A rewarding visit to Cyprus and a great personality

A rewarding visit to Cyprus and a great personality

 

During 30 years I was lucky to be in charge of the Cyprus Collections in the Medelhavsmuseet in Stockholm, the capital of Sweden. This position was not only a profession; it also created a passion for Cyprus and its fascinating and dramatic history from a very remote past about 9000 BC until today. My work was of course focused on archaeology and the wonderful antiquities, which constituted the largest and most important collections of Cypriote antiquities in the world outside Cyprus.

When I first entered the underground storerooms in the museum as a young student, I knew nothing about Cyprus or its archaeology. In the dark I noticed immense storerooms with rows of gourd shaped jugs in different sizes, and in a beautiful dark brown-red colour on green wooden shelves. Besides, there were hundreds of small men in terracotta with pointed caps. Behind there were chubby bulls with large horns and sometimes painted eyelashes. Life-size terracotta statues in a stiff position greeted me with their right hand raised. They looked at me with large brown eyes and with an enigmatic and faint smile on their lips. In another room there were limestone statuettes of attractive young men with a vigorous and powerful expression. Some of them had the left arm raised behind the head, formerly holding a club. All the figures had large, almond-shaped eyes and a faded smile.

I was stuck forever. Almost 40 years afterwards my fascination for Cyprus has even deepened since my interests now also embrace the fate of medieval and modern Cyprus, including the Cyprus problem.

In the past I often was asked how Sweden was able to possess such a large amount of Cypriote antiquities. And then I told the famous story about The Swedish Cyprus Expedition; how four young men turned the Cypriote soil upside down when they excavated throughout the island between 1927 and 1931. During a period of only four years they investigated some 25 sites all over the island; most of them now on the occupied area. The purpose of the excavations was to establish a chronology for Cypriote archaeology and to shed light on some archaeological problems. The archaeological remains from these excavations cover the entire period from the Neolithic to Roman times. The main part of the finds, or about 10,000 vases, derived from nearly 300 rock-cut chamber tombs. Thousands of sculptures were found in sanctuaries or on temple sites. The Swedish Cyprus Expedition was the first organized effort to excavate in Cyprus in a scientific manner, for the sake of archaeology and not for private profit, which at the time was far too frequent. Many great museums in Europe and the USA have their storerooms filled with Cypriote antiquities, purchased from foreign diplomats carrying out ”excavations” in Cyprus. These collections have no context recorded, sometimes not even a provenance. When I visited the Cypriote exhibition in the British Museum more than a decade ago, I was allowed to visit the storerooms after a long discussion. I had so many times accompanied foreign scholars into the Swedish storerooms, including the British, and now I wanted to study other stored antiquities from Cyprus. I was locked in for 5-6 hours and tried to get used to the almost non-existent light in their basement. I was horrified when I noticed what had happened to the magnificent terracottas from Salamis and other sites, “excavated” by British “archaeologists” at the end of the 19th century. Somebody had put the sensible terracotta statuettes on foam rubber, which of course is highly hygroscopic, i.e. it absorbs moisture of the environment. This is a matter of common sense, obvious to everybody. Very carefully I lifted some of the most famous terracotta statuettes I so far only had seen on photos. There was a tall, slim man with long black beard and hair, and dressed in a long painted garment. He looked helplessly at me with his large sad eyes. When I lifted him from the foam rubber, all the paint from his back was stuck to the foam rubber. The same thing happened with the other terracottas. I was shocked and tried later to speak to a conservator, but she told me that there was no use in talking to the curators.

About ten years ago, I went to Cyprus to introduce my picture book about the Swedish Cyprus Expedition, with photos from 1927-1931. During many years I had wished to edit this picture book, but I couldn’t because of lack of money. Then I met a most interesting, energetic and helpful person, who one day visited us in the museum. I told her about my plans and she was excited. This person was Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis, then Ambassador of the Republic of Cyprus to Sweden. Together we found sponsors from Cyprus and Sweden, and the book An Archaeological Adventure in Cyprus was published. It was also reviewed in Cyprus Weekly, which was very enthusiastic. The main purpose of this book was to give some glimpses of the everyday life behind the hard work of the scientific excavations carried out by the young Swedish archaeologists, assisted by their many Cypriot friends and workmen.

