Island Nation’s Orthodox Christian Heritage Offers Artistry & Insight Into Faith
One of the facets of Cyprus’ culture that intrigued me was its Orthodox Christian heritage and iconography. My exploration of the island’s faith took me to miniature roadside shrines, the tiny painted churches of the Troodos Mountains, and introduced me to the legend of the majestic cliff-top Kykkos monastery and a day in the life of one of its a monk.
We made our way northeast on the Polis Road, leaving behind the villages and eventually the pavement. Heaving along a rutted, winding road, we entered the beginning of the Troodos Mountains and the Pafos Forest.
Cresting a hill, we saw a huge body of water shimmering in the morning sunlight below, created by the Kannaviou Dam. On the far side of the reservoir I could make out what looked like a miniature white church tucked among the pines. Following the shoreline, we reached the diminutive chapel and opened its door, beholding a hodge podge of icons. Images of saints were painted on the surface of a central recessed niche, and surrounded by portable icons propped up on shelves and window sills. Votive candles lay at the feet of the images, along with boxes of matches.
I later learned that isolated chapels such as this one are not uncommon, the remnants of former medieval monastic communities or the sanctuaries of shepherds.
Cultural Landscape of Troodos Mountains Also Nature Paradise with Distinctive Mouflon & Cedars
We continued on, stopping at Stavros tis Psokas, a former monastery that is now a Forestry Commission station. We stretched our legs here with a short walk on a steep narrow path around the circumference of a refuge for mouflon, a type of wild sheep. Peering intently into the dense woods, we were privileged to get a glimpse of a group of the endangered species standing as still as statues, the males endowed with monumental curling horns.
We moved deeper into the Pafos Forest, climbing ever-higher along the north side of the Troodos range; to our south loomed its highest peak, the 1,952-meter Mt. Olympus. Our car chugged slowly along the narrow roads on the rim of the mountainside and we soon were cresting the contours of Cedar Valley. A narrow slash in the landscape that seemed bottomless, from it more than 200,000 majestic conifers fought gravity and pushed skyward, many growing to 25 meters.
The species of cedar grows only in Cyprus, Lebanon, Morocco and the Himalayas and at an altitude above 3,000 feet. These cedrus brevifolia are a relative of the famed Lebanese cedars, from which the legendary Phoenician maritime explorers built their ships. The trees’ strength is belied by their slim trunks, which hardly seem capable of supporting the immense wingspan of their far-reaching and fragrant boughs. Many of the Cyprus cedars leaned low toward the ground in contorted poses, as though trying to hang on to the hillside in the face of whipping winds, their tops flattened by the forces of the elements.
Village of Pedoulas Home to Church of the Archangel Michael, one of ten UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Troodos Mountains
We rounded a hairpin turn on the winding ribbon of road and a flash of red caught my eye. Beyond the precipice, floating on a bed of greenery below lay the carrot-colored roofs of the village of Pedoulas. We had reached the upper part of the Marathassa Valley; the origins of the name are Greek and mean “the land of a thousand flowers.” As spectacular as we found the vista in mid-summer, in the spring, the valley is ablaze with flowering cherry trees.
Coasting down the mountainside, we glided to a stop at the far edge of the tiny town. We had reached our destination and were welcomed by a trio of calico cats who wore the same patchwork colors of gray, ochre and brown as the humble stone Church of the Archangel Michael.
The Troodos Mountains were both a haven for monks who sought distance from temptation and nearness to God, as well as sanctuary where the Church could secure its relics and riches during three centuries of Arab raids that began in 647 A.D.
Dating from 1474, the Church of the Archangel Michael is one of ten in the Troodos region that have been designated by UNESCO as World Heritage sites. This concentrated collection of monuments perched on remote aeries and hollows are all remarkable for their interiors, richly decorated with Byzantine and post-Byzantine paintings. The rural architectural style of the ten painted churches are in stark contrast to Cyprus’ many prestigious and sprawling monasteries.
The Church of the Archangel Michael is the smallest of the ten painted churches, with an asymmetrical exterior designed to compensate for the slope of the hillside on which it was built. The roof on one side began at ceiling height; on the other, the roofline plummeted to the ground. The resulting steep point was a protective measure against the deep mountain snowfalls.
Passing through plain wooden doors, we entered a narrow dimly-lit space. Once our eyes adjusted to the dusk-like lighting, we realized we were surrounded by giant figures with somber expressions looming over us. Among them, a giant Archangel Michael brandished a sword and a scroll and a look of fierce determination.
