CHRISTIANITY IN CYPRUS
The spread of Christianity in Cyprus only a few years after the crucifixion of Jesus was due not only to the island’s proximity to Palestine, but also to the flight of Christians after the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. However, the main reason was because of the arrival of the Apostle Paul and of Barnabas, himself a Cypriot, in the year 45 AD. The idolatrous population of Cyprus made the growth of Christianity difficult. Barnabas suffered a martyr’s death from stoning and burning, and his disciples buried his remains in Salamis. A series of martyrs and bishops who followed ultimately established the Christian faith on the island. Visitors today will find a surprising number of religious monuments.
IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF PAUL AND BARNABAS
The arrival of Paul and Barnabas in Cyprus is one the most important historical events on the island. Their visit is linked to the spread of Christianity and the founding of the Church of Cyprus. According to the Acts of the Apostles, Paul and Barnabas went to Salamis, where they preached in the synagogues of the Jews (13:4-5). Subsequently, they went "through the isle unto Pafos (13:6),"at that time the capital of Cyprus. In Pafos, one may visit the early Christian Basilica of Chrysopolitissait. It still houses the column on which, according to tradition, the Apostle Paul was tied and whipped.
Later, Acts of the Apostles tells us that Barnabas returned to Cyprus, specifically to Salamis (15:39-40). There he preached Christianity and met a martyr's death. He is considered the founder of the Church of Cyprus. The underground tomb of St. Barnabas and the chapel of the monastery that is dedicated to him, built over the foundations of an early Christian basilica of the fifth century AD, are near Salamis.
WORSHIP OF THE HOLY CROSS
According to tradition, St. Helen anchored off Cyprus on her return from the Holy Land. She had Stavrovouni Monastery built and endowed it with part of the Holy Cross, the rivets and nails with which Christ was nailed to the cross and a fragment from the cross of the honorable thief. A piece of the Holy Rope, with which they bound the hands of Jesus as they led Him to the Cross, was also left there. The brotherhood at Stavrovouni Monastery is extremely devout, keeping strict vows. Women are not allowed to visit Stavrovouni Monastery. Men may visit the monastery, but must be properly dressed. (Today the Holy Rope is kept at the Monastery of Timios Starvos in Omodos.)
The fact that, in the early days of Christianity, asceticism grew in neighboring Egypt and Palestine, resulted in Cyprus also becoming an important place for hermits.
Machairas Monastery is on the slopes of Mount Kionia in the Machairas Mountains. It houses the miraculous icon of Our Lady of Machairas, attributed to Saint Luke the Evangelist. Legend has it that an unknown hermit brought the icon to Cyprus secretly from Asia Minor during the years of iconoclasm (8th-9th centuries). The hermit dwelled in a cave on the mountains of Machairas. After his death, the holy icon remained there until around 1145, when the hermits Neofytos and Ignatios found the cave covered with bushes. In order to approach the icon, the two hermits had to cut the bushes with the help of a knife. Thus, the icon took the name "Machairiotissa" (the word machairi in Greek means knife) or, more simply, of Machaira. The monastery of the same name was later built on the same spot. The basement consists of the monks’ original cells as well as stables and storage areas. It also houses a collection of old books and manuscripts, icons and other religious artefacts.
The Monastery of Kykkos is found, situated on a mountain peak, in the region of Marathasa. Dedicated to Our Lady, it possesses one of three icons attributed to St. Luke, the Evangelist. The icon, covered in silver gilt, is in a shrine made of tortoise shell and mother-of-pearl. The monastery was founded sometime between the end of the 11th century and the beginning of the 12th century, during the reign of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118 AD). Cypriot hermit Isaiah miraculously cured the emperor's daughter of an incurable illness. As a reward, he asked for the icon of the the Virgin Mary kept at the imperial palace at Constantinople. The emperor sent it to Cyprus together with funds to pay for the construction of a monastery where the sacred relic would be kept.
Situated on Cape Gata near Lemesos, Agios Nikolaos ton Gaton (St Nicholas of the Cats) probably dates to the late 14th century. Abandoned in the late 16th century, it was re-occupied by Orthodox nuns in the early 1980s. According to tradition, the monastery was founded in the 4th century by St. Helen, mother of Constantine the Great, who left a piece of wood from the Holy Cross there. At the time, the island was experiencing a severe drought, forcing many people to leave the island. Snakes multiplied, making life in Cyprus unpleasant. According to the medieval historian Stephen Lusignan, after Saint Helen's departure, Constantine the Great sent Governor Kalokeros to Cyprus with thousands of cats to exterminate the snakes.
