From Obscurity to Fame, From Unkown to Over-trampled
The premier canyon in Cyprus, easily one of the most impressive natural landforms on the island, is the Avgas Gorge. Once an obscure, little known place visited only by a handful of local shepherds, the Avgas Gorge quickly emerged into the spotlight and became one of the most “hot” and “must-see” destinations in western Cyprus during the late 1980s and especially throughout the 1990s-early 2000s. The advent of 4×4 excursions (so-called “jeep safaris”) into the Akamas Peninsula, initially from hotels mainly in Paphos, propelled the gorge onto the public stage, but that same notoriety and touristic activity has been responsible for profound changes and impacts within the canyon system itself, not many of these changes being good ones.
It’s the same cycle of environmental degradation for countless pristine environments around the world: The more you promote it as a unique, sensitive yet spectacular Nature Monument, the more people want to go there; and the more who visit, the greater the damage and negative impact. So it goes, and so it will always go. Good management and sensible control measures will result in damage limitation, but nothing will offer complete protection.
The Gorge Entry Point
Large convoys of Land Rovers used to drive into and inflict damage on the small floodplain leading into the Avgas Gorge.
Mass tourism: “Jeep Safari” convoys visiting Avgas on a daily basis would deliver up to 100+ people at a time, almost a stampede into the sensitive gorge environment.
Local authorities have already taken some very positive steps. The Forestry Department in Cyprus should be commended for introducing a sturdy metal bar or barricade at the western end of the Avgas stream, the main point of entry for over 95% of visitors, which completely blocks all vehicular traffic into the gorge. They also invested in a proper car park with WC facilities (no, not Wine Cellar!) and a brand new concrete bridge at this western entry point into the canyon. Prior to these measures, that is especially during the mid-1990s-early 2000s, at times dozens of vehicles, often commercial Land Rovers packed with up to 11 persons each, would forcefully drive along the narrow floodplain leading into the gorge.
Even after only a few years, vehicle traffic leading into the gorge started to take its toll: No more flowers, just discarded plastic irrigation pipes.
Serious tyre ruts and mud puddles used to challenge the springtime visitor to the Avgas Gorge.
Even after only a few years of this, deep tyre ruts would form in the soft clay-loam soil and during springtime the dense floral displays that once characterised this zone started to disappear. Today nobody can drive into the gorge proper. That is a very good thing.
Entering the Avgas Gorge in the late 1990s: No bridge, no car park, just a free for all.
Entrance to Avgas Gorge 2020: A new concrete bridge leads drivers into an official car park area.
Location and Place Name Dynamics
The Avgas Gorge is situated just a few of kilometres north of the modern hamlet/fishing harbour Ayios Georgios tis Peyias, where the ancient Hellenistic- Byzantine settlement of Drepano lies directly opposite Yeronisos Island. This puts it right in between Cape Drepanum and the promontory of Lara, two important landforms on the western coast. The gorge itself is set back from the coastline by a small alluvial plain, which leads from a sandy beach currently called Toxeftra (a major sea turtle nesting spot) to the convergence of two major streams, the Avgas and the Argaki ton Kouphon. A small stream called Kalamoulli (“small reed”) carries the combined water discharge from both streams to the sea.
The 1880s Kitchner map: View of the area between Cape Drepanum (bottom) and the promintory of Lara (top). (Note: Yeronissos Island is mis-identified as “Ayiou Yeorgiou Nisi.”)
The 1880s Kitchner Map: Close up of the Avgas and Kouphon streams and the plataeu of Lipati. (Note: Karamoulli stream is not identified on this map.)
If you consult the old 1930s-era 1:5000 cadastral maps (a fantastic source of information pertaining to original place names), you will see that the actual “Toxeftra” toponym applies to the inland spot where the Avgas and Kouphon streams converge, not to the beach with that same modern name some 700 metres to the south. The 1885 Kitchner map seems to agree with this by designating the area at the two- stream convergence point as Toxeftra Chiftlik. The Greek place name “Toxeftra” refers to the curved shape of the area, which mimics the shape of an archery bow. “Chiftlik” is an old Ottoman-period word, which in Turkish means “agricultural estate” or “agricultural fiefdom” or “plantation.” (Note: during the Ottoman period, most of rural Cyprus was divided into individual Chiftliks. For example, the so-called “Baths of Aphrodite” was actually called “Potami Chiftlik” before modern times.) Today you can still find visible traces of the old Toxeftra Chiftlik: an old stone water fountain and olive mill at the entry area to the Kouphon stream, and a series of old stone farm houses on the elevated southern ridge overlooking Karamoulli stream as it flows to the sea. Probably somewhere towards the end of the Ottoman period, these buildings became the property of the Paphos Bishopric, and sat long abandoned, until about 10 years ago, when they were restored and made fit for modern habitation. The Bishop of Paphos himself today uses them as his “Exokhiko” or “rural retreat.”
