Is it any wonder so many earthlings over the centuries have desired to own this Mediterranean Island? And being at the crossroads of Europe, Africa and Asia made for a turbulent history of those vying for power.
The Republic of Cyprus is predominantly Greek in flavour. Its prehistoric peoples were joined by the Greeks 3,500 years ago, establishing roots that have remained strong during periods of various rulers – yet each of these rulers added their cultural imprint in a myriad of ways – Persian, Roman, Byzantine, Frankish, Venetians, Ottoman, British.
The latter took over in 1878, but with the passage of time Cyprus citizens (who call themselves Cypriots) became disappointed in the British government and fought for independence and the Republic of Cyprus was proclaimed on August 16, 1960.
But the new constitution for rights of citizens did not work between Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots, and in 1974 the Turks took over the north, which is still under Turkish rule today – the split resulting in Nicosia being the only divided capital in the world. Efforts to find a solution favourable to both sides continues, but as of today visitors must obtain a visa at the border checkpoint along a main pedestrian street in Nicosia before stepping into the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
Our Cyprus Photo Gallery
The division of Nicosia cuts across the old historic city surrounded by 16th century walls erected by the Venetians. On the Greek side we fill our time seeking out old churches, museums and historic buildings. It is a feel-good place; the pedestrian streets bustle with shoppers, coffee culture aficionados, folks sipping a “cold-one” at a taverna, and families’ leisurely milling about. One café offers a free sweet or savory cheese bun with a specialty coffee before noon daily – we are in!
On an otherwise neat side-street a messy closed door stands out, plastered like a billboard with ads for events (most outdated). Mid-way down on the door is a big piece of cardboard with “Shoe Repairs” with “Achilles” (in Greek) printed in black marker. The next day we happen along the same street, and this door is open, with ladies waiting in line to get in – hmmm, a good reason to poke my head inside. An elderly gentleman’s hands move so fast they blur as he mends a purse. “The shoemaker’s name is Achilles and he has been here mending shoes from the time of my grandmother,” a lady in the line says, “we have always called his shop Achilles Heel.” Achilles stops to bow and shake my hand, before his magicians dexterity finish a long row of perfect stitches – these haphazard meetings are such a special part of travel.
One day we wander towards the old city walls. The Famagusta Gate is a grand site; the old stonework includes a large entry with a spacious room on either side. This structure is now the Municipal Cultural Centre, which today is being set up for a fashion show.
Further along the wall is the Municipal Garden where the Liberty Monument resides. It was erected in 1973 to honour those who fought against British rule from 1955-59. It is a display of armed EOKA (Greek Cypriot nationalist guerrilla organization) lifting the iron gates freeing the citizens to go forth as an independent nation. The figures coming from the darkness into the light are representative of Greek Cypriots – soldiers that were imprisoned, peasants, business men, and clergy.
A few days after our arrival the entrance to the old town centre is blocked off from vehicle traffic…and the streets are literally plugged with what look to us to be high-school-aged students… something is up. When we approach what yesterday was an almost invisible border (save for checkpoints) between the Greek and Turkish side, there are now armed police on both sides, with a dozen UN soldiers in the buffer zone.
We hear them before seeing them – a procession of protestors strut down the street and swarm the area in front of the Greek checkpoint. The clamour is deafening. We move into the buffer zone to ask a few of the UN peace-keepers what this is all about – and are told Greek post-secondary students rally each year on this day – the day that the Turkish side celebrate their detachment from the south. They are calling for freedom to not show passports between the sides, for repatriation for Greeks exiled, for easy access to historical and religious sites in the north (which we gather means one unified country).
We leave the intense scene with the demonstration still in full swing. A block away, we are thinking “Yup, teens will be teens” – an even greater number of students, than those protesting, are more concerned with socializing on this day-off from school. They jostle energetically in the streets, fill every chair in every café, the line-up at McDonalds is so long we think they must be giving away free Big Macs.
The marketplace atmosphere is great! Winding streets with colourful shops selling clothing, souvenirs, food stuffs, and cafes/restaurants, where after browsing a bit we sit in the sunshine at one of the latter sipping a scalding, sweet, thick, flavourful Turkish coffee, served with a small container of ice-cold purified water…what could be better!
We easily find the ticket booth at the side of the mosque for the Whirling Dervish performance.
All us ticket holders are led by a guide to the nearby Mevlevi Tekke Musuem, where we learn this physically active mediation was developed in the early 1200’s by mystic and poet Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi – his followers in Cyprus belong to the Mevlana Order.
Years ago in Turkey we saw Whirling Dervishes that spun at unbelievable speed – more of a show than this ritualistic version. Vocal incantations and music sound over the speaker-system as the dervish comes on stage in a tall camel hair hat (representing a tombstone of his ego) and draped in a black cloak. After a small opening ceremony, he sits on a mat and begins to meditate. He then stands and removes his black cloak, indicating he is open to truth and begins with arms crossed over his chest (representing God’s unity). He then stretches out his arms and turns the right hand up to the sky (to receive God’s beneficence) and the left hand towards the earth. He begins to rotate, just as all things in the universe. He turns from right to left – around the heart. His white skirt flares as he whirls, his eyes are open but unfocused, with no dizziness due to this meditative state. This dance of extreme discipline with an arcane philosophy is amazing to watch.