The history of the Monastery of Agios Neofytos is well documented in the autobiography of its founder. Situated on a mountain peak, it is built in what used to be a secluded location about 10 kilometers northwest of Pafos (Paphos). The “Egkleistra”, an enclosure carved out of the mountain by the hermit at the end of the 12th century, contains Byzantine frescoes from the 12th to the 15th centuries. The later monastery church contains some of the best examples of post - Byzantine icons of the 16th century, and there is also an interesting ecclesiastical museum.
The exact date of the foundation of Trooditissa Monastery, located on the southern slopes of the Troodos Mountains, is not known. As with other monasteries, it was preceded by a hermit during the years of the iconoclasm. The church, as well as the monastic buildings, belong to a later period and can be dated to the end of the 18th or the 19th centuries. The heirlooms saved in the church of the monastery also belong to these later periods. The present church, dating to 1731, contains valuable icons including a precious icon of Our Lady covered with silver-gilt from Asia Minor. It is said that prayers before the holy icon of Our Lady give hope to childless couples wishing to have children.
Agia Napa Monastery, dedicated to Our Lady of the Forests, stands in the middle of the village of Agia Napa, surrounded by a high wall. Both the village and the monastery are named after the ancient Greek word for wooded valley, "Napa." Built like a medieval castle around 1500 AD, Agia Napa Monastery is the best known landmark of the village as well of the surrounding area. The monastery is partly built underground and cut into the rock. The ancient sycamore tree in front of the south gate is believed to be over 600 years old. The monastery was restored in 1950 and in 1978 became an Ecumenical Conference Center serving churches in Cyprus and the Middle East. A new church built southwest of the monastery, is also dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
In recognition of their value, ten churches in Cyprus have been recognized By UNESCO as belonging to the World Cultural Heritage because of their great archeological, architectural and artistic value. They have wall paintings dating from the 11th to the 17th centuries. There are other churches of significance as well.
Situated in the center of Larnaka, the early 10th century stone Church of Agios Lazaros (St. Lazarus) is one of the most important surviving Byzantine monuments of Cyprus. It was built by Byzantine Emperor Leo VI in exchange for the transfer of the Saint’s relics to Constantinople. The church lies over the tomb of St. Lazaros, the resurrected friend of Jesus Christ who came to ancient Kition in 33 AD and became its first Bishop and Patron Saint. The tomb can be seen inside the church crypt. The three imposing domes of this Orthodox Basilica Church and the original bell tower were destroyed, probably in the first years of Ottoman rule when the church was turned into a mosque. The brilliant byzantine artistry of the icons and the unique baroque woodcarvings were completed in 1782 and have survived until today.
One of the most important Byzantine churches of Cyprus, Agios Antonios (St. Anthony's) at Kellia probably dates back to the 9th century. It is a three - aisled vaulted basilica that has undergone considerable reconstruction and repair. It preserves significant wall paintings surviving from the 9th, 11th and 13th centuries.
Angeloktisti Church, an 11th century Byzantine church, whose name means “built by angels”, was erected over the ruins of an Early Christian basilica in Kiti. The original apse survived together with one of the finest pieces of Byzantine art of the Justinian period, a rare 6th century mosaic of the Virgin and Child between two archangels. Only in Cyprus and in Mount Sinai have mosaics of this period survived the iconoclastic decrees ordering the destruction of most icons and objects of idolatry. Similar mosaics were those from the Church of Kanakaria, now on display in the Byzantine Museum in Lefkosia.
The so-called Catacomb of Saint Solomoni was originally built in the Hellenistic period. It is clear that at some later point it was converted into a church. St. Solomoni was one of the first to reject idolatry and embrace Christianity. According to tradition, Solomoni took refuge in the cave to escape persecution from the Romans. The Romans walled up the entrance, condemning her to a slow and cruel death. However, when the cave was opened 200 years later, the saint walked out alive. There is a huge terebinth tree above the “catacomb”, its branches adorned by colorful rags and bits of clothing left by the faithful as offerings to the saint.
Panagia tis Amasgou Church (Virgin Mary of Amasgou), situated about 20 minutes away from Lemesos, is a small church built at the end of the 11th century. It has some rare mural paintings of the 12th, 14th and 18th centuries. Part of the monastic building has been renovated according to the original plan.
In addition to ten churches, six other places in Cyprus have been recognized by UNESCO as belonging to the World Cultural Heritage.
The site of Choirokoitia dates back to the 6th millennium BC. It is one of the best preserved settlements of this period in Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean. Each house consisted of a compound of several buildings with a circular ground plan, grouped around a small inner courtyard. The dead were buried in pits inside the housing units. The population is estimated at about 300 inhabitants. This civilization suddenly vanished and no explanation has been found for its disappearance.
