Paphos ~ Tombs of the Kings

The Tombs of the Kings, situated in Paphos on the west coast of Cyprus, is a bit of a misnomer since no king was ever buried there (2). The monarchy of the area was disbanded in 312 BC (2) and the earliest date for the site is during the third century BC, hence we know the tombs were never for royal families. They were, however, lavish tombs that were designed for elite families and high officials, mostly from the Ptolemaic dynasty (3). The site was used up until the fourth century during the Roman period (2) and also probably by Christians (3), but most of the tombs are from the Hellenistic period.

The site and the surrounding area, including “the whole of Kato Pafos and Palaipaphos” came under one complete listing as a World Heritage Site back in 1980 (1). The vast area “includes the remains of Nea Pafos (New Pafos) and its ancient port, as well as the Tombs of the Kings, which constitute the most important part of the ancient necropolis of Pafos” (1).

The area of the Tombs of the Kings was inhabited at least as far back as 6,000 years ago during the Neolithic period (1). Little evidence remains of the original site, but an artefact found – a loom weight – dates to that period (1). Strangely, no evidence has surfaced of any occupation during the Bronze Age (1), but clearly there would have been continuing human occupation over the millennia.

Paphos itself has also been inhabited since the Neolithic period. It was the centre of the cult of Aphrodite, who was herself born on the island of Cyprus (4). The Mycenaeans built a temple to Aphrodite in the 12th century BC, and the temple was continually used up until the Roman period (4). The site of Pahos is a huge area covered in archaeological remains – villas, palaces, theatres and fortresses – and also many mosaic floors which have survived and are some of the most stunning in the entire ancient world (4).

After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC the entire region of eastern Europe and Asia Minor was being transformed. The port of Nea Pafos was founded and made into a city by Nikocles in 320 BC (1). Just eight years later, in 312 BC, the town of Marion was destroyed by Ptolemy Soter, the founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty, and the population was moved to Paphos (1).

Paphos is located almost directly opposite the ancient city of Alexandria, so it was given immense importance by the Ptolemies, but Cyprus itself also had extremely valuable resources that were imperative to the wealth of the economy – copper mines, wheat fields, vineyards, olive groves – all highly regarded and traded around the Mediterranean (1).

Later, in the 4th century, the port’s favourable location and easier access to Alexandria meant the city had replaced Salamis as the centre of government (1). Nea Pafos was strongly linked to Alexandria, Rhodes, and Athens through commercial trade (1).

The actual “cemetery” covers a much wider area since the site north of Nea Paphos itself was a place of burial, but the Tombs of the Kings site alone, the northern end of the cemetery, covers an area of 200,000 square metres (1). Much of the site of the Tombs of the Kings has been quarried for a thousand years (1), so what we see today may be somewhat different to the original. The tombs themselves, despite looting and many roofs and upper floors being removed, are largely intact.


The Tombs (1)

Tomb 1

Located right inside the main entrance, Tomb one was originally two stories high but no explanation has ever been given for the purpose of the upper floor. Today the tomb is accessed by a modern stairway. It was carved out of solid rock, and once inside the doorway the tomb descends into a square chamber. Inside are many individual tombs extending from the main chamber, and also small alcoves which were used for funerary offerings. In the south-western corner there is a recess that would have once contained a clay pipe. This was used during the Roman period for libations. Due to looting and serious damage dating has been impossible, but it may have been one of the earliest tombs due to the crude manner of its construction. Certainly it is not as elaborate as other tombs in the cemetery, and may even predate the Ptolemaic tombs.

The Tumulus

The tumulus contains many graves and tombs. The top was flattened out and used as a burial place, and a 35-metre wall was built near the middle, separating east from west. There were at least three burial enclosures on the top. The eastern tomb is reached by nine steps carved out of the rock and contains three loculi. Although the tomb was robbed, pottery was found dating to the Hellenistic period. The western enclosure originally contained four loculi, but only two remain due to quarrying of the rock. There was eleven steps and two columns found inside were covered in lime plaster. Seven graves were excavated and three of those were empty, but again pots were found dating to the Hellenistic period. The largest enclosure contained twenty-three pit-shaped graves, three of which contained children. There were empty graves and also several that were clearly never used.

