Monday, January 31, 2011

Road Trip – “Snow to Sea”: Mt. Olympus, Kykkos Monastery,Makarios' Tomb, Paphos

On yesterday’s road trip, we went in search of the climatic extremes that Cyprus has to offer.

The very peak of the Troodos Mountains is marked by Mount Olympus and the village of Troodos. At almost 2000 meters (6400 feet) above sea level, this area receives a fair amount of snow during the “rainy season” in Cyprus, which provides locals with an opportunity to ski, snowboard, and sled in the middle of a Mediterranean island.

We were underprepared for the snowy conditions at the top of the hill, which as you can see provided low visibility and a wet ride up the chairlift


Our next stop, since we were in the region, was Kykkos Monastery. The monastery has a long tradition in Cyprus and is famous for its icon (religious painting on wood) of the Virgin Mary holding Christ as a child. The icon is said to be painted by the Apostle Luke, which is important because he was an eye witness.

The monastic complex has grown and changed substantially over the centuries, and what we are able to visit today is a highly renovated and clean cut edition of a religious community. The extreme wealth of the church is expressed through the recently laid mosaics and painted frescos that line the walls. The interior of the church is covered in brand new frescos (wall paintings) and the iconostasis at the front of the church is a shimmering gold, ornately cut iconostasis, which is a stand for the impressive display of icons (including the Virgin and Christ Child mentioned above even though it is mostly covered).

Not far from the monastic complex is the Tomb of Archbishop Makarios III. Makarios (as he is generally called) is one of the most iconic figures of the modern Cyprus state. He was the archbishop and political leader during the transition from British Colonial rule to the self-determined state of the Republic of Cyprus and later was the target of a failed coup by a Greek military junta in 1974 (five days after which the Turkish military intervened). He died only three years after the island became divided.

His tomb is now covered by a massive statue of him in full archbishop attire.

We ended the day in Paphos as the sun set over the harbor.

Amy informed me that we covered more than 300km yesterday.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Road Trip – Morphou, Soloi, Morphou Bay, Kato Pyrgos Checkpoint, Kokkina

Last Sunday we headed west to enjoy the northwest coast of the island along Morphou Bay and the Akamas Peninsula, which is a route that was made possible only a few months ago after the border checkpoint at Kato Pyrgos opened.

We started our journey in the citrus producing capital of Cyprus, Morphou. There’s not much to see in the town, but surrounding the built up area is grove after grove of orange, lemon, and grapefruit trees. I posted a picture from one of the groves in my last post.

After passing the former American-run Cyprus Mining Corporation site, we found the driveway-like gravel path entrance to the archaeological site of the ancient village of Soloi. This almost 3000 year old site was one of the ancient city kingdoms of Cyprus. The main monument on the site is the ruined 4th century basilica. Its massive proportions (one the width and length are visible today) and mosaics of geometrical patterns and wildlife are extremely impressive. Unfortunately, the entire basilica is covered by a terribly ugly roof that obstructs much of the appreciation of the site (although it does protect from weather damage). Maybe a more appropriate intervention would have been to create a roof that generally represents the height and form of the structure, which must be known based on the toppled column sizes and other evidence. I assume this roof was put on some time ago before the more contemporary restoration project was undertaken by the UNDP.

The roof also seems to have been installed with little care for the importance of the 1500 year old masonry as the steel supports of the roof at the corners are placed on concrete footings that have been poured to the foundations.

The other main attraction at the site is the Roman Theater. The theater was largely demolished by the British in the late 19th century for Port Said in Egypt and was rebuilt later. At the top of the theater it was interesting to consider how magnificent of a city Soloi might have been to live in 1500 years ago. One can imagine the village surrounding the agora (or marketplace) which is located only a few dozen feet from a massive basilica. Up the slope a short walk was a magnificent theater that seated up to 4000 people and overlooked Morphou Bay as its backdrop. Turning away from the stage are rolling foothills leading up to the Troodos Mountains.

Heading away from the bay in the direction of the foothills we noticed another settlement, which was undoubtedly an archaeological dig site at some point in the past but has since been overgrown. Not far from there was farm land that had a large sheep pasture as you can see below.

From Soloi, we continued to the west through the new checkpoint at Kato Pyrgos. Kato Pyrgos is a village in the Greek Cypriot community that, until the recent checkpoint opening, was about as far off the beaten path as you could get in Cyprus. It will be interesting to see how the coastal town will develop over the next few years as tourists begin to visit it more often.

