Are you an armchair archaeologist? Inspired by spiritual traditions? Are you a foodie fan of the Mediterranean diet? Then you will absolutely adore the island nation of Cyprus. A history-lovers paradise, it's set in the stunning ambiance of a beguiling azure sea, exquisite golden beaches and endless sunny skies. And with BCD's Travel Insider Cyprus Itinerary, you have a road map to its rich sits of cultural heritage.
Known as the birthplace of Aphrodite, Cyprus is a treasure trove of historic sites. Here, you walk in the footsteps of the Goddess of love, the sea-faring Phoenician traders, Alexander the Great, saints on the run, and the Knights Templar.
In our visit, my husband Tom and I felt we had time-traveled through the ages. We met ghosts of centuries past in dusty archaeological ruins, majestic mountaintop monasteries, and along secluded beaches.
Sound appealing? Then let me offer you our culturally enriching Cyprus itinerary. Packed with a wealth of insights from numerous Cypriots only too happy to share, it's based on our two weeks of travel here.
Highlights include: a UNESCO World Heritage site spanning remnants of a 2,000-year history; a 12th centutry hand-carved hermitage carved out of cliff; a meal at the 7 St. George’s Taverna, revealing influences of the Orthodox Christian faith on Cyprus cuisine; a glimpse into the daily life of a young Kykkos Monastery monk.
Cyprus Itinerary - Table of Contents (Quick Links)
Where to stay in Cyprus
Tours in Cyprus
Paphos UNESCO World Heritage Site
Ecclesiastical Museum in Geriskipou
7 St. George’s Taverna
Cyprus’ Southern Coast
Painted Churches of Troodos Mountains
A Day in the Life of a Monk
The Allure of Aphrodite
Logistics & Lodging
An Island Intersection
Cyprus is the third largest island in the Mediterranean after Sicily and Sardinia. A member of the European Union since 2004, it's 174 miles southeast of Greece. Human presence on Cyprus is known to go back as far as the 10th millennium B.C.. The island’s strategic location is a crossroads of Middle Eastern civilizations, and Roman and Greek Empires. It's more contemporary history includes rulers from the French Lusignan dynasty, Venetians, Ottomans, and the British.
The complicated political history of Cyprus is reflected today in an incredibly diverse architectural and archaeological landscape. This Cyprus itinerary focuses on the southern two-thirds of Cyprus populated by Greek Cypriots, the majority of whom practice the Greek Orthodox faith.
Indeed, the rich heritage and iconography of Cyprus’ Orthodox Christians make for a fascinating lens through which to explore the small island nation. The religious artwork found in ancient caves, tiny roadside shrines, painted churches, and majestic cliff-top monastic communities offers a colorful, inspiring road map through history.
While the official language of the Republic is Greek, English is widely spoken and featured on road signs.
Wherever I travel, I am a big proponent of using local guides. I was referred by the Cyprus Tourism Ministry to archaeologist David Pearlman of Cyprus Exploration Unlimited, who gave Tom & me amazing access to off-the-beaten-path heritage sites and introductions to local cultural standard-bearers. I highly recommend David as an authoritative guide to Cypriot culture and a great traveling companion!
Where to stay in Cyprus
Sir Paul Hotel is set in an 1800's restored two-storey, stone-built structure with a beautifully designed atrium of stone arches, which once housed Limasol's first Town Hall. It a very nice and innovative place.
Kalavassos Village (between Limassol and Larnaca)
The Library Hotel is located in the charming village of Kalavassos and near the Akrotiri Bay area, this secluded retreat provides a peaceful and beautiful setting to pass an unforgettable vacation. This hotel is set in a 19th century stone mansion that consists of 11 uniquely styled suites that open to the courtyard and stunning views of the village and the surrounding mountains. All suites are luxuriously furnished and harmonious décor, giving guests the comforting and familiar atmosphere of old charm.
The Natura Beach Hotel is positioned on the Polis Bay. It offers an outdoor pool with uninterrupted views of the sea and Paphos Mountains.
Between Paphos and Polis
Ayii Anoyira Spa and Boutique Hotel is situated next to Miliou’s healing springs and has its own beautiful vineyard.
Lasa Heights Hotel is surrounded by a stone-paved courtyard in the middle of a garden in Paphos, Lasa Heights features a restaurant and overlooks the Akamas peninsula.
