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Ancient Cyprus amphora carries new message in European Year of Cultural Heritage


Did you know that every time you type an email address in order to send a message you are using the Greek symbol for transportation? The keyboard character @ originates from the Latin word for “at, toward or to” and is the abbreviation for amphora, a measure of capacity. However, it also came to be more popularly known as the Greek “amphora” – a two-handled, terracotta vessel, such as a pitcher or vase. The amphora is also used in transportation, but in the ancient Mediterranean world, its purpose was for sending grains and liquids.

The instantly recognisable “basket-handle” amphora was mainly produced in Cyprus and other centres of the eastern Mediterranean from the seventh to the third centuries BC. Now 12 Cypriot artists are currently displaying their own unique reinterpretation of the amphorae commissioned as part of the European Year of Cultural Heritage, 2018.

The historical and the mythical are forever entwined

The official slogan of the year-long celebration is “Our Heritage: where the past meets the future”. One of the key aims is to reinforce the message that heritage is not fixed “in the past”, but our knowledge and understanding actually evolve as we engage with our heritage in the present. The historical and the mythical are forever entwined in the living heritage of Cyprus, which attracts increasing numbers of visitors each year – more than 3.6 million in 2017, up from 3.1 million the year before. Many are drawn because they seek authentic cultural experiences, the redefined mainstay of boutique luxury.

From the Bronze Age onwards, the island of Cyprus has been described as a “stepping stone”, set as it is, right in the centre of the busy sea routes between Europe and the Near East. As a meeting place for many cultures, Cyprus was central to the prestigious trade exchanges taking place across the eastern Mediterranean, and fire-clayed amphorae were the primary containers used in all types of commercial activity.

Ever since the Roman conquest of the island from 58 B.C, and continuing until around the 7th century AD, amphorae were produced on an industrial scale for use by the ancient Greeks and Romans as the principal means for transporting and storing an abundance of produce, including, grapes, olive oil, wine, oil, olives, grain and fish.

Unique take on the instantly recognisable amphora

The “Amphora Project” is an initiative proposed as part of a series of similar events across Europe, intended to bring people closer to their cultural heritage. Twelve Cyprus artists were commissioned to create their own unique take on the instantly recognisable amphora, which were all made with local terracotta from the Paphos district of Chorio and Gerasa, in Limassol.

Among the very different interpretations on display is the work of Giorgos Lash – who was inspired by a traditional Cypriot folk song “Send Me Mother to Fetch Water” and Achilleas Michaelides AKA Paparazzi, who wanted to show “the sun, the sea, the mixture of cultures and the hospitality of its people”. The TWOFOURTWO Art Group present a double-sided lightbox, which shows their amphora photographed in various locations depicted as “paradise” and is part of their ongoing ‘Postcards from Cyprus’ project of interactive art events.

The exhibition, which runs at EU House, Nicosia from October 23rd until November 13th (10am-4pm), was officially opened by Androulla Vassiliou, Vice-President of Europa Nostra, which is dedicated to protecting and celebrating Europe’s cultural and natural heritage. The Vice-President was also present when the Council of Europe (CoE) launched their “European Cultural Heritage Strategy for the 21st Century” at a high-level conference in Limassol in April 2017.

Modern winemakers using amphorae to create different subtle blends

So what of the amphora today? This most iconic of Mediterranean heritage artefacts is quietly regaining its place in the modern world. A small but growing number of organic wine producers have once again returned to its heritage use, and in all manner of sizes and shapes. Their natural, holistic approach to wine making, which includes the avoidance of harsh chemicals in the vineyards, has also contributed to their revival.

The wine makers say the vessels produce the purest expression of their grapes and the distinctiveness of their vineyard region. Development of ‘natural’ wines can also involve experimenting with techniques, such as organic or biodynamic processes for a slower fermentation, not using additional yeast, optimally oxygenating the liquid and lowering temperature.

A new generation of modern winemakers have also turned to using amphorae to create different subtle blends and aging methods. The porosity of the earthenware clay has shown to increase the oxygen exposure during the wine aging process. Oxygen accelerates later stage flavour enhancement, including the softening of tannins and increasing aromas.

Adapting heritage methods to the modern world continues to find expression in all manner of unexpected and unique ways. It’s the tantalising mix of tradition and innovation that makes the amphorae makeover a powerful evocative symbol of an authentic living Mediterranean experience throughout the island.

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