Tag Archives: Cyprus

Kakopetria Village: Beauty, Serenity and Tragedy

Kakopetria (Greek for place of stones) is one of those villages brimming with history and begging to be explored.


Nestled into the side of the Troodos Mountain some 2200 feet high and surrounded by thick forest, Kakopetria is the highest village in the Solea Valley. The Troodos Mountain was formed from an explosion of a volcano in the area. When the lava stopped, it became solid.looking-toward-sea-from-Kakopetria

The higher our tour bus crept hugging the heavily vegetated roadside, the more I felt I was shifting further into the center of the earth. It’s difficult to describe the beauty and serenity – and, of course, photos never do justice – but try to imagine the lush green vegetation popping in and out of a forest of pine trees, majestic oaks and even wild olive trees. Hillside terracing spotlights various fruit-bearing trees, such as apple, pear, plum, cherry, apricot and fig that the villagers grow and cultivate.

waterfall-in-KakopetriaA gentle waterfall spilling into the basin within the old village offers melodic serenity and natural beauty. The village was built on the banks of two rivers, which join in the center of the 1500-inhabitant 14th Century village. A hike to the top of the village provides the most beautiful vista of the surrounding landscape as far as one can see. In fact, on a clear day the sea is visible off in the distance.

The entire village is under the protection of the Department of Antiquities requiring special permission if homeowners want to change the exterior appearance of their home. The village’s uniqueness are the narrow crooked lanes mostly impassable by car, and the distinct home construction. The lower portions are constructed with stones while the upper part with clay, mud and bricks. The houses all have tiled roofs and wooden balconies. I found the architecture very appealing.cool-architecture

Almost half way up the steep main street, we came upon the nondescript Church of the Transfiguration. We spent a few minutes inside the small church lighting a candle and snapping a few photos of the interior. I was surprised that even in this tiny remote village, the Greek Orthodox Church also boasted an impressive interior of iconostases. The elderly nun inside knew no English making it impossible to learn anything about the church.church-in-Kokopetria

Back out on the slippery and uneven stone-cobbled road, we walked past numerous winding side lanes the width of a bicycle path and not much more. I can imagine how easily it would be to get turned around if you were trying to find someone’s home. Fortunately for one enterprising homeowner, visitors searching for Irene’s house have a sign indicating the way. Lush green foliage and multi-hued flowers dotted the lanes and flower boxes adding color to the mostly shaded homes. Homeowners lucky enough to have room for a carport utilized the space to grow their own grapes.Irene's-house

There is another reason why this charming village has gained notoriety. Anchored at the start of the climb upward to the residential area is the famous Stone of the Couple. Following an ancient pagan custom of honoring Aphrodite, the goddess of love, newlyweds performed a ceremony by walking around the stone and making a wish. One couple was crushed to death when they lost their footing and tumbled down the rocky incline. From then on, the rock became known as the Stone of the Couple, although locals often refer to it as the Bad Stone. Even today a few couples honor the custom. Eleni, our tour guide, explained that many Cypriots continued to practice pagan customs after the advent of Christianity as many of these practices were deeply rooted in Greek mythology.stone-of-the-couple

Kakopetria is a popular summer and winter resort since its location offers visitors a respite from the sun-scorched temperatures of the large cities, most notably Nicosia, Cyprus’ largest city, an hour or so drive down the mountain. In the wintertime, the mountains are snow-laden offering outdoor activities popular with Cypriots. On weekends, people flock to the village and its handful of hotels are fully booked.

Wandering the narrow lanes and catching glimpses of older Kakopetrians in their windows and doorways smiling as we passed was an enjoyable reconnection with simplicity.

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Cyprus: A Communion with Religion and History


An open-air museum is the best way to describe this small island country and its long and storied history. Add in the strong Greek mythology and devout Greek Orthodox religion, and you have a country that is a true communion with history and religion.

