By Sara Barbieri
Whirling through the landscape of Cyprus, in the footsteps of St. Helena (mother of Constantine the Great), Hala Sultan (believed to be the wet-nurse to Mohammed), Berengaria (first-born daughter of King Sancho VI of Navarre who, incidentally, married Richard the Lion Hearted), not to mention the damp footprints of Aphrodite (birthed from the sea foam off the west coast of the island), I discover a land that has been repeatedly invaded, sought for its strategic position as a trading center in the Eastern Mediterranean. A complex cultural mingling of Turkish and Greek Cypriots permeates the island. Though the island’s two main religions are Greek Orthodox and Islam almost every religion is represented including a significant community of Maronites.
Cyprus is the third largest island in the Mediterranean and has an unusually diverse climate. It has wild donkeys and the endangered mouflon as well as being the flyway for bird migrations and thus home in April and November to multiple bird species who temporarily inhabit the salt marshes on the southern coast. Cyprus is known for its wicker, silver and lace making, as well as for its preserves, charcuterie, the unusual soutzioukos made by dipping a string of almonds in a syrup of grape juice, flour, and rosewater over a period of 5 days, and Commanderia, the ancient sweet wine believed to have been made on the island since 800BCE, to name only a few.
By the way, you should know that St. Helena was sent on a quest by Constantine to the Holy Land to find and bring back the “True Cross”. She found three possible contenders. In order to determine which cross was the “True Cross”, a woman on the point of death was brought to her. When touched with the first two crosses, her condition did not change, but when touched by the True Cross, she was healed. This is the cross that St. Helena brought home to her son. On her return journey, she stopped on Cyprus where it is said she founded a monastery to house a fragment of the cross (there are various versions of this story). It is notable that in our recent, modern times, the monastery founded by a woman now longer allows them to enter…
Now to my escapade. Through the window of the plane, I can see from the arid and chalky landscape how the summer heat has battered the island. As I alight on the tarmac, I am grateful for the warmth that envelops me after the air-conditioned plane ride during which I sat huddled in my coat. Just near the airport on the shores of a series of four salt lakes is Hala Sultan Tekke, the Muslim shrine, built over the spot where Hala Sultan was buried. It is believed that Hala Sultan was on Cyprus with her husband during one of the first Arab raids and died after a fall from her mule. There are accounts of Ottoman ships hanging their flags at half mast when in the harbor and saluting Hala Sultan with cannon shots. It is considered the third most sacred site in the Muslim world after Kaaba in Mecca and the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina.
Driving along the coast road toward Limassol, I see Tenta, a Neolithic site excavated by the British beginning in 1947. On my left, the Mediterranean gleams in the afternoon sun and is the reason that Cyprus is such a popular tourist destination for sun and sea worshippers. There is the inevitable growth along the southern coast, waves of hotels and restaurants and nightclubs that momentarily obscure the reasons that Cyprus has inspired Far Horizons to create a tour here. I check in to my hotel where I am warmly welcomed at reception. The hotel’s hospitality includes a fruit plate and the gift of Cypriot Delight in my room. I decide I desperately need to stretch my legs and go out to walk along the boardwalk. I’m not certain how I feel about the town of Limassol, but try to remember that it takes a while for a place to reveal itself and to learn what is has to offer.
Over the ensuing week of island exploration, it becomes apparent that there is a wealth of archaeological sites to explore inspiring archaeologists from all over the world to come to the island and dig supported by, amongst others, CAARI, the Cyprus American Archaeological Institute. From Khirokitia to Salamis to a nameless chalcolithic cemetery nestled in a grove of carob trees and overlooking the ghost town of Souskiou, the array of options seems endless. In the late afternoon, desperate for Cypriot coffee to give us a second wind, we stop in a tiny village and join two elderly gentlemen sipping their coffee and sitting tranquilly looking out over the surrounding countryside. David quickly engages them in conversation and asks which part of the island they are from originally. I should mention that the island is divided into two parts, three, if you count the British bases (they have two), and four if you count the green line or buffer zone where the U.N. troops are stationed. I won’t attempt to extensively explain this complex arrangement which actually begs for one. Suffice it to say that the southern part of the island is Greek Cypriot and the northern part is Turkish Cypriot. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is only recognized by Turkey. Relations have improved slowly since 1974 but there is no clear resolution of the various issues as of yet. David explains to me that the more elderly residents of the island are actually less intolerant of each other than the younger ones. That is because for so many years, prior to 1974, they co-existed relatively peacefully, were friends and business partners and villages were a mixture of Turkish and Greek Cypriot.
The culture of the island is perhaps less accessible as modernity and tourism conspire to alter it, but still with some patience and the desire to depart from the tourist track it is possible to uncover some of the old world traditions. I watch halloumi being made (a firm, brined cheese usually served grilled), and visit a workshop in the Troodos mountains where a group of local women sit in a circle prepping various fruits for canning while chatting about their lives. I also tour the workshop of a man whose family has been making rosewater products from the Damascus rose for many years. There is a harvest festival and parade in the village during May and clouds of rose petals are strewn throughout. Visitors may even elect to be buried in rose petals, apparently a popular activity!
On my first night I am hosted by a gallant Greek Cypriot, Demos, to a dinner of traditional Cypriot mezes. We drive from my hotel winding away from the brash main street catering to tourists and park in front of what was once an old stone home and is now a lovely restaurant. The stone walls exude character and are covered with creeping grapevines. Inside the wood of the tables and the floor and the small nooks where people dine give the restaurant a warm atmosphere. A stream of small plates is continuously brought to the table until we ask the waiter to cease and desist. From the ubiquitous olive, dips such as taramosolata (made from fish roe, lemon juice, and minced onion), lamb souvlakia or kebab, and loukanika (the local sausage) to afela (pork stewed in wine and coriander seeds), or talattouri (cucumber, mint, and yogurt salad), there are a myriad different dishes of which mezes consist. And there is fine Cypriot wine and for the fearless, firewater, known as Zivania, which may only be made on Cyprus and is derived from the residue of grapes used in the winemaking process and is 45 proof.
