Seven splendours of Cyprus – and an extra
Too few Canadians visit this land of citrus, olives, pines and mountains, which averages 340 days of sunshine a year. There are prehistoric ruins and Byzantine churches, fortresses, mosques and monasteries, fishing harbours and beaches, many beaches.
The island is a vast open air museum with 20 foreign and seven Cypriot teams of archeologists, hard at work uncovering treasures. It’s overwhelming for a history nerd, but fortunately, although their history is long, distances are short . The ancient world had its Seven Wonders, here are seven splendors of Cyprus, which can be visited in a few days, at not too breathless a pace. There will still be time for a relaxed lunch at a taverna, an evening listening to the waves on the shore and watching a sunset “which the Greeks and Romans knew” (Lawrence Durrell)
Pity the poor farmer, innocently ploughing his field. “Drat, there’s another mosaic.” In 1962, four Roman villas with mosaics from the third to fifth century BC were discovered, “by mistake” near “Aphrodite’s town.” The bibulous god reclines in a chariot pulled by leopards in the House of Dionysos, there are scenes about the wine harvest, vineyards and nymphs. Theseus brandishes a club against the Minotaur in his house. You walk along wooden platforms, gazing down at what are regarded as the most beautiful mosaics in the Eastern Mediterranean. Earliest of all is a simple black and white mosaic made from river pebbles.
The whole town of Old Pafos is a UNESCO heritage site. The honeycombed Tombs of the Kings (fourth century BC) are now thought to be of high officials rather than monarchs. In the 19th century, the British brought prisoners to “clear them out,” which they did. Ruthlessly. No one knows what artifacts were tossed aside. Only the bare bones – Doric pillars, carved with hand tools from solid rock – were left, but their brooding presence in fields of golden flowers, with the Mediterranean beyond is haunting enough.
A 12th-century hermit carved three rooms – and his own tomb – out of the rock above what later became a monastery at Agios Neofytos. The mountain setting is spectacular. The walls of the Enkleistra, covered with 12th-to 15th century frescos,are considered among the best of Byzantine wall paintings The colours are as intense as the rosemary bushes on the way up.
Once a Phoencian trading post, it is mentioned in the Bible as Kittim. The 1,000 year old church of Lazarus is in the city centre. St. Lazarus’s bones were there until the 10th century, then taken to Constantinople, where they were lost under the Ottomans , but he is still revered as the patron saint of Cyprus. Larnaka’s harbour has a handsome Palm Tree Promenade with British tourists lounging about in shorts in early March, savouring the sunshine.
Nearby is the ancient city of Kourion (eightth century BC to 7 AD) with its baths, more superb mosaics in the House of Achilles and House of the Gladiators, and a Greco-Roman theatre, where they put on performances of classical tragedies – and Shakespeare. It looks enormous but is one-third of its original size. The stone was stolen, taken by ship to build the Suez Canal. During the centuries, Cyprus has suffered greatly from enthusiastic looters. One of the worst – the Cypriots justifiably regard him as a bandit – was General di Cesnola, who during his ten years as American consul merrily dug up and shipped more than 35,000 antiquities back to the United States. He sold most of them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he subsequently became the first Director. The di Cesnola Collection is the core of the Cypriot Galleries, which opened in 2000, with a’sanitized’ description of his activities. Shame.
You are interested in wine? There’s a long tradition, dating back at least to 2000 BC. The Egyptian Pharaohs thought highly of it, as did the Romans. When Richard the Lionheart wed Berengaria of Navarre in 1171 and crowned her Queen of England in Limassol Castle, he served Commandaria at the wedding feast The Portuguese took vines home in the 15th century which became the ancestor of Madeira. Others sent vines to France – for champagne. This tradition came to a halt under the teetotal Ottoman Empire, in public at least, but one suspects Commandaria was still quietly fermenting among the hills in great earthenware jars.
Omodos is an unutterably picturesque wine village- its stony streets, festooned with grape arbours; a monastery in its centre; and a main street bordered with mulberry trees. (Until the 1960s every Cypriot housewife kept silkworms, had her own loom, and made clothes and blankets for the family.) A small black clad lady demonstrated her handmade lace, surrounded by eager photographers. It was very quiet. Everyone was off in the hills, tending the grapes.
It’s wise to wear sturdy shoes to clamber in and out of the jeep for the wild ride around the uninhabited Akamas peninsula. Admire the bread ovens, pink-blossomed apricot trees, chapels. Precipitous roads are lined with tall mauve asphodels, favourite food of the Greek dead. (The word daffodil derives from it, via affodil.) There are catacombs, caves, once occupied by hermits from the Holy Land. Akamas is a delight for naturalists with many plant species, particularly rare wild orchids. If you are very lucky, you may see the moufflon , an historic Cypriot sheep with exuberant curved horns, whose stylized image decorates the tailfin of Cyprus Airlines. They appear on ancient pottery and there is a moufflon on a mosaic in the House of Dionysos. We settled for the engaging sight of a herd of very tall goats – black, brown and white – who plunged from the heights and scampered across the road, bells tinkling. Cyclamen star the path up to Aphrodite’s Bath, where Adonis first met the goddess in a grotto, shaded by a giant fig tree.
The 14 galleries in the Cyprus Museum provide a sweep through history from the Neolithic to early Byzantine. Artifacts range from such touchingly primitive works as a four- thousand- year- old baby bottle to elegant jewellery to make a modern designer envious. The famous marble statue of “sweet Aphrodite with her Mediterranean curves”’ was suitably rescued from the sea near Pafos. For icons, visit The Byzantine Museum. The clothing of the donors portrayed at the bottom of the paintings provides a useful historical fashion catalogue for scholars.
On our last day, we stopped at the quiet Neolithic site of Choirokoitia –just us, the bees and the rosemary bushes. Five of the round beehive houses with their stone slab furniture have been faithfully reconstructed, huddled in the shade of a cliff. People here didn’t even have families, just gathered together with their children. Archeologists know from the skeletons, buried under the floor, that they were only 33 years old when they died. There are Moufflon bones too. Even the sheep belong to antiquity.