Think about the travels you’ve done. Where is the oldest place you’ve visited?
I’m not talking about natural sites. Of course, mountains and canyons were often made millions of years ago. Using time to define the environment becomes almost meaningless.
I’m thinking here about places that humans have created. What is the oldest one you’ve seen.
Perhaps you’ve been to Stonehenge. It is really old, built in 3100 BC. Or maybe the Pyramids of Giza, built around 2600 BC.
I’ve written previously about visiting the Megalithic Temples of Malta which are older than both Stonehenge and the Egyptian Pyramids. Theses enormous stone temples were built in the 4th millennium BC. At the time, I had trouble at the time trying to imagine people building something more than 5000 years ago.
So, if I thought that was hard, I really didn’t know where to start when I visited Choirokoitia in Cyprus. How old is it? Well, it was built in the 7th millennium BC. That is almost 8000 years ago!!
I reckon it’s extremely unlikely you’ve ever been somewhere that old. I know I hadn’t.
What is Choirokoitia?
So, let’s have a look at what Choirokoitia is. In essence, it is the remains of a small town – well, what a town would have looked like on Cyprus 8000 years ago. It is a collection of foundations of stone huts that would have made up this community.
It’s estimated that about 300 people probably lived in the town. Each family unit would have more than one hut – the buildings were treated more like rooms than houses – and each one could be up to 10 metres in diameter. Multiple huts would open onto a central outdoor space used for cooking and socialising, for example.
The rocks that formed the base of these huts are visible today and you can see that they were circular and often had steps or smaller structure inside them (perhaps to create a loft or internal walls). None of them is still standing. However, as you come into the site, there are some reconstructions of what the buildings would have looked like, to help you picture how it would have been.
The Choirokoitia settlement goes up a hill and so I walk up the path, through the ruins, looking at how it all fits together. Who were these people who lived here together in this community and how did they create something that seems so advanced?
Who lived in Choirokoitia?
It’s thought that the people who built Choirokoitia were descendants of farmers who came from the Middle East in the 9th millennium BC. They were probably the first humans to inhabit the island of Cyprus and would have brought important agricultural skills with them. Over time, they would have lost their cultural connections with the homeland and developed into a unique civilisation. It’s also quite possible that they then linked to parts of Europe and transferred some of that information.
Not only were these people impressive in their ability to build homes and create a community, but they were quite sophisticated in other ways too. Evidence from the archaeological research shows that they had tools made from bone and flint, stone vessels and even simple figurines of deities. Perhaps these anthropomorphic clay symbols would eventually evolve into the famous goddess from Cyprus, Aphrodite.
The research at Choirokoitia has also uncovered another interesting thing about the people who lived here, something that we would think is a bit strange today. They buried their dead in the houses.
That’s right. When a family member died, they would dig up the dirt floor in their huts and bury the deceased relative underground. To us, it seems creepy and possibly unhealthy. But researchers believe that for these ancient people, this custom was an important symbol of family cohesion and keeping loved ones close to you forever – physically and emotionally.
From an archaeological point of view, this is one of the most important prehistoric sites in the eastern Mediterranean. It is an excellent example of how people lived during this period and has been extremely-well preserved. In fact, there is still much to be excavated, which offers even more potential for discovery.
But, for visitors, I think it’s a fairly low-key experience. The facilities are adequate but understated. Don’t expect a huge visitors centre or flashy exhibitions – the managers have let the site speak for itself. Which is why having an understanding of what you’re seeing before you arrive is quite important.
Choirokoitia is not a huge area so it doesn’t take too long to explore. It is also right next to the main highway connecting Nicosia and Larnaca to the beach resorts along the southeastern coastline, which means there’s good access and you may find yourself driving past it anyway.
It’s a fascinating site and extremely significant when you consider its age and level of preservation. I’m always amazed to find places like this that I had never heard of before – but that’s half the fun of travel.