April 18, 2006
Treasure Myth Inspires Cypriots to Dig into Past
By Michele Kambas
TSERI, Cyprus -- Residents of a Cypriot village, intrigued for decades by a tale of buried treasure and an underground flight of steps leading nowhere, have decided to get to the bottom of the mystery.
More than half a century after British colonial rulers forced them to abandon their last attempt to explore the site, residents of Tseri village in central Cyprus have begun excavating the 1,500-year-old tunnel and stairway.
Antiquities officials say the stone structure is part of an ancient irrigation network.
Residents romanticize, half jokingly, that it may lead to "Aphrodite's Golden Carriage" -- a euphemism for a hidden treasure dating from Roman times, between 58 BC and AD 330.
They speak of a little-known legend that the rulers of Cyprus would move treasures to the center of the island and hide them from raiders who plundered the coast in ancient times.
"It is a myth. We don't know if it is true. A myth is a myth. But without knowing, you cannot totally rule something out either," said Alkis Constantinou, community leader of Tseri, a community of 6,000 people 9.3 miles from the capital, Nicosia.
"It most likely leads to an underground reservoir, but it's unique for around here," said Constantinou as he stood above a gaping hole in the middle of an olive grove, exposing an arch of yellow sandstone, walls and a few steps.
The community intended to buy the field to pursue the explorations and ensure the site was properly preserved, he said.
HOARDS OF WEALTH
Tales of hoards of great wealth are heard in other communities across the guitar-shaped island, where the first signs of civilization date from 9,000 BC. It has been in thrall to a series of rulers from Alexander the Great to Cleopatra -- a gift from her lover Mark Antony -- and the Romans.
The most common myth is one of the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite who, according to mythology, was born from the sea-foam in the west of the island.
Another legend concerns a pot of gold hidden in the mountains on the western coast, which Tseri residents believe was moved farther inland and buried in their lower-lying cornfields.
It says finders of the treasure will enjoy seven years of prosperity and will not need to work.
Whether fact or fiction, residents want to know what lies at the end of the narrow tunnel, propped up by interlocking sandstone blocks and sloping at an angle of 45 degrees.
Archeologists date the structure to AD 500, which, by default, effectively debunks the Roman-era treasure theory.
"It's just a cistern," says Pavlos Flourentzos, director of Cyprus's Department of Antiquities. "It is not as important as some are alluding to. But I am hearing stories about golden chariots and the like," he said, with obvious exasperation.
With its entrance now blocked by hard-packed earth, it is rekindling the legend of buried treasure.
"My father would relate a story about a treasure being buried between the sycamore and the terachia, which is where we are," said Christos Kallitsis, using the Cypriot word to refer to the carob tree.
"When I was a child out with the flock I saw men removing items from the area a couple of times," the 82-year-old shepherd told Reuters.
SECOND TIME LUCKY
It is not the first time residents have tried to discover what lies at the end of the corridor.
A farmer discovered the tunnel in 1943 and by 1949 many in the community were taking turns digging in secret, convinced they had hit the jackpot.
"The whole village had turned out for it, wanting a cut of the treasure. But we were a British colony, and somebody told on us, so we had to cover it up. The British didn't joke about these things," said Kallitsis.
Flourentzos said it was covered up again simply because it was not considered important enough. He said archeologists complied with a new request from village authorities to re-open the site, exposing a small area.
The island's antiquities department has declared the scene a monument of secondary importance, but has shown little interest in the tales of treasure.
"It's an underground tunnel leading to a water supply. Cyprus is full of them. In this case the stairway is slightly deeper, which is probably because people may have not found water at higher levels," said Flourentzos.
Tseri's Constantinou says excavations should continue and the tunnel preserved as part of the history of the area. "This is part of our heritage," he said.