An ancient ship’s SOS
By Simon Bahceli - Cyprus Mail
One day about 2,300 years ago, not long after the death of Alexander the Great, a small merchant ship stacked with wine and almond-filled amphoras sailed past the port of Kyrenia on Cyprus’ northern coast.
On board were four sailors about whom we know little, except that they had lowered their sail, possibly in anticipation of an approaching storm. We do not know whether the boat intended to arrive at Kyrenia, or if it was leaving.
Maybe it was simply passing by; but what we do know is that it sank 30 metres down to the bottom of the Mediterranean sea where it remained for 23 centuries until found by a modern-day Cypriot out diving for sponges.
Since its excavation from the seabed between 1968 and 69, the Kyrenia Shipwreck, as it came to be known, and its cargo of over 400 amphoras, has resided in Kyrenia Castle.
Despite its being one of the world’s finest and best-preserved examples of classical naval architecture and the cargo a unique source of information on trade in the classical era, the wreck and its associated relics today face permanent damage from neglect and decay.
“The problem we’re now encountering in this room [where the wreck is housed] is that this is not a museum,” says Dr Matthew Harpster, head of the Kyrenia Shipwreck Collection Restoration Programme, a body that seeks to “protect and revitalise” the collection.
“Originally this was a crusader castle,” says Harpster, pointing to damp patches on the walls and cracks in the 400-year-old roof above.
“The latest building work done was in the 16th and 17th centuries on top of Byzantine foundations,” he adds.
It is evident from the single air conditioner labouring away in a corner of room that the wreck needs better environmental controls. Harpster explains that the waterproof skin on the outside of the roof is eroding, and that the back wall is also slowly subsiding.
“As the wall moves, small fissure and cracks appear in the roof, and with its bad membrane, water seeps into the holes, soaks into the limestone, and all of that slowly falls on the ship.
And that dust and grit is falling on the hull and damaging it.
The archaeologist shows me the thick, grainy dust that has settled on the wooden upside of the hull, along with small thumbnail-sized pieces of the ship’s wooden body that have broken off.