Eleni, our tour guide during the week we were in Cyprus, educated us on numerous aspects of her country, including: nature/natural resources, history and geography, mythology, the tourism industry, the Greek Orthodox religion and the politically charged Cyprus Problem. She was cautious to preface some of her opinions, as just that, but I certainly learned more from her than any history book.

Cyprus is the third largest island in the Mediterranean after Sicily and Sardinia, and is located about 60 miles from Turkey and 72 miles from Syria. The country was formed from a volcano. According to history, earthquakes destroyed almost all of the towns of Cyprus during the fourth century. Its soil is mainly chalk and limestone with sparse vegetation, and the climate mostly hot and arid.

Geographically, Cyprus is divided into three portions: the Troodos Mountains, the Kyrrian Mountain and the Mesari plain, located between the two mountains. The Troodos Mountain range was formed from an earthquake and is mostly solid lava rock.

Cyprus has two natural salt lakes, both of which are dry most of the year, filling up only during the winter rainy period. During the Middle Ages, the salt was mined and exported, as Europe didn’t have salt for some reason. It is no longer mined, according to Eleni, because it is polluted.

salt-lakeThe largest salt lake, near the Larnaca airport, attracts thousands of flamingoes, wild swans and other migrating birds from Asia during the winter months, which then return to Asia in the spring.

According to the story of how the salt lake of Larnaca was formed, as told by Eleni, when Lazarus came to the Larnaca area in 32 AD, he was thirsty and hungry. He saw a vineyard of grapes ready for harvest, and asked the vineyard owner, an elderly lady, who was holding a basket full of grapes if he might have some. She refused telling him that the basket was full of salt. Lazarus became very angry and reportedly transformed the vineyard into a salt lake and the basket she was holding into a basket full of salt. People who later worked in the salt lake said they would periodically find roots of the old lady’s vineyard.

Larnaca aquaductNearby the lake are the remains of an aqueduct, built in 1745 AD that supplied water to Larnaca and was in use for approximately 200 years.

Natural Resources/Nature
Copper was discovered during the period between the Stone and Bronze ages. At first the discovery was not well known; however, during the 2500 BC period, word got out, and then the island invasions began in earnest, says Eleni. The Syrians, Egyptians and Persians all invaded Cyprus for its copper. It is believed the island has taken the name from the ‘Cypressus’, the Cyprus trees, and that the island gave the name to copper.

black-olivesAs you may suspect, olive trees are abundant on the island. According to Eleni, the oldest olive trees in the country are about 700 years old and still producing. She explained the way to recognize an old olive tree is that it has a hollow trunk. Urban legend says you can put a double bed inside an old olive tree trunk.

In addition to olive trees, there are also plenty of carob trees since they do not require much water and grow well in poor soil. Cyprus has about three million carob and olive trees. The carob has the shape of a bean and is black. There are many seeds within the actual plant. “In the past, four seeds of a carob was the standard measure. The carob is used in the plastic industry making cassettes, cosmetics and carob syrup, also known as black honey,” explains Eleni.

Grapes are another important natural resource. Cyprus has about 120 different varieties of grapes that are divided into two categories: table grapes and wine grapes.

Eleni launched into a story about the wine grapes, which she categorized as Very Good. According to her story, “when Richard the Lionhearted came to Cyprus, the inhabitants wanted to welcome him so they offered him a new variety of grapes. They were very delicious. When he tasted them, he announced ‘very good’. But the inhabitants could not speak his language, and they thought he said the name of the variety. Since then, this variety of grape has been known as ‘Very Good’.”

Table grapes grow in the lower elevations with limestone, while the wine grapes grow up in the mountains where there is high rainfall. Because wine grapes ripen longer and become sweeter, workers are paid according to the sweetness of the grapes when they take them to the winery, Eleni stated.

Pine, eucalyptus, mimosa and cypress trees are popular and also plentiful across the island. The British imported Eucalyptus trees to Cyprus from Australia. There are 27 kinds of Eucalyptus documented on the island. This type of tree has the ability to absorb the water from the ground, another reason why they are so popular.

