Be a Traveller in an Antique Land (Cyprus)
Country Life, August 2004
There could be no more appropriate deity for an island than Aphrodite, foam-born like Cyprus itself out of the salt spray. While the goddess first touched earth at Cyprus’s white cliffs of Paphos, the island had risen up from the depths of the sea at the same time that the Alps budded in the middle of Europe - when the African and Eurasian tectonic plates collided twenty million years ago. This oceanic birth equipped the island with a dome-like central mountain range, the Troodos, beneath which stretches an extensive agricultural plain. Rich in copper, snakes, well-wooded summits, ancient kingdoms and mythology, Cyprus is truly an island unto itself. It’s distinct identity has been formed by a fusion of the great cultures of the Eastern Mediterranean; neither wholly of the Levant, of nearby Anatolian Turkey, nor yet an outlying part of greater Greece. Lit by the burning sun of the Near East, it is a land of both palm and pine, of pale hillsides covered in well-tended vines, of citrus orchards tucked into irrigated valleys, of goat-grazed mountain slopes, silent cedar forests, patches of ancient olive and carob groves as well as intensively ploughed farmland. On this varied landscape is reflected an extraordinarily rich architectural heritage of Gothic cathedrals, Venetian fortresses, Roman Mosaics, Ottoman minarets, Crusader castles, Ptolemaic tombs, Bronze Age sanctuaries and British postboxes which all stand in surprising harmony. And capping it all are the vital traditions of the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Cyprus, a living daughter of Byzantium. Under the guardianship of this independent Church may be found the true treasures of the island, small isolated chapels tucked into the mountain valleys whose interiors are animated by frescoes charged by the culture of a lost world - when there was a living Emperor in Constantinople, the co-heir to both Christ and Caesar.
The prevailing architectural heritage of the southern shore is however tourist concrete and tarmac. Cruising along that coast is not for the faint-hearted. Most of the hundred mile stretch between Ayia Napa and Paphos is now dominated by vast beach hotels and apartment blocks. The sections that have survived this concrete rape are those protected by marshland, crumbling cliffs, wind-lashed headlands or wrapped up within the chance boundaries of the two British sovereign bases of Akrotiri and Dhekelia. Nor do the efficient web of motorways, the multiple choice of international airports and the spreading suburbs of the capital city of Nicosia fit easily within one’s romantic expectations of Aphrodite’s sun-drenched isle. Once you have digested these unpalatable modernities you can however settle down and start exploring the exceptional treasures of this fascinating island – in much the same way that Hampshire and Sussex can be appreciated without one becoming fixated on the despoliation of their bungalow-colonised coastlines.
Before Disraeli occupied Cyprus in 1878, taking it from his Ottoman ally as a ‘reward’ for help against the Russians, the most famous Englishman associated with it was King Richard the Lion heart. He wrenched control of it in 1191 from his Christian ally (a Byzantine Duke of the Comnenus dynasty) when he was on his way to make a crusade against Saladin in the Holy Land. The subsequent four centuries of Crusader occupation have left some magnificent monumental remains, in part because force and fortresses were always required to maintain the alien rule – and the alien Catholic faith - over the Greek speaking Orthodox islanders.
Whatever their moral rights the Crusader Lords had an unerring eye for a good site. The curtain walls of St Hilarion castle draped over a peak of the Gothic range, the mountain summit tower of Buffavento, the port fortress of Kyrenia brooding over the sea and rock-fused Kantara with its Olympian view over the Karpas peninsular exemplify the medieval romance with stone, like some ossified tapestry of a past aesthetic.
The triumphant twin gothic cathedrals that stand within the walls of Nicosia and Famagusta (both turned into mosques in the 16th century) are mirrored by dozens of equally fine 14th-century Crusader churches; St Catherine’s or the ruins of St George of the Latins - with pride of place going to the Abbey of Bellapais. Sitting in the lee of a white-washed village, amongst cypresses, olives, oleanders and oranges one feels the cold northern soul of the Franks ripening and absorbing the spirit of the Levant.
Even the minor strongholds from this period have their interest. Kolossi castle has strong links with the wine trade and one of the world’s first brands, the ‘Commandaria’, beloved by medieval England but also known to Euripides as ‘Nama’ - which helps raise its profile above its strict architectural merits. Likewise the little citadel at Limassol holds a fascination from its links with the suppressed order of the Knights Templar and their heretical talking idol.
The walled city of Famagusta is a near miraculous survivor from the 14th century – a boom-town built from the profits of the Levantine trade after the fall of Acre. Its impressive circuit of high-banked city walls was added in the 16-th century, the period when Shakespeare’s Othello is conceived to have ruled over the defences of ‘a seaport in Cyprus’ for the Serenissima. After the fall of Cyprus to the Ottomans, Famagusta declined into a backwater and a favoured place of internal exile for ex-viziers. Evidence of the island’s long Ottoman period are concentrated in Nicosia, in buildings such as the domed monastery of the Mevlevi Dervishes and the still working Buyuk Hammam (Turkish bath). However it is in the surviving domestic interiors; especially the 18th-century mansion house of Hadji-Georgakis Kornesios and that of Dervis Pasa that this often overlooked period can best be appreciated. There are of course plenty of village mosques scattered through the island, though in terms of spirit none of them equal the monastery-tomb of Hala Sultan, one of the Companions of the Prophet, buried in the 7th century beneath three ancient menhirs that overlooked the Larnaka lagoon.
