When Everyone Came to Cyprus

Near the entrance of a long corridor in the National Museum of Natural History, 10 mini cross-shaped pendants dangle from a prehistoric shell necklace dating to 3000 B.C. At the other end of the corridor, a 500-year-old wooden crucifix depicts an agonized Jesus with nails in his feet and hands.

Though the items have the same cross-shaped symbol and reflect the religiosity of their owners, their meanings are entirely different ' one symbolizes Mother Goddess, the other the Christian Messiah. They are also separated by four millennia ' one is of the Bronze Age, the other from the Middle Ages.

What connects them, however, is geography: Both are from Cyprus.

Two hundred Cypriot artifacts spanning 11,000 years are on display for the first time at the museum's new exhibit, 'Cyprus: Crossroads of Civilizations.' The items trace the progression and diversity of Cypriot society and highlight religion, art and daily life on the Mediterranean Sea's easternmost Eurasian island.

'People will get to visit Cyprus through the exhibit,' said Sophocles Hadjisavvas, curator and a native of Cyprus. 'It's unique ' there is no preceding culture: We're Greek, we're Middle Eastern, we're the only Christian nation in the Arab world. From prehistoric times to the Crusades, [our history] is one of a kind.'

With artifacts arranged in chronological order, the foremost section of the exhibit features some of the oldest items from the island. The bones of the oldest cat ever unearthed, for example, are on display.

Signifying Great Mother or Mother Goddess, Cyprus' deity of life and fertility, many small statues depict women giving birth. Squatting with their arms extended parallel to the ground (inadvertently making a cross shape), these items were often worn as pendants and symbolized birth in prehistoric times.

'We don't have writings or documentation about life during these centuries, so these artifacts become critical for understanding daily life in ancient Cyprus,' Hadjisavvas said.

The many sculptures and ceramics of pregnant women, for example, allude to the importance of family and childbearing, just like in today's societies, he said.

Rustic agricultural tools are on display, including bronze axes, pins and spearheads, demonstrating the importance of copper to the ancient society's inhabitants. Obsidian blades, dating to 8500 B.C., show trade was central to the region because volcanic glass, the substance that makes up obsidian, is not native to the island.

Ceramic flasks and jugs are among the many objects on shelves. Atop one large double-spouted jug, dozens of human figures doing various household duties were molded into the design. One man rides a mule, another uses a bull to plow a field, a third is treading grapes in a large bathtub-like structure and three women hold babies.

'This artifact alone tells us that wine was a central part of life and how it was made,' Hadjisavvas said. 'It shows us the method by which fields were plowed. It shows that women were the primary caretakers of children.'

The presence of various cultural influences ' Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Turkish ' is evident through the painting styles, the artistic depictions and the deities worshipped, many which originated elsewhere on the Mediterranean.

Given its position on the sea, situated south of Turkey and west of Syria, the island stood at a crossroad for trade between Europe, Africa and the Middle East, making its ports invaluable. Consequently, Cyprus was the conquest of Egyptian pharaohs, Alexander the Great, Constantinople, the Arab caliphate, King Richard the Lionheart and the crusaders, the Ottomans, and the Britons ' and all embedded parts of their own culture into Cypriot society.

Artifacts highlight the influence of Greek mythology on the island's inhabitants. Aphrodite, for instance, the goddess of love and fertility, took the place of Mother Goddess in worship. She became Cyprus' patron deity and appears on coins dating to 500 B.C., as well as in statues and figurines.

Miniature statues of seated young men wearing laurels reflect the Grecian style of art, as does the presence of the mythical Greek sphinx in artwork.

Syrian and Egyptian influence is evident in the painting styles used on pottery, many of which depict horses and charioteers, Egyptian headdresses, the ancient Egyptian god Bes and the cross-shaped ankh, an Egyptian symbol for life.

The last section of the exhibit shows Byzantine and Italian influence. According to legend and the Bible, saints Paul and Barnabas brought Christianity to Cyprus. In A.D. 330, the Byzantine Empire took the island and claimed it for Constantinople. It's no surprise, therefore, that elaborate crosses and processional items, all taken from various churches in Cyprus, are on display and give the last section of the exhibit the feel of an Orthodox cathedral.

A limestone bread stamp of the Archangel Michael dates from A.D. 330 to 700. According to a wall display at the exhibit, the stamp was used for Holy Communion on special occasions such as feast days.

Italian influence is evident in the tempera-on-wood depictions of saints Paul, Matthew and Michael all dating from 1200 to 1500. According to Hadjisavvas, many of the Christian icons on display are still used in traditional worship when they are not on display in exhibits.

'Cyprus: The Crossroads of Civilizations' will be on display until May 1.

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