Death at Kourion
In the fourth century A.D., a huge earthquake destroyed one of Cyprus’s glittering Greco-Roman cities.
One of the most devastating earthquakes ever to hit the Mediterranean struck a little after daybreak on July 21, 365 A.D.
The fourth-century A.D. Latin historian Ammianus Marcellinus called it “a frightful disaster surpassing anything related either in legend or authentic history.” Ships in Lakonia, in the southern Peloponnesus, were driven several miles inland. (Ammianus claims to have seen this near the town of Motho.) In several places, Ammianus recalled, water receded sharply from the land, luring people out onto what had moments before been the ocean bottom—where they could examine, at their peril, the “many kinds of sea creatures stuck fast in the slime.” Suddenly a wall of water appeared, drowning thousands of people. This “swift recoil” of the water destroyed a large number of ships, flinging some “on the tops of buildings” (History 26.10.15–19).
The same event devastated the harbor at Alexandria, Egypt, to such a degree that an annual religious festival was instituted to ward off future disasters.
But Cyprus was hit worst of all, according to the orator Libanius, who thanked God that his own town of Antioch, just to the northeast in Syria, had not suffered such a calamity (Oratio 2.52). Among the destroyed Cypriot sites was the glittering seaside city of Kourion, where I directed excavations 25 years ago.
Perched on the edge of a cliff on the southern coast of Cyprus, Kourion once commanded a strategic position on a major trade route between the eastern and western Mediterranean. The site was also famous in antiquity for a large sanctuary 047dedicated to Apollo Hylates (Apollo of the Woodlands), begun in the sixth century B.C. a few miles outside the city.
The first major excavations at Kourion were undertaken by a wealthy Philadelphian named George McFadden from 1934 to 1953. Though he had no formal training in archaeology, McFadden financed the excavations, built a lovely structure called Kourion House (still used by excavation teams) and enjoyed playing archaeologist. McFadden enjoyed yachting, too, which proved his undoing: On a perfectly calm day in 1953, his boat mysteriously capsized in Episkopi Bay and his body washed ashore near the cliffs of Kourion.
McFadden was aided by Bert Hodge Hill, an architectural historian with the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, and J.F. Daniel, the young Keeper of Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. (During the excavations, the 38-year-old Daniel also died suddenly, apparently of a heart attack, while on holiday in Turkey.) Neither McFadden, Hill nor Daniel ever published these early excavations. Not until 1967 did a detailed summary of some of the work come out, when University of Chicago architectural historian Robert Scranton was able to make some sense of McFadden’s and Daniel’s notes.
In 1977 Vassos Karageorghis, then Director of Antiquities of Cyprus, granted me a permit to excavate the large Sanctuary of Apollo, which I undertook with co-director Diana Buitron. About 375 feet long and 300 feet wide, the sanctuary was a large walled complex of buildings, courtyards and monuments. In ancient times, this sanctuary was a pilgrimage center, a place for supplicants to plead with the powerful god Apollo—represented not by a statue but by a standing stone called a baetyl—to improve their crops or bless their families.
After entering the sanctuary through one of several monumental gateways, visitors could proceed to the baths or to a large exercise ground, called a palaestra. Those hoping to make offerings to Apollo, whose temple lay at the northernmost end of the sanctuary, could wait their turn at a kind of visitors’ center (the South Building), a structure consisting of six 048large rooms with benches.
The sanctuary complex had three principal sacred locations: the Altar of Apollo, an enclosed park and the famous Temple of Apollo. We began excavating at the sacred altar, near which worshipers once set up offerings of terracotta figurines—some adorned with helmets or shields, and some gesturing for the attention of the god. The altar itself was a small, probably round structure (a part of the curve was preserved), made of piled stones. (Apollo received so many visitors that the terracotta offerings were periodically gathered up and pitched into sacred pits (favissae) in the open central area of the sanctuary.) Our excavations yielded a beautiful, tiny gold-and-silver bull built right into the altar’s center.
Next, we turned to the park (or alsos), which lay on a raised terrace enclosed by a massive second-century A.D. wall. McFadden never excavated this precinct, because its broad, flat expanse served perfectly for his beloved pastime of croquet. Very likely, the famous sacred deer of Apollo at Kourion, mentioned by the writer Aelian in the early third century A.D., were kept in this enclosure (Aelian, On the Nature of Animals 11.7). McFadden found a lovely small bronze image of a deer in this area.
