Cyprus: Crossroads of Civilization at the Smithsonian


So you go to the Smithsonian exhibits when being a tour guide for your visitors…

So you go to the Museum of Natural History for the children to see the big elephant in the front hall….

So you go to the second floor to see the Hope Diamond Exhibit and all the gems ….

Well, take time for yourself to visit Cyprus: Crossroads of Civilizations. After all my travels and love of ancient history and art, I had somehow missed this eastern-most island of the Mediterranean. Cyprus has been through many “hands” in its remarkable 11,000- year history—from Neolithic settlements to Phoenician colonies to ancient Greek and Roman periods. Those who have trod its soil include Alexander the Great, the Venetians, and even the Knights Templar. While these foreign influences have left their mark, most visibly with different religions and languages, archeological finds have proven that Cyprus is not a reflection of the times when it was ruled by others, but of its own civilization, inhabitants, and culture.

This Smithsonian exhibit—rich, enlightening, and enjoyable—features more than 200 artifacts that provide an overview of the island’s unique history. Guest curator Sophocles Hadjisavvasto, who deserves credit for the exhibit’s concise yet exciting format, is enthusiastic about the ongoing discoveries of his island’s Department of Antiquities, which, incidentally, spends millions in compensation for repossessing lands to secure these sites of discovery.

Entering the single hall, one is taken through the changes on the island that have occurred over many millennia, beginning with a human and cat burial site circa 7500 B.C. Who knew that cats were man’s best friend before the Egyptian recordings?

The next display describes worship of the “Mother Goddess” as the earliest religion with pottery figures of women—one pregnant and one giving birth. The first pottery on Cyprus, retrieved from burial sites, date to 4500 B.C. and have sophisticated designs and illustrations. Particularly, “Composite Vessels,” from 2000 B.C. to 1340 B.C., consist of three hollow bulbs and necks uniting in a pyramid.

Though people hunted on the island beginning in 10,000 B.C., residents first colonized in 8500 B.C. The exhibit also highlights Cyprus’ use of its great copper resources during 3400 B.C.

What the exhibit skillfully illustrates is the influence of the many cultures on this small island, leaving their mark on religion, the arts, politics, foods, and wines. From Greek refugee inhabitants circa 1150 B.C. through the Phoenicians, 900 B.C., Persians, 545 B.C., Egyptians, 294 B.C., Christians, 45 A.D., Arabs, 649 A.D., British, 1191 A.D., Venetians, 1489, Ottomans, 1571, and finally the British again from 1871 through1960, when Cyprus finally became a republic.

The short walk through the exhibit gives only the best examples of these contributions with pottery, tools, coins, jewelry, blown glassware, and sculpture, ending with beautifully painted and preserved wooden religious icons of Christianity. Also there is a dedicated display on the large maritime trading by Cyprus, with antique maps and excavation examples and photographs from shipwrecks.

Items on display for the first time in the U.S. include:

Gold jewelry and sphinx sculptures from the Cypro-Archaic period (750 to 480 B.C.)

Vases, bowls and sculptures, including an Aphrodite marble, from the Hellenistic (325 to 50 B.C.0 and Roman (50 B.C. to A.D. 330) periods

Bronze and copper items, including lamps and jugs, from the Byzantine period (330 to 1191)

Religious icons, paintings and vases from the medieval period (13th to 16th century)

The exhibit also features nearly 100 coins from the different eras in Cypriot history, starting from the Hellenistic period through the Venetian period.

Cyprus: Crossroads of Civilizations is as close to visiting the country as possible, and it doesn’t stop with your walking tour. Smithsonian Associates hosts in the Baird Auditorium two events during the holiday season:

“Timeless Cyprus,” Tuesday, November 16, 6:45 p.m., $25 for members or $40 general admission. The program features a lecture by Stuart Swiny, director of the Institte of Cypriot Studies at the State University of New York at Albany. Participants may tour the exhibit following the talk and enjoy a reception featuring the foods and wine of Cyprus.

“Cyprus: Culinary Crossroads of the Mediterranean,” Wednesday, December 8, from 6:45 p.m. to 9 p.m. $35 for members, $50 general admission. William Woys Weaver, food historian and director of the Keystone Center for the Study of Regional Foods in Devon, Pa., will talk about how Cyprus has been a gateway for the movement of goods and ideas throughout the Mediterranean. The reception will include Cypriot wines and traditional meze, followed by the lecture.

Cyprus: Crossroads of Civilizations, from September 29, 2010, through May 1, 2011

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