Stou Kir Yianni is a traditional guesthouse with beautiful mountain and village views, a restaurant and a bar. It is set in a listed building in Omodos village, on the southwestern slopes of Troodos Mountain, and also includes a wine cellar.
Tours in Cyprus
- From Nicosia: Half-Day St. Hilarion Castle & Bellapais Tour - Join a tour of Kyrenia for a half-day to remember. See the most amazing sites on Five Finger Mountains and visit St. Hillarion Castle and Bellapais village.
- Cyprus Through the Ages: From Paphos and Limassol - Discover the best of Cyprus on an 8-hour tour. Visit the Kourion archeological site and Omodos village. Taste local wines and stop to enjoy lunch.
- Limassol: Troodos Mountain Wine Tour with a Local - Discover the Troodos Mountains with a local guide on a small-group tour. Enjoy food and wine tastings. Taste 15+ local wines. Visit Omodos Village.
- From Nicosia: Famagusta and Ghost Town Tour - Learn the history of Famagusta and life in Cyprus today as you cross the mountains and Mesaoria plain. Visit the largest Roman amphitheater on the island and discover a ghost town abandoned in 1974.
Cyprus Itinerary - Paphos UNESCO World Heritage Site Spans 2,000 Years of History: Roman Villas, Byzantine Monasteries, Temple of Aphrodite
The city of Paphos makes a great base for your visit. Given the bird's eye view of history it offers, it is an instructive location to begin your Cyprus itinerary. Paphos is in the country’s southwestern corner, and home to 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 full morning roaming the extensive grounds of Kato or “Lower” Paphos. It is an immense archaeological park on the harbor encompassing ruins from 2,000 years of history. You enter from a busy, modern commercial area and we were unprepared for the instant change in atmosphere. Paphos Archaeological park is a portal into a mysterious arid terrain. It has a pale peach-colored landscape, accented with daubs of emerald olive trees, poplars and caper plants, patches of silvery and lavender moss, and then beyond, the azure sea.
The Tomb of the Kings
An assortment of ancient civilizations lie round every corner. We approached the dark recesses of tombs built over the course of six centuries. They reflect varying designs of changing burial practices during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Known as the “Tomb of the Kings”, these were not in fact the crypts of royalty. Rather, burial here was a privilege of the elite of the day. The site inspires a stirring sense of the urge to memorialize man's existence. Some crypts were gaping, cave-like holes hewn in the rock from which the fronds of a palm tree rose. 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. I 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 as it landed in a niche carved into the wall. Here, a recess where someone’s beloved had been laid to rest. I then 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. The sound seemed to have emanated from here. I then saw a youngster and his father, several rooms away, happily investigating antiquity.
Catching Shade from the House of Dionysos Plus a Splendid Sea View
With no shade to shelter us from the withering heat here in the Middle East, we moved slowly languidly across the dusty expanse. Slowly we tread 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 Dionysos; the relative coolness afforded by its covering as magnificent almost as its mosaics.
Drenched with perspiration, we finally ascended a hill at the far side of the site. Here, we were rewarded with a refreshing and salty sea breeze and inspiring views—in one direction. Over here a romantic lighthouse stood sentinel above the azure Mediterranean; over there, 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.
Cyprus Itinerary - Cyprus Orthodox Christian Iconography of Neophytos Monastery Illuminates Saint’s Faith & Humanity
Amid its 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, the second site on BCD's Cyprus itinerary, offers an awe-inspiring introduction to the island's spiritual heritage. Located 10 km outside Pafos, at the far end of a deep valley, this peaceful ancient site features frescoes that date to the Byzantine Empire. Tom and I slowly made our way up into the steep hills in the country’s south, past the villages of Mesogi and Tremithousa. The soft peach pastel of the sandstone escarpment that loomed ahead was in vivid contrast to the bold green of the 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. We paused to catch our breath and return the gaze of a winged and haloed angel looking down on us from above an ancient door frame.
