Hi there! I am Beatrice Pestarino, an Ancient Historian specialised in Ancient Cyprus. I am interested in the socio-economic development of the Cypriot city-kingdoms into which the island was subdivided in the Archaic and Classical periods. I have recently submitted to publication the final version of my first book Kypriōn Politeia, the political ad administrative systems of the Classical Cypriot city-kingdoms – actually my PhD thesis (UCL) dressed to the nines – which reconstructs the political and administrative systems of these centres in the 5th and 4th cent. BC (forthcoming in the Brill series Mnemosyne Supplements).

My research is based on the study of inscriptions written in different languages and scripts such as Cypriot-syllabic Greek and Eteocypriot, a Cypriot autochthonous language, Phoenician, and alphabetic Greek, which were all used on the island. These inscriptions are written on different support materials, mostly stones and ostraka, but also clay/bronze tablets, pottery, and coins for which I provide new textual readings and interpretations. Their texts concern kings and officials employed by local governments or accounts of the headquarters of the main administrative centres – for example, palace archives, tax collection hubs, and workshops for processing copper, purple, and agricultural products.

The Idalion Bronze tablet (5th cent. BC), a decree which concerns a honorary payment to the physician Onasilos and his brothers, written in Greek, in the common Cypriot syllabary (to be read from right to left). BnF Cabinet des médailles, Paris.
Terracotta jug from Cyprus (7th cent. BC) engraved in Phoenician, bearing the text L’NTS, ‘to Anthos’, the equivalent of the Greek name Ἄνθος, ‘flower’. MET Museum New York.
Dedication by the king Nicocles of Paphos to the temple of Hera (late 4th cent. BC), and now part of the structure of the Monastery of Ayia Moni (Cyprus), written in Greek, in the Paphian syllabary (to be read from left to right)(Courtesy of the Department of Antiquities of Cyprus).

The presence of so many languages, scripts, and support materials inevitably aroused my interest in the CREWS project, where I am visiting fellow this term (Lent Term 2022). During my time with CREWS, I am studying the introduction of the Greek alphabet in Cyprus in the Archaic period. This topic is also part of my postdoctoral research at the Haifa Centre of Mediterranean History (HCMH, University of Haifa), where I am a member of the research cluster ‘First Encounters’  launched by Dr. Gil Gambash and by Dr. David Friesem. The cluster investigates the role of the sea in cultural connections and exchanges between various societies across the Mediterranean. The introduction of the Greek alphabet in Cyprus, and earlier in the Aegean, was indeed an innovation due the encounters between Mediterranean populations. Seafaring routes worked as a bridge between Greeks and Phoenicians, who were already using their own alphabet, from which the Greek one developed.

In the Aegean – e.g. Euboea, Attic, Rhodes, and Crete – the Greek alphabet was initially used as an innovative technology, to engrave short graffiti on votary objects by traders who aimed to emphasise their wealth and upper class status against the mass, when the common level of literacy was quite limited.

Map of the Eastern Mediterranean
Alphabetic Greek graffito, read as ΜΙΤΛU (?), perhaps a Levantine name, engraved on an early archaic Syro-Levantine alabastron from Kamiros, Rhodes (now in the Louvre museum, Paris)

In Cyprus, however, in contrast with the Aegean, literacy is long standing and did not disappear between the end of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age. The island showed a strong continuity in its writing practices; e.g. the Cypriot Archaic and Classical syllabary developed from another local syllabary, the Cypro-Minoan, which was similar in the shape of signs and was employed to write one or more indigenous languages in the Bronze Age, and still undeciphered.

Examples of Cypriot-syllabic signs also attested in Cypro-Minoan

Furthermore, in Cyprus, the choice made by the governments of the city-kingdoms to employ a specific script had always a socio-political function: it aimed to legitimise the king’s power, and his entourages’ authority. Therefore, the first use of the Greek alphabet in Cyprus did not depend on the fact that writing was seen as a new technology. It was introduced by the members of the upper class, who were set far above common people, for a specific purpose – as always happened in Cyprus when using a determinate script – to stress their Greekness and eliteness against the local population, probably mixed, or competing local autochthonous groups. This occurred not before the 6th cent. BC, when the island was freed from the Neo-Assyrian rule and further opened towards Greece.

Inscription of Nicocles, the king of Paphos written in the late 4th cent. BC in Paphian syllabary (to be read from left to right) adopted by the sovereign after a reform to legtimise his government when it was undermined by the Diadochoi’s power struggles. (Courtesy of the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul)
Undeciphered inscription in Eteocypriot (to be read from right to left) from Golgoi (4th -3rd cent. BC), MET Museum, New York.

The first Cypriot local attestation of the Greek alphabet comes from Golgoi, a city located in the central-east of the island, home of a famous sanctuary and a centre that, along with Amathus, showed a good amount of inscriptions written in an indigenous language, conventionally called Golgian Eteocypriot. This suggests that a substantial part of the population of Golgoi was autochthonous.

The Greek text is engraved on the epitaph of Karux. Karux was a member of the Golgian upper class, as shown by the rich iconography of the stele, which is overhung by a capital featuring two lions facing each other and a winged solar disk, symbol of power in the Near-East.

Karux’s monument (now in the Louvre, Paris)
Digraphic inscription in alphabetic and Cypriot-syllabic Greek on Karux’s funerary monument
A Cypriot member of the elite of Golgoi (6th cent BC), MET museum, New York

The inscription on the funerary monument – placed under the solar disk – is digraphic and bears the Cypriot-syllabic Greek text ka-ru-xe-e-mi (on the right), and the alphabetic Greek text, Kάρυξ εἰμί, Kārux ēmi, ‘I am Karux’ (on the left). In this inscription, the Greek alphabet does not convey an otherwise incomprehensible linguistic message but is an additional visual element of material culture to stress Karux’s Greekness as member of the elite.

You can watch Beatrice talk about this topic at the recent CREWS conference Writing around the Ancient Mediterranean: Practices and Adaptations.

~ Beatrice Pestarino, postdoctoral researcher (Haifa Centre for Mediterranean History, HCMH, University of Haifa)

2 thoughts on “The introduction of the Greek alphabet in Ancient Cyprus: Guest post by Dr Beatrice Pestarino

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