Even more influential than either this pious Muslim lady or the fictional, if noble Moor, were two of the island’s visitors in the 1st century AD at the time when the Cypriot copper coinage bore images of the ancient temple of Aphrodite (its major visitor attraction) as piously restored by the Emperor Augustus. For in AD 45, as recorded in the Acts of Apostles, St Paul and St Barnabas began their missionary voyages with a visit to Cyprus. They took a boat from Antioch to Salamis, St Barnabas’s home town – where the tent-making apostle would ultimately be buried. Salamis, with its lovely situation beside the shore and its famous theatre and baths, is still the most imposing physical ruin to visit. Though it was Paphos, the government centre in the Roman period that was the saints’ ultimate destination. Only the Royal Tombs from the Ptolemaic period – temple-like mausolea cut from the living rock – survive as free-standing architecture from this period. However the brilliant series of mosaic floors – restored in their original situation – is like a peep show into the classical world. The isolated temple of Apollo of the Woods at Kourion, the Amathus acropolis and the battered but haunting remnants of Aphrodite’s shrine at Paphos, topped up with a morning in the archaeological museum in Nicosia would complete a tour of the island’s principal classical heritage. Those with antiquarian leanings (or minds still pregnant with Homeric imagery) will find the hilltop excavations into the palace at Vouni and the archaic tombs outside Salamis deeply moving. The excavations at Enkomi-Alasia or into the Phoenician restored temple at Kition, the early Neolithic village at Khirokitia and the royal tombs at Tamassos (one of the island’s twelve kingdoms before Alexander the Great tidied up the east) are probably only for those, like myself, charged up like Betjeman and ‘randy for antique’.
What of Cyprus’s still vital Orthodox heritage? This took a body-blow with two centuries of Saracen ascendancy in the Dark Ages but Cyprus was restored to Byzantium by the heroically capable Macedonian Emperiors in AD 965. This was the period when Nicosia was first made into the capital and the islands many peripheral ports were rebuilt into secondary towns. The cathedral shrines from the coast; such as St Barnabas (outside Salamis) and of St Lazarus at Larnaka ( he that was raised from the dead) are magnificent enough but throughout the island old churches were carefully restored to include such precious survivals as the mosaic of the virgin at Panayia Angeloktisos. Even at this ‘early age’ the independent Orthodox Church of Cyprus was already furnished with its own pantheon of indigenous saints. Such heroes of the early Church Councils as St Spyridon (recognizable from his basket-weave hat) and St Epiphanius (often depicted holding a tile) would be joined, in the later middle ages, by the cult of the lion-riding St Mamas (centred on the coastal town of Morphou) and that of the scholar-hermit St Neophytos whose cave-tomb is found in the hills inland from the port of Paphos. There are also dozens of noteworthy monasteries, such as Ayia Napia, mountain-top Stavrovouni, forest-isolated but visitor-friendly Kykko, cat-friendly Ayios Nikolaos ton Gaton and Panayia Khrysorroyiatissa with its vineyards and icon restoration workshops.
But the real treasures are in the churches and old abbeys tucked away in the secluded valleys of the Troodos mountains. Here venerable chapels may be camouflaged by barn-like roofs that extend to the ground or tucked away in woodland, reached by dirt tracks that spiral out from the nearby village. Outside of the hours of worship, or the feast days of the saints, they will be locked and the key, as likely as not, will be in the possession of an old cleaning-lady-custodian or busy priest who might well be away for the day. But those with patience will be rewarded by some bewitchingly memorable painted interiors and gilded iconostasises hung with holiness. These ancient churches have been described as spiritual tardises. For their often modest exteriors conceal centuries of visionary art that seemingly explode out beyond their physical space. The only way to appreciate their force within Cypriot culture is to see them not as static framed pieces of art or fresco but as windows onto the divine. No-one within Orthodoxy believes that any divine essence is immured within the fabric of these ancient icons but all those with faith understand that they act as channels through which prayer, petitions and confession may be communicated to the absolute. In the dome of Panayia tou Araka a majestic Christ in Judgement looks down upon the nave with an unearthly omniscience. In the words of an illiterate parishioner, “He looks away from our sins, to allow time for repentence.” Some of this same sense of majesty can also be caught at Asinou, Stavros tou Ayiasmati, Ayios Nikolaos tis Steyis, Ayios Ionannis Lambadhitis, Ayios Neophytus as well as the two sadly empty churches in the north, Antiphonitis and Trikomo.
Inland from the detritus of the tourist-industry coastline, Cyprus still yet remains a sacred isle.
Divided Cyprus [Fact Box]
Although the Cypriot Church has been self-determining since the 5th-century, political independence was not celebrated until August 1960. It was a fragile state for the accepted leader of the island, Archbishop Makarios had also struggled manfully to promote enosis (union with Greece) since 1950. Tensions between the majority Greek-speaking community (at least 80% of the island) and the Turkish-speaking minority had grown over this period and were not helped by the usual British colonial policy of divide and rule. In 1974 an attempted coup by an ex-enosis gunman (backed by the colonels then ruling Greece) triggered a political melt down. The Turkish army landed on the northern shore of the island to protect its minority – but then proceeded to advance south and occupy a third of the country. This military presence, and the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of North Cyprus that was then set up has never been accepted by the international community. Only the Greek south is recognized as the legitimate Republic of Cyprus. A green line guarded by UN troops has kept the two sides apart but tourists have always been allowed to cross from the south to visit the historic monuments in the north on day trips. A wave of optimism has recently swept over the island since the Republic has been accepted into the European community and a negotiated resolution of the 30 year division does at last seem possible.
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by Barnaby Rogerson