In the mid-second millennium B.C., Cyprus lay at the center of a vigorous eastern Mediterranean trade in metals, particularly the copper and tin used to make Bronze Age bronze. Contemporaneous texts from Syria and Egypt refer to the land of “Alashiya”—identified by most, but not all, scholars as Cyprus—in connection to copper.a

It is not known when Kourion was first settled. Although a nearby cemetery contained Mycenaean artifacts from the 11th century B.C., it seems likely that remains of the earliest settlement are buried beneath the extensive Roman-period ruins. Kourion is first mentioned in the written record by the Assyrian king Esarhaddon (680–669 B.C.), whose boastful list of vassals includes “Damasu, king of Kuri (Kourion).”

In the late-seventh and sixth centuries B.C., the emerging power on the Greek mainland, Athens, clashed with Persian Achaemenids for control of Cyprus. (The Persians eventually won.) It was during this period that the cult of the god Apollo—associated with woodlands, music and knowledge—was first celebrated at Kourion. (In fact, as early as the eighth century B.C., the site of the sanctuary dedicated to Apollo had been a sacred precinct honoring a now-unknown god who probably represented cycles of death and rebirth.)

In 499 B.C. Kourion’s king, Stasanor, joined with other Greek Cypriot kingdoms and the Greek cities of Ionia (on the western coast of Anatolia) in the so-called Ionian Revolt, an attempt to throw off their Persian overlords. During the land battle at Salamis, Stasanor betrayed his allies, a move that enabled Kourion to remain independent after Persia crushed the revolt.

When Alexander the Great defeated Persian forces at the battle of Issus in 333 B.C., the Cypriot cities joined him. Kourion’s last ruler, Pasicrates, committed 120 of his warships to Alexander’s siege of Tyre (in modern Lebanon) in 332 B.C. Following Alexander’s death in 323 B.C. and the subsequent division of his empire into three parts (European, Asian and Egyptian), the Macedonian-born ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy I, annexed the island of Cyprus. Kourion then declined into a small, provincial town.

After Rome annexed the island in 58 B.C., Kourion experienced a revival. By the mid-second century A.D., it was a thriving metropolis of 20,000 citizens, who enjoyed amusing entertainments in a newly remodeled theater (above) and thrilling spectacles in Cyprus’s only known stadium, located halfway between the city of Kourion and the Temple of Apollo. The massive stadium, in use for at least 200 years, had 20-foot-thick walls.

The devastating earthquake that occurred on July 21, 365 A.D., destroyed many of Kourion’s buildings. The site was then abandoned for several decades. By the beginning of the fifth century, the Christian community had constructed the Meydani Basilica just east of the stadium, probably on the site of an ancient temple to Demeter. One of the largest Christian sanctuaries built on Cyprus, the basilica was made from stone salvaged from nearby ruins. The city’s renewed vigor is also suggested by the ruins of a palatial dwelling known as the Villa of Eustolios. Restored by the builder Eustolios in the fifth century A.D., the excavated villa contains an impressive bath complex with a hypocaust heating system (a kind of central heating, with hot-water pipes running beneath tile floors), as well as fine mosaic images of birds, fish and dolphins.

Kourion remained a prosperous Byzantine city until the Muslim invasions of the mid-seventh century, when the town was plundered and deserted. Soon thereafter, wind-blown sand covered all traces of its glorious past.