Off the north coast of Cyprus, more than two millennia ago, a vessel built during the time of Alexander dipped under the waves and plunged to the bottom of the sea.
While it sat on the bottom Cyprus changed hands, and the world itself grew different. The island was Greek, Egyptian, Persian, and Roman. The Romans stayed in one form or another on that coast for a millennium. The Byzantines began building a castle almost a thousand years after the ship sank; in another thousand years the castle would become the shipwreck’s home. In the Middle Ages the Crusaders arrived. Richard the Lionhearted’s carved lions still look out from the castle walls.
Cyprus fell to Turkey in 1571, then Britain in 1878. It became independent in 1960, but the northern third was invaded by Turkey in 1974. With the Turkish invasion, many fled south. Tens of thousands lost their home, and thousands lost their lives. The Turks drove out all of the Greeks, and then shipped in over a hundred thousand Turkish settlers to take their places. Although military hostilities are long over, the tension between the Turkish settlers and resident Greeks remains.
The shipwreck, by this point, was over two thousand years old, still sitting on the seafloor less than a mile from land, under a hundred feet of blue water. In the late 60s, a team of archaeologists brought the vessel up and conserved its timbers. In 1974, the wood stabilized, and they finished reconstructing it within Kyrenia Castle. That is where it is today.
I was on the Greek Cypriot side, south of Famagusta on a Marine Patrol craft. A Greek archaeologist pointed out the drama in the arrangement: here was Famagusta, the entire city right there within sight, and all of the Greeks were now in a resort town to the south with an army in between them and their ancestral homes. They would never have their homes again.
She said that it was worse when the border was opened, because curious families who went to see their old neighborhoods found their houses occupied. They were usually offered a glass of lemonade, and then asked to leave. Before, there had been anger, coupled with hope; now, the full gravity of the situation settled when the border opened. Things were going to remain as they are now. What they had was truly gone.
After the team reconstructed the ancient vessel, nautical archaeologists drew up plans for an interpretation of the original. Momentum, interest, and funding was available to make a replica. Piraeus, the port of Athens, would be the place to construct it. There were still the craftsmen to do the job, boat builders skilled in wood working that could try to make a hull using the ancient ways, although some were skeptical it would work.
The archaeology showed that Kyrenia was built differently than modern wooden ships. Her hull was not pieced together frame first, instead it was the reverse. In a method called shell-first, the outer hull planks were fixed in place edge to edge, long before the interior framing. Each plank has a hole cut into it, a mortise, and a flat thin piece of harder wood, a tenon, is put into that hole, with a corresponding mortise on the next plank, then the tenons are pegged in place as a final step. When the wood gets wet it swells and makes for an incredibly strong bond. Each outer hull plank was attached to the boat in this fashion, one after another, until the hull itself, the shell, was in place. Then the boat builders attached the internal frames. These were not an afterthought, because they did provide internal strength, but they were not the foundation as in latter ships. This labor-intensive ship is made with love.
I got to work on a project digitally recording the hull in 2011, assisting East Carolina University. In the castle I stood and looked at the conserved wood of Kyrenia. She’s beautiful. I thought about how, years back when I was a lobsterman, I had helped a captain refasten an old wooden boat. We had to take the old screws out and put new shiny brass ones in, and then drove wooden plugs into the holes and shaved them off with a chisel, flat against the hull. When she was launched the wood swelled and made her watertight. As we worked wood shavings scattered around the shop floor, mixed with sawdust and grease. It was a hell of a feeling when we were done. I wonder what the ground looked like where they put together the original Kyrenia: was it covered in wood shavings and some sort of grease? Pine pitch?I looked at the pegs that held the tenons in place and wondered what a mess they must have made shaving thousands of them off flat against her black hull. There must be a few somewhere in between rocks or under dirt, where they built her.
The boat builders at Piraeus used these ancient techniques to replicate Kyrenia, but when they put her in the water she leaked like a sieve. The original had not used caulking between her seams, so neither had the replica. After much bailing, the wood swelled and she was watertight. The ship sailed around the eastern Mediterranean and performed well, even in horrible conditions; a storm with 50 knot winds didn’t sink her.
In the courtyard of the castle we had lunch. Afterward I had local coffee. The name changes depending on which side of the border you were on. Here it was called Turkish coffee, in Nicosia it was Greek coffee. I heard somewhere that Turkish coffee is served black as death, and sweet as love. I liked mine that way, with lots of sugar. They grind the beans into a fine powder and dump it right into the hot water. You have to let it sit a minute so the grounds will fall out of the brew and accumulate on the bottom, leaving the last sip to avoid swallowing the dregs.
A middle-aged man visiting the museum had seen us working on the wreck, and approached us at our table. He told us that his father was a shipbuilder in Limasol, a town now on the Greek side. That was his home, but with the war it seems his father, a Turkish Cypriot, was displaced as well. His grandfather and his crew would make a plank, fit it to the frame, and then check the lines. The man squinted with one eye when he told me this, holding a hand up in front of him, lining up an imaginary hull. Then they would sit down and drink a coffee, a dark coffee with grounds settling into the bottom. His grandfather would look at the lines, look at the plank, make sure everything was correct, and only then they would begin making the next one.
“He called them his babies,” he said, “They were all his babies.”
When I worked in a boatyard in Maine you never wanted to be the one to mess something up, and always got a ration of grief for it if you did. But after the foul language and relentless ribbing about someone’s lack of skill, there was almost always a way to make it right again. It is part of the art of boatbuilding.
Back in the castle I noted how the frames on Kyrenia were not exact, the lines were all put in by eye and the hull hewn by hand. Each joint fitted to the next. On the hull there is a place with a joggle, where it lines up funny, and a plank of two thicknesses. On the starboard side of Kyrenia a thick plank is next to a thin plank, and runs like that all the way back. But on the port side is this weird spot where they had to carve out a thicker plank to make it fit right. It looks to me like 2,300 years ago, in the middle of wood shavings and tenon pegs, somebody screwed up, and the rest of them had to figure out a way to fix the mistake.
It is my favorite part of the boat.