Near the entrance to the Argaki ton Kouphon 2020: The (restored) Vryssi (“spring fountain”) and old olive mill formerly part of Toxeftra Chiftlik.
There’s a sheep in that hole!
Posted by David PearlmanJuly 2019
Did you ever have a bad day? I mean, a really, really bad day? Sure, we all have one, now and again, right? Well, for a certain sheep in western Cyprus, one particular September day turned out to be not only bad, but could have been fatal…except for a bit of luck and happenstance. Here’s the true story:
It was during early September 2018 that I had the great pleasure to meet Sally Miniel and Joe Lamm from Texas in the USA and guide them on a full-day Private Excursion aimed at looking at mainstream and off-the-beaten-track archaeological sites in western Cyprus. This was a day I shall not easily forget because one of the most unusual experiences I’ve ever had, either as an archaeologist or a professional tour guide, occurred about mid-way through the excursion.
We had just finished visiting a rather unique 14th Century painted church located down some isolated dirt track, miles from anywhere, when one of the excursion participants, Mr Joe Lamm, happened to mention that he was interested in prehistoric archaeological sites. I told him: “You’re in luck, because nearby there happens to be an excellent example of a Chalcolithic Period (ca. 3000BC) necropolis (burial ground), where dozens of shaft graves were cut into a soft limestone outcrop and it’s only a ten-minute drive from where we are now.” So that’s how it all started, as a sudden last-minute decision, we diverted our planned itinerary to include this special site. Under normal circumstances, we would not have visited this place on that day, but on these Private Excursions spontaneity rules, and we ended up at the right place at the right time, at least as far as the fate of a certain sheep is concerned.
General view of the necropolis site.
When we approached the site by 4×4 vehicle and then got out to walk the last section up to the tombs, I noticed a large flock of sheep and goats milling around nearby. I didn’t think too much about that initially. As I brought these two guests up to the rock outcrop and as I started to explain about burial practices and point out the shaft graves, suddenly there was a unexpected interruption: we were all stunned –shocked, really!– to hear the loud bleating of a sheep, as if it was coming from underground, definitely sub-terra. Consider the context and setting of this specific moment: Here we are standing on top of a prehistoric cemetery, a burial ground. All around us are tombs of people who died five-thousand years ago, and then suddenly a loud sound attacks our ears from below the ground! You might guess where your wild thoughts might take you, before logic sets in and you realize it’s the sound of a living animal.
We started to frantically search for the source of the sheep noise by checking inside each of the many dozens of holes and then, three or four minutes later: there it was! An adult sheep had fallen into one of the deeper graves and was undeniably trapped inside. There was no way this animal could move in any direction and clearly, it could not get out of the hole by itself. Beyond that, it was so deeply stuck –something like two metres below surface level– that it was beyond our reach, nor did any of us possess the physical resources necessary to pull the sheep up and liberate the poor creature by ourselves.
Oooops: I fell down this hole and can’t get out! Now what? (Photo: Sally Miniel)
I told my esteemed guests, Joe and Sally, that I knew they were paying top dollar for the tour day, but I would forfeit all the money if necessary just to interrupt our itinerary in order to drive back to a nearby village and get help to pull the poor bugger out. I thought to myself: I won’t be able to live with myself if I abandon this sheep in the hole. Of course, Joe and Sally were 100% on board and felt just as strongly as I did that we had to initiate a rescue mission, so I’d like to acknowledge that and offer them both my heart-felt respect and thanks. In full agreement, we stopped our tour, drove back into a village to get help. In fact, the small adventure that ensued in rescuing the sheep resulted in one of the most rewarding and bizarre excursion moments I’ve ever had; and the guests both told me in the end this was one of the best thing they’d experienced in three weeks of touring Greece, Turkey and Cyprus.