Just a couple of inches below the surface of this raised expanse, we uncovered an unusual structure—later dubbed the Round Building—consisting of a circular wall enclosing a paved walkway surrounding an open circular courtyard. The entire structure is about 40 feet in diameter. Apparently worshipers walked, or danced, around the interior of this structure. The central courtyard was planted with shallow-rooted trees, perhaps date palms sacred to the god Apollo.
The Round Building—which may date to the sixth century B.C., though it was repaved in the Roman period—remains a discovery unique in Mediterranean archaeology. Following references in ancient sources, scholars had long sought monuments with sacred trees in the center around which humans could dance, but this was the first actual building where such cultic dancing seems to have taken place. Had McFadden stuck his croquet wickets in a little deeper, he might have found it.
After uncovering the Round Building, we began excavating the Temple of Apollo, the last of the sanctuary’s three sacred locations. Like the Round Building and the sanctuary itself, the temple was probably first erected in the sixth century B.C. and then remodeled during the reign of the emperor Nero (54–68 A.D.). In Nero’s time, a front porch, or pronaos, was added, and the temple was entirely rebuilt with new columns and pilasters. When we began work, only its foundations and front steps were visible. McFadden had left behind unpublished plans showing many of the temple blocks lying on the ground, but these blocks were no longer to be seen. We later found that they had simply been covered with wind-blown debris between 1935 and 1978, the year our excavations began. The blocks east of the temple had been disturbed during previous excavation, but those north of the temple remained as they had fallen, probably as the result of an earthquake. The upper third of the temple had been sheared off, which also indicated an earthquake. It was possible for our architect, Jack Rutherford, and his assistant, Alexandra Corn, to attempt an accurate reconstruction drawing of the temple, and we began making plans to rebuild it.
Unfortunately, a coxsackie virus then struck our village. Coxsackie viruses are enteroviral infections causing fever, mouth ulcers and, though not in my case, blisters on the palms and soles of the feet. The epidemic killed two people and left me dazed for weeks, with a fever reaching 106 degrees. Two trips to the emergency room on the British military base at Episkopi failed to revive me, and I lapsed into delirium. Night after night I clung to my bed, afraid I would fall out of it and into the abyss; hordes of insects appeared to be crawling up the walls. Finally the fever broke and I was able to keep food down. Foolishly ignoring my wife’s advice to stay in bed, I returned to work—and promptly fell down in our storage shed, knocking a stack of old-fashioned iron wheelbarrows on top of me, 049which crushed my left wrist. It took several years to recover my full strength.
While I was incapacitated, Karageorghis assigned the reconstruction project to Stefanos Sinos of the University of Athens, who was noted for his repairs on the Parthenon. My team had already exposed the temple’s front stairs, the pronaos and the core of the temple, or naos. Sinos then uncovered the rest of the temple and rebuilt it (largely adhering to our plan), the first reconstruction of its kind on Cyprus and the first glimpse of what a Romano-Cypriot temple looked like. It looked surprisingly Nabataean—like the temples at Petra, in Jordan!
For some unfathomable reason, however, Sinos deviated from our plan and changed the temple somewhat. He took a capital from a pilaster (a square column built into a wall) we had found behind the temple and placed it beneath the capital of a column standing in front of the pronaos—clearly altering the original design of the temple as published in our reconstruction. He also said he found a small round molding, which he added to the base of the column capital.
From the damage to the Temple of Apollo, it was clear that the sanctuary had been destroyed in an earthquake. But when? Unable to excavate because of my injuries, I began to take another look at the evidence. It soon became obvious to me that ancient Kourion was destroyed during the earthquake of July 21, 365 A.D.—the “frightful disaster” described by Ammianus.
When large floating land masses, known as plates, butt up against one another, one land mass tends to run under the other along a collision zone, or fault line, in a process known as subduction. Cyprus lies just north of such a zone. 051Quakes in the second quarter of the fourth century A.D. had caused drastic damage in the harbor of Paphos to the west and Salamis to the east. These earlier quakes no doubt caused extensive damage to Kourion as well, resulting in the evacuation of much of its population. After the major quake hit, the site was occupied primarily by squatters.
George McFadden had discovered (but never published) several hoards of coins, which are very useful in dating destruction layers. Of course, not every coin in the hoard dated to 365 A.D. If you were to examine a pocketful of change, the coins would have a range of dates. The most recent coins, however, would likely correspond to the time when the hoard was deposited, provided that you have a large enough sample. Of the more than 100 coins recovered from Kourion in stratified contexts, the latest coins were minted during the reign of the emperor Valens (364–378 A.D.). On these coins, the emperor’s name is split by his portrait: The letters “VALEN” are to the left of his portrait and the “S” is to the right. These so-called split-Valens coins are thought to have been issued early in his reign. No coins of later emperors were found. This seemed strong evidence that the Temple of Apollo and Kourion were leveled by the 365 A.D. earthquake.