After the performance we walk the streets some more, and find some interesting niches, like the Buyuk Han (Great Inn) built in 1577 to accommodate rich merchants during the Ottoman era. The original fountain still stands in the courtyard. The 67 rooms on the upper level had small chimneys; possibly for each guest to use a small charcoal brazier. Stables were once on ground level. During British Colonial rule it was turned into a prison. Today it houses craft and art workshops which display products for sale.
A great bonus to travelling around Cyprus is the distances between cities in not far – Pafos is 2hrs by bus. The topography along the way changes from palm trees, and lush foliage to “Arizona-like” terrain with sage and dwarf trees – and then….the resort ambiance of Pafos is instantaneous with the Mediterranean competing for blueness with the sky; a wide promenade lined with towering palms and flowering shrubs. Tantalizing scents are carried on balmy breezes from the line-up of eateries, mixed with shops to buy a souvenir or two in sympathy for those back home bearing their first Canadian winter chills.
Pafos was the capital of Cyprus for a long period in antiquity, resulting in such a wealth of archaeological sites that the entire city is listed as a UNESO World Heritage Site!
“It takes at least a half day to go through Kato Pafos Archaeological Park,” our hotel receptionist warns. How right she is.
We begin with the villas once belonging to noblemen from the 2nd to the 5th centuries AD. These ancient abodes were discovered accidently by a farmer in 1962; their floors are considered to be masterpieces of mosaic art.
The villa known as the House of Theseus once belonged to the Roman governor of Cyprus, and did he treat himself well! The size is enormous, room after room, bath after bath adorned with scenes from Greek mythology.
Another of the park’s sites is Saranta Kolones (Forty Columns) Fortress, built by the Frankish in the early 1200’s, only to be destroyed in the earthquake in 1222. Some of the ancient arches and walls remain, and some of beautiful marble columns have been resurrected, while most lie about in pieces.
The variety of ancient relics goes on and on. St. Paul’s Pillar is in the courtyard of an early Christian Basilica, now in ruins. According to tradition, the white marble column is where the Apostle Paul was tied and lashed 39 times for preaching Christianity in 48 AD. He later converted the then Roman governor Sergius Paulus.
Back of this is Agia Kyriaki Chrysopolitissa Church. It is the only structure standing on this ground that over the centuries held many churches. Agia Kyriaki also was destroyed and rebuilt numerous times, the last refurbishing was in 1500, and somehow it escaped the later Turkish invasion, was derelict for a time and is now an Anglican Church.
Another day we start off at the Agia Solomoni Christian Catacombs. A “sacred” tree grows in front, which according to tradition cures ailments in those who tie a personal votive (mostly pieces of white fabric) to this tree. We move through the hauntingly eerie chamber of tombs from the Hellenistic period, many of the hollows have been adorned with religious icons of saints, now stained and faded, some almost totally rotted.
Rick usually follows me (his tour guide), but as we enter one large chamber he disappears down a particularly dark set of stone steps. I hear a splash…and a few expletives. I rush over and stare down at Rick standing not only with one foot, but two in ankle deep water. I burst out in shocked laughter, as he leaps back up on the bottom step, then lifts one waterlogged shoe and then the other – disbelief still written all over his face. The water returns to its dark clear stillness, so one would ever know it was not a solid slab of rock.
He sloshes back up and can’t get out of the catacombs fast enough, but not to be defeated by this trickster liquid menace he squish-walks alongside me to the other places on our list to see that day.
On our way back past the catacombs, I say, “since we left in such haste before, I’d like to go back into that chamber for a few more photos.” Just as we enter the chamber we hear a howl, and another fellow emerges from the stone stairway with a soaker. Rick grins at the fellow, “I feel better knowing I’m not the only one.” An evening of drying his shoes with a hair dryer is in order, with me humorously thinking – it could have been me.
Tomb of the Kings
A 4km walk from our hotel brings us to the underground tombs carved out of solid rock, dating back to the 3rd century AD. High ranking officials were buried here, but the grandeur of the tombs prompted the naming of this acropolis. This ancient cemetery was used from the early Hellenistic period and during the Roman times. They were later places of refuge for early Christians and for hermits.
There are simple tombs for individual burials, tombs with passages, and monumental ones with many chambers.
The idea of the large colonnaded tombs is said to come from Egypt (like the ones found in Alexandra). Also the burial customs observed in the tombs are Greek, which relates to the strong Greek influence during this period.
Each of the excavated chambers captivates us in the extraordinary fashion and ancient beliefs of the afterlife.