Following Neophytos's Footsteps to Peace and Quiet
We crossed the threshold into the first of four tiny chambers. Saint Neophytos is said to have hewn each from the rock here with his bare hands. When he arrived at this remote patch of wilderness in 1159, Neophytos was 25 years old. 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. He fled to a monastery, where he hoped to lead a cloistered life as an ascetic. The abbot who welcomed him did not grant his wish to live as a hermit. However he did entrust the monastery’s vineyards to Neophytos’ care and taught 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. Here he hoped to find an ascetic that would take him under his wing. Six months of wandering in the Holy Land did not present the spiritual teacher Neophytos sought. He thus 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. Alas, the young saint was arrested as a fugitive, 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 conviction in the throes of 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.
Neophytos's Quiet Cliff Side Retreat
We explored the humble cells that Neophytos carved from a small natural cave on the mountainside. 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 for 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. This 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.
Seeking the Divine Through Artistry
Originally created in the year the chapel was built, many of the murals were re-painted in the early 16th century. In remarkable condition for their age, the murals bore the effects of enduring centuries past, yet emanated an age-old luminosity. From the dim light streaming through two small windows cut into the cave’s wall, I admired the ancient artistry. I felt as if in a 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 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.”
In the coming days, as I toured Cyprus culture & heritage sites and encountered the living legacy of numerous other saints revered in the Orthodox Christian faith. I witnessed the pride of Cypriots in a heritage that includes churches and monasteries they believe were founded by apostles and gospel writers. I came to see how the images of these figures offer people tangible access to hope, healing and inspiration they can touch.
Cyprus Itinerary - Chrysorrogiatissa Monastery
Next on BCD's Cyprus itinerary is Chrysorrogiatissa Monastery; it's name means “Our Lady of the Golden Pomegranate". The use of the syllables “issa” means “our lady of.” Throughout Cyprus, there are a host of places that are named for female saints. Panagia Chrysorrogiatissa is a place of special significance. Along with Kykkos, it is one of the three Cypriot Orthodox sanctuaries believed to possess an icon of the Virgin Mary painted by St. Luke.
Arriving at Chrysorrogiatissa several days later, we were reminded this was a place of reverence. A sign posted at the entrance states: “Visitors are kindly requested to respect the monastery and not to enter scantily dressed.” When founded by the hermit Ignatius in 1152, it was probably a safe bet that women in tank tops did not appear at his doorstep to tempt him.
In Chrysorrogiatissa’s founding legend, Ignatius discovered an icon depicting Mary, who then appeared to him, instructing that a monastery be built in her honor. The icon today is wrapped in gauze and kept in a special casket at the monastery.
A Twilighted Sanctuary
The church itself was surprisingly small. The twilight-like lighting from its crystal chandeliers lent an air of mystery to the abundance of religious imagery upon every surface.
I was drawn to a particular section of the iconostasis. It was draped in a heavy lace curtain and behind which lay brocade and under that, a slab of engraved silver with a small door. Small silver plates sketched with images hung from the hooked handiwork. Several showed a disembodied arm. Others depicted a leg. Yet another illustrated a person on his back, seemingly in pain. I later learned these bits of artistry represented specific prayers for relief from ongoing ailments.
Climbing marble steps, I entered a courtyard enclosed by whitewashed walls, with green potted plants clustered in twos and threes in doorways and niches. Visiting in the late afternoon, we were the only guests and not a soul was in sight.
I timidly made my way out into an expansive cobble-stoned plaza, the floor of which was adorned with a mosaic of a double-headed bird, gripping a sword and scepter in its talons. Past a bubbling fountain, at the far end of the terrace, benches beckoned. I sank into one, awed by the magnificent view beyond the pines to the lush valley below. My initial feeling of being an intruder gave way to a contented sense of peace. I closed my eyes and enjoyed the warmth of the sun.
Cyprus Itinerary - Visit to Ecclesiastical Museum in Geriskipou
Visiting the town of Geriskipou, just on the outskirts of Paphos, offers fascinating insights into some of the conventions of iconography--as well as the influence of the Orthodox Christian faith on the cuisine of Cyprus.
The fourth excursion on BCD's Cyprus itinerary is the Ecclesiastical Museum of Pafos, which provides an in-depth overview to the world of icons. It boasts a panoply of more than 100 pieces of religious imagery. On a side street off the main square, the gallery is housed in a Byzantine-style building that also serves as the residence of the Bishop of Paphos.