The government has begun reforesting the trees as many had been destroyed. The three reasons for destruction were:

  • Cedar trees provided hardwood for building products and home building;
  • Trees were cut down for heating homes after the copper discovery; and
  • Forests were destroyed by invasions of armies.

A Brief History Lesson
In 323 BC, Alexander the Great liberated Cyprus from the Persians. This was the start of the Hellenistic period. The capital of Cyprus was transferred from Salamis to Paphos, simply because Paphos was the nearest point to Alexandria. Paphos was the capital from the Roman period of 58 BC until the fifth century AD.

During the Byzantine period from the fifth century to 1191 AD, the Archbishop of Cyprus controlled the country. In a vision, he was told that under a carob tree in a Roman tomb in Salamis were the relics of St. Barnabas. He went there, found them, and took them to the archbishop.

During 1191, Richard the Lionhearted was on his way to the Holy Land. One of his boats (carrying his sister and fiancé) mistakenly landed in Cyprus and the occupants, including the two women, were captured. Therefore, Richard the Lionhearted subsequently invaded the island, taking control of it, and released his sister and fiancé.

“But because he really didn’t want to keep Cyprus,” explains Eleni, “he sold the island to the rulers of Jerusalem. Because of the revolutions, they could not keep the island either, and eventually gave it back to Richard.”

In 1489, the last queen of Cyprus – who had a Venetian bloodline – passed the island to the Venetians who ruled from 1499 until 1571. They placed heavy taxes on people and built many fortifications. None of the walls were finished, however, when the Ottomans invaded. The Ottoman Turks then ruled Cyprus until 1878.

From 1879 until 1960, Cyprus was a British colony. In 1960 Cyprus won its independence and has remained so. As part of the agreement, the British bases would remain. According to Eleni, there are about 99 square miles of British bases on the island.

Archbishop Makarios III was elected president in 1960 was making Cyprus the first country with a Christian leader. His vice president was Dr. Fazil Kucuk from the Turkish Muslim community. At the time of Cyprus’ independence, the population was estimated to be 650,000, of which 80 percent were Greek Cypriots, 18 percent Turkish Cypriots and two percent other minorities, such as Armenians, Latins and Maronites.

“The Greek Cypriots speak the Greek language, as do the Christian Orthodox,” explains Eleni. “The Turkish Cypriots speak the Turkish language and are Muslim, but the common language between the two communities is English.”

military-checkpointThe Cyprus Problem
Soon after the 1960 election, problems began surfacing. In 1963, the Turkish Cypriots left the Parliament. In 1974, Greece tried to assassinate the Cypriot president. “This was the chance Turkey was waiting for,” believes Eleni. “The Turks invaded Cyprus on July 20, 1974 and took control of 40 percent of Cyprus. Two hundred thousand people were forced to leave their homes and came to the central part of the island where the government built them houses. They live with the hope that one day they will go back to their land and homes where they were born. But it’s been 40 years now,” she continues, “and there has been no improvement to the Cyprus Problem. Since 1974, 1,619 people are missing and no one knows what happened to them. So with the solution of the Cyprus Problem, we also hope we will discover what happened to these people, which includes women and children, and whether they are dead or alive.

“When the Turks invaded, Greek and Turkish Cypriots were living harmoniously all across the island. The Turks landed in Kyrenia by boat and the people began fleeing in a panic to save their lives.

unfinished-high-rise-on-Famagusta-beach-1“The Turks bombed the town of Famagusta from the air. When the Turkish Cypriots who fled tried to return to Famagusta, it was impossible because the Turkish troops refused to allow them back. Turkey allowed 140,000 Turkish settlers to settle in Famagusta, giving them property and enticing them to stay on the island. The real Turkish Cypriots were living in poor conditions and many of them were forced to immigrate to other countries. When we say we don’t want the Turks in Cypriot,” emphasizes Eleni, “what we mean are the Turkish troops and the settlers, not the Turkish Cypriots. The Turkish Cypriots are Cypriots. They belong to Cyprus.”