Our scenic drive continued to the west along a winding mountain pass where the Troodos Mountains meet the sea. At multiple locations along that road there are various Cypriot National Guard and UN stations protecting a unique town in Cyprus. The village turned “exclave” known as Kokkina to the Greek Cypriots and Erenkoy to the Turkish Cypriots is another interesting story in the Cyprus Problem. As I understand it, during the struggle in the summer of 1974 the Greek military junta attempted to push this small village of Turkish Cypriots into the sea. The village was suspected to be a port of Turkish military and arms transport. Following a struggle pitting the Turkish Cypriot citizens and Turkish military personnel against the Greek military junta (known as EOKA B), the Turkish air force responded by bombing and napalming the site heavily. Many casualties and grave injuries resulted from the struggle. Today, the small village is surrounded by a separate Buffer Zone that lies south of the main Buffer Zone that divides the island between north and south. We were told that the village is basically uninhabited today except for the Turkish military personnel that guard it. The drive through Kokkina would cut at least 20 minutes off the travel time required to drive around the 3 km Buffer Zone.

Ruins of the former village of Kokkina

After driving for a while longer, we decided to turn back from our intended destination of the Akamas for concern of the lack of daylight we had left. We intend to return when the weather is nicer to take advantage of the uninhabited beaches.

On our way back we stopped to photograph the mountain goats of the Troodos that were roaming the hillside.

Finally, we drove as far northeast as we could along the coast to find a spot to watch the sun set. The rocky coastline we found produced a warm glow as the sun went down which made for a perfect photo opportunity. As rain began to fall, a rainbow appeared opposite the sunset, while the area in between was blue sky with white clouds.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Photos of the Day - "Bitter Lemons & Oranges"

Lemon tree near in the courtyard space around Chrysaliniotissa Church.

Orange groves of Morphou

Friday, January 21, 2011

Road Trip - Larnaca, Pyla, Agia Napa, Cape Greco/Protaras, Derynia

Last Sunday we went on another road trip. This time however, we fled toward the south coast to explore a variety of cities and sites in the southeast of the island.

We began the day in Larnaca very near to the international airport at the Larnaca Salt Lake. Although the lake looks like a lake normal lake right now, during the summer months the water evaporates and the area becomes a shimmering desert of salt. The lake is also said to host large numbers of migratory birds at certain parts of the year, but none were around on this day.

Larnaca Salt Lake in the summer.
Other side of the main road near the Salt Lake. An airport and its drainage.

On the far side of the lake is the Hala Sultan Tekke, an oasis of palm trees, a minaret, and domes. Legend has it that this important monument is the site where the prophet Muhammad’s wet nurse fell off of a mule, broke her neck and then died. Her grave became a shrine that is within the mausoleum which is connected to a mosque. The entire complex, or Tekke, is the Muslim version of a convent and all of it was preserved under the auspices of the United Nations Development Programme.

Hala Sultan Tekke across the Larnaca Salt Lake

Next we visited a city called Pyla. The village is unique because it remains a mixed population of Greek and Turkish Cypriots and exists within the United Nations-controlled Buffer Zone. The juxtaposing features of the small town such as minarets, bell towers, and multi-lingual signs tell the story of Cyprus that hasn’t existed for decades. However, daily life is carried out under the banner of the United Nations peacekeeping forces, which is prominently positioned at the center of the main square.

From Pyla we continued to the touristy city of Agia Napa. Since “Sea and Sun” (and partying) tourists are generally non-existent on Cyprus at this time of the year, the city is dead. The dozens of hotels that line the sandy shores are vacant and the shops lining the streets are closed. There is literally no life here when tourists aren’t around. Even when the tourists are around, I argue that this is the most unfortunate portrait Cyprus can offer. The island has so much richer than the “love” boats, bad food, and clubs.

Boy playing in the sand during the off season at Agia Napa

Speaking of bad food, we tried the fish meze at a place called Vassos Fish Tavern (recommended by the Lonely Planet guidebook). The mural above the outdoor seating (not pictured) which overlooks the harbor portrays fishermen taking in nets and a birth date of 1962, which I interpreted as being representative of freshness and tradition… Two things that we thought sounded like a recipe for success. We couldn’t have been more wrong. Every piece of seafood came straight out of the frozen section of the nearest grocery store. Spongy breaded cod “fillets”, chewy octopus, and bitter hummus are my memories of the meal. If I had to order again, I would opt for their salad, toast, and drinks.

We probably should have guessed by the look of the restaurant that it would be a bad meal.

The restaurant even cages up miserable pelicans like this one!

We continued toward Cape Greco, the southeast tip of the island, in search of the sea caves that line the shores of Cyprus. This area is absolutely beautiful despite the chilly temperatures at this time of year. Some pictures of what this area looks like during the summer can be found here.