We returned to the nearby Kouklia Village* to seek help. First stop was the local Museum, but at first they just looked at me with sheep-eyes, ooops no pun! However, once the museum boss, Maro, saw the photos of the trapped sheep and understood the situation, she was quite helpful, very sympathetic, and offered several constructive suggestions. Unfortunately, they were unable to give immediate assistance, so we moved on. Then we went to a nearby Police station, but no luck there: our pleas for help were met with expressions of indifference and nobody seemed particularly interested to get involved. I thought: Where is the Love? Is there no heart left in a place that overlies the Sanctuary of Aphrodite, the ancient Goddess of Love? However, I was wrong: there is heart, there is compassion in Kouklia Village, and we were soon to find it along one of the village side streets.
I had an idea: Let’s go local. I remembered the name of a sheep/goat farmer –a really nice guy named “Aspris”– who keeps most of his animals in the abandoned Souskiou Village, quite near the ancient necropolis where the sheep was stuck. I was not 100% sure the poor sheep in question was his, but it was a start, so I went driving through the village to find somebody who could point us to the house of Aspris.
Along the way: I found a pick-up truck with a driver inside, window open, chatting with another villager. On the side door of the pick-up: the logo and lettering of the Village Council of Kouklia. Bingo! The driver was a bearded fellow in his late 20s, maybe early 30s. We showed him the photos of the trapped sheep that Sally had just taken on her phone. Mid-way through the conversation he interrupted me, asking: “Hey: Aren’t you David, the Archaelogist?” I said: “Yeah, that’s right, but how do you know me?” He then went on to explain that his name was Spyros Petrides** and when he was a young kid he and his mates used to hang out at the village Demotic School***, where we archaeologists were staying and we had played football together, back in the old days. I really had no memory of this or this even this specific kid, now a grown man, but I pretended to remember and went “Oh, yeah, of course: Spyros! I remember you now!”
After we exchanged handshakes, Spyros took total control of the situation. He organised a rescue party! He told me to wait 5 minutes and then he would come back and follow us in my jeep to the necropolis site. Spyros went into his office first and produced a few bottles of cold water which he offered us as refreshment. You see, in Kouklia Village, no matter what happens, the guests are King, so philoxenia (“hospitality”) is always offered. Our new Animal Rescue Leader disappeared for a short time, maybe 4 minutes, whilst we drank the cold water. (It was a hot day, and we were indeed thirsty.) He then reappeared with two of his pals, one of them bearing a rope.
As promised, he followed behind us as we drove back to the Necropolis site. We all expected that when we re-located the trapped sheep, one of these strong guys would climb down and attach the rope to the trapped animal. However, as soon as we arrived at the outcrop and found the sheep stuck in the hole, the rope became immediately irrelevant. We all marveled as one of Spyros’ mates, some giant guy named Yiorkis with huge forearms, just bent down (exposing his massive “cheeks” and “crack” flowing over his underwear in the process) and simply grabbed the sheep by its fleece –you know, kind of the way you pick up a cat by its neck—and yanked the poor animal out of the hole! Mission accomplished! We all gave the Spyros-Yiorkis team a rousing applause as we watched the now free sheep high tail it down the dirt track to join the rest of his flock. Great story, all true!
Mr Spyros Petrides of the Village Council of Kouklia: A true Cypriot Hero.
When I look back on it now, almost a year later, I recognize it was a completely accidental and spontaneous experience. It sure worked out well for the unfortunate sheep who fell into the whole that day, because it was just by chance (following Joe Lamm’s random comment about interest in prehistoric archaeology) that brought us to the site that day in the first place. I also see how fantastic and empathetic the Cypriot people generally, and the inhabitants of Kouklia Village specifically, can be, even in these modern times. Spyros and his assistant Yiorkis showed great determination and genuine compassion to help a fellow living creature of this Earth get out of a bad situation that day. To all of us who witnessed the events described above, these two gentlemen stand out as true Cypriot heroes…
* Kouklia Village, located about 16kms east of Paphos, is the modern village that overlies the remains of the original capital settlement of Cyprus, the first Paphos, and now called “Palaipaphos.” The ancient city encompassed the Sanctuary of Aphrodite within its precinct. Even though not too much of the ancient temple buildings survive today, it is historically one of the most important archaeological sites in Cyprus with one of the island’s most unique museums housed in a Frankish Period Chateau or Manor House. Subjected to periodic excavations since the late 19th Century, in recent years the site of Palaipaphos has seen renewed excavation works and other investigations in the area carried out by Dr Maria Iakovou and team, the Dept of Archaeology, University of Cyprus.
