Cyprus was known in ancient times for its rich seams of copper. The very word copper is derived from the Latin expression "Cuprium aes" (‘metal of Cyprus’).

The Cypriot copper

The main copper seams are on the north and north-east sides of the Troodos mountains, while smaller quantities are found in the southern part of the island. In the mines of Ambelikou, west of Nicosia), there is evidence for the exploitation of the seams as early as the 19th c. BC.

The earliest copper artefacts from Cyprus date to ca. 4000 BC but their number and distribution remain extremely limited until 2500 BC. They are mainly small tools made of natural or arsenic copper. Their very existence justifies the name Chalcolithic (chalkos=copper in Greek) for a period when most tools were still made of hard stones. It is possible that the few metal objects found in Chalcolithic Cyprus had been imported from Asia Minor or the Near East.

Metallurgy in the proper sense of the work appears only in the Early Bronze Age (2500-1900 BC), when both the number and range of objects evidently made of native copper increase substantially. It remains unclear how the Cypriots learned how to make first arsenic copper and later bronze (alloy of copper and tin). The new technology may have been brought to Cyprus by refugees who came from Anatolia after the upheavals that marked the beginning of the Early Bronze Age in the region, about 2700/2600 BC.

Until 1600 BC, Cypriot bronze-smiths had managed to develop their own tradition of making weapons and tools (spearheads and daggers with a hooked tang, swords, arrow-heads, axes, chisels, drills, pins, tweezers, razors, etc.) and organize production in a truly efficient way. Starting from the 17th c. BC, Akkadian texts and other literary sources from Egypt, Asia Minor and the Levant make mention to a country called Alashiya, which supplied neighbouring lands with raw copper in exchange for luxury objects. Many scholars have suggested that Alashiya should be identified with Cyprus, although no conclusive evidence is yet available.

Cyprus maintained its position as a major centre of copper production and trade even after the end of the Late Bronze Age (circa 1050 BC), despite the appearance of iron, which would be used thereafter mainly for the manufacture of weapons and tools. New techniques were introduced to the island from the Aegean and the Near East (e.g. the working of copper-sheets for the manufacture of vessels and the “lost-wax” technique for cast objects) that gave a new impetus to local production. To that end contributed also the establishment of a Phoenician colony at Kition during the 9th c. BC as well as the Assyrian and Persian occupation of the island between the end of the 8th and the 4th c. BC.

Cauldrons and tripod or four-sided stands with ajouré (openwork) decoration are the most typical products of Cypriot bronze metallurgy during the Early Iron Age. Next to them, solid copper figurines, fibulae (brooches), a large variety of tools and cosmetic items, and even cast statues completed the wide range of copper and bronze artifacts produced in Cyprus in that period.

Copper, alongside the strategic position of the island, made Cyprus an attractive target for major commercial powers of the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Both the Ptolemies of Egypt (295-30 BC) and the Romans (30 BC – AD 395) exploited heavily the native copper sources and turned the island into a centre of large-scale production and trade. However, the gradual standardization of production in that period and the common artistic currents prevailing all over the Mediterranean make it difficult to distinguish Cypriot bronze artifacts from items produced in other Mediterranean regions at that time.

The trade

The natural resources of Cyprus and its position at the crossroads of major sea routes led the island to play a role in the commercial network of the Mediterranean in ancient times. It was an important supplier of copper to the ancient world, but it also exported timber for shipbuilding, and grain. Speaking of the island’s wealth, Strabo says that “it is inferior to that of none of the islands” and compares it to that of Egypt.

Evidence for contacts with other areas in the Neolithic period is limited to materials that are not native to Cyprus, such as obsidian and cornelian (possibly imported from Asia Minor), as well as a characteristic type of pottery (known as pottery of the “Sotira Culture”), which shares common features with pottery types in Syria and Cilicia. In the Chalcolithic period, the level of contacts remained rather low. The appearance of the first metal objects on the island suggests some kind of relation with the Near East, where metallurgy had already developed; artifacts made of cornelian, ivory, faience, marble, and obsidian suggest further relations with Egypt and the Syro-Palestinian coast.

The network of contacts expanded considerably in the Early Bronze Age. Pottery was imported from Syria, beads of faience and alabaster from Egypt, while the local ceramic production continued to receive influence from Anatolian cultures. Contacts with the Aegean started in the Middle Bronze Age. Tombs dating from the beginning of the period have yielded Minoan bronze artefacts and pottery, although very few Cypriot items have been found in Crete. We do know, however, that Cypriot pottery was exported to Syria and Palestine (Megiddo, Jericho, Ashkelon, Ugarit and Alalakh) as far as the hinterland of Jordan. Trade with Egypt (Tell el D’aba) involved primarily exports of copper; vases of Egyptian origin or style (Tell el Yahudiyeh ware) have been found in several Cypriot tombs of that period.

The beginning of the Late Bronze Age (17th c. BC) was marked by an intensification in contact with the Near East and an overall increase of trade traffic in the eastern Mediterranean. That was partly the result of the pax Aegyptiaca that prevailed from the middle of the 16th c. BC onwards, when the Hyskos were expelled from Egypt and the New Kingdom was established. During this period, Cyprus exported copper in exchange for exotic materials and luxurious items (gold jewellery, ivory, faience, semi-precious stones). Documents from Mari in Syria dating from the 18th-17th c. BC provide important information on the trade network and its organization. Cypriot pottery of that period has been found at sites in north Syria (Ugarit, Alalakh), on the Syro-Palestinian coast (Gaza, Tell el Ajjul), and in Egypt.

