FABRIKA ANCIENT THEATRE IN PAPHOS
By Prof. Richards Green
First published: Cyprus Today, vol. XLV, no. 2, 2007. pp. 2-21
In the years following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, his successors struggled for dominance in the new, enlarged Greek world that he had created. The Ptolemies of Alexandria in Egypt achieved dominant maritime power in the Eastern Mediterranean and took control of Cyprus to secure their trade routes with the Aegean and Greece proper. Nea or New Paphos, which had been founded only a few years before, was a strategic port, in part as a consequence of the natural sea currents and prevailing wind-patterns which worked conveniently for the route to and from Alexandria. They made it the capital of the island. It remained so for almost 700 years, until the later part of the fourth century AD.
As an element of the urbanisation of the new city, it was given a theatre. As so often in the ancient world, it was located towards the edge of town, in this case in the north-east corner near one of the main gates. It was built against the southern face of a low hill, known since the Middle Ages as Fábrika, and positioned so that those sitting in the auditorium were able to look across the town to the harbour and beyond.
The importance of theatres and theatre performances in the ancient world cannot be overestimated. For one thing, a drama festival was one of the few times that the community came together as a whole. There would have been not only the dynamic we are used to from, say, major football matches, but they were also opportunities to see one’s extended family, friends and acquaintances. They were a chance to observe city officials and ceremonies, to be conscious of one’s own community. Theatre festivals were also religious occasions. The plays were put on in honour of a god, most often Dionysos who was also god of wine, of good times and happiness. The festivals involved religious processions with all the heightened consciousness, the opportunities for display and the pleasure that go with them. We should add to all this the innate human enjoyment in seeing drama played out, the vicarious pleasure of witnessing other people’s lives in action, whether in a comic or a serious mode, in a way that we ourselves experience in books, theatre, television and cinema as well as the stage. For the ancients, theatre was the only way to have such an experience.
Scripted theatre (plays as we understand them) was an invention which can be tied to a specific time and place. It was developed in Athens in the last years of the sixth century BC in the years of the new democracy. It grew in sophistication extraordinarily rapidly – Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and the comic writer Aristophanes were all working in the first hundred years of its existence. Such a development implies a keen interest and involvement on the part of that other major component of the theatrical experience, the audience. It was this response and enthusiasm that generated theatre’s development. Theatre belonged to the people. As the Greek world itself spread into new territories, theatre became an identifier of Greek culture, something which distinguished Greeks from foreigners. In 331 BC, when Alexander rested his troops in Tyre in present-day Lebanon before taking his expedition further east, he organised a drama festival for them. We are told that the Greece’s most famous actors were brought across to perform. He did all this, surely, not only to entertain his troops, but as a bonding process, as a reinforcement of their identity in a foreign world. (It was an event not without parallels for armies in more recent situations.) Another interesting point about that festival, which must have been extremely expensive to stage, is that it was sponsored by the kings of Cyprus.
It was natural enough, therefore, that only a few years later, the new city of Paphos should have a permanent theatre.
One of the critical elements in the early phases of our work was to define the theatre’s layout and orientation. It was not straightforward. The site was divided into two areas by a terrace wall that ran across what seemed to be the bottom of the seating area, and this wall held back a considerable amount of earth. We decided to run a major trench right through from what was apparently the upper part of the seating, down through the wall, to determine the level of the flat performance space below. So we did, but as we approached the wall from above, it meant working through four or five metres of accumulated earth and heavy rocks. Again, the line of the terrace wall proved to be quite misleading: while it ran roughly east-west so that one might think the theatre faced south, the orientation turned out to be noticeably west of south. As it happened the line of the terrace was due to substantial damage to the eastern side of the complex in Late Antiquity and further reorganisation of the space in the medieval and more recent times.
Much of the work in the earlier seasons consisted of test-trenches placed to as to define key features and slowly build up our knowledge of the theatre’s plan. We were constantly realising the size of the project: eventually we found that the structure measured some 90 metres across, disappearing under roads at each side. We calculate that in its developed phases, it held something over 8,000 people.