** Spyros’ father, Christakis Petrides , ex-Mukhtaris (Mayor) of Kouklia, was the guy employed by the archaeological projects back in the early ‘80s to do the all electrical work needed, for lighting and other installations for our base camp. Later in time: he became Mukhtaris. Spyros’ uncle, Konstantinos (“Costas”) Petrides (i.e. Christakis’ brother) was an extremely accomplished individual and a village VIP, because President George Vassileou appointed him as Minister of Finance for the Republic of Cyprus.
***In the 1970s – 1990s, it was standard practice that foreign archaeological expeditions based in rural Cypriot villages would use the local public schools as base camps to house their staff personnel and utilize some of the class rooms as work/processing areas. It was a good arrangement because most foreign archaeological projects conducted their operations in Cyprus during July and August, exactly the time when these schools were empty and hence available to the archaeologists. Dr David Rupp from Brock University in Cananda and Dr Lone Soerensen of University of Copenhagen based the Canadian Palaipaphos Survey Project in the Demotic School of Kouklia Village during the early 1980s. Whilst we archaeologists were staying at the school (we used to sleep at night on folding beds outside in the football field), we became a magnet for all the village kids to “hang out” with us. Sometimes it was tough to get any work done, but it was loads of fun –and for some of us: that’s how we learned to speak Greek– and very good public relations to interact with these local kids, often even joining them in ad hoc football matches.
Village kids at Kouklia School circa 1980-82.
An early photo of me with some of the Kouklia Village kids that would hang out around the school, circa 1982.
Some Informational Background on Chalcolithic Burial Grounds in Cyprus
There are several Chalcolithic cemeteries known in Cyprus. Some have been excavated systematically by authorized archaeological projects (the University of Edinburgh, spear-headed by the late archaeologist Dr Edgar Peltenburg and his associates, has in particular been quite pioneering in this area of research within western Cyprus), but many other necropolis sites have been subjected to looting activities over decades in the early/middle parts of the 20th Century and/or earlier. The site we visited on this day consisted of many dozens of shaft graves, cut into an exposed outcrop of relatively soft secondary limestone material (local name: khavara), shaft depths varying between 0.5 to 2.0+metres. The typical grave is distinctly bell-shaped in cross-section, meaning narrower at the top and widening as you reach the lower section and floor. Vertical striations or “chisel marks” are often visible along the shaft grave walls, traces of the tool marks preserved in the now indurated limestone from the original cutting of the shafts some five thousand years ago. Several of the graves show chiseled indentations at the top opening of the shafts, evidence that they may have been sealed with a limestone slab or “capstone.”
There is no uniform size to these graves: Some really small sized graves were clearly for infants and small children, but the majority of them were built to accommodate adults, many of whose bodies were inserted into the shafts in contracted (or “fetal”) positions and accompanied by “grave goods,” ceramic vessels and stone objects which were gifts (?) or personal belongings of the deceased (?) and/or of ritual nature (?). (Note: There may well have been a host of perishable organic materials –food stuffs and liquids?– deposited inside the graves next to the bodies, but there is not secure and consistent physical evidence for this in most cases.)
Several of the skeletons had small stone cruciform figurine objects near or on the collarbone, which suggests they were placed as necklace-type decoration around the necks of the dead prior to burial. These figurines are quite characteristic of the island’s Chalcolithic culture, and seem to occur mainly in burial contexts in southern and western Cyprus (or is this just a false impression based on research opportunities post-1974?). In most cases, they are made from a rather unique material: a blue-green soft stone called picrolite, whose few known primary sources are located in/nearby serpentinite deposits in elevated zones in the Troodos Mts. There is also some research that postulates the existence of a picrolite exchange system. (Note: There also is some picrolite visible in serpentinites along the road cut leading into the Akamas Forest just adjacent to the so-called “Baths of Aphroditie.” However, this Akamas material is too thin in section to have been usable for construction of objects like the figurines or other jewelry.)
A cruciform figurine made of picrolite found on the surface of an unexcavated Chalcolithic site in the Dhiarizos Valley, Paphos District.
These cross-shaped figurines are today quite iconic of Cyprus’ rich prehistoric culture. Perhaps the best-known example, and one of the largest and best preserved, is on display in Room 1 of the Cyprus Museum in Nicosia. It was selected as the decorative motif to appear on one side of the 1-Euro and 2-Euro coins for Cyprus, the coin that won 1st prize for the most beautiful coin of 2010 during an international conference in Berlin, Germany. The image of this same figurine also appears in our own CEU logo, designed for us by the gifted graphic designer David Ayres from London, UK.
