Known as the birthplace of Aphrodite, Cyprus is a treasure trove of historic sites where one can walk in the footsteps of Phoenicians, saints, and the Goddess of Love. In a visit to the Mediterranean island, my husband Tom and I time-traveled through the ages, meeting up with ghosts of centuries past in dusty archaeological ruins, majestic mountaintop monasteries, and secluded beaches.
The city of Paphos, in the country's southwestern corner, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that encompasses numerous expansive tracts of well-preserved ruins that span Mycenean temples, Roman villas, and Byzantine fortresses.
We spent a morning roaming the extensive grounds of Kato or Lower Paphos, an immense archaeological park on the harbor that is a microcosm of 2,000 years of history. Entering the park from a busy, modern commercial area, we were unprepared for the instant change in ambiance. Our first impression was of the mysterious arid terrain, a pale peach-colored landscape accented with daubs of emerald olive trees, poplars and caper plants, patches of silvery and lavender moss, and beyond, the azure sea.
Around every corner are the remnants of an assortment of ancient civilizations. We approached dark recesses of tombs built over the course of six centuries, with the varying designs reflecting the changing burial practices during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. While these were not the tombs of royalty as the site's name implies, burial here was a privilege of the elite of the day. Some crypts were gaping, cave-like holes hewn in the rock from which the fronds of a palm tree rose, and others were below-ground atriums where Doric columns created interplay of shadow and light.
Tom had wandered off on his own and, alone in the silent peristyle colonnade of Tomb No. 3, I noticed an inscription of Greek letters on one of its columns, and wondered about the meaning of the etched symbols for the person who engraved them eons ago. My reverie was startled by the flap of a pigeon's wings as it landed in a niche carved into the wall, a recess where someone's beloved had been laid to rest. I suddenly heard a muffled squeal, and jumped six inches off the ground. Catching my breath, I crossed the tomb and peered into a labyrinth of adjoining chambers where the sound seemed to have emanated form, where I saw a youngster and his father several rooms away, happily investigating antiquity.
Cyprus was under Roman rule for 600 years and that epoch was our next adventure. Under the intense sun typical of the summer months in the environs of the Middle East, and with no shade to shelter us from the withering heat, we moved slowly across the dusty expanse from the remnants of one Roman villa to the next, each more remarkable than the one before. We lingered at the 2,000-square foot House of Dionysus as much because of the relative coolness afforded by its covering as for its magnificent mosaics.
Drenched with perspiration, we pushed ourselves to climb a hill at the far side of the site. We were rewarded with a refreshing and salty sea breeze and inspiring views—in one direction, a romantic lighthouse stood sentinel above the aquamarine Mediterranean, and in the other, the elegant semi-circle of a Roman Odeon was carved into the landscape. It’s said that somewhere here in Paphos, perhaps not far from where we stood, the Roman governor of the city was converted to Christianity in 45 A.D. by the Apostle Paul.
Amid it's wealth of archaeological relics, the island nation’s Orthodox Christian iconography calls to visitors of all faiths. The religious artwork found in ancient caves, tiny roadside shrines, painted churches and remote monastic communities offers a colorful and inspiring road map through the history of Cyprus and its central faith.
Saint Neophytos monastery, with frescoes that date to the Byzantine Empire, lies 10 km outside Pafos, at the far end of a deep valley. We slowly made our way up into the steep hills in the country’s south, past the villages of Mesogi and Tremithousa. The soft apricot pastel coloring of the sandstone escarpment that loomed ahead was in vivid contrast to the bold green of pines and poplars reaching toward the brilliant topaz sky.
Crossing a narrow footbridge, we heard the sound of rushing water from the mountain stream below and the wind rustling the branches of nearby olive trees. We reached the cliff face and climbed the stone-carved stairs to the top, where we paused to catch our breath and return the gaze of a winged and haloed angel, who looked down upon us from above an ancient door frame.
We crossed the threshold into the first of four tiny chambers that Saint Neophytos is said to have hewn from the rock here with his bare hands. When he arrived at this remote patch of wilderness in 1159, Neophytos was 25 years old, and he had finally found what he had been seeking for seven years: peace and quiet. Faced with the prospect of a traditional arranged marriage at 18, the future saint had fled his poor village of Kato Dhrys near Lefkara in the hills of southern Cyprus to a monastery, where he had hoped to lead a cloistered life as an ascetic. The abbot who welcomed him did not grant his wish to live as a hermit, but did entrust the monastery’s vineyards to Neophytos’ care while also teaching him to read and write.