We also knew that southwest Cyprus had been devastated around this time. Archaeologist David Rupp of Ontario’s Brock University reported, for example, that there was no habitation at Paphos from 365 A.D. to the latter part of the century. At Kourion, no coins were found from the latter fourth century, and there was little building activity until the beginning of the fifth century A.D., when the whole area began to flourish under a lavish new Christian building program.
Despite all this evidence, my earthquake theory was severely criticized. At a lecture I gave in 1980 in Nicosia, several scholars openly laughed while I gave my presentation, and one called it ridiculous. I was told that the renowned Princeton archaeologist Richard Stillwell had worked for a time with McFadden and Daniel at Kourion. Stillwell had argued that the 053theater area was rebuilt in the fourth century A.D. Closer examination of Stillwell’s evidence, however, suggested to me that he had not been able to examine the remains closely enough: The fallen theater blocks lay directly on top of coins from Valens and Valentinian I (364–375 A.D.), suggesting that the theater was destroyed in the great quake of 365 A.D.
In 1983, after I had sufficiently recovered from my injuries, Vassos Karageorghis offered me the opportunity to test the earthquake theory. But I wasn’t sure where to begin. Daniel’s excavation diary revealed that well-preserved pottery, bronze pitchers and a large quantity of coins had come from an area he called Trench III. This seemed like a promising place to excavate.
In Trench III, Daniel, working for McFadden, had also found the remains of a house and two skeletons. Since McFadden thought the skeletons were locked in an embrace, he named them Romeo and Juliet; he claimed that they had been trapped by collapsing debris during an earthquake that occurred between 320 and 350. (Unfortunately, he didn’t study the coin hoard from his own trench, which included examples of the split-Valens coins that enable us to date the earthquake to 365.)
In the University of Pennsylvania Museum, I found photographs of finds from Trench III, including striking images of the two skeletons. In fact, they weren’t embracing at all; one skeleton was curled up in the fetal position, as if seeking protection from falling debris, while the second consisted only of a pair of adult legs.
But how would I find Trench III? Daniel’s diary doesn’t mention the location. The site plans made in the 1930s by the architect Joseph Last don’t show Trench III. And Karageorghis wanted me to begin digging just a few months later, in early 1984.
Then fortune struck. While leafing through The Inscriptions of Kourion (1971), by the classical epigrapher Terence Mitford, I came across a site plan by Joseph Last that I had not seen before. Tiny dotted lines enclosed some areas that were not explained in the text but were marked with barely visible Roman numerals. One of these areas, marked III, was similar in shape to the sketches of Trench III in Daniel’s diary. I was sure that I’d found Trench III, and I decided to stake the entire 1984 season, and our $50,000 budget, on this assumption.
In May 1984, 15 of us flew to Cyprus to look for Trench III. On the morning after our arrival, our architect, John Huffstot, went to the site and found the trench in just a few minutes. The next day we mapped it, and in three days we were excavating.
From the start the finds were extraordinary. We were soon excavating a large building similar to a modern Cypriot village house. There was an alleyway entry, a courtyard with a colonnade on one side, and a large main room suitable as a reception area. A smaller chamber may have served as a bedroom. The structure also contained storage rooms with pottery (mainly amphoras for wine, olive oil or fish sauce) smashed into thousands of pieces, as well as a kitchen with an oven that was still plainly visible. At the top of a staircase was a cistern in which we found a lovely necklace of amber, coral and jet.
This house showed the certain signs of earthquake destruction—particularly the collapse of huge blocks and the human bodies left beneath the rubble. When the quake struck, the house was probably occupied by squatters, who had crudely partitioned its rooms. (The original inhabitants likely abandoned the house when earthquakes struck earlier in the fourth century.) The coin hoards recovered from the house were consistent with those found by McFadden and Daniel, again suggesting that this earthquake was the famous one of 365 A.D.
Seismologist Terry Wallace compared the data to that of recent earthquakes, such as the massive 1983 temblor in the Sea of Japan. Geologists Michael Schiffer and Reuben Bullard sought to piece together the sequence of events that took place within the house on that fatal day. Together, we concluded that the massive earthquake struck in three waves, each a few seconds in duration. The entire event probably lasted no more than 20 to 25 seconds, but it must have seemed an eternity.