In its visible form the seating area is essentially semicircular in plan. It is divided by seven radial stairways of which the outer two run along by the side support walls and the middle one up the centre line. The angle of rise of the seating is 26.5 degrees. Its extent to the rear is still a matter for discussion and it was probably taken further back at different periods as the seating capacity needed to be increased. For example there seem to have been extensions in the late first century BC and then again in the middle of the second century AD, doubtless as the city itself grew.
Despite damage in later periods, it is possible to reconstruct the form of the seats with some accuracy. The rise for each seat was about 35-36cm, which is somewhat lower than that for modern seats – but then people were generally a little shorter. The front edge was curved, with a bullnose, allowing the spectators to draw back their feet a little without catching their heels at the back. The seats nearer the front seem to have included a recessed level for the feet of the spectator behind, so that they should not interfere with the spectator in front.
Although it is essentially built against Fábrika Hill, only the central segment had all the seats carved out of the natural rock. At the sides it was possible to have only the lowermost seats cut from the bedrock; those above were cut separately and placed on an embankment of soil.
The rock in this area, a sandy limestone, is good structurally but has a poor surface quality. It does not hold carving well. It also absorbs rainwater. The solution devised by the builders was to coat the surfaces with a pebble-cement and cover that with a fine, hard, white stucco. This was applied over all the seating, and it was also strong and durable enough to be applied over high-traffic areas such as the stairs.
At the sides, the embankment of seats was supported by massive and carefully-constructed walls of stone blocks the faces of which were also coated with stucco. Against these walls at ground level ran the entrance passages coming in from each side. This was the route that would have been taken by the official processions during festivals.
At ground level between the curve of the seating and the stage-building is a flat area, known technically as the orchestra. This literally means the dancing area and it was the space in which the chorus of Greek drama sang and danced. It was a vital element of the performance space of any Greek theatre, and it was taken over into Roman theatres, if for different purposes.
The third key element, the stage and stage-building, is extremely difficult to reconstruct. As the element most visible to the spectators, it was the one most subject to renovation to meet the needs of contemporary theatre fashion. Each renovation destroyed much of the earlier version and there is nowadays very little left on which to base any convincing reconstruction. Even if all details will never be clear, there is, however, enough evidence to distinguish the main phases of the theatre’s development. It seems to have been constructed some time about 300 BC. There is good evidence of a major makeover soon after the middle of the second century BC. Many of the elements of this phase demonstrate close links with the architecture of Alexandria. A well-preserved feature too is a tunnel, constructed of well-cut stone, running from the stage-building under the orchestra along its central line. It measures 180 x 72cm in section, and would have allowed performers to move unseen from below the stage to the further part of the orchestra for surprise appearances. Such tunnels (often called ‘Charonian’) were a feature of several of the more prominent theatres at this period, for example in Delos, Corinth, Argos, Eretria and Syracuse. Ours is one of the best preserved.
Related to this change is an inscription found at the site many years ago (but now apparently lost). It dates to 142 BC and was part of a statue base honouring the man who became Ptolemaic Governor, Theodoros, and thanking him for his support. It was set up by the newly-formed Paphian chapter of the Actors’ Guild, an international body of considerable influence. It also mentioned a number of individual actors and playwrights and, though fragmentary, gives the impression that the occasion was a major event celebrating the renovation and expansion of the theatre.
The next major phase seems to have occurred under the emperor Augustus and followed an earthquake which is known to have struck Paphos in 15 BC, the first of a series of terrible earthquakes that struck western Cyprus in the first four or five centuries of our era.
At the time of writing, the future of the site is under active consideration by the Department of Antiquities. The area could, of course, be left as an archaeological site, as part of the archaeological park in this World Heritage Listed area. For this to happen it will need basic conservation and ready access for visitors, although the condition of the theatre since its use as a quarry in Late Antiquity means that it will need extensive work, if only to create adequate walking surfaces.