Now I was invited by the Ministry of Culture of Cyprus to make some lectures and to introduce the picture book. One night I visited the University to see professor Evangelos Chrysós and his assistant at the institution of byzantinology. They administer a global project on the Internet called The Cyprus Treasure. An Electronic Library of Historic Monuments of Ancient and Byzantine Cyprus. Excavation sites are will also be included and the Swedish sites are most important. The professor was very anxious that I would run the project from the Swedish side since it was almost necessary to know Greek. It seems superfluous to try to speak Greek in a country like Cyprus where everyone knows excellent English. On the other hand, I have always noticed that my Greek is always very useful and open doors which otherwise would have been closed.

Every time I went to Cyprus I felt so pleased and happy because of the enthusiasm and appreciation I met. People in Cyprus – and not only archaeologists – really understand the importance of the Cyprus Collections and the work of the Swedish archaeologists here. I always wished that only a small part of this understanding would be possible to raise in Sweden, where people  – and also professionals – during the years hardly have shown a proper interest for these Collections. Many times I have felt that the unique Cyprus Collections only cause trouble, since they need to be stored and there has always been a problem to pay for the maintenance of the objects. In other countries Cypriote archaeology is an important subject and the focus of the interest of many people.

One of the most frightening experiences during my stay in Cyprus was a direct transmission in one of the main channels of CyBC (Cyprus Broadcasting Corporation). I was invited to speak about the picture book, which to my big surprise arose an immense interest in Cyprus. A nice woman brought me to a small room and started to make me up, very heavily. Afterwards I thought I looked like a ghost and I felt frightened of myself. But I soon relaxed. Everybody was so nice and I was allowed to speak a lot about the book, the Cyprus Collections and the Mediterranean Museum where they are stored.

My last evening in Cyprus I was invited to lecture at Idalion, which was one of the main Swedish sites, where they excavated during Summer-Autumn 1928. The initiative to my lecture came from Chrysostomos Paraskevas, who was employed by the Swedes as a 12-year-old boy during the excavations on the western acropolis, the Ampilerí. Until 2007 he was the only surviving person from the excavations. I had met him a couple of years before, when he visited the Cyprus Collections in Stockholm and I was excited. In front of me I had a living piece of Cypriote history and of the Swedish excavations. I asked him if I could make an interview and he agreed. His English was excellent but he preferred to make an interview in Greek. We arranged for a video camera in the Cypriote exhibition and there we remained during four hours. His story was so exciting that I wanted to hear more and more.... I also asked him to narrate about the British occupation and he told me about the uprising against the Colonial power in 1930. Then he was a young schoolboy but he took part and threw stones against the British. He was caught and put in prison. The following day Einar Gjerstad, the head of the Swedish excavations, visited Chrysostomos in prison. The boy was of course frightened but Gjerstad discussed with the British and got him released.  Chrysostomos also told me about the poverty in Cyprus almost 80 years ago and that his mother and sisters were dependant on the boy’s tiny salary for survival. In 1931 when the Swedes had to leave Cyprus, Gjerstad got him a job in the Cyprus Museum where he stayed for 70 years.

This must beat all records for remaining such a long time on the same place of work.

In the picture book there is a moving picture of two small boys washing pottery in the garden of the Swedish “Studio” in Lefkosia.

 

”Out in the yard by the pump the two washer boys, Kakoullís and Chrysostomos, sat washing earthenware pots in large tubs of water.” 

Gjerstad 1933.

 

I arrived to Dali late in the afternoon and was guided around by Chrysostomos. He showed me the house where Erik Sjöqvist, one of the members of the Expedition, stayed during the excavations. Everything was almost the same as when Sjöqvist had lived in the house of Panayotis, which appears on many of the old photos from 1929. Chrysostomos also introduced me to Panayotis relatives, still living in the house. I was shown the workshop in a small storeroom where Sjöqvist used to study the finds of every day’s excavation.

My lecture was s success even if my Greek was not. Many people came and they were all very excited, since their fathers or grandfathers had been working with the Swedes and they of course had told the stories about the excavations to all their relatives.

When my lecture was finished we were all invited to a magnificent dinner in the courtyard of the tavern. The evening was enchanted, saturated with memories and Greek feasting. Above us was the full moon and it seemed a night full of possibilities. We all felt the presence of Gjerstad, Sjöqvist and the other members of the Swedish Cyprus Expedition.

 

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