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Vase from Amathus

© 2002 RMN / Franck Raux

Near Eastern Antiquities
Levant

Author(s):
Caubet Annie, Prévotat Arnaud

This monumental vase is characteristic of the Phoenician civilization of Cyprus in the 1st millennium BC. The colossal cistern could contain the huge amount of water needed for the rituals in the temples built on the acropolis of Amathus. The bulls on the handles show that the vase must have been associated with the worship of a local Aphrodite, the main goddess of the temple.

A monumental vase

This colossal, monolithic vase has a flattened globular bowl, a small, bulging base, and a molded lip. The four curved vertical handles are decorated with a double palmette where they join the bowl, and a bull in low relief inside the curve. On the upright part of one of the handles is a brief inscription engraved in syllabic Cypriot characters that has not yet been deciphered. The walls are quite thin and the capacity of the vase is enormous.

A French expedition

For many years, travelers to Cyprus could see this monumental vase on the top of the acropolis of Amathus; it was the only visible vestige of the sanctuaries that had been erected in the capital of this Cypriot-Phoenician capital. Amathus, near Limassol, on the south coast of Cyprus, is built on a steep hill overlooking the sea, protected on the inner side by a sheer cliff. Phoenician inscriptions have been recorded in Cyprus since the 18th century; after exploring continental Phoenicia in 1861 and wanting to learn more about the many Phoenician remains on the island, Ernest Renan sent the scholar Eugène Melchior de Vogüé with Edmond Duthoit, an architect and pupil of Viollet-Le-Duc, on an expedition to Cyprus. During his voyage in 1865, Duthoit persuaded the Ottoman authorities to give the vase to France. Taking the monolithic vase down from the acropolis and installing it aboard the ship was a technical feat for the carpenters of the French imperial navy.

A cistern

The site of Amathus is one of the major archaeological projects managed by the Ecole française in Athens: recent excavations, inscriptions, and religious goods have enabled the main shrine to be attributed to a local Aphrodite, the goddess of fertility who was worshipped in Cyprus from the 3rd millennium BC. The Roman temple destroyed the shrine built in the archaic period, but the original position of the vase has been located: a hollow in the rock, with the fragments of a second, smaller vase, already noted in the 19th century. A few steps lead to the rim of the monolith, using a system reproduced on a miniature vase in the Louvre, which is certainly a reduced image of the monumental installation of the acropolis.
The two monolithic vases were part of a religious complex: the bulls figured on the handles of the vase in the Louvre are associated with the great goddess of Cyprus. The lack of springs and the impossibility of digging wells through the thick rock of the acropolis meant that a monumental cistern was needed to supply water to the crowds of people who came to the temple. Water was needed for rituals, libations, and ablutions, as well as for slaking the thirst of the worshippers who climbed the hill on foot, washing their feet, watering the flowers, and cleaning the pavement. Large amounts of water were required and the kings took care to ensure that their religious buildings were well supplied. The system of the two monolithic vases installed in the 6th century BC proved so effective that it was kept in good condition and used for years, until the Roman period.

Technical description

  • Vase from Amathus

    Cypriot archaic period, circa 6th century BC

    Acropolis of Amathus, Cyprus

  • Limestone

    H. 1.87 m; Diam. 3.19 m

  • Edmond Duthoit expeditions, 1865

    AO 22897

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Sully wing
    Ground floor
    Levant: Cyprus, 9th–1st century BC
    Room 21

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