Tomb 2

Tomb 2 is located at the north-western end of the tumulus and reached by a twelve-stepped dromos that leads into an atrium. To the right is a well, and opposite the steps is a vaulted burial chamber containing four loculi and three pit graves. During the Roman era the atrium was covered with a vaulted roof and the dromos built up, a new entrance was made and more tombs cut into the western and northern ends.

Tomb 3

Tomb 3 is so elaborate and visually pleasing it was probably better than most living accommodations that existed at the time. Reached by a covered stairway containing twelve steps, the atrium is surrounded by Doric columns that gives the tomb the feel of a small temple rather than a grave. As with all the tombs there is a well, and there is a vaulted chamber that may have originally contained beds for laying out the dead. Opposite the central chamber is the burial chamber, containing many loculi with carvings. There are also several pit tombs in other chambers that have been filled in.

Tomb 4

The first excavations of the Tombs of the Kings took place in tomb 4 in 1977. Twenty pit tombs were discovered, five of which were for children. In 1989 another four pit tombs were discovered. Hellenistic pots and coins were found during both 1977 and 1989, and these findings provide dates between the 3rd and 1st centuries BC. The tomb is accessed by a thirteen-step dromos and is the best preserved colonnaded tomb in the complex. The burial chamber contains many loculi for single burials. There are many pit tombs on the floors of the north and south porticoes, and a system of collecting rain water is also evident.

Tomb 5

One of the largest tombs, number 5, covers and area 390 square metres and is accessed by a huge dromos, beyond which is an arched entrance. From this covered arched entrance, the northern portico is laid out in a square containing twelve large pillars, and each side is 14.8 metres long. The pillars support the portico which surrounds the atrium.  All of the tombs in the burial chamber had been plundered. The western portico was severely damaged and had collapsed but the corner was used to build a furnace during the middle ages. Also during this time the space between the pillars was bricked up to make living spaces, but all the medieval structures were removed during excavations to restore the tomb to its original layout. The furnace, however, remains in situ. During excavations two Roman lamps were found, along with fragments of medieval pottery.

Recently Excavated Area

Unfortunately there is no other term used to mark this area, which contains three tombs that also include tomb 6, which we will come to in a moment. The reference book appears to have an odd way of categorising the tombs, and as such I am forced to follow its instruction otherwise I will be giving out new numbers to the other tombs, which may confuse the reader. The first tomb has been largely destroyed and its roof completely removed by quarrying. There is a small dromos of just four steps leading straight into the atrium. The north chamber contains five loculi and two ossuaries, but the western side of the tomb has been completely destroyed. In the southern chamber only one loculus remains. The remains of a pyre were found containing burnt offerings of birds and eggs, as was a large amount of Hellenistic pottery.
The second tomb of the “recently excavated area” also has a four-stepped dromos and contained two intact loculi, one of which was empty but the other contained the remains of a woman. Unfortunately there were few burial objects with her, but there was again found Hellenistic pottery with “two imported alabaster objects”. The third tomb of the “recently excavated area” is…

Tomb 6

A huge dromos, 20 metres long with 14 steps, leads to a corridor with a roof. The dromos itself contains five loculi and two ossuaries. To the south another covered stairway with nine steps leads to a well sourrounded by four slabs. The dromos was closed off during the Roman period and was used as a separate place of burial. It seems the Romans moved the older graves and the contents were thrown into the well! Later two more loculi were carved into the dromos, and in front a platform was built for offerings. The restored dromos leads into the colonnaded atrium, and opposite the entrance on the western side sits the burial chamber. The roof has been removed by quarrying, which makes for good light photography, and in the centre a cippus is found covering a burial. Only two of the columns in the atrium appear to have been completed and covered in mortar. Under the destroyed portico in the northern end, preserved wall paintings can be seen in situ, and these are clearly “imitations of marble facing”. The other two were never completed even when the tomb was used. Three pit graves were found in the atrium, and in the chamber there are three loculi and one pit grave. The loculi had been plundered but the pit grave was intact. The chamber roof has been restored so that the mortar around the loculi will be preserved. The entire tomb was used only during the Hellenistic period, but the dromos was also used during the Roman era. The main findings of the tomb were ceramic lamps, one of which had a chariot and a lion carved onto it, a copper mirror and gold myrtle leaves.

