Pygmalion, King of Paphos

Adonis’ grandfather was Pygmalion, king of Paphos. The Church Father Clement of Alexandria tells how Pygmalion ‘fell in love with an ivory statue of Aphrodite’, adding disapprovingly, ‘which was naked’. Ovid was more expansive: Pygmalion rejected women when the daughers of another king embraced prostitution. Instead, a sculptor, he created a jointed ivory statue of a beautiful young girl and fell in love with it, bringing gifts and caressing it adoringly as if it were alive. At the Festival of Aphrodite, Pygmalion stood at the altar, heady with frankincense, and coyly prayed that he might find a wife as beautiful as his statue.

Aphrodite knew that he really wished to marry the statue itself, and granted his secret desire. When Pygmalion returned home, he threw his arms around his statue and kissed it passionately – and the statue came to life. Blood flowed through its veins; its pale cheeks blushed; and its eyes opened to meet his. After nine crescent moons had swollen to fullness, as Ovid delicately puts it, Pygmalion’s new wife bore a son. His name was Paphos, and from him the city took its name.

Paphos in History & Today

A fertility goddess was worshipped on the flat limestone hill at Palaepaphos from the early third millennium bc. Around 1200 bc a temple precinct was constructed with a megalithic sanctuary wall adorned with horns of consecration and containing a pillared hall and altar. In the Odyssey, after her encounter with Ares, Aphrodite flees to this ‘sweet-scented altar’, where the Graces bathe her, ‘anointing her with that immortal oil which glistens on the deathless gods, and clothing her in a beautiful dress’.

Other temples of Aphrodite contained seductive statues of the goddess as a beautiful naked woman, but at Palaepaphos she was worshipped in the form of a conical white stone. (Curiously, the corresponding stone in the local museum is black.) In the first century ad after earthquake damage the sanctuary was rebuilt on a larger scale, incorporating the Bronze Age complex, but now with banqueting rooms with lavish mosaics.

Aphrodite’s worship involved sex. Sacred prostitutes served at her shrine and Herodotus even hints that it was a rite of passage for every freeborn woman to prostitute herself at her temple. Describing ‘the most sordid of Babylonian customs’, he writes how, wearing rope headbands, the women sat in the sanctuary in rows, while men walked up and down to make their choice. No woman could leave until she had ‘discharged her duty to the goddess’, so, while ‘those who are tall and beautiful soon leave, the less attractive sometimes have to stay for three or four years. There is a similar custom in some parts of Cyprus.’ He probably means at Paphos.

In 498 bc the Persians and Greeks fought for control of Cyprus and Palaepaphos was besieged. Archaeology confirms the scale of operations. Huge earthworks were thrown up against the two-hundred-year-old city walls; siege engines were deployed; and although the Palaepaphians dug tunnels underneath the Persians’ positions with the aim of toppling their towers, they could not save their city. The Persian siege ramp was so massive that, when new walls were built more than a century later, it was incorporated into them.

Palaepaphos remained an important cult centre, but the city that sprang up around it was eclipsed by a new settlement (modern Paphos) on the coast 12 km (8 miles) to the north, probably founded by Ptolemy I of Egypt in 294 bc. Pausanias placed its first foundation earlier, when ships of the Arcadian king Agapenor were blown off course after the Trojan War. In an enviable position, it had a fine harbour and well-protected acropolis. A rich necropolis dating from the third century bc to the fourth century ad (wrongly named the ‘Tombs of the Kings’) attests to its wealth: underground tombs are arranged like rooms of the living around central courtyards, their porticos supported by fine Doric columns.

In 58 bc Cyprus passed to Rome. It was a time of great prosperity. Now the island’s capital, Paphos basked in its wealth, and many fine mosaics were laid down. As a seat of both temporal power and pagan religion, Paphos attracted the Christian preacher Paul. His visit in ad 45 included an audience with the Roman governor, Sergius Paulus, and a contretemps with a local priest. Acts of the Apostles records how Paul dealt with both, beginning with the priest (or sorcerer in the King James version):

Then Saul, who is also called Paul, filled with the Holy Ghost, set his eyes on him And said, O full of all subtlety and all mischief, thou child of the devil, thou enemy of all righteousness, wilt thou not cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord? And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon thee, and thou shalt be blind, not seeing the sun for a season. And immediately there fell on him a mist and a darkness; and he went about seeking some to lead him by the hand. Then the deputy, when he saw what was done, believed, being astonished at the doctrine of the Lord.

Pygmalion, King of Paphos Photo Gallery




Local tradition suggests that Paul’s success in converting the Roman governor (or ‘deputy’) came at a price. In the grounds of the twelfth-century church of Agia Kyriaki in Paphos is a pillar, tied to which (it is said) Paul received thirty-nine lashes of the whip in punishment for his aggressive proselytizing.

Paphos thrived until the fourth century ad, when severe earthquake damage and the banning of pagan religions by the Roman emperor Theodosius curtailed much of its economic and religious power. A Saracen raid in 653 dealt the final blow. The town remained a quiet haven until 1983, when the opening of Paphos International Airport precipitated a surge in tourism Now, in part because many Cypriotes have family in north London, it is as common to hear English spoken as it is Greek.

Paphos is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site. The Archaeological Park embraces not only the evocatively melancholic Tombs of the Kings but also a large swathe of the Hellenistic and Roman town including its Agora and a fine Odeon nestling beneath the modern lighthouse.

The chief delights are the fine third- to fifth-century AD Roman mosaics, displayed in situ in villas. Many show scenes from mythology, including such legendary lovers as Zeus and Ganymede, Phaedra and Hippolytus, Peleus and Thetis – and Narcissus. Paphos’ Archaeological Museum houses finds from the Neolithic, Classical and Byzantine periods, including tombstones, sarcophagi and a marble bust of Aphrodite.

Palaepaphos, 12 km (8 miles) south of Paphos in Kouklia, is easily accessible by road. Little remains of the Sanctuary of Aphrodite, save a replica of a mosaic showing Leda and the Swan. Kouklia Museum in a restored Crusader manor house contains a black aniconic stone, perhaps worshipped as Aphrodite. Beside the road out of Kouklia are the impressive remains of the Persians’ earthworks and Paphian tunnels from the siege of 498 BC. A few miles further on, Petra tou Romiou has a pebble beach, impressive rock formations and refreshment facilities. Although it may be tempting to rise like Aphrodite from the waves, beware of strong currents.

Travellers wishing to experience more archaeology should continue east to Curium with its impressive theatre and Temple of Apollo. Two less historically sound, yet nonetheless evocative sites lie north of Paphos. In Kili the so-called Baths of Adonis, complete with waterfall and pool, boast a statue of Aphrodite and Adonis and promise fertility to women who touch Adonis’ phallus. At the Baths of Aphrodite further north near the coast at Latchi a sign proclaims: ‘Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, used to bathe in the small pool of this natural grotto Please do not swim. ’

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