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Nea Paphos: Uncovering the Layers of Cyprus‘ Ancient Capital


Nea Paphos, located on the southwestern coast of Cyprus, is a treasure trove for anyone fascinated by history and archaeology. This UNESCO World Heritage Site served as the capital of Cyprus from the 4th century BC until the 4th century AD, leaving behind a rich tapestry of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine ruins. Join us as we delve into the captivating history of this ancient city and explore what its well-preserved remains can tell us about life, art, and culture in antiquity.

Historical Context

Cyprus, the third-largest island in the Mediterranean, has a long and complex history shaped by its strategic location at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and Africa. The island was ruled by a succession of foreign powers, including the Assyrians, Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Lusignans, Venetians, Ottomans, and British, each leaving their mark on its culture and landscape.

In the Classical and Hellenistic periods (5th-1st centuries BC), Cyprus was divided into several independent city-kingdoms, with Salamis, Kition, Amathus, and Palaipafos (Old Paphos) being the most prominent. These city-states initially came under the influence of the Persian Empire, but after Alexander the Great‘s conquests in the late 4th century BC, they became part of the Ptolemaic Greek kingdom of Egypt.

It was during this time of Ptolemaic rule that Nea Paphos rose to prominence. Founded in the late 4th century BC by King Nikokles of Palaipafos, the new city quickly eclipsed its older neighbor and became the administrative and economic capital of Cyprus. Its strategic harbor and proximity to the sacred Temple of Aphrodite in Old Paphos made it a thriving center of maritime trade, culture, and religion in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The Hellenistic and Roman City

The archaeological site of Nea Paphos covers an area of around 950,000 square meters, offering visitors a glimpse into the city‘s layout and architecture during its heyday in the Hellenistic and Roman periods (3rd century BC – 4th century AD).

One of the most impressive structures from this era is the Ancient Greek theater, originally built in the late 4th century BC and later expanded by the Romans to seat up to 8,500 spectators. The theater hosted plays, music and dance performances, and even wrestling matches during religious festivals honoring Dionysus and Aphrodite. Its well-preserved ruins attest to the importance of public entertainment and religious celebrations in ancient Paphian society.

Another highlight of the site is the complex of luxurious Roman villas dating back to the 2nd-3rd centuries AD. The House of Dionysos, House of Orpheus, House of Aion, and Villa of Theseus are renowned for their exquisite mosaic floors, which rank among the finest examples of Roman art in the Mediterranean. These mosaics, made of tesserae (small stone or glass cubes), depict intricate scenes from Greek mythology, such as the triumph of Dionysus, the poetry contest between Cassiopeia and the Muses, and the hunting exploits of Artemis. They provide a fascinating glimpse into the artistic tastes, cultural values, and religious beliefs of the Roman elite who once resided in these opulent dwellings.

The agora, or central marketplace, was the commercial and social heart of Hellenistic and Roman Nea Paphos. Surrounded by colonnaded porticoes, it housed shops, stalls, and administrative buildings where merchants, artisans, and officials conducted their daily business. Excavations have also revealed the remains of a library, a gymnasium, and a temple dedicated to the imperial cult, attesting to the city‘s role as a center of learning, athletics, and political loyalty to Rome.

As the capital of Cyprus, Nea Paphos also served as the residence of the Roman proconsul, the island‘s highest-ranking official. The proconsul‘s palace, located near the harbor, was a grandiose complex with reception halls, private apartments, baths, and gardens. Although much of the palace remains unexcavated, its scale and location underscore the city‘s political and administrative importance in the Roman Empire‘s provincial system.

The Early Christian and Byzantine Periods

With the rise of Christianity in the 4th century AD, Nea Paphos became an important center of the new religion. According to tradition, the apostles Paul and Barnabas visited the city during their missionary journey to Cyprus in the 1st century AD, converting the Roman proconsul Sergius Paulus to Christianity. By the 4th century, Nea Paphos had become the seat of the bishop of Cyprus, with a large basilica (the Chrysopolitissa) serving as the cathedral.