We entered the museum’s marble hall from the oppressive Cyprus heat, greeted by cool air, a hushed ambiance, and attendant Andreas Sarikas. The slight man welcomed us by proffering a dish of loukoumia, a sugary confection also known as Turkish Delight. He proudly explained that his daughter is the former mayor of neighboring Geroskipou, which is renowned for workshops that produce the candy. He laughingly told us that he was continually being given packages of the home-made treats and always had more loukoumia than was good for him.
Age-Old Divine Iconography
Spanning several rooms and more than ten centuries, the collection claims the oldest icon preserved in Cyprus, an image of Saint Marina. This image dates to the 7th or 8th century. Pieces exhibited include frescoes and wood carvings, many of which are fragments of church doors, iconostases and crosses. Most of the icons were rescued from the walls of abandoned, un-roofed churches before becoming lost to decay under the elements.
I moved from icon to icon and took in the recurring figures, poses and the simple lines and naive manner in which they were depicted. I studied several renditions of the Virgin and child in a view called Hodegetria that depicted Mary holding Christ in her left arm. His body is that of an infant, but his face appears adult. I later learned that the concept being communicated is that Christ is both God and man, wise even as an infant. Hodegetria means “guide.” In iconography, the Virgin never draws attention to herself, she is usually pointing to her Son, drawing the viewer to Him.
Other figures depicted again and again included St. George mounted on his steed and St. John the Evangelist on his knees. In each image of St. John the Baptist, his wild locks of hair spilled past his shoulders. I discovered this represents the saint’s lack of concern for how he looked or “earthly” matters. A number of icons showed Christ as a young man, his right hand held with his thumb connected to his ring finger and pinky and a Bible in his left. A hand—a pose signifying a blessing.
According to Athanasios Papageorgiou, a former director of the Cyprus Antiquities Department and a Byzantine expert, the standardized presentation of the figures is intentional.
“The similarity is a necessary element because the grace of Christ, the Virgin, or of a saint portrayed is transmitted through similarity,” he explained. “This similarity also interprets an aesthetic point of Byzantine painting in general and icon painting in particular. The transmission of the Holy grace requires an exact copy of the original. It is easy therefore to distinguish the saint that each icon portrays irrespective of the time that icon was painted.”
“On the other hand the icon must be different from reality,” Papageorgiou continued. “This difference is expressed through certain technical principles. Like the rhythm in the line movement, the absence of the third dimension and bulk, the disregard for anatomy, the emphasis on some parts of the body like eyes, nose, hands, the use of gold and red backgrounds, and lastly, the unnatural use of light which is diffused and not derived from a certain source. These principles show that the portrayed person belongs to a supernatural world and they underline the spirituality of the icon.”
Sacred Intentions Carried Across the Ages
Athanasios explained that the history of Cyprus is reflected in the iconography found in its holy places.
“The occupation of Cyprus by Richard the Lionhearted in 1191 and the establishment of the French Kingdom of Cyprus in 1192 brought Roman Catholicism to the country,” he said. “The conquerors confiscated the property of the Greek Orthodox Church and gradually alienated the country from the direct influences of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine world. We have therefore a peculiar trend in icon painting in the thirteenth century. Painters go back to earlier sources and eastern elements take a hand, lineal lines prevail, the paintings are strictly “en face” and flat.”
“The 15th and 16th centuries are the most creative periods of icon painting in Cyprus,” he continued. “As a result of the fall of Constantinople in 1453, many icon painters came to Cyprus, creating a school of painting on the island that parallels the Cretan school. The decay of Byzantine painting after 1571 came as a result of the Turkish occupation, with many of the well-known painters leaving for Venice.”
“The religious importance and the spirituality of an icon do not prevent it from being a work of art,” he asserted.
Emerging from the museum, Tom and I fell into conversation with passer-by Yiannis Loizides, a lawyer. We asked him what an icon meant to him. He replied “For all Orthodox Christians, an icon is a reminder of the person who appears on it. Every village has its own saint and icons of that saint. I am from Anarita, for whom the patron saint is St. Marina.”
I was beginning to connect the dots, realizing that the saint with which Loizides felt a personal connection was the subject of the museum’s oldest icon.
Cyprus Itinerary - 7 St. George’s Taverna
7 St George's Taverna
Geroskipou means “sacred garden” in Greek. We certainly felt we had entered one upon taking our seats on the outdoor patio of 7 St. George’s Taverna, the next experience on BCD's Cyprus itinerary.