Following the 1974 invasion, it was impossible for the Greek Cypriots to enter the Occupied Area around Famagusta. “If a Turkish Cypriot wanted to come to the west or southern side of the island, there was no problem. This is the reason why we had 8,000 Turkish Cypriots who were passing through coming to work on this side of the island,” reports Eleni. “The Turkish troops would allow them to pass through, but not to stay overnight. For the Greek Cypriots, it was impossible to go to north Cyprus; Turkish troops would not allow them into the Occupied Area.

checkpoint-at-Famagusta“Ten years ago, one day out of the blue, the Turks told the Cypriots that if they wanted to come to this side of the island, they would be allowed in if they brought a passport. You cannot imagine the result!” exclaims Eleni. “Thousands of people came to see the side of the island they had not been allowed in to in 30 years. After 1974 one third of the island population were refugees. The Turkish Cypriots still living in their houses who had not left were overjoyed to see friends and relatives. They invited them in, offering them coffee, and telling them they also wanted a solution to the Cyprus Problem. Settlers who now inhabited the houses shut the doors in the former owners’ faces and would not allow them in to see their old homes.”

Cyprus’s economy is heavily based on tourism. About 25 percent of the island workers are in the tourism industry. According to Eleni, today if a Cypriot applied for a tourism job, starting salary would be 700 euro ($800) per month with only one day off a week. And then it is only seasonal. She said that 80 percent of hotels in non-tourist areas close, and if the hotels close, that means restaurants, shops and other stores in the area close as well. That is why Cyprus has such high unemployment from November to May. “It is impossible to find another job because everyone else is looking too. Those who have worked for two consecutive years at the same place can claim unemployment that amounts to approximately 70 percent of their salary for six months and no more,” Eleni states. “If you worked less than two years for a company/shop/restaurant/hotel that closes for the off season, you would need to leave the country and return again for the new tourist season and hope to get your job back or find a new one.”

Last year (2013) Cyprus saw just under $2.5 million from tourism.

Poised among political struggles, early religious strife, the comfort of modern civilization stemming from mythology and ancient ruins, along with the sensory splendor of nature, Cyprus and its historic island culture have something to offer everyone.



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The Paphos Mosaics of Cyprus

Today, their luxury vehicles, private jets and sleek yachts identify the rich and famous. But in the third century AD, the very rich – at least in Cyprus – showed off their wealth and influence with amazing mosaic floors that told stories borrowed from Greek mythology.

The entire city of Paphos, a seaport on the southwest coast of the Cypriot island, and the surrounding area, is on the UNESCO heritage list due to the exquisite mosaic remains discovered. UNESCO extended the area suggesting extensive remains are still buried underneath.

A farmer cultivating his field accidentally discovered the Paphos Mosaics in 1963. No one was aware there were mosaics in the area prior to his discovery. The excavations indicated a large and wealthy series of residences of the Roman period, the first of its type to be found not only in Paphos, but also in Cyprus as a whole. As more mosaic floors were located in the surrounding areas, archaeologists realized that such elaborate and rich mosaic floor decoration was not the exception, but rather the norm for Paphos during the mid-Roman period.

Eleni, our Cypriot tour guide, clarified that in the Roman times, especially in the mid-Roman period, most of the wealthy houses were decorated with mosaic floors. She explained that apprentices or ordinary craftsmen created the geometric frames and background filling in workshops, and the master artisans created the extremely accomplished figured compositions.

At the Paphos Mosaics, the amazing floors are featured in three third century AD noblemen’s villas – House of Dionysus, House of Theseus, and the recently excavated House of Aion – and are considered among the finest in the eastern Mediterranean. The mosaics mostly depict scenes from Greek mythology and are beautifully rendered and preserved. All are in their original location.

Also on site are the remains of Saranda Kolones Castle, an odeon, and the Castle of the 40 Pillars. Excavations are ongoing, and I observed workers slowly and meticulously scraping away layers of sand under the hot midday sun.

