NICOSIA, Cyprus – An Italian archaeologist claimed Friday to have discovered Cyprus' oldest religious site, which she said echoes descriptions in the Bible of temples in ancient Palestine.
Maria Rosaria Belgiorno said the 4,000-year-old triangular temple predates any other found on the east Mediterranean island by a millennium.
"For sure it's the most ancient religious site on the island," she told The Associated Press from her home in Rome. "This confirms that religious worship in Cyprus began much earlier than previously believed."
But authorities on the island say they cannot confirm her claim before further study.
"That the site is dated to around 2,000 B.C. is certain, but the interpretation that it's a temple or a sacred site has yet to be confirmed," Cyprus Antiquities Department official Maria Hadjicosti told state radio.
The 200-sq.-meter (2,150-sq.-foot) building was discovered last year outside Pyrgos, a village near the south coast, where previous digs unearthed a settlement dating to 2,000 B.C. that included a perfumery, winery and a metal workshop.
Belgiorno, who heads an Italian archaeological mission in Cyprus, initially disclosed the find to English-language The Cyprus Weekly.
She said evidence points to a monotheistic temple with a sacrificial altar that resembles Canaanite places of worship described in the Bible.
"The temple has a very peculiar shape for a building, which is very rare."
Belgiorno said a key piece of evidence linking the site to Biblical accounts of temples in ancient Palestine is a pair of 6-meter (20-foot) stone "channels" extending from either side of the altar that allowed sacrificial animals' blood to flow out of the structure.
Other evidence includes a stone water basin, which she said might have been used in the ritual cleansing of the channels.
Belgiorno said the temple was situated across from the industrial area in the heart of the settlement, which she estimates covered 35 hectares (86 acres). Most of the settlement now lies under village homes and holiday villas.
The industrial area was built around a large mill producing olive oil that was used as fuel to fire up the metal workshop and as a perfume base.
Although it is difficult to say with certainty, she said the settlement was home to around 500 people. Their origins are unclear, but they had trade links with ancient Egypt and Palestine, she said.
A major earthquake destroyed the settlement in 1,850 B.C.
The earliest settlements excavated so far on the island date back to around 9000 B.C. Cyprus then saw successive waves of colonization, including Phoenicians, Mycenaean Greeks, Romans and — in the Middle Ages — Franks and Venetians. It was conquered by Ottoman Turks in 1571, and became part of the British Empire in 1878 before winning independence in 1960.
Violence between Cyprus' majority Greek community and the Turkish community broke out shortly after, and the island has been divided along ethnic lines since a Turkish invasion in 1974 — prompted by a failed coup aimed at union with Greece.