Starting in the second half of the 15th c. BC, Aegean imports to the island increased, reaching their peak in the 14th and 13th c. BC, when there was an influx of painted Mycenaean pottery in Cyprus. By contrast however, very few Cypriot objects have been found in the Aegean and it is not known what Cypriots gave in exchange. The adjective "ku-pi-ri-jo" (= Cypriot) appears on several Linear B tablets from Knossos and Pylos to denote the origins of various goods such as oil, wool, and possibly coriander, which were imported and stored in the palaces. Other agricultural products, timber and, of course, copper are also possible candidates as Cypriot exports. In several Aegean sites of the 13th c. BC, excavations have brought to light impressive examples of Cypriot metallurgy, such as the well-known tripod and four-sided stands, which at least in Crete continued to be imported into the Early Iron Age.

The Late Bronze age was a period of intense metal trafficking. Copper and tin ingots (bars of unworked metal) have been found over a vast territory from the Near East to the Black Sea and Crete. From 1400 BC onwards, many of the copper ingots were of Cypriot origin. We do know that Cypriot copper reached Crete through the port of Kommos, and ingots of tin bearing the Cypro-Minoan script have been discovered at Haifa. Further evidence for the Bronze Age trade system comes from two shipwrecks off the SW coast of Asia Minor: the Ulu Burun wreck, which sank in the 14th c. BC, and the wreck off Cape Gelidonya dating from the 12th c. BC. In addition to large quantities of raw materials (copper, tin, glass, ivory, faience, and even timber), the cargo of these ships included luxuries (jewellery, scarabs, sealstones), storage vessels, and decorated pottery. The commodities came from a number of different locations: Egypt, Canaan, Syria, Cyprus, and the Aegean. However, the vast majority of copper ingots came from Cyprus.

Cyprus managed to retain its commercial vitality despite the extensive destructions that swept the eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Bronze Age (ca. 1200 BC). In fact, it was during this period that it established close relations with Sardinia, another major copper-producing centre, as is evident from the Cypriot tripods discovered in 11th and 10th c. BC layers of Sardinian archaeological sites.
In the Cypro-Geometric period, Cyprus’ closest contacts were with the Levant. Gradually, however, Cyprus started to communicate once more with the Aegean, particularly with Crete, Attica, and Euboea. Euboea was rich in iron ores and it is possible that Cypriots exchanged copper for iron with Euboeans. The establishment of a Phoenician colony at Kition in the 9th c. BC gave a major boost to Cypriot trade. From that period onwards, an increase can be detected in pottery imports both from the Orient and the Aegean. There is evidence that in the 8th c. BC Cypriot and Euboean traders were active on the Levantine coast alongside the Phoenicians.
Cyprus experienced a new period of prosperity and expanded her trade network in the Cypro-Archaic period (750-480 BC). Direct contact with Syria and Palestine was maintained, relations with Egypt became closer, and Cypriot goods were exported to East Greek cities (in Ionia), Rhodes, Samos, and Euboea. The discovery of Cypriot votive statues and statuettes in Greek sanctuaries, as well as in Levantine sites and in Naukratis in the Nile Delta, testifies to the presence of Cypriot traders (or craftsmen) all over the eastern Mediterranean.

From the middle of the 6th century, the Persian occupation brought the island closer to the Greek cities of Ionia (also subjugated by Persia) and to Athens, a rising commercial power in this period. In the Cypro-Classical period (480-325 BC), a large amount of imports came from Attica, including decorated pottery and sculpture. Yet, Cyprus maintained its vital relations with its immediate neighbour, the Levant.

The Hellenistic period saw the development of Cyprus into a major centre for the production and distribution of copper, timber, and agricultural products for both the Orient and the Aegean. The cosmopolitan fashions of the period also affected Cypriot art and culture. Cyprus maintained its commercial role during the Roman period, albeit under the strict control of Roman administration. The political and economic unification of the Mediterranean world created favourable conditions for a substantial increase in commercial mobility. Cypriot glassware (mainly for perfumed oil) was exported to the Black Sea, Greece, and northern Italy. Cypriot red-glazed pottery was exported to the Near East (2nd c. AD), at the same time that clay vases were imported from Campania in southern Italy, from Tarsos in Cilicia, and from Egypt. Workshops producing metal artifacts, jewellery, and sculpture continued to be active on the island.

Of course, not only products that leave traces in the archaeological record were traded. Archaeology finds it difficult to follow the movement and development of crafts involving perishable materials. We know that weaving was a flourishing industry in Cyprus. It is mentioned by Pausanias, praised by Polydeuces, and singled out by Tribellius Pollio. Carpentry certainly flourished from very ancient times, while Pliny and Diodorus Siculus make reference to the excellent shipbuilding on the island. We know, also, that Cypriot oil, wine and perfumes were reknowned already from the Middle Bronze Age. It is highly probable that all these products were traded, as was evidently the case in other Near Eastern cultures (e.g. Mesopotamia and Egypt). Last but not least, we should not ignore the agents of such transactions, the traders, the sailors, and even the craftsmen, who moved from place to place carrying goods and new ideas, bringing distant cultures into contact and offering the necessary background for productive cultural interactions.

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