Eleni revealed that in 1964 near one of the newly uncovered ruins on the Paphos Mosaic site a skeleton was discovered. What was so special about it, however, was that in the skeleton’s arms was a jar of more than 2,200 silver coins from the Tollemite Period. Apparently sometime in the fifth century BC during an earthquake that destroyed Paphos – this part of the island was a notorious earthquake zone – this individual ran from his house with the jar of money and died on the spot. The jar and all of the silver coins are now in the Archaeological Museum in Nicosia, Cyprus.

House of Dionysus
hunting-scene-mosaics-from-Dionthos-houseThis house belonged to a very rich person, according to Eleni, and was named for Dionysus because Dionysus – the god of wine – is portrayed in two of the extensive mosaic floors. The villa ruins encompass about 21,500 square feet with approximately 6,200 SF consisting of mosaic floors. More ruins outside also belong to the house.

The first mosaic we saw as we entered the covered structure was that of Narcissus. The mosaic is estimated to be about 600 years old. Eleni immediately launched into a story interpreting the mosaic pattern: “Narcissus was a very handsome man and all of the girls in the village were in love with him. But Narcissus did not love any of the beautiful girls; he seemed more intent on himself. So the maidens decided Narcissus should be punished. They told Zeus that Narcissus would spend his days sitting by the side of the river watching himself in the water. According to Greek mythology, to this day, a narcissus flower is at the bottom of the river.”

The atrium of the house depicted four stories through its mosaic floors. One of them is the love story of Thisbe, a very pretty girl, and Pyramos, a handsome man. The two were in love with each, but their parents refused to allow them to marry. The two decided to elope and agreed to meet in the forest under a mulberry tree. Thisbe arrived first. She saw a lion and was so frightened that she began running. In the process, she lost her veil. As the story goes, the lioness snatched the veil, which had some blood stains on it. When Pyramos arrived at the meeting point, he saw the lioness with the stained veil. He immediately thought the animal had killed his beloved Thisbe, so he committed suicide. When Thisbe came back, she saw her dead lover and committed suicide next to him. Does the storyline sound familiar? Shakespeare adapted it for Romeo and Juliet.

Apollo-&-DaphneAccording to Eleni, the best story of the House of Dionysus is that of Daphne, again, a very pretty girl. Daphne means laurel. Apollo was in love with Daphne, but she wouldn’t have anything to do with him. Apollo continually followed her, begging her to marry him, but the nymph refused and ran from him. Apollo began chasing her. Seeing that he was bound to catch her, she called upon her father, “Help me, Peneus! Open the earth to enclose me, or change my form, which has brought me into this danger! I don’t want to be a woman any more. Let me be free of this man from this moment forward!”

Her father touched her on her legs and she turned into a laurel tree. When Apollo discovered this he said, ‘If I cannot have you as my wife, I would have you as my laurel tree.’ Since then, according to the story, the laurel tree has been the holy tree of Apollo. To this day, laurel leave crowns are presented to winners of athletic events.

House of Theseus
circular-mosaic-from-house-of-TheseusConstruction of this building began in the second century AD and underwent many modifications. It was inhabited until the early seventh century AD. According to the excavators, the building was the official seat of the Roman governor of Cyprus.

The main feature of the House of Theseus is its gigantic floor mosaic depicting the birth of Achilles. A second composition is Theseus and the Minotaur. What makes this mosaic renowned is that unlike other mosaics depicting Theseus, this mosaic has the hero Theseus shown in the center of the picture.

Due to the immense size and proportions of this structure, the building has not yet been completely uncovered – nor enclosed to protect the mosaics from the elements. The House of Theseus is the largest residential structure of its type found on the island so far and one of the largest in the Mediterranean.