Tomb 7

A long and narrow dromos leads to tomb 7, known as Palioeklisha, or Old Church. The dromos has only seven steps but they lead to a long sloping passage and into a portico that was destroyed long ago. There are many loculi and ossuaries on the lateral walls of the dromos but no date has been applied to their use since no evidence has surfaced. Originally the portico was supported by four doric columns, and three of these have been restored. The entablature is in very good condition, and the well is located in the south-eastern corner. The main chamber is found directly opposite the entrance, and contains five loculi and four ossuaries. The doorway has remained in excelllent condition with relief decoration. A second burial chamber is accessed through an opening to the north portico, and has a cornice in very good condition. This chamber contains ten loculi and one ossuary and is vaulted with the three sides being used for burial.

Tomb 8

The layout of tomb 8 is much different to the other colonnaded tombs. Instead of an atrium there is a mastaba resembling the style of ancient Egypt. The atrium surrounds this with four wings. In other words, while other tombs tend to have an open space in the middle, tomb 8 contains a solid block in the middle surrounded by an outer walkway. A thirteen-step dromos leads to an arched entrance to the main tomb. The main loculus is cut into the large block of rock with an elaborately decorated entrance, reminiscent of Macedonian and Alexandrian styles. Two large pillars that were found among the ruins once adorned the entrance and were topped with capitals. The entire surface of the loculus was covered with lime plaster that was then painted. Another loculus, which was shaped like an arch, was covered by a slab and was also similar to the Macedonian style. In front of this two hawks were found made of calcarenite, and two small columns. Like the north, the west wing was full of carved blocks that had most probably fallen in during earthquakes following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Among this rubble was found coins of Cleopatra VII. Despite the notion that the tombs were never designed for kings, the two hawks suggest this complex was used for the last king of Cyprus, who committed suicide the night before the Romans invaded the island. Again we see Macedonian and Egyptian influences within the architecture. The well was also carved out of the central rock, and is located near an arched opening with seven steps that leads to the south wing. A second loculus was carved opposite the well which was covered in lime plaster. Next to this loculi there is a vaulted chamber containing five loculi, a pit grave and an ossuary. Under the vaulted passage of the atrium on the east wing, several Roman pit graves were excavated. Of the eighteen graves in the entire complex, three belonging to the Hellenistic period were found to be intact; two contained two Rhodian amphorae, one perfumed jar and gold myrtle leaves; the third grave was that of a child and contained a perfume jar wrapped in linen, and gold myrtle leaves. A dividing wall was found in the atrium separating the north and south wings, and this wall makes sense of a second set of steps – fifteen in all – incorporated into a sloping dromos. This second set of steps suggests the tomb was used after the collapse in the 1st Century AD. More discoveries in the tomb include an ivory pyxis, clay lamps and both Hellenistic and Roman pottery. Also found, hermetically sealed in the bedrock, was a lead pot containing burnt offerings of nuts.

There are many other tombs on the site, many of which have not been excavated. Others have been excavated but have not been given a tomb number due to their relative size in comparison with the larger tombs.

My visit to the Tombs of the Kings was on Sunday 16th November, 2014. The weather was perfect and the site had limited tourist numbers due to the time of year. The Tombs of the Kings is a unique site and well worth a visit but, as I do with most places, I recommend an out-of-season visit to avoid huge numbers of people and good photography.



Hadjisavvas, Sophocles, 2014, Digging up the Tombs of the Kings, A World Heritage Site. Napaphos Publishers, Nicosia (1) (2) (3) (4)