At a table under an arbor spilling with fragrant purple hardenbergias, we met the establishment’s owner George Demetriades. He told us the restaurant is so-named because there are seven chapels dedicated to the saint in the immediate area.
We soon had ten dishes on the table. Olives, capers, salad, cheese, fried eggs, cured and smoked meat and fish. Demetriades described St. George’s cuisine, which he told us means “delicate taste,” originating from Farsi, the ancient Persian language.
“Meze is a culture of eating. You have a variety of dishes of delicate tastes in small quantities, but at the same time, it is an occasion,” he said. “You take your time, you relax, you converse and, many times, you sing.”
Demetriades attributed the country’s varied cuisine to its climate, soil, and location as a stepping stone to three continents, as well as to its Orthodox religion.
“Religion is a very big part of our gastronomy,” he explained. “For open-air fairs commemorating saints’ days, klephtiko is prepared, sometimes in a clay oven or a hole in the earth with a big bonfire on top.”
Kleftiko is slow-baked lamb dish, said to be named for the Klephts, country bandits who would steal lambs or goats and cook the meat in a sealed pit to avoid the smoke being seen.
“Almost half the days of the year are fasting days– this means that people make meals of vegetables, legumes and fruit,” Demetriades continued. “For days like Christmas, a pig is killed and every single part of it used. For Easter, a lamb or kid is killed for meat after Lent.”
Geroskipou is also home to Agia Paraskevi, a 9th-century Byzantine church capped with five domes in the shape of a cross. The church anchors the far left corner of a well-used community plaza. The caretaker, an old salt in a Greek fishing cap, appeared to be ready to lock up and scowled at our late arrival but let us pass. Not wanting to keep him waiting, we enjoyed just a brief glimpse of incredible 15th-century murals of scenes from the New Testament and, above, a praying Madonna depicted on the vaulted dome.
Cyprus Itinerary - Larnaka Reveals New Beginnings and Agios Lazaros
The celebration of fresh beginnings central to the Greek Orthodox holidays reverberated the next day when our taxi driver Andreas Neophytou told us that his last name means “new life.” As we rode in his backseat toward Larnaka, the next locale on our Cyprus itinerary, he regaled us with having embarked on a new life himself in 1969.
Local Romantic Culture Discovered on a Taxi Ride
Andreas told us that year, at 16, he moved to South Africa to earn an income to help support his parents and 11 siblings. He told us that life was difficult in Cyprus at that time. Thousands of young people emigrated as he did, many to his destination of choice, others to Australia and Great Britain. In 1974, he returned to Cyprus to meet the woman he would marry. His father had arranged his marriage.
Andreas recounted the conversation with his father, who told him “I’ve got the right woman for you,” to which he responded “Dad, I am a man of the world now!” Shaking his head and laughing, Andreas said “It wasn’t a bed of roses at first but we have made a very happy marriage.”
“Weddings used to be three days, now they are three hours,” he continued. “For a traditional Cypriot wedding, they were always held in the summer, you would invite the whole village, people would come on their donkeys. On the first day, Saturday, the meal would be fixed, a beautiful traditional dish called resi. On Sunday after service, the wedding would be held, everybody would be fed. The singing and dancing would go on until midnight. The music was always live and two men would get up and dance against each other, showing off their techniques, trying to prove who was the better dancer. On Monday morning, the bride would put the sheets outside to show the blood and that she had been a virgin.”
Andreas said that today the government gives families 12,000 euro to have a traditional Cypriot wedding, an attempt to keep the customs alive. He told us that 4,000 people came to his son’s wedding and that he bought his daughter a furnished house when she got married, to give her a good start in life.
“It is typical to invite everyone you know—this weekend I have four invitations,” he said. “I will put something in the envelope, even if only 30 euros. The whole amount in the collection adds up. My son got 20,000, my daughter 10,000.”
As we arrived in Larnaka, I asked Andreas what the icons meant to him.
“As a plain man, as children, we grew up with the idea that we communicate with God, or Christ, or the Virgin Mary, through the icons,” he said. “The icons represent healing power or wealth. We do kiss the icons, having in our thoughts the high spirits, our thoughts go through the icons to ‘up there.’ This is coming from my heart. We are very, very strong believers. I believe that what is meant to be is what happens. Of course, it all depends on your faith.”