House of Aion
Excavations began in 1983 and only a small part of this house has been excavated. The uncovered rooms include the reception hall and a portion of the main room. The house was given its name because in the center of the main room is a composition of the depiction of the god Aion, the personification of eternal time. To date, most of the mosaics are in a geometric pattern.

seascene-house-of-AionThe story behind the mosaic named Scene on the Sea depicts the three most beautiful of Nereus’ daughters. They are returning from a competition judged by the impartial judge Aion in which none of the girls won. “Although beautiful and elegant in their dresses, they are angry and dissatisfied with the result of the competition,” Eleni tells us by pointing to various figures on the mosaic. “They ride away on the back of a friendly sea centaur and a young triton, the surface of the sea. A saddened Eros is riding a bull and Zeus and Athena are watching from above.” Eleni mentions that representations of this particular story are extremely rare and those that exist do not surpass this excellent example.

It is interesting to note that these mosaic renderings were made around the middle of the fourth century AD during Christianity. Yet the Paphos Mosaics are believed to represent a deeply cultured and rooted traditional value and creed of the ancient gods, which these artists were attempting to reinstate for the old pagan aristocrats resisting Christianity, who commissioned the works.

Saranda Kolones Castle
arch-and-steps-in-castleThe castle was erected around 1200 AD after the Frankish conquest of Cyprus on the site of an earlier Byzantine fort. It was destroyed by the earthquake of 1223 and was never rebuilt or cleared.

The structure was a compact fortress surrounded by a massive external continuous wall with eight towers and a moat. The approach was via a wooden bridge over the moat. The interior of the castle was rectangular shaped with four corner towers.

Tall columns remained as they fell and the arch above the main entrance still stands.

We did not have time to hike over to the Castle of the 40 Pillars, although from a distance the standing pillars were visible with the sea as a backdrop.

It’s amazing just thinking about the painstaking process of making, painting and creating the detailed mosaic patterns this site is so famous for. But then too to wonder what these people were like who lived here; the ultra rich and conservative who refused to accept Christianity. It’s almost as though their mythology-related stories told through the gorgeous mosaics represented their personal rebellion. The Paphos Mosaics site must be an archaeological connoisseur’s dream.


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Larnaca Fort: Cannons, Tombstones and Gallows… Once Upon a Time

After a steady diet of Greek mythology and archaeological ruins, touring the small somewhat restored Larnaca Fort in Larnaca, Cyprus was a nice diversion.

Located a few blocks from our hotel on the southern edge of the coastal corniche road, the fort is classified as a Byzantine structure, but there are two drastically different versions of when it was constructed. It is generally agreed upon, however, that the fort’s purpose was to defend the southern coasts of Cyprus, and in particular, Larnaca’s town harbor, and was later used as a prison, artillery center and an outpost.Larnaca-fort inside-Larnaca-fort

Since it is unclear as to when exactly it was built, most historians accept the late 12th century theory as the initial period given the fact that Larnaca gained great importance as a seaport during the medieval ages. Written accounts add credence to the claim that the fort was built during the reign (1382-1398) of King James 1 of Cyprus. The form of the entrance arch suggests a 14th century date.

fort-layout-diagramIts original shape was never decisively determined, but the fort appears to have taken the form of a square tower, and based on restoration of a monument, the foundations of an earlier phase were discovered indicating that the original fort was larger than the current structure. Documentation exists to support the evidence that it was rebuilt in 1625 during the Ottoman period.

Today, located in the center of the stone-walled fort is a small, nicely landscaped courtyard. Its north-facing entrance consists of a two-story building, now a museum, and is believed to have been from the Ottoman period. This is based on the Turkish inscription above the main entrance. The courtyard is currently used for cultural events, and the day we visited a stage was in place along with about 50 chairs in anticipation of a final concert of the season.

A sign on the grounds explains that the fort was ransacked, destroyed and rebuilt several times “since it was at the center of conflicting economic interests, which had to do mainly with the export of salt from the port of Larnaca.”