There is also a strong move to reinstate the theatre as a performance place, an idea which arises from the increasing emphasis on Paphos as a centre for cultural activity, for opera and for musical concerts. In this case the treatment of the site and the attitude towards it would be quite different. Provision would have to be made for all the ancillary facilities such as changing-rooms, ticket-offices, parking, and so on, not to mention issues of access for large crowds. Most importantly from a long-term perspective, the integrity of the site as an archaeological entity and as Cyprus’ oldest theatre would have to be considered. The days are past when one could build up in stone according to some current idea of what the original looked like, obscuring its original form and in a sense destroying it. It would need a subtle and sophisticated treatment that preserved as much of the original as possible for future generations, while making it attractive and readily usable for both performers and audience. The challenge is not an impossible one.
An excavation is a complex process not only on site, in the actual digging and its recording, and in the sorting and interpretation of the finds, but, particularly when coming with a team of about fifty people from distant Australia, in the planning and organisation. One of the joys has been the involvement of Cypriot students. Another has been the possibility of bringing non-archaeologists to share in the work, members of the Australian community who could learn by experience what archaeology is about. At the same time they discovered Cyprus and made many lasting friendships. The core staff too have found their job so much easier thanks to the help and generosity of their Cypriot hosts.
The most radical of all the later reconstructions occurred under the Antonines in the middle of the second century AD. The changes were commemorated in a major inscription on the architrave that stretched to either side of the central door of the stage-building, and parts of it still survive. It thanks the emperors Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius and mentions a number of features of the restored theatre. This inscription, now in the display area in the garden of the Paphos District Archaeological Museum, has survived in two main parts. One was found as long ago as 1916, apparently in the region of the then unrecognised theatre. Another, more substantial part of it was discovered by the Australian team in 2002. It gives a date for the completion of the renovations between the end of AD 139 and Antoninus’ death in March AD 161.
This is the phase of the theatre of which one can say most. The stage and the building behind it are defined by a substantial foundation wall for the stage front and a massive concrete-and-rubble wall that supported the front of the stage-building. The stage-building itself was two storeys high and clad with a marble veneer. (One should remember that all marble in Cyprus had to be imported.) There was solid marble detailing for elements such as false windows and niches for statues including portraits of the emperors. Immediately in front of that were placed columns with Corinthian capitals, the columns apparently in a variety of marbles, the capitals consistently of a grey-white variety imported from Prokonnesos at the entrance to the Black Sea. There is also a series of spirally-fluted columns of a dense, grey-blue marble known as bigio antico. Some were later carried off to the Chrysopolitissa basilica and are still visible there. They probably belonged in the upper story of the stage-building.
The stage front was also given a marble veneer. Directly behind its foundations runs a line of water-pipes with carefully-sealed junctions. Some of them have holes cut in the top, and in one or two cases there are remains of lead pipes set into the top of them. They must have been designed to feed sprinklers or water-fountains that sprayed forward from the front of the stage onto the multi-coloured marble pavement laid out in front. They seem to have been fed from a pipeline running down the centre stairway from the back of the seating and then from a tunnel cut through the eastern side of Fábrika Hill. The head of water coming down from the top of the auditorium would have been more than adequate.
The side-entrances to the orchestra, the parodoi, were also remodelled. They were now covered by vaulting (thus making them conform with standard Roman practice) and the passages were given fresco decoration. This is a rare phenomenon. Some traces of the design can be seen on the surviving wall of the western parodos where it comprised festoon arrangements of sashes. The ceiling was decorated with green floral designs, incorporating red and yellow flowers, against a cream ground. In the ancient world both these motifs were symbols of festivity.
A small fragment of the inscription indicates that the seating was also modified in this phase. This would certainly have included the area above the vaulting of the parodoi, where there would have been special boxes for official guests, but it also involved remodelling of the rear entranceway at the western edge of the hill.
