An ancient Cypriot ship’s SOS call


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One day about 2,300 years ago, not long after the death of Alexander the Great, a small merchant ship stacked with wine and almond-filled amphoras sailed past the port of Kyrenia on Cyprus’ northern coast. On board were four sailors about whom we know little, except that they had lowered their sail, possibly in anticipation of an approaching storm. We do not know whether the boat intended to arrive at Kyrenia, or if it was leaving. Maybe it was simply passing by; but what we do know is that it sank 30 metres down to the bottom of the Mediterranean sea where it remained for 23 centuries until found by a modern-day Cypriot out diving for sponges.  

The Kyrenia shipwreck at the Kyrenia Castle [Credit: Samaina]

Since its excavation from the seabed between 1968 and 69, the Kyrenia Shipwreck, as it came to be known, and its cargo of over 400 amphoras, has resided in Kyrenia Castle. Despite its being one of the world’s finest and best-preserved examples of classical naval architecture and the cargo a unique source of information on trade in the classical era, the wreck and its associated relics today face permanent damage from neglect and decay. 

“The problem we’re now encountering in this room [where the wreck is housed] is that this is not a museum,” says Dr Matthew Harpster, head of the Kyrenia Shipwreck Collection Restoration Programme, a body that seeks to “protect and revitalise” the collection.  

“Originally this was a crusader castle,” says Harpster, pointing to damp patches on the walls and cracks in the 400-year-old roof above.  

“The latest building work done was in the 16th and 17th centuries on top of Byzantine foundations,” he adds. 

It is evident from the single air conditioner labouring away in a corner of room that the wreck needs better environmental controls. Harpster explains that the waterproof skin on the outside of the roof is eroding, and that the back wall is also slowly subsiding.  

“As the wall moves, small fissure and cracks appear in the roof, and with its bad membrane, water seeps into the holes, soaks into the limestone, and all of that slowly falls on the ship. And that dust and grit is falling on the hull and damaging it.”   

The archaeologist shows me the thick, grainy dust that has settled on the wooden upside of the hull, along with small thumbnail-sized pieces of the ship’s wooden body that have broken off.  

Half an hour’s drive away in Nicosia, Glafkos Cariolou sits in his office in a building that bears a sign reading Kyrenia municipality. Although officially mayor of Kyrenia, Cariolou has not been to the town he has been elected to run (except briefly with a German TV crew more than a decade ago) since the Turkish invasion in 1974. His father Andreas Cariolou was the sponge diver who discovered the shipwreck in 1965, and as a 16-year-old Cariolou had the enviable opportunity to join his father in its discovery and excavation.  

Cariolou, now in his early 60s, describes how his father had been cultivating sponges on the seabed off the Kyrenia coast in November 1965 when he saw that his boat’s anchor was being dragged along the seabed by a mounting storm above the surface. Alarmed that he might lose his boat, Andreas chased the anchor but was suddenly halted by the sight of a “great mountain” of amphoras lying in the sand 30 metres deep. Although amazed by the spectacle, Andreas was concerned for the safety of his boat and recovered his vessel before making mental note of the amphoras’ location. 

“He was about a kilometre from the shore, and he tried to take transit lines to pinpoint the location. But he couldn’t find it again until two years later. It may have taken him 200 dives to re-find it,” says Cariolou.  

Amphorae from the Kyrenia shipwreck at the Kyrenia Castle [Credit: Wiki Commons]

When he did re-find the amphoras, Cariolou senior took some “very correct” transit line measurements, and at first told only his closest friends and family about his discovery. During this time, the young Cariolou took the first photographs of the wreck with a camera he’d bought especially for the job. 

Eventually, Andreas Cariolou brought one amphora to the surface and took it to a “close architect friend”. The friend was impressed and introduced Cariolou to President Makarios, who then called the head of the antiquities department, who called a prominent marine archeologist by the name of Michael Katzef from Pennsylvania University. Katzef was already in Cyprus scouring the sea for shipwrecks just like the one Cariolou had found. But the ones Katzef had so far discovered paled into insignificance when they saw Cariolou’s. The boat and the cargo were virtually complete, so it took only a little time to organise the funding for its excavation.  

By 1969, the shipwreck had painstakingly been lifted out of the sea and was being reassembled piece by piece in a room inside the castle at Kyrenia.  

The attention brought on Cyprus by the discovery of such a well-preserved 4th century BC ship meant the island was awash with archeologists hoping to make similar discoveries.  

“The excavation itself and the research became a nexus of activity on the island so that other marine archaeologists were travelling to the island to explore the other coastlines,” Harpster says. “In 1972, the Institute of Nautical Archeology was established right here in Nicosia simply because Cyprus was the right place for archaeologists to be.”  

