During football season, Buckeye fans in central Ohio sometimes refer to the state just north as, well, “that state up north.” A much more serious version of this intentional slight is playing out on the island of Cyprus. On the plane to Larnaka, I sat next to a Cypriot woman who taught me a few Greek words. Hello, thank-you and so on. She asked where on the island I was planning to visit. When I mentioned a couple of towns in the north, her face darkened. “You mean the occupied territory.”
Cyprus is a small island, roughly 150 miles from east to west and sixty miles from north to south. It is strategically situated at the far east of the Mediterranean Sea at the crossroads between Europe, Africa and Asia. (Only 65 miles from Syria!) As a result of its central location, Cyprus was fought over and ruled by nearly every great empire–the Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Phoenicians, Athenians, Egyptians, Romans, Byzantines, Knights of Templar, Franks, Venetians, Ottomans and British … and I’m likely leaving a few out.
In 1974, Turkish forces invaded Cyprus and captured nearly forty percent of the island. More than a quarter of the population of Cyprus was expelled from the north where Greek Cypriots once made up eighty percent of the population. Following the invasion, sixty-thousand Turkish Cypriots switched sides of the island as well.
A UN peace-keeping force supervises the buffer zone, called the Green Line, while thirty-five-thousand Turkish troops occupy the north. In 1983 the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus declared independence, although Turkey is the only country in the world which recognizes it. The international position is that the territory is illegally occupied. Sound like Crimea?
The woman on the plane thinks so. “After the invasion, they changed all of the place names,” she said with disgust.
My first stay was in Larnaka which, according to mythology, was founded by Kittim, a great-grandson of Noah, after the flood. (Yes, that Noah.) It’s the third-largest city in Cyprus with a population of approximately one-hundred-and-fifty thousand.
The time difference from Chicago is eight hours. Bleary-eyed on the street, I found the harbor. The Finikoudes (palm-tree) Promenade and the marina are fairly new. Seaweed had been raked from the beach into huge piles, waiting to be hauled away. I sense they are anticipating hordes of tourists as the weather improves. A line of white hotels face the water. In front of them, a row of outdoor cafés feature acrylic panels and gas heaters, protecting diners (and smokers) from the chilly spring breezes. Behind them in the city, most of the buildings are only two or three stories tall. Lots of thoughtful historical renovation going on. Narrow streets zig-zag. One is torn up for new sidewalks and curbs. Traffic in the old town is polite. No honking. The shops are a pleasant mix of high-end designers and local mom-and-pops. The shopkeepers are exceptionally friendly. “From America? So far away!”
Old timers sit at sidewalk cafés, smoking, playing backgammon and sipping the Cyprus version of strong Greek coffee from ceramic cups. I set up my mobile phone with a Cypriot SIM card. (It doesn’t work in that state up north.) Got a haircut from a traditional barber, an older Cypriot gentleman. Not a word was spoken, but he seemed appreciative that I liked the result.
On Saturday, I walked through the farmers’ market. Lots of oranges, lemons, olives, artichokes, potatoes and asparagus. A vendor offered sesame paste (tahini) to taste. I bought some candy called halva, made with tahini, peanuts and honey, the consistency of peanut brittle. A woman strolled through the marketplace, beautifully singing opera as she examined the produce. A crowd of admirers followed her from stall to stall.
A man on a bicycle pedaled down the street balancing four espressos in ceramic cups on a metal tray. An older lady dressed in black strolled the promenade with two parrots perched on her shawl. Scruffy but well-fed feral cats are everywhere, especially at the mosque’s graveyard. Stores on every corner sell religious icons.
I visited the Church of Saint Lazarus. (Over three-fourths of Cypriots are Greek Orthodox.) Built in the 9th century, it is named for Lazarus who, according to the Bible, was raised from the dead by Jesus. He later fled Judea, due to threats on his life, and came to Cyprus, where he lived for thirty more years. When he died the second time, he was buried in a hidden tomb. In 890 AD the tomb was discovered. It bore the inscription, “Lazarus, friend of Christ.”
Emperor Leo VI of Byzantium had the remains of Lazarus transferred to Constantinople in 898 AD. To repay Larnaka, Leo had the Church of Saint Lazarus erected over the empty tomb. The interior is ornate with intricate wood carvings and gold-plated icons. I descended into the vault to see the sarcophagus that once held the body of Lazarus. A woman filled a large plastic bottle with holy water from a spigot. During renovations in 1972, additional human remains were discovered under the altar and assumed to belong to the saint as well.
Outside the church, a woman handed me a paper bag full of what looked to be trail mix. It was koliva, a blend of boiled wheat kernels, pomegranate seeds, sesame seeds, almonds and a hint of anise. Orthodox Christians consider koliva symbolic of resurrection from death. Today a memorial service was held at the church for the departed.
Proud to be stoic
I strolled along the waterfront, where the sculptures tell the story of Larnaka. A bust of Athenian general Kimon stands tall. In 449 BC, Kimon laid siege to Larnaka in support of the Greek Cypriot rebellion against the Persians. The siege failed and Kimon was killed. On his deathbed, he told his officers to conceal his death from the enemy. This gesture made him a hero to the residents of Larnaka.