The final major alteration occurred some time in the middle of the third century AD and involved converting the orchestra for combats and water spectacles. The marble pavement was removed and the orchestra was resurfaced with a pink-coloured waterproof cement (which will still hold water). Around it was placed a barrier wall approximately 1.1m high and the entries from the side were partially blocked off. Water spectacles were hugely popular at the time, whether girls playing the role of water-nymphs in musicals, mock naval battles, or even combats with crocodiles imported from Egypt. Animal combats and gladiatorial combats had spread into the Greek from the Roman world. They of course usually took place in amphitheatres, but there were relatively few amphitheatres in the Greek-speaking half of the Empire and traditional theatres were commonly modified to house them. Paphos was exceptional in also having an amphitheatre (located north-east from the harbour but as yet not properly excavated though much of its stone has been taken, it is said for the construction of the Suez Canal), but it is quite clear that the theatre was used as an additional venue.
All these changes, from a relatively standard theatre that emphasised its links with Ptolemaic Alexandria, to one that (in the Antonine phase) reflected the glory of central Rome, that was in turn modified in the mid-third century for more local concerns as reflected in water spectacles, were responses to economic, cultural and political changes. The last phase housed what one might, from an historical perspective, regard as relatively down-market activities aimed very directly at non-intellectual, mass entertainment. The previous phase had been funded by the central government and it must have cost a great deal of money with its radical rebuilding, its extension of the seating area, and its use of imported marble. It was a demonstration of the popularity of theatre, of the generosity of the emperors as individuals (made explicit in the inscription), and a recognition of the importance of the city of Paphos.
The use of the theatre came to an end in the later part of the fourth century. On the basis of coins and other finds, it is tempting to invoke the disastrous earthquake of AD 365 or thereabouts and the terrible damage it caused throughout the region of Paphos.
If we ask about the sorts of performances staged during the life of the theatre, it is not easy, in the absence of definitive records, to give a clear answer. Tastes changed enormously through time. In the earlier years, such a theatre would have craved the sorts of dramas staged in other centres across the Greek world. This would certainly have included works of Euripides, whose work had achieved classic status during the fourth century BC. Throughout the Hellenistic period we find echoes and quotations of his tragedies even scratched on pots or pieces of stone. We should also remember, however, that there were many contemporary writers of serious drama who were popular enough in their day even if their work has not survived for us. Greek comic theatre was equally strong and widely influential, not least through the work of Menander. Another feature of contemporary theatre was the star status of the leading actors who could earn sums of money equivalent to what we give to pop stars and prominent sportsmen.
By the earlier part of the Roman Empire, other forms of entertainment were also becoming popular. Musical items were to be found at all times, but they came to take a more important place, and there is evidence from other centres of musicians who travelled widely and achieved considerable fame. Another genre which took an ever more important place was that of so-called Pantomime in which a single actor played a series of roles (changing his mask appropriately), not speaking or singing, but miming to the sound of music with gestures that conveyed the meaning and the emotions involved. Ancient sources suggest it attracted large and frequent audiences, and in the third century AD and later, Christian writers regularly condemned it as corrupting the young. Indeed they condemn it in terms which suggest that far too many of their flock found it attractive.
When the Paphos theatre died in the later part of the fourth century, the town had long been a seat of Christianity. It is part of the fame of the city that St Paul visited in AD 68 and converted the then Roman governor, Sergius Paulus, to his faith. With that sort of beginning, it is more than likely that the Christians gained a strong base in the town. As the years went by, both Christians and pagans developed a stronger sense of morality combined with changed attitudes towards what was and was not acceptable public behaviour. The written sources make it evident that there was a growing sense that the public display of emotions, and even more especially false emotions such as one might see on stage, were to be deplored. Nonetheless the pagan tradition remained strong and theatre remained popular well into the fourth century AD.
It is significant, though, that there seems to have been no attempt to rebuild following the earthquake of AD 365. On the contrary, there is clear evidence that many of the architectural elements, not least those in marble, were carried off for the construction of the large Chrysopolitissa Basilica (Ayia Kyriaki) some 300m away. One can find there re-used marble blocks from architraves, sheets of veneer of ‘our’ marble, columns, and a series of Corinthian capitals which demonstrably belonged to the theatre.
