The Tombs of the Kings is an awe-inspiring archaeological site located in the Paphos District of Cyprus. The site is a 2,400-year-old necropolis that is carved into massive rocks. It is so immense that 19th century travelers believed it was the remains of an ancient castle or city. While no kings are known to have been buried there – the tombs belonged to nobles who governed the island – its name was inspired by the sheer grandeur and majesty of the tombs.
When 19 th century travelers came upon the Tombs of Kings, they first thought it was the remains of a castle or city.
The Ancient City of Nea Paphos
The Tombs of the Kings is linked to the ancient city of Nea Paphos, which was founded by Nikocles, the last king of Palaeopaphos, in 320 BC. By the end of the 4 thcentury BC, Cyprus had become part of the Ptolemaic Kingdom and under Ptolemaic rule, Nea Paphos became an important city. With its copper mines, wheat fields, olive groves, and vineyards, Cyprus was an oasis that the Ptolemies exploited to the full.
In 312 BC, when the town of Marion was destroyed by Ptolemy I Soter, its inhabitants transferred to Nea Paphos. Additionally, the city replaced Salamis as the island’s capital, in part due to its good harbor and easy access to Alexandria, the Ptolemaic capital. As a matter of fact, Nea Paphos and Alexandria are located opposite each other.
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Aerial view showing some of the complexes at the Tomb of Kings site in Paphos.
The administration of Cyprus was in the hands of a non-Cypriot strategos (governor) appointed by the Ptolemies. This official served also as the island’s commander-in-chief, high priest, and admiral of the fleet, and ruled from Nea-Paphos. As they were not from the island, the ruling elite brought their own funerary customs with them, which is clearly visible in the Tombs of the Kings. It is estimated that about 100 of these elites were buried in the necropolis.
Large complex at Tombs of the Kings containing numerous single chamber burial spaces cut into the rock.
Generally speaking, the tombs at the site resemble houses for the living, in accordance to the Egyptiantradition that prevailed at the time. Nevertheless, the tombs, which are spread over a wide area, contain a variety of forms and sizes – some designed for only one body others large enough to hold twenty. Some of them are simple, consisting of a niche carved into the rock or tombs with one or two chambers. Others, on the other hand, are much more elaborate and it is these tombs that contributed to the necropolis being dubbed the Tombs of the Kings. Tombs 3, 4, and 5 are examples of colonnaded tombs. These are tombs with an atrium surrounded by columns, in imitation of houses for the living. As they are underground, the tombs are reached via a flight of stairs.
Spaniard Don Domingo Badia -Y – Leyblich, who became known as Ali Bey, described his impressions when he visited Cyprus in 1806:
“Some of these buildings give the impression of palaces, with courtyards, corridors, columns, pilasters, and all imaginable kinds of architectural features, all carved out of natural rock. The observer can have only praise for the creators of such a work.”
Tomb with large entrance way cut into solid rock, with large indoor chamber that could fit numerous bodies.
The First Excavations
The oldest modern account of the Tombs of the Kings was written by Richard Pockocke, an Englishman who visited Cyprus in 1783. Although subsequent travelers described, made sketches of, and photographed the tombs, the first archaeological excavations were conducted in 1870 by Luigi Palma di Cesnola, the Italian-born American consul to Cyprus. The first excavations under scientific supervision, however, were carried out by Menelaos Markides, who was the curator of the Cyprus Museum, in 1915. In the subsequent decades a number of excavations have been undertaken which have contributed greatly to the understanding of the site.
The excavations have revealed, for instance, the chronology of the necropolis’ use. It was thanks to finds from the site, such as coins and ceramic vessels, which allowed archaeologists to date the Tombs of the Kings to the Ptolemaic period. It was also found that during the Roman period, some of the tombs were re-used. Some tombs were emptied, so that new bodies can be placed in them, while others were altered. Yet later on, during the Medieval period, some of the larger tombs were inhabited by the living.
Although archaeology has aided our understanding about the Tombs of the Kings some information about the necropolis has been lost over time. For instance, it is speculated that the dead were buried with expensive grave goods, though these have been taken away by grave robbers in the past. Additionally, due to humidity and the site’s closeness to the sea, the bodies buried in the necropolis have not been preserved.
The significance of the Tombs of the Kings in the history of Cyprus is evident in the fact that when Paphos was inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 1980, it included the necropolis as well.