OP-ED: The Thalassinies Spilies (“Sea Caves”): Anatomy of a Ruined Coastline.

One of the true coastal treasures in all Cyprus is the area just north of Coral Bay called Thalassinies Spilies (“Sea Caves”).  It is a superb example of the kind of coastal geomorphology and “erosional sculpture” that occurs when a coastline composed of soft chalky limestone (“marl”) is continuously pounded by wave energy: naturally formed archways (former cave mouths), semi-submerged to fully-submerged sea caves, limestone “stacks” and fantastic sea cliffs. This particular stretch of coastal terrain, which begins at the change-over in limestone types a few kilometres north of Coral bay and extends up to Cape Drepanum* opposite Yeronisos Island (Ayios Giorgios tis Peyias), faces directly towards the main direction of weather and sea currents coming from west-northwest.

This orientation towards the wind and waves produces one of the most dramatic series of coastal rock formations anywhere on the island. Furthermore, the fact that it faces west means it’s an ideal location to experience spectacular sunsets. Other similar coastal areas in Cyprus, made up of the same rock type abutting the sea, such as Governor’s Beach (east of Limassol) or parts of Cape Grekko (outside Ayia Napa), simply cannot compete because they face south and are not often exposed to the direct line of wave energy and wind.

Simply put: the Thalassinies Spilies area of Paphos is a real gem of Nature and in a perfect world it would have (or should have) been recognised as a super-valuable resource for sustainable tourism and immediately given full and permanent protection against villa development for short-term economic gains. The fact that this was not recognised, or that it was recognised but swept under the rug, is in retrospect mind-boggling. For sophisticated travelers, who in the future might come to Cyprus looking for untainted coastlines, the rapid development of villas and other immovable cement structures above the sea caves is the equivalent of “Bad Breath.” It is doubly sad to observe that many of these offensive villas are only used or occupied for short periods of time. In fact, some of them might only be used for a few weeks per year.

Actually, this coastal treasure was initially scheduled as a “white zone” (no building permits of any kind issued for a finite time period, e.g. 25 years.) back in the late 1980s. (This was about the same time that officials put forward a plan to limit/ban hotel construction in/around Coral Bay, a short-lived idea, as matters turned out!) But then suddenly, almost over-night and under circumstances that remain cloudy and unclear even today, the status of this small coastal stretch of white chalky sea caves changed from “protected” to “Come on down and bulldoze!” It was a shocking rape of a natural and virgin  coastal treasure, a real “middle finger salute” to any environmental approach for tourism in Cyprus and a sad loss of natural beauty and a fragile marine ecosystem for future generations.

Beyond the natural beauty and the obvious reasons to preserve the original state and integrity of this unique coastline, there are archaeological and historical implications that demand this area be protected from the developer’s bulldozer blade. The ancient settlement at Drepanum, mentioned in texts by Roman geographers such as Pliny and Strabo, was this coastline’s second largest town for hundreds of years. A network of ancient roadways demonstrate it played a major role in trade, movement and communications up and down the western coastline from Nea Paphos (now Kato Paphos) to Ayios Kononos located in the northern part of Akamas Peninsula’s western coast. The town of Drepano also played an early and pivotal role, a “hub” for baptisim, in the introduction of Christianity as the main religion of Cyprus’ people for many centuries.

The zone under discussion includes quite a bit of archaeology: from amphora deposits strewn in scattered locations and cemented on the seafloor; to monumental tombs with unique burial architecture impressively cut into bedrock; to an important ancient harbour with adjacent pottery sherd dumps; to the grand 5th-6th Century basilicas with important mosaic floors (one of these contains the only known mosaic representation of sea turtles in the entire Mediterranean!) to the mysterious buildings and temple unearthed on the island of Yeronisos.

Fortunately, we have a good deal of information about the historical significance of this area, largely because of a very successful archaeological project run by New York University: the Yeronisos Island Excavations and Field School . This project is the brain child of its Director, Dr Joan Breton Connelly, one of the most dedicated and innovative classical archaeologists Cyprus has ever seen. Today, after nearly two decades of work on and around Yeronisos Island, she is regarded as one of the foremost experts in the Hellenistic period in Cyprus and the eastern Mediterranean. Dr Connelly is one of the few classical archaeologists  to take a multi-disciplinary and environmental approach in her investigations. She also had the brilliant idea to persuade Paul Croft to be involved in the excavation side of things, so that’s like bringing Mr Spock on board as First Officer, a sure-fire recipie for a successful archaeological mission.

Where do we stand today? Even in our so-called “enlightened” era of cultural heritage awareness, large scale hotel and villa developments just to the south of Ayios Giorgios tis Peyias are continuing. All this activity represents a serious impediment to further archaeological investigations and may well be the final nail in the coffin for any future prospects to protect one of Cyprus’ most unique natural coastlines for future generations. It’s ironic isn’t it? In 2017, Paphos was declared “European Capital of Culture.” But in 2019-20, we seem to be hell bent on destroying whatever cultural heritage that remains just north of Paphos and in the process we are obliterating the natural beauty of a fragile god-given gem of a coastline. It’s time to look in the mirror… Is everything right here? Did we really make the correct investment for the long term? Did we cheat future generations of Cypriots? Did we make a wise and well considered decision? Did we miss a good opportunity here? These and other questions like them should be asked, will be asked, for a long time…

 

*Note: It is believed that Cape “Drepanum” (also called “Drepano” or even “Dhrepano”) takes its name from the Greek word Drepani (“sickle”) because leading north of this point the shape and sweep of the bay encompassing the localities of Aspro, Toxeftra up to Lara (south) appears exactly in the form of a sickle, a traditional device for harvesting cereals that used to be grown in the area. Stand at a point directly opposite Yeronisos Island, look north towards Lara and the shape of the coastline mimics precisely the curvature of a sickle.

 

The unique representation of a sea turtle in a 5th-6th Century mosaic at one of the basilicas at Ay. Georgios tis Peyias. Clearly, awareness of sea turtles on Cyprus’ western coast is not just a 20th Century phenomenon.

During early stages of villa construction at the Sea Caves, one of the original “sea view villas”, a century-old stone shepherd’s dwelling, was still standing in situ. Now it’s obliterated.

What’s the old saying?: One person’s “paradise” can be plenty of other people’s “hell.”

View of ancient harbour and surrounding coastline in the mid-late 1990s, before the introduction of immovable cement architecture.

View looking north towards Yeronisos and ancient harbour ( just behind arch on left of photo) and early stages of development in 2010.

The first stages of permanently changing the charcter of Cyprus’ western coastline with development starting to encroach upon the archaeologically rich zone of the ancient Hellenistic/Roman harbour. The newly built cement structures form a lovely compliment to the natural explosion of spring flowers, don’t you think?

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