Once the Venetians ruled Cyprus and destroyed many of its treasures. Today a sculpture, the Winged Lion, greets visitors on the promenade, a gift from Venice, now Larnaka’s sister city.
Have you ever been accused of being stoic? The founder of the philosophy of Stoicism, Zeno, was born in Larnaka in 334 BC. He divided philosophy into logic, physics and ethics. A statue of him stands along the promenade, looking, well, stoic.
However, there is no statue to Garo Yepremian, also from Larnaka. Garo was an NFL placekicker and leading scorer of the 1972 Miami Dolphins, the only team in NFL history to finish with a perfect record.
Garo’s parents were Armenian. The Armenian Genocide Memorial on the promenade is dedicated to those who died in 1915-1923. During the genocide, the Ottoman government set about to exterminate the Armenian minority from their homeland (present-day Turkey). The total number killed has been estimated at between one and one-and-a-half million. The memorial marks the spot where thousands of Armenian refugees first landed in Cyprus and received assistance.
On Monday I set out to tour until I discovered it was a holiday–Green Monday (aka Clean Monday, Pure Monday and Ash Monday). The first day of the Greek Orthodox Lent is celebrated by kite flying and eating seafood. Many restaurants and shops were closed.
Although Larnaka is a charming and laid-back town, the opportunities for sightseeing are somewhat thin. That the city promotes its sculptures as attractions indicates how short the list is. Sadly most of its archaeological treasures have been looted over the centuries.
The Cyprus Department of Antiquities: “The 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus and the subsequent occupation of the island, has heavily affected Cyprus’ cultural heritage and despite existing internationally binding treaties regarding the protection of cultural heritage, Turkey chooses to ignore the treaties and continues its destructive agenda. The damages are grave and in many cases, irreversible. The occupied museums have been looted and so have many private collections of antiquities. Churches have been vandalized; ecclesiastical icons and vessels stolen, church frescoes and mosaics have been removed and in many cases have been traced in Europe’s illegal antiquities trade markets and in auctions around the world.”
Still, numerous digs are active throughout unoccupied Cyprus. I visited:
- Church of St. Lazarus Byzantine Museum, which houses religious icons, artifacts and relics
- Larnaka Fort, built in the 12th century AD and rebuilt many times since
- Archaeological site of the ancient city of Kition. The site is the temple area of the ancient city, including foundations of five consecutive temples and workshops for the smelting of copper, dating from the 13th to the 11th century BC. The location of the workshops indicates a direct link between religious authority and copper production.
- Bamboula archaeological site, which includes traces of a 9th century BC sanctuary and 5th century BC ship sheds
- Larnaka Archaeological Museum with exhibits of pottery excavated in ancient Kition
- Pierides Museum, exhibiting a nine-thousand-year span of ceramic art from Neolithic times, Copper Era, Mycenaean, Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Frankish, Venetian and Ottoman periods. It is housed in a mansion built in 1825.
A guide on a walking tour took us to a lace-making shop on a back street. Lace-making on Cyprus dates to at least the fourteenth century. The real deal comes from the village of Lefkara. Women in the village create pieces by hand in their homes, often taking months. Leonardo Da Vinci is said to have visited Lefkara in 1481 and purchased lace for the main altar of the Duomo di Milano.
Mohammed’s aunt and Stone-Age condos
On the way to Lemesos, I circled Larnaka’s Salt Pond, now muddy-brown in color. During the winter it fills with rainwater, attracting flamingos and other wild birds. In the summer, the water dries up, the birds move on and all that is left is a crusty layer of white salt. For centuries, salt was harvested from the lakebed. Numerous flamingos were bottom feeding in the pond while I visited the famous Hala Sultan Tekke mosque.
Apparently Umm Haram, Mohammed’s wet nurse (aunt), fell from her mule and died at this spot by the Salt Pond. A shrine to honor her, Hala Sultan Tekke, was erected in 674 AD. Together with her tomb, a mausoleum, a mosque, a minaret and a convent, it is considered the third holiest place in the world by Muslims. When I visited, the site was nearly empty except for dozens of cats lazing in the sun.
I stopped to tour the archaeological site, Choirokoitia. The prehistoric village was occupied from 7000 to 5000 BC. The site lies on the slopes of a hill and consists of the remains of numerous circular houses built from mud-brick and stone with flat roofs, surrounded by thick stone walls. Reproductions of them resemble cylindrical condos. A complicated system of entry points into the village has been uncovered on the top of the hill. The complexity of the design indicates an organized society working together for the good of the community. Choirokoitia is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
At a restaurant in Lemesos, I spoke with the manager, a British ex-pat, who hasn’t been home for twenty-four years. An estimated sixty-thousand British live in Cyprus. They are attracted by the weather, the low crime, the low prices. Of course, they used to own the place in 1914-1960 and they still maintain a couple of military bases on the island.
When I asked him about “that state up north,” he quickly changed the subject. “I’m not political,” he said, hinting at advice I should follow.