Royal Tombs like Homer’s Iliad

royal tombs

Royal Tombs dating from the 8th and 7th century BC can be found in Northern Cyprus. The burial practices offer a good insight into ancient rituals just like Homer described them in the Iliad. However, it is more the knowledge about the Royal Tombs than the visit to the tombs themselves that is interesting.

royal tombs
royal tombs

Homer describes in the Iliad how kings and other noble personages were buried. His words are confirmed by the discoveries at the Royal Tombs in Northern Cyprus, although there are also archaeological theories about Homer being first to tell and invent and then the rituals on Cyprus following his epic narrative.

It is easy to find the Royal Tombs. If you go to the grave or the monastery of Saint Barnabas, north of Gazimagusa / Famagusta, you will see them along the road in the fields. Most objects found are in the Cyprus Museum in the South of the Island; I have not been there yet but it seems interesting as findings include chariots, a throne, incense burners, ivory objects, bronze horse bits and decorated breast plates, pottery and amphorae that contained oil and wine. Kings were buried with lots of grave goods.

royal tombs horse skeleton

On the location of the Royal Tombs however, only the stone buildings of the graves remain as well as the skeletons of horses: try to see one behind the glass on the picture (left). I am not sure if the glass ‘protection’ is helpful; most of them were so humid on the inside that it was impossible to see anything or take pictures. How can a humid glass house be protective for such old remains? My visit was December 2018; maybe it is dryer and more clear in summertime.

Burial in the era of the 8th and 7th century BC did not just come with the above mentioned grave goods but also with sacrifice of horses, donkeys and even humans. Archaeological research only started in the ’60ies here and gave a wealth of information. Whoever thought that Homer just made up his stories in the Iliad, found out that his description of burial practices was very accurate (unless you support the theory that the rituals were only shaped under the influence of Homer’s stories).

royal tombs
royal tombs
royal tombs 50

Most probably (part of) the Royal Tombs were used during many ages. Saint Catherine’s Tomb, number 50, for example, had a chapel on top that dated from the 4rd century BC. Archaeological research in the ’60ies revealed that the chapel was built on a tomb dating from a thousand years earlier than the 4th century chapel. By the way, the chapel was used for Saint Catherine’s veneration even in 1950 BC! So this location was special to many people during at least 2600 years…

cellarga graves
cellarga mezarlik

Not everybody could afford a Royal Tomb. Next to the Royal Tombs lies a necropolis of hundreds, or even thousands of graves. Just like the nearby ancient city of Salamis and the nearby Bronze Age city of Enkomi, only a minor part of the fields have been unearthed. What has been excavated, shows us tombs people could go to by steps downstairs that were cut in the rocks. Large stones sealed the entrances of the burial chambers that were used almost continuously from 700 BC until 400 AD.

Cellarka necropolis
necropolis of cellarga

The picture on the right shows the immense fields with so much left to excavate. Further on you can see the grave and monastery of Saint Barnabas between the trees. Next to the chapel of Saint Barnabas’ grave there are also findings of burial chambers. Maybe that is just ‘the other end’ of the same necropolis….

cellarga necropolis

Like the Royal Tombs, there is not so much ‘to be seen’ here. Nevertheless in the same time it is an exciting experience to stand there and oversee the place and consider that all you see might have been part of an immense necropolis, used during more than 10 centuries by hundreds of thousands of people. Neither in the nearby cities of Salamis (blog will follow) or Enkomi nor at the Royal Tombs or Cellarga necropolis any excavation took place since 1974: the year that Cyprus was split in a Turkish and a Greek side. But nothing stops you from visiting the sites already now: you can feel the vibe of Homer’s Iliad here quite clearly!

Saint Barnabas’ grave

Saint Barnabas' grave

Saint Barnabas’ grave lies on the northern (Turkish) side of Cyprus, in the cellar under a small chapel. Although this saint’s grave is a major ‘asset’ for the status of the Cypriot-Orthodox church, no signs of love or care can be found.

small Greek-Cypriot chapel
Saint Barnabas' grave

I expected to find a place with worship and deep veneration but the grave of Saint Barnabas bears hardly any signs of that. To my surprise, street dogs were walking in and out of the chapel. The grave cellar contains just a few cheep pictures and a candle here and there. Whoever saw the decorations and worshipping around the graves of for example Saint Peter, Saint Paul and Saint John can not believe his eyes in seeing the treatment of Saint Barnabas’ grave.

Saint Barnabas' grave
Saint Barnabas' grave

Saint Barnabas was an apostle who worked a lot with Saint Paul. He was the one who introduced Saint Paul who was converted only after having persecuted the Christians, to the apostles who still feared that man. Barnabas convinced them that Saint Paul’s conversion was truthful. Saint Paul and Barnabas traveled together from Antioch to Tarsus to Jerusalem, from Cyprus to Pamphilia. The couple spread early christianity every where, until they fell out and split. After that both went their own way.

In 46 AD Saint Barnabas returned to the city of Salamis in Cyprus, the Island where he was born. The Bible does not mention what happened to him after that but Christian tradition dating from the 3rd century already has it that he died as a martyr there in Salamis (c. 75 AD). His remains are buried in a small grave cellar under a chapel not far from that ancient city on the northern side of Cyprus. As said the chapel is open for everybody, even dogs. The interior contains nothing special. Just take the stairs to go down and see the coffin in the cellar.

simple church interior
stairs in the chapel to go down to the grave cellar

The fact that Cyprus ‘has’ Saint Barnabas is the main reason that the Cypriot-Orthodox church is an ‘independent’ church. Unlike what many people think, they do not belong to the Greek-Orthodox or similar orthodox churches. Of course they do have strong ties but the Cypriot-Orthodox church makes it’s own policies, can go it’s own way. This was particularly clear in the ’60s and ’70s when archbishop Makarios was president of Cyprus. Religion and politics intertwined and there was no way to stop Makarios in his policies to let Cyprus become one with Greece (‘enosis‘) and oppress the Turkish-Cypriot community.

cellar with coffin of Saint Barnabas

During 30 years it was not possible for Greek Cypriots to go to the North and for Turkish Cypriots to go to the South but there is again free access already since 2003. You’d expect an investment by Greek Cypriots to make Saint Barnabas’ grave a respectable place of veneration. Or have they gone beyond the point where that matters – how proud are the Greek Cypriots of a church that is still a major factor in blocking peace processes in north-south negotiations?

road to the chapel of Saint Barnabas
road to Saint Barnabas’ chapel

Anyway, I found it painful to see the status of Saint Barnabas’ grave. Whatever today’s politics are like, he lived in a different turbulent period and did his upmost to create something new and good he believed in. He suffered for that and deserves a better memorial.





You may also like these blogs:
Saint Barnabas Icon and Archaeological Museum: the former Saint Barnabas Monastery where the last monks left in 1977.
Royal Tombs like Homer’s Iliad: not just the Royals Tombs but also the Cellarga necropolis lies here. Some graves excavated next to Saint Barnabas’ chapel seem to be part of that necropolis.