Small Island, Big History

Saturday, April 13, 2019 Road Junkies 0 Comments


Stepping into the Past, Days 13-15:  Greece to Cyprus.  Though there are seven smaller countries in Europe, Cyprus is just 1.5 times the size of the state of Delaware. At its widest point, the island extends a mere 141 miles from east to west; north to south, just 60 miles. And yet it is a land divided. 
Like most countries in the eastern Mediterranean area, Cyprus has a long history. Archaeological remains establish the existence of villages on the island as far back as ten thousand years ago. With a location strategic to three continents, Cyprus has been occupied at various times by Assyrians, Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Venetians, Ottomans and British.  During the British colonial period (1878-1960), the island’s population became fragmented. Cypriots who identified as ethnically Turkish wanted to unite with Turkey; citizens with Greek heritage and the predominant Greek Orthodox Church wanted the island to be annexed by Greece.
Current Map of Cyprus
In response to uprisings by nationalists, the British withdrew and granted Cyprus its independence in 1960, with a constitution that guaranteed power sharing between the Turkish and Greek Cypriots. But within three years, violent conflict had broken out between the two groups with the support of their respective fatherlands. After Greek nationalists staged a coup in 1974 for the purpose of uniting the island with Greece, Turkey responded by invading Cyprus from the north, leading to the capture of the northern third of the island.
One of two border crossings into Northern Cyprus within Nicosia
Since 1974, the Republic of Cyprus (predominantly Greek) has ruled the southern two-thirds of the island and has been recognized internationally as the official Cypriot government.  The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus controls the upper third of the island though only Turkey recognizes the republic as a legitimate government.  Between the two is a no-man's land, a neutral zone supervised by United Nation peacekeeping troops.
Negotiations aimed at reunifying the island have been attempted various times and today are again stalled.  However, crossing the border between the two has become easier.  We walked from the south to the north for a brief visit, and merely presented our passports for examination by officials on each side of the checkpoint.

But we spent a great deal more time in the south, flying from Athens into Larnaca, the primary international point of arrival.  Since the old Nicosia airport fell into the buffer zone after the 1974 conflict, the six-year old facility had to be abandoned.  (Amazing photo essay on the deserted airport here.)

In our brief visit, we found people on both sides of the Green Line to be kind and hospitable.  The island offers up castles, ancient churches and monasteries, the greenest of mountains and the bluest of seas.  It got the attention of Marc Anthony, who was so impressed he gave the island to Cleopatra.  And England's Richard the Lionheart made Cyprus the site of his destination wedding to his beloved Berengaria of Navarre.

Our first stop was the city of Paphos (population 90,000).  Located on the southwest coast of the island and steeped in mythology, the city has been inhabited since Neolithic times.  As the goddess's legendary birthplace, Paphos was the ancient center of the cult of Aphrodite.  Like many other visitors, we stopped at the rock where she is said to have risen from the waves.
The large sea stack is known familiarly as Aphrodite's Rock.
It was at the Aphrodite site that we learned what we called the "red tag rule."  On Cyprus, most rental cars are equipped with red license plates.  Every car in the parking lot at this popular tourist spot had cherry colored tags, so we quickly surmised that we'd find the most popular destinations by following the red tags.
Our perky blue Toyota CH-R was so easy to locate in car parks.  
Close to the town harbor is the Kato Paphos Archaeological Park, home to some of the most impressive Roman mosaics in the eastern Mediterranean. The park contains the major part of the important Greek and Roman city of the same name. The site is still under excavation as archaeologists work to unearth structures and monuments from prehistoric times through the Middle Ages.   Wildflowers were in full bloom all over the island adding a burst of color to the otherwise drab stone ruins.
Outside the walls of old Paphos lies the ancient necropolis known as Tombs of the Kings.  The caves and sandstone burial chambers served as final resting places for local nobility, rather than royalty, and date back to the 4th century BC.
Tombs of the Kings
From Paphos, we drove north into the Troodos Mountains to check out a 12th century Byzantine Orthodox church called Panagia tou Araka, located near the village of Lagoudera.  Its interior is covered with murals which have retained their stunning vibrancy for more than 800 years.
A drive through the Troodos treated us to magnificent vistas of olive groves and vineyards, often located on mountainside terraces.