Lanarka's Mesmerizing Old Church
After meandering through the ancient streets to the southern part of Old Larnaka, we found Agios Lazaros. Its four-story tower stands sentinel against a brilliant blue sky. Shafts of light stream from its high windows. The stone interior was a cool, welcome relief from the blazing heat.
Agios Lazaros is an edifice founded on the theme of “new life.” According to Cypriot tradition, Lazarus, whom Jesus is said to have raised from the dead, moved to Cyprus after his resurrection. He became the first bishop of Cyprus, ordained by St Paul. After his final death, the name of the town was changed from Kation to Larnaka. It means in Greek “At the sarcophagus.” Agios Lazaros was built in 900 A.D. at the site of the saint’s grave.
The church’s ornately carved, gilded iconostasis featured rows of saints, with an image of Lazarus rising among them. To the right of the nave was a reliquary reputed to contain his skull. Descending stairs to the crypt, we found several stone sarcophagi beneath a row of hanging silver incense burners. One of the tombs housed the remains of the saint, so it is said, and bears the inscription “Lazarus, friend of Jesus.”
Returning upstairs, we stood at the back of the church and watched an old woman in black, her head covered with a kerchief. She hobbled from one large icon mounted on a pillar to another. At each, she bent slightly in a partial kneel and kissed the image, before shuffling to the next.
Emerging into the bright sunlight, we found a small crowd gathering. Dressed in special occasion attire, generations of a family beamed at each other and laughed. From the toddler in a suit and sneakers to the grandmother with a cane, they took turns admiring the center of attention, an infant in the arms of his mother. Tom and I watched as a priest came to the door and the family began filing into Agios Lazaros for a baptism. The traditional celebration of a new life.
The Larnaca Salt Lake
One of the most prominent topographical features of south-eastern Cyprus is the Larnaca Salt Lake. Anybody who lands or takes off from Larnaca Airport during daylight hours will notice this large wetland area, and in fact the airport runways are built on re-claimed marshland that used to be a submerged section of the lake.
En route to the area, our guide David Pearlman reflected on his first visit.
"I have vivid memories of the Salt Lake at Larnaca from my first visits to Cyprus back in the late 1970s, when I was a young archaeological student working at the excavations of ancient Kition, the pre-Byzantine name of the town we now call “Larnaca'," he recalled." In those days, the Salt Lake used to dry up in the summer months and the dry lakebed was characteristically white with large salt deposits stretching in all directions. I remember seeing large convoys of donkeys dispatched into the lakebed carrying bags of sea salt that were transported into the town center for processing. All of that stopped sometime in the 1980s, I think. Nowadays, with climate changes affecting rain patterns, the lake can be wet for most if, not all the year. I do not believe there has been any salt collected in many years."
"There are two salt lakes in Cyprus, the larger being at Akrotiri, just west of Limassol," he explained. "Both salt lakes are well known to ornithologists and nature enthusiasts in general because during certain times of the year, especially during the rainy season, myriad species of migratory birds are on display. The most famous of these migrants are the Flamingos. Recently, there have been reports of up to 20,000 flamingos observed during a single day at the Akrotiri Salt Lake. The Larnaca lake always gets a lower number of birds, but the ironic thing is that despite the lower number of flamingos on any given day, the Larnaca Salt Lake offers better viewing options because it is a smaller body of water with birds positioned closer to the banks than at Akrotiri, where bird clusters can be several hundred meters distant from the bank towards the center of the lake.
There is an important monument located at the Larnaca Salt Lake, the mosque site called “Hala Sultan Tekke," which is often touted as “the fourth holiest place in Islam.” (The first three being Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock.)
David told us that according to legend, Um Haram, described as either the Aunt or Wet-nurse of Mohammed, broke her neck and died here after falling off a donkey sometime in the early 7th Century. She was buried on the western bank of the lake and the grave lay unnoticed and undisturbed until the 18th Century when an Ottoman Pasha decided to erect an impressive mosque over the site of the grave.
