A LARGE number of ancient stone anchors have been found off the coast of Cyprus near a temple dedicated to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, suggesting it was once one of the most commonly visited places in the eastern Mediterranean.
The Sanctuary of Aphrodite, nine miles east of the bustling resort of Paphos, was for centuries renowned as the centre of the cult surrounding the goddess.
It was probably the leading tourist attraction of the ancient world. The cache of anchors is likely to have been formed when they snapped free of their docked ships during storms.
A local spear fisherman alerted archaeologists last year to the anchors, most of which are in very good condition.
The construction of proper harbours began only in the fourth century BC, during the Hellenistic Period.
Herodotus, the ancient historian, recorded a custom by which every woman had to give herself once to the service of Aphrodite by waiting in her sanctuary until a stranger came to make love to her. The practice was regarded as a solemn religious duty, not an act of lustful indulgence.
Herodotus uncharitably claimed that while "tall, handsome" pilgrim women soon managed to get home again, "ugly ones" would have to wait for three or four years before fulfilling their duty.
But sailors had another reason to pay their respects to Aphrodite and bring offerings: she was the protector of seafarers for whom Cyprus was a trading centre linking east and west.
Archaeologists found some 120 anchors which have yet to be raised and dated but archaeologists are confident some are from the late Bronze Age, 1650 to 1100BC, and will cast new light on ancient trading patterns and settlements.
"This anchorage will also help us understand sea-borne trade between Cyprus and the countries of the Middle East," said Dr Sophocles Hadjisavvas, managing director of the Thetis foundation, which is committed to protecting Cyprus' underwater cultural heritage and sponsored the investigation.
The finds should also deepen knowledge of trade within the island itself, when the absence of roads meant goods were mostly transported by ships hugging the coast.
The project was directed by Duncan Howitt-Marshall, who is working on a PhD on Cypriot maritime archaeology at Magdalene College, Cambridge.
Because the anchors have yet to be raised, archaeologists are reluctant to give their precise location but say the nearest village is Kouklia, site of the ancient city of Palea Paphos.
Nearby is Petra tou Romiou, where a towering rock soars from the sea off a pebbly beach. This is Aphrodite's legendary birthplace where, according to the poet Hesiod, she emerged from sea foam whipped up by the sun-god Uranus.
The painter Botticelli celebrated her more decorously. His Birth of Venus shows her wafting to shore naked on a scallop shell, her hands well-placed to protect her modesty.
No evidence of construction has been discovered at the site of the anchors. "On land, there are some buildings probably related to this anchorage," Dr Hadjisavvas said.
The anchorage is likely to have declined as a trading hub as it silted up. Writers in the Roman period speak of pilgrims arriving at the sanctuary in a procession by land from Paphos, by then the site of a large man-made harbour.
Eighth wonder of world?
THE temple of Aphrodite on Cyprus may have been a popular stopping-off point for travellers, but for some reason it failed to make the official tourist guide for the ancient world.
The Seven Wonders of the World was compiled in the 2nd century BC by Antipater of Sidon as a guidebook for early tourists.
The list was designed to tell people about the most extraordinary places to visit in the known world without travelling into potentially dangerous areas.
According to Antipater, the best sights on offer were the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Walls of Babylon, the Temple at Ephesus and the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, both in modern-day Turkey, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia in Greece and the Great Pyramid in Egypt. Later, the list was updated, with the Lighthouse at Alexandria replacing the Walls of Babylon. All apart from the Great Pyramid were destroyed by fire or earthquakes.
The idea has inspired other "Seven Wonders" lists, which have included landmarks such as the Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal, as well as modern feats such as the Channel Tunnel and the Empire State Building.