Sadly, this archaeological party ended in 1974 with the Turkish invasion of the north. Few archaeologists remained in Kyrenia, consigning the shipwreck to “an awkward state”, as Harpster politely puts it.  

“Many members of Katzef’s team stayed on till the end of 1975, documenting and cataloging what they could, but the events of 1974 and the ensuing political stalemate that still exists today, meant that international experts were severely limited in their access to this material,” Harpster says.  

This explains the shipwreck’s current forlorn state.  

“A great deal of the restoration of this room and the galleries happened for this very exhibit. But that means that everything here has been here since 1969,” he says. 

But for Cariolou, becoming a refugee in the southern part of the island and being physically separated from the shipwreck did not stop him from continuing his research into it. This culminated in his sailing from Greece to Cyprus in two separate voyages – in 1987 and 2004 – in two exact replicas of the Kyrenia ship, built by his old friend Katzef and others in Athens. 

“From an archeological point of view, nobody ever sailed such a ship. We didn’t know how to handle the sail, we didn’t know how to handle the rigging, we didn’t know the capacities and capabilities of this boat,” Cariolou says. 

Kyrenia Liberty one of two replicas of the Kyrenia shipwreck [Credit: Cyprus Mail]

But they struggled on, and among many riddles he and his crew unravelled on classical sailing techniques, perhaps the hardest was how to position the two steering oars at the back of the vessel. The remains of the Kyrenia ship gave very few clues on how they should be attached, and in what position and angle to the hull the oars should be. The only evidence they had to go on was iconographic. Cariolou shows me some prints of ancient boats, each with two oars attached at its rear.  

“What you see here does not work,” he says, pointing to the oars and explaining that icons are drawn “by artists who do not know the secrets of naval architecture”.  

“On Kyrenia 2 [in 1987], we had great difficulty turning and had to keep changing the position of the steering oar,” he says. But working with Kyrenia Liberty in 2004, Cariolou and his colleagues had largely resolved the issue by hitching one of the oars out of the water during turns. They also learned to carefully set the height of the oars in accordance to the load the boat was carrying. Still, however, Cariolou concedes that they still don’t know exactly what the ancient mariners did.  

So much, however, has been given to our knowledge of classical sailing and classical nautical architecture by the Kyrenia Shipwreck that it would be a tragedy to let a simple leaky ceiling and too few air conditioners destroy it. As Harpster says, “Open any book on classical nautical archeology and you’ll find major references to the Kyrenia shipwreck and its replicas.” That’s how important it is.  

While the scholar recognises the good intentions of the staff at Kyrenia Castle and the north’s ‘department of antiquities’, he cannot help but be concerned by the lack of resources allocated to it. 

“We have had a team come here every six months and clean the ship. But that cleaning process actually damages the surface of the wood itself. So we have to find a way to stop the dust from falling, and that can only be done by fixing the roof of the castle.” Furthermore, the collection needs extensive maintenance, as glues holding amphoras together begin to dissolve.  

“Sea salts are weeping out of lead artefacts and bronze artefacts have become inflicted with bronze disease, a form of corrosion,” he adds.   

To simply get started on emergency restoration of the room and its contents, he will need around half a million euros – a measly figure when one thinks of the position the boat holds in the history of Cyprus. Then, for sustaining the exhibit, more funds would be required over a longer period. Still, if the shipwreck and its cargo were better presented, people would be glad to pay for seeing it.  

As Harpster points out, “The bulk of the exhibit is in storage. What you see is only a fraction of what the ship was carrying so people who visit don’t get a true picture of how much cargo the ship was carrying and how varied it was.”  

When asked who he thought should pay for the ship’s upkeep, Harpster says, “I think the people of Cyprus should be interested in preserving this ship. This ship represents the island. It’s on the money; it’s on the stamps. This is an emblem of the island to the world.” 

He adds: “I think the authorties in both communities recognise that this material doesn’t have any political component to it. This ship predates any sort of religious issue on this island. It predates Christianity by 300 years.”  

In his Nicosia office, Cariolou explains how much he wants to do something to save the shipwreck, but adds that he is torn between a desire to help and having to deal with what he sees as “occupation forces” in the north who have, in his view, stolen his father’s ship. He says he has met with Harpster and even asked him to try and get permission from the Turkish Cypriot authorities allowing him to take a team of archaeologists to the shipwreck. Maybe the American scholar can fix it, he says. 

But Cariolou knows it won’t be easy – neither for Harpster, nor himself. 

“Everybody’s talking about something that belongs to our heart, our soul, our psyche. It is extremely difficult for an outsider to understand what is going on. For us it’s a very big challenge to give our money and our work at a place and a time that we cannot be there. This is a huge dilemma,” he says. 

Author: Simon Bahceli | Source: Cyprus Mail [May 06, 2012]



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