According to the fort brochure, famous explorer Abbot Giovanni Mariti, who lived in Larnaca during the first half of the 18th century, records that “the fort was built by the Ottoman Turks, but was already in a semi-ruinous state at the time, even though a garrison was still maintained here.” The abbot also wrote that the fort was mainly used as a firing-gun salute to passing Christian warships.4-medieval-cannons

By the late 18th century, Larnaca Fort lost its importance and the Turks abandoned it. Apparently the next written documentation comes during World War 1 when the Germans occupied the fort from 1914-1918 using it as a military outpost. At the end of the war, the British retook it and converted it into a prison where a gallows was installed to execute prisoners. The last execution was held in 1945. In 1948, the fort was converted to the current archaeological museum, but not opened to the public until 1969. The installations of the gallows were discovered during conservation and restoration works, but a date was not given as to when that discovery was made.

gallows-photoA sign above the gallows states that relatives and friends of the condemned were allowed to watch the execution from the courtyard, but far enough away, where they could not hear the sound of the trapdoor opening. Looking down the steep ladder to the deep hole of the former gallows was certainly an eerie feeling.

Highlights of the fort include a number of cannons on display in the courtyard – some dating to the medieval ages – and a room of tombstones dating from the 14th Century that are mainly from gothic churches of Nicosia, a town about 20 miles away. A second room featured various inscriptions carved into stone on the walls in various languages. Yet another room that faced the sea had a cave where numerous tombstones were originally uncovered.

As I clambered up some metal stairs to the two-room museum on the second level, a quick view of the calm blue sea beyond the old stone wall reflected the medieval character of the fort. Ducking inside the old door, I discovered displays of pottery, including crude utensils and dishware the soldiers used, along with photos from Early Christian churches (4-7th Century AD), Byzantine mosaics of the Early Christian period (same centuries as above), and Byzantine and Medieval Cyprus monuments from the 4-16th Centuries AD. A second room portrayed wall paintings of Cypriot Byzantine dating from the 11-16th Century AD.utesils-used-at-fort

No graceful architecture or any furnishings, for that matter, provided any hints of how comfortable or crude the fort must have been. Based on its size and the display of common household pottery discovered on site, this barren structure must have been sparsely furnished and somewhat lonely; probably not conducive to a “home away from home” for its occupants.

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The Ancient City of Salamis, Cyprus Lives On Through Myth and Culture


Being buried beneath sand for more than a thousand years saved Salamis from destruction. The ancient city originates back to 1100 BC – after the Trojan War – when Salamis was the capital of Cyprus. Coins discovered from the Middle Ages around the city’s basilica indicate there were still inhabitants living in the ruins up to around 1300 AD.

Due to Salamis’ location along the sea, it became an important trading center once the “dark ages” of the Mediterranean world came to an end around the eight century BC. In 648 AD after yet another Arab raid, the remaining inhabitants had had enough and finally moved to what would become Famagusta.

The Salamis archaeological site is regarded as the island’s most spectacular; not only because of the extensive ruins, but also because of its extremely well-preserved state.

Ancient ruins in Europe were considered “free-for-all quarries” for builders of medieval castles. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that various governments began forming antiquities departments and banned site looting. Therefore, Salamis was not immune from the looting of statues, marble columns and pre-cut stones.

According to historical accounts, the city was built and destroyed several times due to earthquakes. The ruins evident today are mostly of the Roman time.

Three major areas of the Salamis archaeological site uncovered consist of the gymnasium, theater and baths. On the other side of town are ruins of houses, the basilica and temple of Zeus, all of which encompass a large area and are still being studied. Excavation stopped in 1974.

Salamis-gymnasiumThis public structure – built during the first century BC – is where young Greek men gathered for physical workouts and cultural training. “Every year one person from the town was elected to financially support the gymnasium and provide the athletes with olive oil,” Elani, our tour guide, explained to us.

Before the games, the athletes would slather their bodies with olive oil. The popular games then took place in the large gymnasium, an open courtyard surrounded by column arcades.

