of the sea.
Today, the excavated Tombs of the Kings are the province of tourists and influencers posing suggestively against dour columns, the radical backdrop for exotic yoga and meditation videos.
For me, these tombs are a venue for a more cerebral reflection. The Ptolemaic peoples placed their tombs in proximity to the sea. Poetically, I wonder if the Macedonians recognized that their homeland of Northern Greece was across the sea, and that’s why they wanted to be interred alongside it.
At the risk of sounding like a “goth kid,” I’ll admit I enjoy visiting cemeteries. In modern American cemeteries, I like finding the names of local people whose names now adorn city streets and high schools. In visiting this ancient seaside cemetery, however, it is possible to consider the vastness of time and our small place within it. Though we don’t know much about who was buried at the Tombs of the Kings, we know these peoples lived their lives in radically different circumstances from our own. Most people back then were not granted the privilege to have ornate tombs. Sites like the Tombs of the Kings can help us appreciate that honoring the memory of loved ones is a universal human sentiment, one that transcends the relentless march of time.
Sophocles Hadjisavvas, Digging up the Tombs of the Kings: A World Heritage Site, Napaphos Publishers: Nicosia, 2019.
This is the thirtieth post in The Cyprus Files, a newsletter series from The Usonian chronicling my Fulbright experiences in Cyprus. Thanks for reading, and if you haven’t subscribed to The Usonian to read about storytelling and design from the edge, please consider joining the list.