I ended my stay in Cyprus on the remote Karpaz (also known as Karpas, Karpass, Karpasia, Kırpaşa, and a few more) Peninsula, the island’s panhandle. Isolated by geography, the fifty-mile-long peninsula is within the occupied territory of northern Cyprus. Karpaz is home to wild donkeys, loggerhead turtles, and hidden churches.
A few weeks earlier, my daughter Allie and I ventured to Karpaz to climb to the top of Kantara Castle and explore the ruins of Salamis. (Please see a previous post, “The other side.”) I returned to dig a little deeper.
Just east of Girne (also known as Keryneia and Kyrenia) on the north coast of Karpaz, thousands of condos and apartments line the rolling landscape overlooking the water. Little boxes in rows. Most of them appear not only uninhabited but unfinished, concrete platforms on weedy lots. The occasional resort hotel imposes itself on the landscape, but appears equally ghostly. The infrastructure is there but no one is home. I assume the bottom fell out of the real-estate market during the recession and thus the properties sit. Further east, the empty developments give way to pastures and fields, green hills dotted with yellow-sandstone ruins, rocky shores, and blue water.
And military installations. As I headed east, I made a wrong turn and found myself in the middle of the Turkish army’s equivalent of a Ranger training camp. Barbed wire and dead-serious signage. I was in a field full of bunkers, mock buildings, and burned-out cars, presumably used for practicing maneuvers. A giant, fierce-looking statue of a soldier manned a checkpoint. KOMANDO was spelled with white rocks on the mountainside facing the camp.
I pulled to the side of the road to look at my map. When I glanced up, a stern-looking soldier in fatigues had appeared from nowhere. Cradling an automatic weapon, he stood just a couple of yards in front of the car, blocking my way. I slowly backed up, turned the car around, and retraced my path back to the main road.
The peninsula is named after the ancient city of Karpasia, founded on the north coast in the 600s BCE or maybe earlier. The Greeks landed forces at Karpasia in 306 BC, stormed the nearby city of Ourania (also known as Aphendrika) and then marched across the peninsula to Salamis. Excavations at Karpasia have found a wall, marble columns, statues, harbor mooring posts, and the remains of a church, palace, necropolis, and aqueduct. The town flourished until the Arab raids of 647 CE.
Amenities are few east of Kaplica. And so are the tourists. During a few days in mid-March, I was the only guest at my hotel. (It was early in the season.) Situated on a moonscape of rocks overlooking the sea a few miles east of Yenierenköy (also known as Agialousa), the place reminded me of a summer-camp lodge. It had no front desk. I checked in at the hotel’s restaurant next door. Each night, after dinner, I walked with a flashlight back to my room on the second floor of an empty building. In the dark, the wind blew. The waves crashed. I let myself in and turned on the hall light. A bit creepy. The Shining. But I enjoyed the brightness and clarity of the stars.
The hotel’s owner is somewhat of a renaissance man—a mechanical engineer, journalist, gardener, amateur botanist, and local historian. He provided maps of several trails through the hills. At the empty restaurant, he dispensed with the menu. “What would you like to eat?” he asked. “What do you have?” I replied. He showed me the fresh fish in the kitchen, but didn’t know the English names. I chose what I think were herring and sat by the fire to wait. While the fish were grilling, he delivered a meze, an array of appetizers including bread, olives, humus, tahini, couscous, lentils and rice, pickled carrots, something he called horsebeans, and a salad from his garden. When the fish arrived, eight of them, he showed me how to cut off the heads and remove the backbones. “If you are to eat like a Cypriot, you must eat with your hands.”
The next morning after a meze breakfast of fried eggs, toast, honey, sausage, cheese, tomatoes, olives, and coffee, I drove further east to explore the peninsula. The meadows were thick with wildflowers—yellows, reds, blues, purples, and whites—from the hills to the shore. The road gave way to cinder and potholes. In the villages, tractors were parked in the streets like cars. Women of various ages walked along the roads wearing layers of sweaters, long skirts, boots, and scarves. I saw herds of cattle, goats, and sheep, each accompanied by a watchful cowherd, goatherd, or shepherd.