"Probably the most famous story connected to Larnaca concerns the biblical figure, Lazarus," David told us. "The core legend of Lazarus being resurrected by Christ in a burial cave outside Jerusalem is widely known and is celebrated by Orthodox Christians as one of Christ’s most significant miracles. Depictions of Christ touching the sarcophagus of his deceased friend Lazarus appear in the wall paintings of many Byzantine painted churches in Cyprus and throughout the Byzantine world."
"Less well known, however, is the story of Lazarus’ life post-resurrection," he continued. "According to legend, during the years immediately following Christ’s miracle Lazarus was widely shunned and stigmatized by the citizens of Jerusalem because of his freakish physical appearance. Burial practices of the time meant that dead bodies were treated with embalming agents before they were wrapped up like mummies and placed in a stone sarcophagus. Apparently, when Lazarus came back to life, the chemicals used turned his face yellow and his skin had the texture of leather. This strange, abnormal appearance might not have caused such an extreme public reaction by itself, but everybody knew his recent history and people were just not ready to accept somebody who was dead and then brought back to life as a citizen amongst them."
"One version of the story says Lazarus was declared an “unnatural freak,” forcibly run out of town, placed on a boat and pushed offshore by a mob, and that the sea currents brought him to Cyprus."
"Another version says that Lazarus voluntarily left the Holy Land and moved to Cyprus because he felt uncomfortable to stay and live where people knew the reasons behind his strange appearance."
"Whatever the real story, but both traditions agree that Lazarus came to reside in the town of Kition in south-eastern Cyprus for the rest of his life. The traditional date of his arrival in Cyprus is 45 A.D. Now this is a significant date for Cyprus: This is the year when the Apostle Paul, guided by Barnabas (the only Apostle who was a native-born Cypriot), travelled across Cyprus ending up in Paphos, where he converted and baptized the Roman Pro-Consul (Roman Governor of Cyprus) into Christianity. (The story of Paul and the Pro-Consul described in the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament.)"
"It is widely accepted that Paul and Barnabas passed through the town of Kition on their way to Paphos, and that they crossed paths with the newly arrived Lazarus," David concluded. "It is said that Paul ordained Lazarus a bishop, which means Lazarus would have been the first bishop to ever exist in Cyprus."
Lazarus & the Larnaca Salt Lake
David then shared a piece of folklore with us. Like all good legends, there was a moral to the story.
"I was also told another story about Lazarus and the Larnaca Salt Lake, which is supposed to have taken place towards the end of Lazarus’ life, ca. 70 A.D., when he was an old man," David said. "Apparently, this fable used to be told to all children born in this part of Cyprus in order to demonstrate the integrity of Christian values."
“One day, the Bishop Lazarus, decided to take a long walk into the landscape surrounding the walled town of Kition. He didn’t want to be recognized as a Bishop, so he traded his priestly robes for the clothes of a common man."
"He walked to the gates of the city and moved away from town into the countryside towards the area today occupied by the Larnaca Salt Lake. At that time, there was no Salt Lake, but instead the area was occupied by a series of rich vineyards, famous vineyards, that everybody said produced the largest and most succulent grapes on the island."
"It was September, a hot time of the year, and as he walked Lazarus became quite thirsty. He noticed in the rich vineyards a short distance away men were loading bags stuffed with grapes onto several donkeys that would transport the fruit to the market. Overseeing the whole operation, was the owner of the vineyards perched on a magnificent horse. This man was known to be quite wealthy because his vines produced the best grapes in Cyprus and were in high demand. He was also known to be of arrogant character and extremely stingy."
"Dressed in his common clothes and therefore unrecognizable as a Bishop, the thirsty Lazarus approached the man on the horse and greeted him: ‘Good day, kind Sir. I wonder if you might spare a small handful of your grapes so that an old man like me could quench his thirst?’ In saying these words, Lazarus nodded his head towards the donkeys indicating the bags overstuffed with their succulent fruit."
"The rich vineyard owner sitting on his horse looked down on the old man and responded: ‘What are you on about, old man? What grapes? I have no grapes to give you. Now, be gone, before you get trampled by these donkeys!"
"Unperturbed, Lazarus persisted: ‘What do you mean you have no grapes? The bags on the donkeys are so full the fruit is bursting out. I am so thirsty, and you have so many grapes. I only ask for a small handful. Surely, you can spare a small amount, no?"