We learned the imagery had been created by a 15th century painter named Minas who was a local artist. The frescoes reflect his personal touches, such as making generous use of several shades of red, and using an asymmetrical approach to the faces and background. While his work is largely faithful to the Byzantine tradition of painting, it also selectively incorporates western European elements.
In 1054, the “Great Schism” marked a split among Christians into Eastern, or Greek, and Western, or Latin, branches, today known as the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. The division was the result of differences that spanned doctrinal, theological, linguistic, political, and geographical lines. Among the practices at stake were celibacy, marriage, fasting and the veneration of icons.
According to iconcographer Reverend Monk Dometios of the Church of St. Barnabas, from 1191–1489, with the conquest of Cyprus by the Crusaders and later on by the Franks, the Cypriot iconographers attempted to preserve the Byzantine tradition, but there was a disconnection with its source in Constantinople. Over time, the Cypriot iconography took on a parochial and rural character, as evidenced by some of the Troodos churches. By the 1400s an “Italian-Byzantine” style flourished on Cyprus, and the work of painters like Minas combined both Eastern and Western techniques.
According to the dedication inscription preserved above the north entrance of the church, it was built and decorated in 1474 at the expense of priest Vasilios Kamadaou. Father Vasilios, together with his wife and two daughters, is depicted offering a model of the church to the Archangel Michael.
According to Papageorgiou of the Byzantine Museum, each iconographer expresses not only the ideals of his time, but also that time itself. When he paints the donors–those who have paid for the icon, always shown at the lower part of the icon–he imparts information about the times.
“The clothes and the jewels of the donor give us information about their social class, their economic position, the fashion of the time, even the trade relations of Cyprus with other countries,” he said. “The influences traced in the icons interpret the political adventures of the country, the close ties with Byzantium and the French, Venetian and Turkish occupations. Thus, an icon becomes a book that has a lot to tell to the one who knows how to read it.”
The monasteries of Cyprus also are a source of fascinating stories. Most of the more than three dozen such religious communities here date to the 4th–16th centuries and each has its own “foundation legend.” These tales describe the often supernatural events that are believed to have led to a to a monastery’s creation and have been passed down by generations of Cypriots.
From the Church of the Archangel Michael and the village of Pedoulas, we headed west to the 900-year-old Kykkos Monastery. There are several folk stories about the origin of its name. According to one legend, a little bird living in the area had predicted a miraculous temple, twittering “Kykkou, Kykkou, Kykkos Hill, a monastery the site shall fill. A golden girl shall enter in and never shall come out again.”
Tasoula Manaridis of Nicosia shed light on the identity of that “golden girl.”
“Kykkos Monastery is one of the richest monasteries on the island and it possesses one of the three icons of the Virgin Mary ascribed by St Luke,” she explained.
Another legend chronicles how the monastery came to be in possession of this image of the Mother of Christ, said to have been painted at her request by the Apostle Luke.
According to this tale, Voutoumites, the governor of Cyprus, became lost while hunting in the thick woods of Marathassa Valley. Stumbling upon the cave of the hermit Isaias, he asked for directions. Isaias had taken a vow of silence and did not respond. Outraged, the governor had him beaten by his guards before they stormed off. Eventually, Voutoumites and his party found their way out of the rugged forest and the incident was forgotten. But soon, the governor faced another difficulty, and was struck with a deadly illness for which his physicians could find no cure. The governor recalled his mistreatment of the hermit and ordered that Isaias be brought to him so he could beg for forgiveness.
The monk complied and when the governor offered to grant his any wish, Isaias responded that he wanted to journey to the Imperial Palace in Constantinople and bring back to Cyprus the renowned image of the Blessed Mother said to have miraculous powers. The governor was aghast at what he considered to be an insane request but, after much hesitation, agreed to travel with the monk and introduce him to the court in Constantinople. Once there, they learned the Emperor’s only daughter had fallen victim to a mysterious illness. Voutoumites excitedly shared his story of having been cured himself by Isaias’ fervent prayers. The Emperor Comnenos summoned the hermit to his daughter’s side, where Isaias again wrought a miracle. Exultant, the Ruler offered Isaias whatever he would like. The monk again requested the holy icon of the Virgin Mary. The Emperor hesitated; he was loath to part with his city’s great relic. Suddenly, he too was struck with the deadly ailment. Cured by Isaias, he relented and agreed to give the icon to the monk.