"Giant Olive Tree" signage pointed us down a country lane to what the owners purport to be the largest olive tree on the island.  According to a plaque at the site, the tree is estimated to be 1,700 years old with a 43-foot girth and a height of 20 feet.  Though unable to attest to the accuracy of their claims, we were impressed with the ancient specimen nonetheless.
After almost two millennia, the old tree is still producing olives.
On a hillside just outside the city of Limassol (where our cousins lived and loved for several years), we visited another archaeological site. Kourion was a powerful city state in ancient Cyprus, dating from the Mycenaean settlement in the 13th century BC.  Ruins encompass a variety of structures including a palace, theater, wrestling school, temples, baths, and others, attesting to the advanced stage of development of its ancient inhabitants.
Ancient Kurion
While the Mycenaean history at Kourion and the pervasive Greek influence in the south linked us to our travels in Greece, another nearby site had connections to our next stop in Malta (as well as Israel, also on our itinerary). The Knights of Malta, also known as the Knights Hospitallers, was a religious order founded in Jerusalem around 1050 to serve a hospital built by Italian merchants for sick and injured Crusaders.

After the Christian conquest of Jerusalem in 1099, the order established other facilities along the route that Crusading knights took from Europe to the Holy Land. Their hospitals used advanced techniques for the time period, keeping clean facilities, with each patient sleeping in a separate bed and eating from individual (rather than shared) food dishes, all of which led to a superior survival rate.
Knights Hospitallers with their symbol, later called the Maltese Cross (source:
The order was formally recognized by the pope in the early 1100s, encouraging its leadership to work at building the order's power and wealth, acquiring land and combining a medical mission with defending the Crusader kingdom. Soon the Hospitallers, along with the Templars, became the most formidable military order in the Holy Land.

Following the conquest of Jerusalem by Islamic forces, the Crusaders, including the Hospitallers, were driven from the region. The Hospitallers moved to Limassol in Cyprus and built a castle west of the city on land given to them in 1210.
Kolossi Castle
A series of attacks and a sequence of earthquakes left the original castle in ruins, and in 1454, the current fortress was built to replace it.  After becoming too embroiled in Cypriot politics, the order moved their operations to the island of Rhodes until ousted by the Ottomans, sailing away with no base until the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V gave them Malta in 1530.  When we leave Cyprus, we will also go to Malta, searching for more history of this powerful group.

Chapter 4 Stats
    •  Started in:  Athens, Greece
    •  Ended in:  Nicosia, Cyprus
    •  Air Miles:  570
    •  Road Miles: 368
    •  Foot Miles:  15.89
    •  Weather:  53° to 72°, sunny, partly cloudy
    •  Gas:  $5.23/gallon  (thankful for 55 mpg hybrid vehicle)
    •  Olive trees:  47,092
    •  Grape vines:  26,991
    •  Red license plates:  2,683
    •  Rooftop water tanks:  12,860

Loved:  The size of Cyprus and its excellent network of roads means you're never more than 15-20 minutes from mountains or the beach.

Recent practice driving on the left.  It takes full concentration from both of us to avoid lane drift.

Learned:  That despite its limited dimensions, Cyprus has often been at the crossroads of history due to its strategic location between Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Guiding Light
After picking up our rental car at the Larnaca airport, we tried to set our Garmin GPS for the archaeological site in Paphos on the southwest coast.  As we quickly learned by the skeletal information and 1995 style directions, Garmin's European maps apparently do not include Cyprus.  Last month we bought a third party set of Middle East maps for the device since Garmin doesn't offer that region.  Based on the limited guidance we were receiving, we're guessing the machine was drawing from those non-kosher maps, giving us a preview of what to expect in the Middle East.  Thankfully we were able to use a smart phone as a back-up solution, along with the rubber band windshield mount we cobbled together for it.  (At the airport upon our departure, we picked up a vent mount for the phone since we're pretty sure we'll be needing it in Jordan and Israel.)

Cyprus Cats
Sadly, the population of stray cats in Cyprus has spun out of control.  Animal welfare advocates estimate that the island today has far more cats (1.5 million) than humans (855,000).  Though history suggests the cat may have been first domesticated in Cyprus, many on the island have little regard for the animal today.  Due to lack of funding for neutering, their numbers have grown to the point that locals see them as vermin.  Unlike the well-fed felines we saw in Athens, feral cats in Cyprus tended to be thin and scraggly.

Paphos Lighthouse, built in the 1880s
A shelter built around the Araka church in the 14th century to preserve interior and exterior frescoes
Turkish and Northern Cyprus flags fly at an official building near the border crossing. 
A UN facility in the buffer zone
Fine old houses sit abandoned in the Nicosia buffer zone.  Trees have grown through the roof here. 
Kourion beach (photo from
Remains of Roman house at Kurion destroyed in earthquake in 365 AD.
Wildflowers at Kurion
Part of the Roman agora at Kurion 
Restored ancient theater at Kurion is still used for events today.