"Again, the rich owner spat out at Lazarus: ‘I have no grapes, I tell you. Now begone, or you eat dust from the ground as I knock you down.’ And with that, the arrogant vineyard owner nudged his horse against Lazarus, who fell to the ground. The convoy of donkeys followed as Lazarus picked himself up and stood aside."
"The old Bishop called after the man on the horse: ‘No grapes, you say? So, tell me then, what’s inside the bags that you are so hasty to bring to the market?"
"That’s right, no grapes, but I have, ummm, I have, salt, yes, salt in the bags, and salt will quench no man’s thirst!"
"As he moved away on his horse, Lazarus could hear laughter from the rich man’s mouth."
"At this moment a miracle happened: Lazarus lifted his arm and pointed to the vineyards, saying ‘So you have salt in the bags, eh?’ And magically the rich vines turned immediately into an expanse of salt, and from that day onwards nothing would grow from the site of the former vineyards, now the Larnaca Salt Lake."
"To this day, locals recount this story to their children to remind them that it is the Christian thing to share your wealth with others less fortunate. And if they go against this Christian value, bad things will happen."
Cyprus Itinerary - Discovering Painted Churches of Troodos Mountains
The next excursion on our Cyprus itinerary was a true trip highlight. We made our way northeast on the Polis Road, leaving behind the villages and eventually the pavement. Heaving a long 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 hodgepodge 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, coupled with boxes of matches.
I learned later that isolated chapels such as this one are not uncommon, and they are remnants of former medieval monastic communities or the sanctuaries of shepherds.
We continued on, stopping at Stavros tis Psokas, a former monastery 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. They stood still as statues, the males endowed with monumental curling horns.
Trees Made to Set Sail
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 crested 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 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.
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 it means “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.
The Village of Pedoulas And It's Famous Church
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 once served as a haven for monks seeking distance from temptation and nearness to God. These mountains were also a 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 UNESCO designated as a 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 starkly contrasts to Cyprus’ many prestigious and sprawling monasteries.
The Church of the Archangel Michael is the smallest of the ten painted churches. It has an asymmetrical exterior designed to compensate for the slope of the hillside on which it was built. The roof on one side begins at ceiling height; on the other, the roofline plummets to the ground. The resulting steep point a protective measure against the deep mountain snowfalls.
We entered a narrow dimly-lit space once stepping through plain wooden doors. 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 an asymmetrical approach to the faces and background. While his work is 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 driven by differences spanning doctrinal, theological, linguistic, political, and geographical lines. Among the practices at stake were celibacy, marriage, fasting and the veneration of icons.
According to iconographer 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. However, 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.
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,” says Athanasios Papageorgiou of the Cyprus Antiquities Department. “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 monastery’s creation and have been passed down by generations of Cypriots.
Cyprus Itinerary - The Legend of Kykkos Monastery
From the Church of the Archangel Michael and the village of Pedoulas, we headed west to the next destination on our Cyprus itinerary, 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 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. Apostle Luke painted the image at her request, so it is said.
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 him 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. Rejoincing Cypriots greeted the hermit, and 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. The Kykkos Monastery, or Panagia tou Kykkou, is the essential destination on a Cyprus itinerary for members of the Greek Orthodox faith.
“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 the 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,” she continued. “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 Monastery, 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 mementoes, 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 dazzles with a display of devotion–carved, gilded, studded with gleaming stones and designs of angels and animals, and adorned with a row of hanging gold lamps.
A Day in the Life of a Monk
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. He said 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 manages 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 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 were 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.
Cyprus Itinerary - The Allure of Aphrodite
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 founded by apostles and gospel writers–but also lays claim to being the birthplace of Aphrodite. We concluded our Cyprus itinerary with visits to 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.
Keen to explore the landscape of Cyprus? Read about David’s recommendation of two off-the-beaten path nat to explore: yios Yeoryois tis Peyias. And Avakas Gorge!
Next, we happily paid our respects to the mother of Eros with a cooling dip in the waters. Here it' said she came ashore in a spray of sea foam and a clam shell drawn by dolphins. Petra tou Romiou, or “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 inspires 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.
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BCD’s Travel Insiders Cyprus Itinerary: Road Map to Rich Cultural & Heritage Sites of History Lover’s Paradise
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