Comnenos began to have second thoughts before the exchange took place and had the best icon painters of Constantinople create a replica. He slyly suggested that Isaias choose. Recognizing with sadness the Emperor was not being honest with him, he prayed for guidance. Suddenly, a bee buzzed down and landed on one of the icons. Isaias took this as a sign, and made his choice, correctly picking the icon of the Virgin painted by St. Luke.
When Isaias reached the shores of Cyprus on one of the Emperor’s ships, he had the precious cargo with him. The hermit was greeted by rejoicing Cypriots, who formed a procession that moved slowly up the mountainside to where the monastic shrine of Kykkos would be erected. As the crowds inched ever higher through the forests, it is said the trees bowed their balding heads toward the sacred relic.
Today, out of respect, the icon is kept under a velvet shroud in Kykkos’ iconostasis, a wall of icons and religious paintings that separate the nave from the sanctuary in a church.
“Many pilgrims take day trips to the Monastery to pray and give an offering–it can be a piece of jewelry–to the Icon of Virgin Mary,” Manaridis told me. “In the Greek Orthodox Faith a widespread and long-lasting custom is the journey to holy places to kneel in worship.
From antiquity and until present the conviction has persisted that prayer or the performance of religious duties are more effective in places where there were relics of saints or miraculous icons. It is very common in the Orthodox religion that when someone faces a problem such as a serious illness to visit a place of worship, light a candle and pray for the well-being of the ill.”
Arriving at Kykkos, we found ourselves amid throngs of the faithful. We pulled into a parking lot packed with tour buses and walked past bustling kiosks doing brisk business selling all manner of Kykkos mementos, including hundreds of iconic images.
The monastery’s austere stone façade was offset by the vivid pink blooms and glossy greenery of a garden of oleander bushes. Entering an arched doorway adorned in glittering mosaics with outsized images of the Virgin and Child, Archangel Michael, and other saints, we joined scores of pilgrims streaming inside, donning purple visitors’ robes provided for those whose summer attire did not cover bare shoulders or legs.
Following our fellow visitors, we made our way through a long corridor with scenes from the monastery’s history painted on its walls and down stairs to a central courtyard. There we crossed the threshold of the main church, where we opted not to join a long line of pilgrims waiting to pay respects to the icon. In deference to the pious, we stood back and admired the iconostasis from afar. A veritable wall of gold, according to tradition it imitates the image of paradise. It was a dazzling display of devotion–carved, gilded, studded with gleaming stones and designs of angels and animals, and adorned with a row of hanging gold lamps.
On the plaza outside the monastery, I was introduced to Father Benidiktos, a young monk in the long flowing black robes of a senior church official. The blue robes I had seen other priests wearing elsewhere designated a lower rank in the church hierarchy, in which the men can marry and have children.
Benediktos told me that he became a monk ten years ago at the age of 22 after two years in training as a novice. He became a deacon in 2007—a designation for which one must be 25 years of age; to be a priest, the age is 30. Benediktos told me his given name was Benjamin and said that when a monk reaches a certain level of the hierarchy, he chooses a new name; one that he believes reflects his personality and comes from the annals of the church’s history.
Benediktos explained his daily routine, saying he awoke at 4 a.m. and engaged in personal prayer before the ringing of bells called the monks to church at 5 a.m. At 7 a.m., the priests have breakfast and at 8 a.m., they begin their jobs. He is the manager of the hostel and works with pilgrims, who include Cypriots as well as Russians, British, Germans, Japanese and Americans. Lunch is at noon, followed by relaxation in their cells, or rooms, until 5 p.m. when the bells again call the priests to services. The monks have an hour to themselves between 6:00 – 7:00 p.m., followed by supper, and then the final church services of the day.
Saying our good-byes to Benediktos, we headed back down the mountainside toward Paphos, driving through a series of tiny towns, each no more than a cluster of houses alongside the dusty winding road. Villagers were gathered outside together, enjoying the day and each other, some with small glasses in the hands, and others leaning over a backgammon board.
As we slowly rolled along the narrow bumpy road of one village, we felt like we were being greeted by a receiving line of the town’s senior statesmen. On the shoulder of the road, perched on a row of wooden chairs, were an elderly monk and members of his flock. The priest’s long white beard flowed down the front of his black robes and the aged men and women with him were all deeply tanned, their faces lined with creases, gold crosses glinting from the neckline of the women’s black blouses. As we passed by, the smiling faces of the humble congregation of villagers, backlit by the soft glow of late afternoon, was testimony to the endurance of an everyday faith.