The Fort of Nea Pafos (Paphos) is located at the west end of the harbor. It was built during the Frankish occupation in the 13th century. The fort has only one entrance on its east side and very small windows. Its main part is a big square tower that has an enclosed courtyard in the middle. The Venetians dismantled the fort in 1570 so that the Ottomans, who had begun their conquest of the island, would not use it. According to a Turkish inscription placed above the entrance, the Ottomans rebuilt the fort in 1780.
The Pafos Mosaics on the floors of noblemen's villas dating from the 3rd to the 5th centuries AD are considered among the finest in the eastern Mediterranean. Depicting mainly scenes from Greek mythology, they were discovered accidentally in 1962 by a farmer plowing his field.
Old Pafos (Paphos) was one of the most celebrated pilgrimage centers of the ancient Greek world and a former city-kingdom of Cyprus. Located here was the famous Sanctuary of Aphrodite, the most ancient remains of which date back to the 12th century BC. The museum exhibits many interesting finds from the area. Excavations continue on the site of the sanctuary and the the city.
The Byzantine castle known as Saranta Kolones (Forty Columns) is located just north of the harbor of Pafos (Paphos). It is named after the large number of granite columns that were found on the site. The castle is believed to have been built at the end of the 7th century AD to protect the port and the city of Nea Pafos from Arab raids. A three-meter thick wall with eight towers and a moat surrounded the castle. Access was across a wooden bridge spanning the moat. Destroyed by an earthquake in 1223, the castle was subsequently abandoned.
The “Tombs of the Kings” are situated close to the sea in northwestern Pafos (Paphos). They are so named because of their size and splendor and because some probably belonged to the Pafian aristocracy, and not because royalty was buried there. They are rock cut and date to the Hellenistic and early Roman periods. Some of them imitate the houses of the living, with the the burial chambers opening onto an atrium. They are similar to tombs found in Alexandria, demonstrating the close relations between the two cities during the Hellenistic period.
DID YOU KNOW?
Cyprus is a divided island. Since 1974, the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus has controlled the south two-thirds of the island, and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus the northern one-third. The government of the Republic of Cyprus has continued as the sole internationally-recognized authority on the island though in practice its power extends only to the government controlled area.
Four cities are the largest ones on Cyprus. Lefkosia(Nicosia), the capital, is in the center; and Larnaka(Larnaca), Lemesos (Limassol) and Pafos (Paphos) are located along the southern coast. Lefkosia combines both old and new and is characterized by its old quarter surrounded by a sandstone fortress wall. Lemesos, the island’s second largest city, is the center of the wine industry and a holiday resort. Larnaka, with its marina and palm-lined roads, has important shrines to both Christianity and Islam. Pafos, to the west, is home to some of the finest mosaics in the Mediterranean.
Situated about 2.5 kilometers west of the ancient city of Kourion is the Sanctuary of Apollo Hylates where Apollo was worshipped as Hylates, god of the woodlands. There were three building periods. The Archaic Sanctuary developed in the 7th century B.C. while the Ptolemaic Sanctuary belongs to the 3rd century BC. Finally, the Roman Sanctuary dates to the 1st century A.D.
Kourion was an important city kingdom where excavations continue to reveal impressive new finds. Noted particularly for its magnificent Greco-Roman Theater, Kourion is also home to stately villas with exquisite mosaic floors and an early Christian Basilica.
Lemesos Medieval Castle is situated in the heart of the old town, just above the old harbor. According to tradition, this is where Richard the Lionheart married Berengaria of Navarre and crowned her Queen of England in 1191. The fortified walls are thought to be part of a much larger castle. Today, the fort houses the Medieval Museum of Cyprus.
Agios Georgios (St. George) at Pegeia is a famous place of pilgrimage in the Pafos (Paphos) region. Three early Christian Basilicas and a bath, all from the 6th century, were excavated in the early 1950s. Later excavations revealed an extensive settlement from the Roman and early Christian periods. The location of the settlement suggests that it was probably a port of call for ships transporting grain from Egypt to Constantinople. The settlement flourished under Justinian I (527 - 565 A.D.).
Kalavassos Tenta Neolithic Settlement lies about 2.5 kilometers from the village of Kalavassos. The earliest remains of human habitation at Tenta date back to about 7500 BC-5200 BC.
Petra tou Romiou (Rock of Aphrodite) is a formation of large rocks off the coast in the Paphos district. It forms an impressive natural site and is associated with Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty. According to legend, this is the spot where Aphrodite rose from the sea. The Greek name is associated with the legendary Byzantine hero, Digenis Akritas, who kept the marauding Saracens at bay with his strength. It is said that he heaved a huge rock into the sea, destroying the enemy's ships.