The only downside about Cape Greco is that you can't access the absolutely point because of British antenna's. I was disturbed that the sign asks us to keep the park clean while the British armed forces are able to pollute our view.

Notice the way the salt water has etched contours into the porous bedrock.

To finish the day, we viewed the “ghost city” of Varosha from the edge of a small town called Derynia in the Greek Cypriot community.

Underground Antiquities Trade... with a twist

One of the more despicable yet fascinating results of the Turkish military invasion of Cyprus in the summer of 1974 has been the looting of religious art and antiquities in northern Cyprus, a zone under the control of the Turkish military since the invasion. Following an attempted coup by an underground Greek military junta, the Turkish military entered the country from the north coast. By the end of that summer, an impermeable barrier called the Buffer Zone prohibiting contact between Turkish and Greek Cypriots.

Over the years that followed, churches and archaeological sites north of the Buffer Zone that were no longer inhabited by Greek Orthodox authorities or the Department of Antiquities were pillaged and looted of their most prized possessions. In addition, the condition of churches and monasteries (some over a millennium old) were turned into stables and storage facilities and undocumented archaeological sites (many millennia old) were left for ruin. The artwork slipped into the underground antiquities trade because of its easy export from northern Cyprus and over the past decades, work has been found all over the world, both in main stream auctions and private collections, that was originally taken from Cyprus. It has been estimated that tens of thousands of items have been looted from northern Cyprus over the past 35 years.

The issue became international famous after a landmark case involving Peg Goldberg, an art dealer from Indiana, was won by the Church of Cyprus to return a number of mosaics from Panagia Kanakaria Church near Famagusta. The case garnered such attention after a number of appeals denied Goldberg the right to the mosaics because she did not purchase them in good faith. The mosaics are now on display at the Byzantine Museum in Nicosia. Irreparable damage has been done to the mosaics after being cut from the curved apse of the church and packaged haphazardly.

6th century mosaic of Jesus from Kanakaria (
Yesterday, news broke about the most recent find, which is completely surprising but ends happily. Boy George, the pop singer, was contacted by the Church of Cyprus after a bishop saw a large icon (or painting on wood) in the background of an interview with George in his home. The 300+ year old icon from the Church of St. Charalambous in New Chorio Kithrea in northern Cyprus was purchased by the singer, who apparently is a collector of religious art, in 1985. Fortunately, the singer was gracious enough to repatriate the item without any questioning.

Boy George with a bishop and the icon in question (BBC)

An interview with Boy George regarding the Icon can be found here.

This story was referred to me by Amy.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Fire at Monastery of Hagios Ioannis Prodromos

Terrible news of a fire was announced from the Monastery of St. John the Forerunner near Serres, Greece in mid-December 2010. The Monastery was set ablaze following a number of snowy days on Mt. Menoikeion in the mountains of northern Greece. The fire is said to have started from the wood burning stove.

Above is the monastic complex. The area that I darkened in black and white on front left side of the complex is the area destroyed by the fire.
Over 25,000 square feet of the complex was “covered in ashes and ruins” following the terribly destructive fire that raged throughout the early morning hours. Fortunately, Nobody was injured and news articles have reported that many of the rare icons (paintings on wood) were miraculously saved. However, the monastery, which was founded in the late 13th century, had undergone a rebirth since it was re-inhabited by the sisterhood of nuns after being abandoned by monks years earlier. Twenty five years ago, the abbess and two other sisters committed themselves to the dilapidated site and transformed it into a home for a religious family and a self-sufficient business, as well as a community stronghold. Their story is truly remarkable and the recent fire is a tragic event that has destroyed much of their hard work.

Before and after pictures. Before pictures were taken by me during my stay and the after photos were provided by the Monastery on their website

I had the privilege to join a group of Princeton students led by Nikos two summers ago on the Mt. Menoikeion Seminar. The hospitality we were treated with at the historically charged monastic complex has been one of my favorite travel experiences thus far. Hidden in the mountains for a week and a half at the monastery allowed me time for uninterrupted introspection, filled my stomach with massive amounts of incredible food, and inspired me to understand more about Byzantine architecture and history, Greek Orthodox traditions, and preservation efforts in a living community. I am extremely thankful for the time I was able to spend there and I remain hopeful that the nuns will recover from this terrible disaster.

This dining room, which hosted the nuns, our group during our stay, and the community at large during feast days is completely destroyed. Their main kitchen is also part of the ruins...
The following were my blog posts recording my experience in chronological order: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, Review

In addition, click here to see the monastery’s website that has a letter from the abbess as well as photos and links related to the fire.