A romantic past- An exciting present- A golden future. I remember last summer having dinner with the new Cyprus Trade Commissioner Aristos Constantine and telling him most people had no idea where Cyprus was located. Yes, it is situated in the northwestern Mediterranean, at the crossroads of the three continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa. Yes, it is the third largest island in the Mediterranean after Sicily and Sardinia. Is it one of the Greek Islands? NO, but where is it? July 19th, 2006 “the government of the Republic of Cyprus launched a major effort to support the evacuation of U.S. citizens and others fleeing war-torn Lebanon for the safety of Cyprus.” There was CNN, FOX, NBC and many others filming the warm welcome given the 13,000 Americans who were hosted in Cyprus before returning to the US. President Bush thanked the Cypriot President for his help.
So now that we know where it is, why did I spend 6 days there? Today Cyprus is a modern country of 800,000 people that effortlessly marries European culture with ancient enchantment. The Cyprus that is recognized by the UN and all countries of the world (except Turkey) has alluring beaches and fragrant mountain peaks; vineyards studded with olive trees and citrus groves and ancient ruins on a par with anything seen in Greece and Egypt. The island is an open air museum, where one can visit prehistoric settlements, classical Greek temples, Roman theatres and villas, early Christian basilicas, Byzantine churches and monasteries, Crusader castles, Gothic cathedrals, Venetian fortifications, Moslem mosques and British colonial-style buildings. There are three UNESCO World Heritage Sites on Cyprus: The whole city of Pafos; Choirakoitia and the 10 Byzantine period churches of Troodos. The 2 ½ million visitors love the temperate climate year-round (a bit hot in the summer).
Aphrodite, the ancient Greek Olympian goddess of beauty and love, according to mythology, was born on the island. A storied past 10,000 years long has seen civilizations come and go with the Mycenaean Greeks followed by the Phoenicians, Assyrians, Franks, Venetians, Ottomans and British (1878-1960). Because of the long British rule everyone I encountered, of all ages, spoke English (a reminder to look left; they drive on the wrong side of the road here). Not having to deal with another language is a big plus for visitors; and Cyprus is a favorite vacation spot for folks from the UK. The Republic of Cyprus was proclaimed in 1960. In 1974 Turkey invaded the island and now occupies 37% of the island making Nicosia, the world’s only divided capital city (think what Berlin was before the wall fell). In 2004 Cyprus was granted full membership in the European Union.
Enough of politics and history follow along with me on a two day jaunt to many of the sites a visitor will want to see. I spent three days visiting wineries, but that is a different article. I spent my six days in Cyprus in Limassol, the second largest city on the island (160,000 people; Nicosia has 200,000). It is the major seaport for cruise ships and the headquarters of the Cyprus wine industry. You are an hour from Larnaka and one of two international airports (Pafos has the other). One day my guide took me west to Pafos and the other day north-east to Nicosia; both about an hour from Limassol.
Walk along the seafront promenade park with its 16 sculptures toward the Old City and the 13th Century Medieval Castle and Museum. Visit the Archeological Museum with its Neolithic to Roman period artifacts. The Carob Museum is worth a few minute stop. The Carob Mill was built in 1900 when carobs were a major export of Cyprus. Heading west out of town the first stop should be the Cyprus Wine Museum to learn the history of wine production in Cyprus. A few more miles and you can stop at the Kolossi Medieval Castle originally built in the 13th century. It served as the Grand Commandery of the Knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. During their stay in Cyprus they produced and exported the wine known as Commanderia.
Kourion Archeological Site is a 10 minute drive from Kolossi and its Greco-Roman theatre was built in the 2nd Century B.C. After restoration (6,000 seats) it is used for musical and theatrical performances. The Sanctuary of Apollon Ylatis, god of the woodland, is just outside Kourion.
You can go north to the wine villages, Commanderia area and Troodos as I did another day or proceed west toward Pafos, first stopping at Petra Tou Romiou, purported to be the Birthplace of Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of love and beauty. It consists of two rocks; stretch your legs but save the walk to the beach. (though I think it could be any two rocks anywhere on the island). Since the entire city of Pafos is a UNESCO World Heritage Site you have lots to see. The Kato Pafos Archeological Park includes sites and monuments from prehistoric times to the Middle Ages, while most of the remains date to the Roman period. I spent most of my time (along with hundreds of tourists from a cruise ship) at the marvelous mosaic floors of four Roman villas that date from the 3rd to 5th Century A.D. The mosaics at the House of Dionysus depict the god of wine. The Tombs of the Kings actually has no kings buried here but high ranking officials of the 4th Century B.C. On the way back to Limassol stop at the Sanctuary of Aphrodite and Palaipafos Museum. This 12th Century B.C sanctuary remained a place of worship until the 4th Century A.D. The museum portrays how the cult of the goddess of fertility developed into the cult of Aphrodite.
My second day of touring (courtesy of the Cyprus Tourism Organization) went east and north of Limassol. The Choirokoitia Archeological Site, a UNESCO World heritage Site is a half-hour outside Limassol. It is from the Neolithic age with five cylindrical shaped dwellings having been reconstructed near the settlement. They are fitted with replicas of household objects found inside the originals.
Nicosia is in the center of Cyprus and has been the capital since the late Byzantine period (11th Century.) The city center is surrounded by 16th Century walls, with museums, old churches and medieval buildings. Outside the walls is the modern town. Nicosia remains the only divided capital in the world. I asked to stop at the Cyprus Police Museum founded in 1933 as a criminal museum during British colonial times. The Cyprus Museum was a gem. It is the largest archeological museum in Cyprus. The collections consist of pottery, jewelry, sculpture, coins and copper objects exhibited in chronological order within the various museum galleries.
Everything else I visited was within the walls of the old city, by foot. The Byzantine Museum & Art Galleries contain the most representative collection of Byzantine art in Cyprus. Over 200 icons from the 9th to 19th Centuries are exhibited. The new Archbishopic is the seat of the Cyprus Orthodox Church with a gigantic (out of proportion) statue of the first President of Cyprus Archbishop Makarios. The House of Chatzigeorgakis Kornesios is the most important surviving 18th Century building in Nicosia. It also houses the Cyprus Ethnological Museum. The Famagusta Gate is one of the three entrances into old Nicosia through the Venetians walls. The Omeriye Mosque was formerly a 14th Century Augustinian monastery. It was converted into a mosque in 1571. Next door is the Omeiye Baths built in the 16th Century that has now been restored into a spa. My last stop was at Laiki Geitonia, an area that has seen the restoration of houses into shops, restaurants and craft centers. I could not resist walking up to the buffer zone operated by the UN that separates the Turkish & Cypriot sections of Nicosia. Will it ever become the city it was before the Turkish invasion in 1974? No one thought Berlin would ever be united.
I did not ever scratch the surface during my two days of touring. One could take the Byzantine Route and visit the ten churches listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Then there is the Aphrodite Cultural Route, following the footsteps of the mythological goddess of love and beauty. It seems everywhere you turn there is another archeological treasure. I guess I will have to wait for another invitation.