Two swimming pools occupied the two ends of the eastern colonnade just prior to the bath area.

A marble inscription on the floor leading to the Gymnasium is dedicated to Ptoleme V Epiphanes who ruled from 205-180 BC.Marble-floor-inscription

I found the bath area the most interesting part of the ruins, and this area has still not been fully excavated. The Roman baths were customarily located near the gymnasium, just as they are at Salamis. Here we visited four large rooms known as the frigidaria (cold room), tepidarium, caldarium (hot water baths) and sutatorium (sweating rooms).

People gathered in the first bath entry room to socialize and conduct business deals – a type of meeting place – while the second room was strictly for washing and bathing.

The first bath room – the frigidarium – was the room with cold water. Here the slaves or workers provided massages. From here, the men went to the gymnasium to work out before returning to the other rooms of the baths.

Salamis-bathsThe baths were lavishly decorated with marble statues, colorful mosaics and mythological paintings. The entire area was encompassed in rich marble.

After visiting the frigidarium, the men proceeded to the tepidarium and caldarium. The tepidarium room was for medium hot water while the caldarium for hot water.

It was interesting to learn how they heated the water. They used a system known as ebocostas. With charcoal they produced hot air, which passed between tubulars; the same system used for cold water in the frigidarium. Some of the tubular system is still evident.

The sutatorium was the steam room, where we saw the brick pillars that the hot air passed through. When the hot air passed under the marble floor, there was a system in place that heated the water. The small sutatorium needed only a small amount of water; when the water evaporated, it caused steam. Here men would sit and sweat before entering the “cool down” frigidarium room once again.Salamis-sauna-tubular-system

Above the arch in one of the bath rooms was a partially restored fresco painting recounting a folktale. The story, as told by Elani, goes something like this: Before an expedition, Hercules asked his friend Elus to fetch water for the boat and journey. When Elus reached the well, a beautiful nymph placed a spell on him. (The painting depicts the moment the nymph – a woman with black hair and water dripping from her hand – casts the spell, and Elus cannot move.)

frescoes-on-arch-ceilingMeanwhile, Elus has been gone longer than it should have taken, and Hercules realizes something must be wrong. He goes in search of his friend, finds him paralyzed in place, and somehow manages to get him back and free him of the spell.

Of the three excavated theaters thus far in Cyprus (Kourion, Soli and Salamis), this one is the largest. When it was first constructed during the first century BC, the theater had 50 rows of seats (now there are 22) and accommodated 15,000 spectators (now it seats 6,000). Elani stated that a town’s population back then was determined by multiplying the theater’s capacity by four. Thus, Salamis’ population was about 24,000 when the theater was constructed.

Roman style theaters had a half circle orchestra with an auditorium arch of 180 degrees. In the center was the altar. Prior to a performance, the townspeople placed offerings to the god of entertainment upon the altar.1st-4-original-rows-w-altar-in-center

Two centuries later, a three-foot high wall was built around the orchestra and filled with water to provide sea re-enactments. Earthquakes destroyed the theater and it was not rebuilt until 1959 by the Dept. of Antiquities. It is used today for musical performances.

Elani pointed out the two first rows of seats, which are the originals. These seats were reserved for the VIPs of the town. The remaining seats – different color and shape – were reconstructed.

Strewn around the Salamis site are many statues, with the majority having been relocated to an archaeological museum. All had one thing in common: They were missing their arms and heads. There were two reasons for this, according to Eleni.

First, the Christians could not accept that there were still people who believed in the 12 Gods of Olympus; so they destroyed many of the statues as a type of retaliation. Secondly, due to the many Arab invasions, when statues are toppled obviously the first pieces to break are those not directly attached to the body – the arms and heads.Salamis-headless-statues-cropped

The folklore and innovation associated with Salamis, and the baths in particular, are almost as amazing as the actual ruins. I can only imagine the liveliness of the games, the seriousness of the “business” meetings, and the laughter and applause ringing the theater that certainly was emitted from this ancient city.

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