The Basilica of Chrysopolitissa, originally built in the 4th century and later remodeled, is one of the oldest surviving churches in Cyprus. Its complex includes a baptistery, a courtyard, and a small chapel housing a pillar where Saint Paul was allegedly flogged before converting the proconsul. The basilica‘s remnants, with their mix of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine architectural elements, reflect the city‘s religious and cultural transitions during the early Christian period.

In the 7th century AD, as the Byzantine Empire faced increasing threats from Arab invasions, Nea Paphos‘ strategic importance as a military outpost grew. The Byzantines constructed a formidable fortress known as the Castle of 40 Columns (Saranda Kolones) to protect the city and its harbor. The castle‘s name derives from the 40 granite columns that were incorporated into its walls, probably sourced from earlier Roman buildings. Although the castle was destroyed by an earthquake in the 12th century, its impressive ruins still dominate the northwestern edge of the archaeological site, offering a tangible reminder of Nea Paphos‘ role in the Byzantine defense system.

Archaeological Excavations and Preservation

The first archaeological excavations at Nea Paphos began in the late 19th century under the auspices of the Cyprus Exploration Fund, a British organization dedicated to uncovering the island‘s ancient heritage. Since then, numerous Cypriot and international archaeological missions have worked to uncover, study, and preserve the city‘s remains, with major contributions from the University of Warsaw, the French School at Athens, and the Department of Antiquities of Cyprus.

One of the most significant discoveries was made in 1962 when a farmer accidentally uncovered a large Roman villa with stunning mosaic floors near the village of Kato Paphos. This led to the excavation of the House of Dionysos and the subsequent unearthing of several other mosaic-rich villas in the area, shedding new light on the wealth and artistic sophistication of Roman Nea Paphos.

In 1980, Nea Paphos was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, recognizing its outstanding value as a testament to the island‘s ancient history and cultural heritage. This designation has helped raise international awareness of the site, attract funding for conservation projects, and promote sustainable tourism development in the area.

However, preserving the ruins of Nea Paphos for future generations remains an ongoing challenge. The site faces threats from weathering, erosion, vegetation growth, and increasing visitor numbers, which can cause damage to the delicate mosaics and architectural remains. Conservation efforts, such as shelter construction, drainage improvements, and visitor management strategies, are crucial to mitigating these risks and ensuring the long-term survival of this irreplaceable archaeological treasure.


Nea Paphos is a fascinating window into the ancient history and cultural heritage of Cyprus, offering visitors a chance to explore the layered remains of a once-thriving Greek, Roman, and Byzantine capital. From the grandeur of its theater and villas to the intricate beauty of its mosaics, the city provides a tangible link to the island‘s rich past and its enduring legacy in the Mediterranean world.

As archaeologists continue to uncover new secrets from the soil and scholars work to interpret and preserve these precious remains, Nea Paphos will undoubtedly remain a source of wonder, knowledge, and inspiration for generations to come. By understanding and appreciating the city‘s history, we can gain valuable insights into the complex tapestry of human civilization and our shared cultural heritage.

| Period          | Key Buildings and Features                                          |
| Hellenistic    | - Ancient Greek theater  - 4th century BC                           |
|                | - Agora (marketplace)                                              |
| Roman          | - House of Dionysos  - 2nd century AD                               |
|                | - House of Orpheus  - 2nd century AD                                |
|                | - House of Aion  - 2nd century AD                                   |
|                | - Villa of Theseus  - 2nd century AD                                |
|                | - Proconsul‘s palace                                               |
|                | - Library, gymnasium, temple of imperial cult                      |
| Early Christian| - Basilica of Chrysopolitissa  - 4th century AD                     |
|                | - Pillar of Saint Paul                                             |
| Byzantine      | - Castle of 40 Columns (Saranda Kolones)  - 7th century AD           |

Table: Main archaeological remains at Nea Paphos by historical period