The next morning, my invaluable guide and archaeologist, David, who has lived on Cyprus since the early 80s, arrives in a jeep to pick me up so we can go off-road. Our mission is to cover the southwestern quadrant of the island, our ultimate destination the UNESCO World Heritage site of the ancient town of Paphos. En route, I take a moment to think of Berengaria, who married Richard the Lionheart in the Chapel of St. George near Limassol, though he was engaged to another and simply wanted his hands on the lands of Navarre. So romantic these kings – no thought to what they can gain, who they can capture and maim. In this area archaeologists have discovered the remains of a settlement including the bones of the pygmy hippo.
A little further we reach Petra tou Romiou the place on the coast where Aphrodite is purported to have emerged from the sea. I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t feel like a goddess rising from the glistening sea at such an idyllic spot… One of the highlights of the day is our visit to the monastery of Panagia tou Sinti – an abandoned 16th century church in the beautiful valley of Xeros Valley. The setting is sublimely peaceful and evocative of another era and feels like an important antidote to some of the more built up areas of the island.
Salamis, an ancient city state on the east coast of Cyprus, is striking at any time of day, but was especially so in the late afternoon light with hardly another browser in sight. Situated at the very edge of the coast, most of the ruins date to the Roman period but finds have been made that date to back to the 11th c. BCE. Only a short drive from Salamis brings us to the town of Famagusta which came into its own in the early 1100s during the rule of the Lusignan family. It was very late in the day, just before sundown but there was still just enough light to admire the picturesque old town and particularly the Church of St. Nicholas which was turned into a mosque in 1571 and has been known as Lala Mustafa Pasha since that time. I entered as the caretaker was anointing the columns with streams of rosewater from a small bottle which, when I showed interest, he generously doused me with, also dabbing me with oil from another vial that had the scent of incense. Slowly meandering through the chamber of this unusual church cum mosque, my eyes were drawn to the stained glass window over the entrance as the last light of the day illuminated each piece of glass infusing the room with a dreamy glow.
There are currently ten UNESCO World Heritage churches in the Troodos and more on the tentative list. Of the five churches I was able to squeeze into my day, all of them had an exquisite turn of detail, setting, and one or more unusual paintings to recommend it. One church, Agios Ioannis Lampadistis, is actually three churches that have melded into one over the years. The original structure, the church of St. Irakleidion, was constructed, followed by the church of Lampadisti, both during the 11th c. BCE.
These were connected by a narthex or portico in the 15th c. BCE, and finally the Latin chapel was added in the 15th c. BCE. The interior of these churches is a riot of frescoes or wall paintings (depending upon how you define fresco which seems to engender some debate), illustrating key events in the life of Jesus. Lampadistis, or St. John, to whom the second church is dedicated, was canonized shortly after his death at 22. His tomb is in the church and the niche above contains a silver reliquary containing his skull. While I was there two robed priests with long black beards, black robes, and ornate vestments appeared to deliver the reliquary which had been borrowed by another church in the district. With some ceremony, carrying the sacred item on a silver tray, they returned the reliquary to its home.
On a clear day you can see Turkey from Kyrenia. Charlotte of Cyprus or Charlotte de Lusignan, another woman whose footprints I tread in, was blockaded in Kyrenia castle for three years, following her ascension to the throne, until she managed to escape fleeing to Rome never to return. Charlotte became Queen of Cyprus at the age of 14, upon her father’s death, but her half-brother challenged her right to the throne, hence the siege of her castle. Kyrenia has a gem-like medieval harbor and the castle, variously Byzantine, Crusader, and Venetian, and is famous not only for its stunning setting but also for what is called the Kyrenia ship, the wreck of a 4th c. BCE Greek merchant ship carrying among other items an abundance of wine amphoras. It was discovered off the coast by a sponge diver in 1967 and subsequently salvaged and is now on display in the Ancient Shipwreck Museum within the castle. In the adjacent town of Bellapais is the noteworthy and truly lovely Bellapais Abbey built by the monks of Premonstratensian in the 13th c. CE. David and I stop for a quick lunch in the open-air restaurant which is tucked carefully next to the abbey and is a perfect place to enjoy another series of mezes, more Turkish than Greek in the north, and to continue to appreciate the charms of the abbey. Our waiters are young Kurdish men from Eastern Turkey who immigrate to Cyprus to work. We end the day in Kavalvasos, a village of narrow streets, small houses with courtyards, and bouiganvillea climbing here and there as though consciously creating its lovely effect. There is a cafe in the village square which is a perfect place to sit in peace with a glass of wine and look back on the day.
When I reflect on my journey I realize that my experience resembles a mosaic, many small pieces creating a whole. I see that there are the pieces, easily overlooked, that are nevertheless integral to the whole. When I look at the photos I took of the Paphos mosaics I realize that my attemps to capture small details were the least successful. Similar to the paintings of the pointillists, if you are too close all you see is the dots but, if you step back, the image settles into focus. When I arrive home in California, I don’t now exactly how I feel about Cyprus. I am too close to the experience, to the saturation, and the fatigue, of travel. And then, as days elapse, I look at my photos, and begin to write. My experience comes into focus with infinite detail, texture, and color. Images, thoughts, moments, conversations, and reactions continue to reveal themselves to me several weeks later. And, that’s how it should be after traveling, don’t you think?