On the north shore I stopped at:
- Church of Agios Thyrsos, built in 1911. Next to it, a small chapel from the 1500s is positioned over the tomb of Saint Thyrsos. Inside is a cave-like opening leading down to a once-upon-a-time spring, the water from which was supposed to enhance a woman’s fertility. The tiny chapel is filled with DIY icons and white wish-ribbons tied onto everything and stuffed into cracks in the walls, apparently a tradition in Cyprus. It looked like a homemade church in a cellar. I could sense the devotion.
- Church of Agios Philon, built in the 1100s on top of the ruins of an earlier Christian basilica near the ancient city of Karpasia. Most interesting are the extensive geometric mosaic floors, exposed to the weather but in good condition nonetheless. I stopped for Turkish coffee at the Oasis at Afilon and talked to the owner who was birdwatching.
- Three churches: Agios Georgios (900s), Panagia Asomatos (1300s) and Panagia Chrysiotissa (500s) at the scrubby site of Ourania (also known as Aphendrika), an ancient city from the 100s BCE
I crossed the peninsula to the south coast and headed further east. A long-eared wild rabbit as big as a dog bounded across the road. Stopped at an overlook to view the expansive Golden Beach. On the south coast I visited:
- Church of Agios Synesios, dating to the 1100s (Saint Synesius is the guardian of the peninsula.)
- Apostolos Andreas Monastery, where believers fill containers of holy water from the spring by the sea. Andrew the Apostle stopped here for water and, according to legend, struck the ground with his staff. A spring burst forth. The chapel was built by the Byzantines in the 1400s. It is being restored extensively with money from the EU and the UN.
The monastery is overrun with feral cats. The peninsula is also home to the Karpaz donkey, known as a symbol of Cyprus. The donkeys are not shy about seeking handouts from tourists. They pushed their muzzles into my car when I stopped to take photos. A joint campaign by Turkish- and Greek-Cypriots is underway to conserve the rare donkeys. Not sure about the cats.
In the town of Dipkarpaz (also known as Rizokarpaso), I tried to buy snacks for a picnic lunch. I went into two small shops, doors wide open but lights dimmed. No one around. Finally, I realized it was siesta time—1:30-ish. I waited until 2 p.m. and a clerk showed up. We communicated with hand signals.
On my way back to the hotel, the road was blocked by black-and-white cows. Four teenage boys herded them. I stopped the car while they passed. The boys reached through the car window to shake my hand. Shaking hands is an important ritual in northern Cyprus. It seems required with each transaction, even for asking and providing directions. It is done earnestly and with a degree of intimacy. I have shaken hands with insurance agents, border guards, maitre d’s, and store clerks. One of the boys asked if I had any water. I gave him my only bottle.
On the road, I saw several classic cars—MGs, Mercedes, Triumphs, and BMWs. The hotel owner said they belong to a Turkish-Cypriot who lives in Girne. He rented them to a British car club for the day. Rental cars like mine sport red license tags, as if to say, “Danger! This car is driven by a tourist.” A good idea in my case.
A dove and a crow held a noisy argument outside of my hotel window this morning.
The Karpaz serves as a nature reserve for Cyprus. The forty or so sandy beaches on the peninsula are the primary eastern Mediterranean nesting grounds for loggerhead and green sea turtles. Parts of the peninsula are national park with certain beaches designated as marine turtle conservation areas.
Using a map the hotel owner provided, I hiked up the hill away from the coast. The fields full of wildflowers were dazzling. On the way I heard the clanging of bells and ran into a herd of goats. I waved at the goatherd. Here, they invest labor in monitoring the herds. In Scotland, livestock runs free.