One room in the front of the house, which may have served as an anteroom, had been converted into a stable. Probably during the earthquake’s foreshocks, which may have lasted one or two minutes, an agitated mule, tethered by an iron chain to an 800-pound trough, drew the attention of a young girl about 12 years of age, who left her bedroom to investigate. As the first tremor hit, perhaps lasting just four seconds, the girl became tangled up in the legs of the mule. The girl was knocked about, unsure of what was up, down or sideways.
When the powerful second wave hit, striking with devastating fury for some 10 seconds, she covered her face and slumped down amid the legs of the mule. Her skull was crushed. We were not able to recover all of her body. Perhaps she was already dead (she was certainly dying) when the third pulse struck, with slightly less intensity, for about five seconds.
A man about 55 years old had taken refuge in a doorway by the courtyard of the same structure. The doorway collapsed, crushing him and knocking his teeth from his mouth. Since his legs were never found, it is likely that hungry animals (perhaps dogs in need of food) ripped them away, leaving the rest of the body beneath the debris.
Near him, we found thousands of pieces of plaster from the walls, some containing graffiti with the names of local citizens: Demetria, Eutyches and Sozomenos. These were Greek names, so it is clear that the people of fourth-century Kourion spoke and wrote Greek, despite living under Roman control. One badly damaged graffito even referred to Jesus, 054reading “Oh Jesus […] of Christ.”
Our most dramatic discovery lay in a makeshift room installed in the entry corridor of the structure. Here we found a 25-year-old man and a 19-year-old woman, presumably husband and wife. To protect his wife from falling debris, the man had placed his leg over her pelvis and his arm over her shoulder. They were holding hands; she had a hairpin in her hair. A large falling chunk of plaster had struck her skull, snapping her neck at right angles and killing her. The husband took the brunt of the falling blocks as he straddled his wife, and his skull was crushed. Lying near them was a small bronze ring, probably worn by the woman, inscribed with the first two letters of Jesus Christ’s name in Greek, chi and rho (for Christos), plus the letters alpha and omega, signifying the beginning and the end—as haunting a coincidence as one might ever find at an archaeological site.
There was more. Our young husband and wife were not only holding each other’s hands; they were cradling an 18-month-old child in their arms. Both were touching the child’s back, and the mother held the baby’s face just under her chin. Bits of the child’s bones were found scattered at some distance from the skeletal group. Apparently rodents crawling through openings in the debris fed on the corpses and dragged their bones about. The skeleton of one rodent, 055unable to make it out, was found trapped near the skeletons.
I will never forget this scene—how the husband and wife held onto each other, and how she protected the baby while he protected her.
Our entire team felt that this family should not be separated. Forensic anthropologist and reconstruction specialist Walter Birkby prepared a plaster cocoon to lift the skeletons out of the earth. A crane provided by the British Forces on Cyprus carried the encased skeletons to a new museum at the site. Birkby then chiseled off the upper part of the cocoon, revealing the skeletons just as they had been found. The white plaster was then covered with earth and sand from the skeletons’ original surroundings, replicating as best we could the immediate setting in which we had found them. Today the family can still be seen at the Kourion Museum in the village of Episkopi.
Kourion eventually rose again in the fifth century A.D. as a smaller but still significant town and Christian center. The debris, which by then had already been covered by wind-blown sand and loess, was largely left undisturbed. In places, however, it was cleared away so that new homes and churches could be erected. One of the new houses of the early fifth century shows that the memory of the disaster still survived, for an inscription on a mosaic floor pavement states that the house was now under the protection of Christ, whereas Kourion earlier had been the town of Apollo: “In place of big stones and solid iron … this house is girt with the much-venerated signs of Christ.”
Much of Kourion still remains to be excavated. Although most scholars now accept my interpretation that the site was destroyed in the 365 A.D. earthquake, some still disagree. Only future excavations can resolve the dispute once and for all.
One of the most devastating earthquakes ever to hit the Mediterranean struck a little after daybreak on July 21, 365 A.D. The fourth-century A.D. Latin historian Ammianus Marcellinus called it “a frightful disaster surpassing anything related either in legend or authentic history.” Ships in Lakonia, in the southern Peloponnesus, were driven several miles inland. (Ammianus claims to have seen this near the town of Motho.) In several places, Ammianus recalled, water receded sharply from the land, luring people out onto what had moments before been the ocean bottom—where they could examine, at their peril, the “many kinds of […]