This appropriation of more expensive materials prompted a wholesale exploitation of the site for building stone, and in the course of the following years almost all of the seating was carried away. The easiest would have been the seats that rested on the earthen embankments, but workmen soon came to carve out blocks from the rock-cut seats in the central area. In the former orchestra, we excavated deposits of broken pottery and stone refuse associated with patches of burning from small fires used by the workmen to cook food or burn rubbish. The remains of animal bones from these contexts provide evidence for the use of donkeys, oxen and even a camel for the transport of material.
Such marble pieces as were not suitable for building purposes were broken up for the lime kiln, an ever more valuable commodity as cement came into increasing use in construction. They were smashed into roughly fist-sized pieces. The process was not particularly well or cleanly organised, and we found that many fragments were still lying around the site as late as the 13th century.
To judge by the pottery and associated coins, much of this quarrying work seems to have occurred within the fifth century. By its end, the site must have been a scene of devastation and barely recognisable for what it once had been. Nevertheless a remarkable discovery of the 2006 season casts an interesting light on the situation during the quarrying process. In the course of the third century AD, a containment wall had been built around the orchestra to create a pool for water-spectacles. It was largely constructed of re-used material. In the northeastern quadrant of this wall, in the area between the lines of two stairways, were incorporated two broken and otherwise worthless columns placed some 3.45m apart. The one is of marble, the other of grey granite. They cannot have been visible during the life of the wall since it was covered in some sort of cladding that was later removed during the robbing out of the theatre. At some later point the upper part of the granite column on the side facing into the orchestra was given an inscription recording a man called Eustorgis and the fact that he ‘awakened Cyprus’.
Some elements of the wall between the columns had been removed so as to give access to a crude platform constructed over the remnants of the bottom rows of seating. In front of the platform and resting on accumulated soil is a further inscribed stone. It had once been a statue base and was already old and damaged when placed in this position. On the front it has an inscription again mentioning Eustorgis, this time as a founder (of new developments). The positioning of the monument was opportunistic, making use of the columns and of the ruined stairways in the lower part of the seating behind. The platform was assembled from fragments of stone found in the vicinity and from bits of seating. Whatever the status of Eustorgis himself, the creators of this monument were making do with whatever came easily to hand, and they were not in a position economically to make it particularly fine or grand. This was a quasi-industrial site.
There is a third inscription related to Eustorgis in Paphos. It is on a small marble column now in the Chrysopolitissa basilica. “Eustorgis, may he never thirst”: one thinks of St John’s Gospel where Jesus says that whoever follows him will never thirst (and again in John the Evangelist).
Who was this Eustorgis? He is also mentioned in a contemporary inscription from Salamis where he is credited with renewing that city, but it seems impossible to find any mention of him in historical sources. The name is a not uncommon one at this period, especially among Christians. The evidence of the four inscriptions suggests that he was a person of some prominence in his time, as someone who took active steps in restoring buildings, cities, Cyprus, at a time of trouble in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. What is perhaps curious is that a man of this claimed status was celebrated with a cheap, poorly-constructed monument at a ruinous pagan site such as the theatre was by that period, on the very fringe of town. One can only speculate on how that came about – he meant a great deal for financial and/or other reasons to a small group of quarrymen who had the contract for pulling stone from the site.
There are signs of continuing activity through much of the sixth and seventh centuries, mostly by way of rubbish dumps and the odd simple house or hut. From the seventh century there are occasional Arab coins, and we are reminded that Arab raids and more lengthy incursions were an increasing problem at this period. Indeed we are told that in AD 688 many of the inhabitants of Paphos were carried off into captivity.
After that, there is no evidence of consistent activity at the site until the revival of economic prosperity in Paphos at the time of the Crusaders, from the 12th century onwards. Lower Paphos survived during the intervening period, but in a contracted form in the area of the harbour.
