Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean

A critical guide to electronic resources


- 11th-2nd c. BC

edited by: Anna Cannavò (translation revised by Melanie Rockenhaus)

  • Introduction
  • Further information

British Museum

The Cypro-Syllabic script is, as the name itself indicates, a writing system of a syllabic character found in Cyprus from between the mid 11th c. BC (the Opheltes obelos, ICS2 18g) to the end of the 2nd c. BC It is composed of 56 signs at most, with more or less important local variations in the form of the signs, in the chronology and in the repertory. Almost all the signs, with the exception of ye (present only in the new Paphian syllabary) are found in the most widespread version of the syllabary, known as the “common syllabary”.

Texts written in the common syllabary are usually right to left, and their distribution area is quite large: they can be found in nearly the entire island, with the exception of the south-western region, the Paphos region, characterized by its own peculiar repertory known as the “Paphian syllabary”. This latter, unlike the common syllabary, is usually used in left-to-right texts, and it has its own chronology: the “old Paphian syllabary”, used essentially in texts dating from the 6th c. BC, and the “new Paphian syllabary”, with documents  dating above all from the 4th c. BC.

Two languages were written with the Cypro-Syllabic script:
- the Greek language, in the Arcado-Cypriot dialect form, which was introduced in Cyprus by Mycenaean peoples during the Hellenization process of the island in the 12th c. BC;
- a local language, which is usually called “Eteocypriot”, probably a pre-Greek language, which although readable (the Eteocypriot inscriptions are written with the aid of the common syllabary, and the phonetic values of the signs are the same as in the Greek inscriptions), has still not been deciphered. The corpus of the Eteocypriot inscriptions is in any case limited in number (not more than fifteen texts), in geographic extension (almost all the texts come from the Amathus area) and in time (they are almost all 4th c. BC documents).

From the 6th c. BC (as far as can be determined from currently available documentation) the Greek alphabetical script appeared in Cyprus: it was employed exclusively to express the Greek language (never Eteocypriot), and it is sporadically used until the full Classical Age. The use of the syllabary begins to decay in the second half of the 4th c. BC, disappearing completely by the end of the 2nd c. BC. There are a few digraphic inscriptions (written in Greek, in both the Cypro-Syllabic and the alphabetic script) and an important bilingual digraphic inscription (ICS2 196: written in Eteocypriot in the Cypro-Syllabic script, and in Greek in the alphabetical script).

The surviving texts are of different types, but a great majority of them are votive and funerary inscriptions. On the other hand, among the (relatively few) texts of a public character there are some of the most important and famous Cypriot inscriptions, such as the aforementioned bilingual inscription of Amathus (ICS2 196: about 310 BC) or the Idalion tablet (ICS2 217: about 478-470 BC). The greatest majority of the known texts is engraved on stone; there is also a certain number of painted inscriptions or graffiti on pottery, while the inscriptions engraved on metallic mediums (such as the Idalion tablet) are definitely rarer.

The deciphering of the Cypro-Syllabic script was not the work of a single scholar, but a certain number of efforts (some really ingenious) have been made, at the beginning by scholars of different specializations, and only later by philologists and experts of the Greek language. Starting with the Cypriot-Phoenician bilingual text of Idalion (a dedication to Reshef Mikal - Apollo Amyklos: ICS2 220, beginning of the 4th c. BC) the Assyriologist George Smith carried out a first attempt at interpretation in 1871, later developed and improved, thanks also to the Idalion tablet, by the Egyptologist Samuel Birch (1872), the numismatic J. Brandis (1973), the philologists Moriz Schmidt, Wilhelm Deeke, Justus Siegismund (1874) and the dialectologist H.L. Ahrens (1876).

The Aegean origin of the Cypriot syllabary has been recognized since the end of the 19th c., following the studies of Arthur Evans (1894 and later) which identified, in particular, the Minoan origin of the syllabary used in Cyprus during the Late Bronze Age, known as the Cypro-Minoan Syllabary, the direct ancestor of the Iron Age Cypro-Syllabic script. After more than a century of studies the developing line linking Linear A, Linear B, Cypro-Minoan and Cypro-Syllabic is still not completely clear, because of the persisting lack of knowledge, greatest of all the non-deciphering of Linear A and Cypro-Minoan.

Note: the abbreviation ICS2 refers to the corpus of Cypro-Syllabic inscriptions by OLIVIER MASSON, Les Inscriptions Chypriotes Syllabiques, Paris: Éditions E. De Boccard, 19832.

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Online resources