One day we decide to hop a bus to Lemesos for the afternoon, with it being a 1hr45min ride. Large resort hotels surround the seaside. Lunch is on our minds as we find our way to the old centre, which looks a bit tired with the exception of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral. In all fairness, we did not give this city a proper scouting out as the day turns nasty – wild winds blowing in ominous clouds, so after lunch we hop the next bus back to Nicosia… and it’s great to be able to do that.
Our first walk along this promenade takes us to Larnaka Salt Lake to see the flamingos that find refuge here…and there they are standing in the middle of the lake, which because of a recent rain is larger than we thought it would be. Approximately 500 are wading and feeding on brine shrimp, and often a group would take to wing and relocate to another spot, too far away for a photo – but so amazing to see them in their natural habitat. During winter the flamingos are joined by up to 80 species of migratory birds.
Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque is on the lake’s shore. It was built in 648AD on the spot where Umm Haram died from a broken neck when she fell off a mule during an Arab raid of Cyprus. She is said to be related to the Prophet Mohammed, and this mosque holding her tomb is a holy place frequented by Muslim pilgrims.
Larnaka Fort and Medieval Museum
Originally built during the middle ages, the fort in its present form was from Ottoman rule. The British later turned it into a prison, and a hanging gallows, the last person hanged in 1945. We had a great look-out at the top of the beaches, the dazzling blue sea, the marina and surrounding buildings.
Agios Lazaros (Lazarus) Church is one of the best kept ancient churches we have ever seen– and yes, the Lazarus is the same one who is mentioned in biblical passages. He was the brother of Martha and Mary, who died of an illness, only to be brought back from the dead by Jesus (John 11:43). The chief priests of Judea planned to kill him, fearing his being a living testament of a miracle. Lazarus fled to Cyprus in 33AD, where he met Aprostles Paul and Barnabas who ordained him the first Bishop of Kition (the modern day Larnaka), where he lived for 30 years before dying a second time. His burial place was lost during Arab rule staring in 649AD.
In 890AD a tomb was found with the inscription “Lazarus the friend of Christ”. The relics were sent to Constantinople, but the first St. Lazarus Church was ordered to be built over where his tomb was excavated along with other sarcophagi, now in the crypt of the present day church (restored in the 17th century).
We enter the church with its remarkable baroque woodcarvings, gigantic chandeliers, and multitude of Byzantine icons. A silver box near the entrance door is the focus of all who enter. A discovery took place in 1972 during restoration after a fire. Human remains were discovered in a marble sarcophagus under the altar, were identified as part of the saint’s relics, so not all were removed to Constantinople as ordered. An uncanny sensation fills me as I stand on the small step and peer inside the box – an awe and reverence of someone who knew Jesus, and of the differences in religions/philosophies of life’s purpose and the mysterious shroud of what becomes of us after death.
With all our excursions food is always on our minds. A new energizer of Aphrodite Sweetness in Soutzoukos.
They definitely are strange looking, hanging like a long sausage. The store clerk catches me staring and comes out to say, “These are Soutzoukos, a favourite in Cyprus. They also come sliced in packages.” Okay, but I need more info. “Inside are almonds that have been threaded together on a 2 to 3 meter string, then are repeatedly dipped in grape juice mixed with flour/sugar/vanilla, dried in between each dip until the desired thickness, then the final drying takes about 5 or 6 days. The rich grape flavour zings on our taste buds, the consistency is like chewing a mouthful of gummy-bears, the nutty center a crunchy end.
Speaking of “ends” – It is now time to end our wonderful Cyprus visit. The weather for the end of November is super, and the sites are second-to-none, as is the hospitality shown to us. It is always bitter-sweet leaving a country, sad to leave yet excited about our next adventure. Leaving Cyprus is a double whammy – as well as our incredible time here it is the culmination of our 5-month-21country European adventure, which now means we have over the years visited every European country except two.
It is time to dust off our India visas (that we obtained in Athens) and buy duct tape (the most versatile travel item) and check out our luggage weight to be sure it is under 8kilos (each) so we can go ONLY with “carry-on” and Mumbai here we come!
Nicosia: Altius Boutique Hotel – modern artistic design, with everything a modern traveller needs (like lots of plug-ins for electronics) in comfy, spotless rooms. Their staff puts it a cut above the rest – from the reception desk, to the housekeeping, to the breakfast room folks that keep your coffee/tea cup filled. A 15 to 20 minute walk from the old town centre and Intercity buses.
Pafos: Dionysos Central Hotel – a mere 50m from the Mediterranean, hence a spectacular view to wake up to, and a few steps from shopping/restaurants. Soft music plays in the entrance foyer, decorated with scenes portraying the god of wine. Clean comfy rooms, good breakfast selections.
Larnaka: Les Palmiers Beach Hotel – Dynamite location – the sea is a dazzling sight from our hotel balcony and step outside into the best restaurant/café area. This well-kept, well-run hotel is located mid-way along the promenade beside sandy shores.