The Iconic Figurine of Chalcolithic Cyprus
Featured on the Euro coins for Cyprus
A personal note: During my early years in Cyprus (late 1970s – late 1980s) as an archaeologist (student/supervisor), I was lucky enough to be involved with the excavations of dozens of tombs. As I look back on it today, those times digging Bronze Age chamber tombs rate as some of my most exciting and fondest experiences in Cyprus. Most of these tomb excavations were “rescue digs,” where roads were being cut across virgin landscape, exposing ancient burials in the road-line, or new buildings were going up and the building works would truncate the top portions of tombs; or in a few cases in the mid-1980s, the installation of telephone lines along narrow village streets struck ancient tombs. Today, whenever I approach the subject of tombs and necropolis sites, I always remind myself: The whole concept of burial and burial practices is one of the characteristics that sets human beings apart from all other mammals. No other animal buries its dead. Yeah, we humans (so-called “homo sapiens”) do several things (many very unfortunate and destructive) that no other animals do…
Middle Bronze Age Chamber Tombs often produce lots of intact ceramic vessels, some containing organic material.
Every now and then, one discovers areas or specific places in Cyprus that seem to have magic power. You cannot explain it, but when you walk through certain landscapes or stand on special spots, you can’t help but feel the full power of nature and the “personality” of rocks and soil beneath you. The wind sings to you, the trees wink at you and the birds fly by and nod their heads, as if to say “What took you so long?”
The Blow Holes at Lara
Lara-North: One of the best and only natural sandy beaches on Cyprus’ rocky western coastline.
One of the best, almost the only, natural sandy beach locations on Cyprus’ western coastline is called Lara. It has two stretches of naturally occurring sand deposits, or beaches, one on the southern side, and another on the northern side. Between them stands a thick deposit of limestone, stretching (between “Kholkhlakhas” and “Kryos Kolymbos”) almost two kilometers in length, which used to be a detatched island or reef, but now connected to the main western coast via the two sandy beaches or “tombolos.” The complete structure of Lara as a promintory landform is a significant feature of the island’s West Coast.
Lara Promintory as it appears on the 1882 map from H.H. Kitchener.
In the centre of Lara promintory, there may once have been a basin or small salt lake. Once this area was filled in with a mix of sand and colluvial soils, it became an attractive area for dry-farming and settlement. In the mid-1960s there were short-lived archaeological excavations by Michael Fortin, which suggested occupation of central Lara during the Late Bronze Age.
Today, Lara is mainly known for the Turtle Conservation Project, which is based on the northern beach and founded by the renowned marine biologist and ex-Director of the Dept of Fisheries, Cyprus, Dr Andreas Demetropoulos in 1978. The rich deposits of sand make Lara (and the nearby Toxeftra locality) ideal for sea turtle nesting activities. It is most likely that sea turtle nesting at Lara and surrounding areas has been occurring for many millenia, certainly well before humans first set foot on Cyprus.
Lara-North: The Lara Turtle Conservation Project during one of its early stages when the conservation team, led by project founder, Dr Andreas Demetropoulos, used to sleep on site in tents.
A sea turtle is depicted on the mosaic floor of a Basilica (5th-6th Century) at Ayios Yiorgios tis Peyias, not far from Lara.
One of the less known features of Lara is found on and within the former limestone reef standing between the two beach fronts, north and south: a series of subterranean sea caves, narrow mini-canyons and connecting tunnels. These were formed natuarally over long periods of time with wave energy, a times driven by powerful westerly winds, pounding into the exposed western face of the limestone reef. At times, the spray of sea water generated by the waves attacking the west-facing limestone cliffs can be quite strong, with spray rising many metres above waterline. Sea water high in salt content collects in holes and hollows along the uneven limestone surface and, once evaporation takes place, rich deposits of salt occur at various locations along the limestone surface. Historically, this part of Lara has been well known by local shepherds as a place to collect sea salt.
The spray of sea water bounding into the exposed cliffs can rise many meters above the waterline.
Sea Spray causes many salt deposits to form in nooks and crannies at various locations across the limestone surface.
Exploring the Blow Holes
Some years ago, together with friend and fellow explorer Paul Croft, I was able to enter and explore the sea caves by using a series of subterranean cavities or tunnels. These photos tell the story:
Entering the network of subterranean chambers through the top of one of the Blow Holes.
One of the mini-canyons that can be entered from the waterline facing Lara’s western cliffs.