Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Cyprus Holiday 2: Ancient and Modern

It's a month since I came back from holiday and I've had some time to reflect and look back.  The bright sunshine seared itself into my memory, all the brighter and hotter because we always seemed to go somewhere during the hottest part of the day. Mad dogs and Englishmen ...?

I knew Cyprus only gained independence from Britain in 1960, but I wasn't prepared for just how British it is.  It's not just the British who are moving out there, either. There is a huge amount of building going on.  I read more signs in English and Russian than Greek. I can imagine the locals might have a love-hate relationship with the ex-pats and tourists; a vital part of the economy, but the Cypriots might feel that they are in the minority and their language and culture comes a poor second.  I suppose it's just more of the same.  Tucked away in a corner of the eastern Mediterranean as they are, they've been visited and invaded so often throughout history, there's probably something in their genes which is resigned to a constant flow of strangers, languages and cultures.  Almost everyone seems to speak English.
It's easy to get a full English breakfast in the many cafe-bars down the main strips in Paphos and Coral Bay. Also curry and chips, fish and chips, pie and chips, steak and chips ... it reminded me of the scene in Shirley Valentine where a couple come into the taverna and would rather have Shirley's 'chips and egg' than kleftiko. There are Cypriot restaurants, of course, though apparently they are apt to hike up the prices for tourists, or give discounts to the locals. 
I got a smile from a waiter when I ordered my Greek salad in Greek (except for the bit when I wanted to say 'but NO onions!' - my Greek doesn't stretch that far.). After an initial mix up where I got someone else's side salad, it was put right speedily, without onions, with extra kalamata olives but really not enough feta cheese for my taste. I didn't like olives until I visited the Greek islands in the late 1980s. Oh, my! The meze of olives, feta, chunked cucumber and beef tomatoes, grilled halloumi and little stuffed vine leaves! Rings of squid in batter and lemony, herby grilled kebabs! The mixture of tastes and textures in a good Greek salad; soft, salty cheese and olives, crisp lettuce, savoury pepper, sweet, tart tomatoes and cool cucumbers, with perhaps some fragrant fennel leaves.  It's still one of my favourite things and, were I not writing this late at night, I would have to break off about now to go and make one.

We went into Paphos to visit a couple of archeological sites, which only scratched the surface of what there is to see. The first stop was a series of chambers cut into rocks below 'street level', dating from the Hellenistic period. (The Hellenistic period is a fairly modern - 19th Century - concept for the period after Alexander the Great had finished trying to conquer the world circa 323 BC and ending with the rise of the Roman Empire from 146 BC, ending completely with the Battle of Actium in 31 BC.) The chambers were probably built as a tomb complex and later dedicated to Agios Lambrianos and Agios Misitikos and used for worship by Early Christians. 

The next stop a little way down the road was the Agia Solomoni catacomb. This was quite early on in the week, before my knees loosened up with swimming, so I didn't go down the steps, but stayed admiring the old terebinth (?) tree festooned in handkerchiefs and rags, tied on with a prayer for healing.

The 16th Century church of Agia Kyraki stands on the site of one of the largest basilicas found in Cyprus, that of Panayia Chrysopolitissa.  The site has raised walkways to allow visitors to view the excavated mosaics and litter of columns and wall remains. The earliest parts of the basilica apparently date from the 4th Century AD, but it is also the site of St Paul's Pillar. Tradition has it that during his first missionary journey in 45 AD, St Paul was tied to the pillar and received 39 lashes, later converting the Roman proconsul Sergius Paulus to Christianity.

The glare from the midday sun made some of the mosaics difficult to see (let alone photograph - no viewfinder!), but I took a few pics to remind me of some designs, because I could imagine them worked in beads and sequins on belly dance costume. There are better mosaics to be seen in the archaeological park near the harbour, but that will have to wait for next time.

Down in the harbour, the castle was inaccessible due to its use as set for open air opera every September. This year's opera was Othello. J had previously arranged to go with friends, so I amused myself that evening back at the villa, quite happy not to be going. Once you know the story, you know it's going to end badly and I wasn't in the mood for tragedy.

I was fascinated to find that all of these old sites were in Nea (New) Paphos, which is only 'new' in relation to Palae (old) Paphos to the east of the modern town, inhabited since the (ceramic) Neolithic (New Stone age, 6000-3500 BC) - or perhaps even longer.  According to legend, the goddess Aphrodite arose from the sea here, and remains were found of a Mycenaean altar to Aphrodite dating from the 12th century BC.  Considering that Paphos was the centre of the cult of Aphrodite, I expected to see little figures of Aphrodite in all of the souvenir shops. But no; perhaps the Greek Orthodox church takes a dim view of her. The little figurines I saw for sale were (rather pricey!) copies of the Idol of Pomos.  This is a Chalcolithic (Copper and stone age, 3900-2500 BC) female figure, with arms outstretched in the shape of a cross, and with a copy of herself worn as an amulet around her neck.  She is thought to be a fertility goddess, but figures were also placed in graves to protect the dead.  Although we shall never know what they called her (she predates the earliest Mycenaean writings) it is clear that the goddess was worshipped here for millennia. Fertility, protection, love, beauty and abundance; in an early farming society, what more do you need? Worship of the goddess waned with the rise of Christianity, but looking at the beauty and abundance of this region of Cyprus, all the signs are that she is still here.

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