When his request to live a life of solitude was still denied seven years later, Neophytos asked the abbot for permission to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where he hoped to find an ascetic that would take him under his wing. However, six months of wandering in the Holy Land did not present the spiritual teacher Neophytos sought. He returned to the monastery, where yet again his plea to live as a hermit was denied. No doubt frustrated, Neophytos headed for the port in Paphos and a ship to take him to Asia Minor, where another major monastery was located. Alas, the young saint was arrested as a fugitive and then robbed by his guards. Though released after just one night in jail, he had now become penniless and probably all the more intent on withdrawing from his fellow man. It was then that he made his way up into these lofty bluffs.
As I came to understand the very human story of this figure revered in his homeland of Cyprus, I admired his ideals and conviction in the throes of seemingly relentless adversity. I, too, am often ready to head for the hills, even when faced with far less opposition from my fellows and the Universe.
We explored the humble cells that Neophytos carved from a small natural cave on the mountainside; the uneven walls and sloping ceilings were a testimony to his tenacity. I felt large and clumsy in the cubbyhole where Neophytos had spent a year chiseling out a utilitarian bed, a desk, a niche where he kept books, and his own sarcophagus. He forged a rock-cut alter in an adjoining space that constituted his prayer room. In 1183, he added a third chamber, a chapel. The stark angles and rough, bumpy surfaces of the engleistra, or “hermitage,” were poignant in their simplicity, and made an eloquent statement about the saint’s austere lifestyle, and the era in which he lived and died.
Also radiating devotion, but in a manner as rich and vivid as the architecture was plain, were the multi-colored frescoes adorning the tiny rooms. The imagery covered practically every surface save the floor; a parade of mystical scenes swirled around us like a galaxy of piety. I could imagine Neophytos dreamily contemplating the biblical vignettes conjured by the paintings and being transported to a place of tranquility.
Originally created in the year the chapel was built, many of the murals were re-painted in the early 16th century. The frescoes were in remarkable condition for their age though pockmarked and patched in places, faded and chipped in others. The murals bore the effects of having endured through centuries past, while also emanating an age-old luminosity. From the dim light streaming through two small windows cut into the cave’s wall, I admired the ancient artistry and felt like I was in timeless, twilight world.
According to Reverend Monk Dometios, an iconographer in the Church of St. Barnabas, that is exactly the intended effect. “One enters a different world in which the single moment meets eternity,” he said. “These hagiographers are excellent artists. The way in which they paint reveals their heart and their morals. The expression of their brush strokes is not separated from their lifestyle. These hagiographers do not function mechanically but they live, work and create with the first Creator. While remaining faithful to prototypes, they move freely for they live within the grace beyond time and knowledge, they experience the ‘unknown knowledge’ that enables the unheard to be heard. The images and garments they portray shine with the same grace as their souls. You sense the heavenly beauty and the spiritual peace through their works.”
“Hagiography is the telling of evangelical history through works of art,” he continued. “The paintings on the walls of a church tell the stories from the gospels; they are the “books” the illiterate can read in order to comprehend the teachings. Apart from the evangelical depictions, scenes from the Old Testament were later added to fill in the gaps, as well as images of martyrs and other saints who are, to the pious, exemplars of living the truth of Christianity. Unlike secular art, hagiography does not attempt to realistically portray the human body or the world because it has a didactic goal, to present to the pious the truth about salvation and eternal life.”
The rise of Christianity replaced the island's pantheon of pagan worship but at least one goddess is alive and well in the minds and hearts of Cypriots. The island's heritage includes not only churches and monasteries believed to be founded by apostles and gospel writers--but also lays claim to being the birthplace of Aphrodite. We visited two sites on the coast south of Paphos that bear her name.
The first of those was the site of the Temple of Aphrodite in Palaipafos or Old Pafos, now an expanse of country fields scattered with olive trees. We walked down a lane lined with white and pink Oleander toward a hillside museum housed in a Gothic structure built during the Crusades. Strewn along the path were ruins attesting to the site's relevance over the ages--crumbling columns, haphazard rows of pink and mauve slabs of granite, a geometric carpet of faded mosaics, an ancient millstone, and the remnant of an olive press. At one time, pilgrims from great distances traveled here to worship at Aphrodite's shrine.
Next, we happily paid our respects to the mother of Eros with a cooling dip in the waters where she is said to have come ashore in a spray of sea foam, in a clam shell drawn by dolphins. Aphrodite's Rock towers alongside an idyllic beach that has inspired more than a few legends. One of these promises that for every lap one takes around the massive limestone rocks emerging from the aquamarine water, they will become a year younger.
The cult of Aphrodite persisted long after the advent of Christianity, until at least the 4th century. Whether or not you believe in mythology, Cyprus has certainly inspired its share of romantic gestures: Marc Antony was so charmed by Cyprus' beauty he gave it to Cleopatra, and Richard the Lionhearted married his bride on the island during a pit stop en route to the Crusades.
I'm willing to bet you, too, will fall in love with Cyprus.