Though unexpected, the Medieval phase of the site is proving to be one of considerable importance. The earliest material belongs to the 12th century but it becomes more plentiful in the 13th. A complex of buildings with courtyards between them was erected over the area of the former orchestra and stage. They had an industrial character and it must be from this period that the area came to be known as Fábrika from the Italian word fabbrica, a place of manufacture, doubtless applied by the Venetian traders. It is a name which has remained attached to the area ever since. There is evidence for metal-working, perhaps for the carving of architectural elements for nearby buildings, for the manufacture of glass, and, most importantly, for the commercial and large-scale manufacture of glazed decorated pottery (so-called sgraffito ware) that was traded widely in the Eastern Mediterranean including the Holy Land. Pieces made in the kiln at our site have been found for example at the Crusader site of Acre (Akko) in present-day Israel. There were several workshops for this kind of pottery in the immediate region of Paphos (indicating the importance of this trade), but this one seems to have been the most significant. At the same time there are imports from the lands to the East by way of Islamic pottery as well as specialist kinds of cooking ware made for the Crusaders in Acre. There are even some imported Chinese porcelain bowls.
All this reflects the renewed size and importance of Paphos during these centuries. The town reached the spread it had in ancient times. One thinks of the castle nowadays called Saranda Kolones which stood overlooking the harbour (which extended across the area of the present carpark). From further round the harbour’s edge, at the site of the present Debenham building, came deposits of decorated pottery, presumably from warehouses and waiting for export. In the middle of the town was a sizeable cathedral of which the central part lies under the present main road leading up from the harbour. In our area towards the edge of town, a trial excavation on the southern edge of Fábrika Hill, under the present lookout, produced evidence of a fairly substantial medieval structure that must once have extended further back over the hill.
What made Paphos important at this time was, much as in ancient times, its reliable harbour and its location as a first or last stopping point for travellers (in the days before refrigeration) to pick up fresh food and water as they made their way between East and West. Despite the growing importance of Limassol, Larnaka and Famagusta (not to mention Nicosia), the finds from our site indicate that at this period there was often direct contact with the Holy Land. Since the travellers, whether military, commercial or religious, were Christians, it is also significant that, with the establishment of their western (Catholic) church, Paphos was also the area of an important bishopric, even if its role declined in later times. The economic strength of Paphos was bolstered by the agricultural activity of the region, not least with the rapid developments in the farming of sugar cane and its processing. It was the major source of what became a precious, sought-after commodity in Europe before the development of sugar plantations in the West Indies, and one, of course, which revolutionised European eating habits. It was a rich source of income to the local overlords, as also was cotton which was exported in some quantity to Venice and Genoa for onward transmission to other parts of Europe, especially in slightly later periods. (Remember that the term ‘jeans’ ultimately derives from the coarse cloths made in Genoa from cotton from Cyprus and the Levant.)
This prosperity lasted for only a limited period. The Crusaders were expelled from the Holy Land in AD 1291 and the trade between Paphos and the East died out virtually overnight. Then on the morning of 8 August 1303 there was an earthquake which devastated most of the buildings and left the town in ruins. It caused widespread destruction including the collapse of the lighthouse in Alexandria in Egypt and the death of 4000 people in Crete. It also prompted a tsunami which caused extensive damage in Rhodes and all the way across to the east Mediterranean coast. The accounts of later travellers in the 15th and 16th centuries speak of Paphos as a scene of desolation, with unhealthy conditions. It seems more than likely, too, that the earthquake had been accompanied by a major shift in ground level that drastically reduced the usable area of the harbour, making it difficult for international shipping.
At Fábrika the earthquake is reflected in the destruction of the houses and by the way, for example, that the survivors filled in a well with the rubbish and rubble, including many dead animals such as calves, goats and cats. For the archaeologist, this well gives a snapshot of the activity immediately prior to the destruction and it has provided many of the most useful finds. After this point, manufacturing ceased, and although some of the structures were rebuilt using the foundations of the earlier ones, the character of the activity was changed. We have minor farmsteads which never matched the prosperity of their 13th-century predecessors. The site continued to be inhabited by small numbers of people until the Ottoman takeover in 1571, and beyond, even though the majority of the population came to live, and the administrative centre with them, in the upper town, Ktima, with its fresher air, away from the malarial conditions that developed in much of Lower Paphos.