My goal for the day was to find two unfinished ancient statues lying in the weeds on the side of the hill. The trail was unmarked—just dirt roads used by farmers. Turn here, turn there. After a couple of hours of following the map, I crossed a pasture, stepped over a stone fence and walked into a grove of carob trees. Among some boulders, I found them. Two unfinished stone statues lying prone, both bigger than I expected. One is about fifteen feet tall, the other around six. They date to 750–500 BCE. Why they were left there incomplete, no one knows. It’s a bizarre sight to find hidden in a remote field—giant, silent two-thousand-year-old effigies.
On the way back down the hill, I sidetracked through plowed fields to the overgrown remains of Ayia Marina, a Byzantine-era church. It surprises me these ancient historical buildings are not kept up. I assume it has something to do with the Turkish-Cypriots’ lack of interest in maintaining the historical treasures of Greek-Cypriot culture.
The hotel owner invited me to dine with him, actually next to him, while he worked on his computer and watched an old movie on TV. He served lamb hash with eggs, rice and corn, salad, olives, tahini, humus, and toast.
He was in a forthcoming mood, so I took the opportunity to ask his perspective on Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot relations. He believes the “Cyprus problem” will be resolved soon, because it is a stumbling block for Turkey joining the EU. Financial considerations may drive progress on both sides, he said. (I heard a different perspective on the Greek-Cypriot side, which doesn’t want to recognize northern Cyprus as a legitimate entity.)
He said Greek-Cypriots blame the Turkish for atrocities but have not acknowledged their own, committed throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. His family switched from Christianity to Islam centuries ago, he said, under Ottoman rule.
Then, more recently, they were persecuted as Muslims by the Greek-Cypriots. He said his village was attacked, its homes looted and burned, its people killed. In fear for his life, his family sent him to Turkey at the age of eleven. He returned after the invasion to start a new life.
And yet Karpaz, due to its remoteness, is known as an area where Turkish- and Greek-Cypriots live side by side in peace.
The secret church
I drove to Sipahi to see the ruins of Agia Trias, a basilica from the 500s, with standing columns and extensive floor mosaics featuring geometric designs. One design, a pair of sandals representing pilgrimage, looks contemporary. I am fascinated by these relics. How is it possible the columns are still standing? How are the mosaics, while exposed to the weather, still intact? Again, though, a poorly maintained antiquity.
Then I set out to find Ayia Theresa, a ruined Byzantine church hidden in the woods. I walked hilly miles, at least eight, but couldn’t find it. I found Bronze Age tombs carved into the sides of cliffs and sherds of terracotta pottery littered on the ground. But no church. The day was beautiful, sunny, and breezy with great views of the coast, yellow-stone ruins, and a sea of wildflowers. No complaints.
I asked two woodcutters about the church. They didn’t know of it (or pretended not to), but offered me two bottles of water, the local currency. Bottled water is a precious commodity on Cyprus. On the Greek-Cypriot side, they desalinate ocean water. In the north, a massive pipeline is being constructed to pump fresh water from Turkey.
Back at the hotel, the owner was having none of my failure. “It’s a secret church,” he said. “I’ll show you.” He led me in his car back up the mountain. I followed in my rental car, fearful I was doing damage, driving on deeply rutted gravel roads. We parked on the same hill where the woodcutters had been working. He brushed aside some branches and showed me the entrance to the path. I never would have found it on my own. The path was barely traceable through the woods. Along the way, he identified plants for me and pulled a few by the roots for his garden. A hundred yards in and there was the ruin of the church, a gray dome collapsing upon itself. I felt like Indiana Jones. Not much of it left. “It will fall down soon,” the hotel owner said.
Then he pointed me toward the ancient Roman harbor, insisting I take the time to see it. Again I risked the rental car but managed to make it to the beach. Locals had set up rude campsites along the rocks. Nothing distinguishes the harbor other than a small island, called Nisha. An overlooking hill supposedly has Hellenistic and Byzantine remains. When I showed photos of the harbor to the owner, he beamed. “Yes, that’s it.” Apparently amphorae of Roman wine from wrecked ships have been found in the water.
That evening in the restaurant the engineer turned hotelier pored over old maps, explaining the etymology of regional names. More meze appeared, followed by chicken and lamb kebabs.