14-17 May 2014. The Byzantine Empire, which lasted from 330 AD until the mid 1400’s, was a continuation of the eastern, and largely Greek-speaking Roman Empire. Cyprus became part of the Byzantine Empire in 395 AD and remained so for hundreds of years, except for a short period when the Arab Caliphates gained control. Then in 1192 Richard I of England captured the island, sold it to the Knights Templar who sold it to Guy de Lusignan of France whose descendants sold it to Venice and so on and so on. By 1571 it was part of the Ottoman, or Turkish Empire, and 1572 saw the beginning of twenty-eight violent uprisings during the next hundred years.
During Byzantine rule the Greek flavor of Cyprus and its people, which had been there since ancient times, solidified, and people followed the Greek, or Eastern Orthodox Church with the eventual establishment of the autonomous Church of Cyprus. There was probably some pressure from the Muslim Arab invaders to embrace Islam, and during both the French and Venetian rule there was pressure to follow Roman Catholicism.
There was always turmoil, especially in the coastal cities and towns, year after year for centuries. It’s no wonder that people took to the hills. And from the 11th to the 16th centuries in the rugged beautiful Troödos Mountains, the central massif of the island, they built their churches – tiny remote barn-like churches, some hidden in forests, some in tiny villages. These churches, still in use today, display some of the most exquisite Byzantine and post-Byzantine religious art ever produced, and ten of them collectively form a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Given its history one wonders if it is safe to visit Cyprus at all, but we are lucky enough to live in quiet times, so one sunny day in the middle of May we climb into our rented car and set out to explore the beguiling Troödos Mountains,
and to find the highly acclaimed painted churches of Cyprus.
The drive of a couple of hours is sweet and easy along winding mountain roads bringing us first to Metamorfosis tou Sotiros, or the church of the Transfiguration of the Saviour, dating from the early 1500’s. We are in awe. We’d read a little about these churches but really had no idea what they would be like. As happens so often when travelling, the real thing is often shocking, unexpected, and brilliant in a way you can’t imagine. From the outside Sotiros is an unassuming barn-like structure.
As we walk towards the entrance we almost bump into the priest.
And then we enter. It is a breathtaking moment. The one room is tiny but every surface is covered in murals and the gilded iconostasis shines luminously. We are not allowed to take photos, but here, and in some of the other churches we visit, I manage to convince the caretaker to let me take just one photo for my online journal. It looks so plain from the outside, but the stark contrast of the surprising beauty of the interior is a great, and joyous, jolt to the senses.
From Sotiros we travel further along the valley, and near the village of Lagoudera, we visit Panagia tou Araka. Araka was originally the church of a monastery and dates from 1192. Sotiros had astonished us, but it paled in comparison to Araka.
Most of these churches have an outside building with a steep roof built over the original church to protect them from the high snowfalls in the mountains. As with Sotiros, the outside was unassuming and barn-like.
Once within the outer walls however we see the original frescoes and carvings on the outside walls of the inner building. They are over eight hundred years old.
And then we walk into a completely restored interior.
It’s a photograph of a postcard, and yet is still an accurate illustration of the glorious interior of this tiny church, and of the way all the Troödos churches must have looked when first completed. It’s hard to convey how tiny the spaces are, and how stunning their beauty.
Next morning, on the way to the village of Kakopetria, we encounter an abandoned village ablaze with flowers.
In Old Kakopetria along by the river we find enchanting Medieval streets, which we follow to the end and back, exploring all the nooks and crannies, sure that something new and wonderful is whispering to us from around every corner.
We discover the church. This is not one of the Unesco Byzantine churches, but is charming nonetheless, as is the delightful caretaker.
Just outside Kakopetria is Agios Nikolaos tis Stegis or the church of St Nicholas of the Roof, a reference to the upper roof of shingles built in the 15th century to protect the older domed roof of tiles. Agios Nicholaos tis Stegis is an 11th century monastery church.
The interior is covered in unrestored religious frescoes about 1000 years old. Imagine it as it would have been when new and as bright as the restored frescoes of Araka.
On the exterior wall we find a much younger decoration.
We hike one of the many trails on Mt Olympus, the highest in the Troödos massif, drive more winding mountain roads, and eat lunch at a sweet outdoor cafe covered in vines and flowers and perched on the edge of a cliff at the top of a steep village hill. The weather is glorious and the views spectacular.
Pedoulas is known for its cherries but we are not there in cherry season. It was the beautiful 15th century Church of Archangel Michael that drew us there, and the sweet Byzantine museum with its fine collection of iconographic art. I love the religious art of this period. I’m not remotely religious but I love the cartoon-like style, the feeling of innocence, the unerring sense of design and colour, and the no doubt unintended impression of whimsy.
In the village of Kalopanagiotis, suspended along the side of the lush Setrachos Valley, we once again explore narrow winding cobble-stoned streets.
I wish I could say I had a lovely conversation with this woman sitting at her open doorway. We both tried really hard but she spoke not a word of English and I not a word of Greek.
Across the Setrachos River from the village is Agios Ioannis tou Lampadisti or the The Church and Monastery of Lampadistis. There are actually three adjoining churches in the same large space, side-by-side, each with it’s own nave, iconostasis and sanctuary, and little in the way of walls to divide them. One church is dedicated to Saint Herakleidios, and one commemorates John Lampadistis, a young monk who died there. His grave is thought to have healing powers. Two of the three churches are lavishly decorated with religious frescoes from the 11th to 15th centuries. Since 2009 students from London’s Courtauld Institute of Art have been restoring the frescoes. Once again we are astounded by the richness and beauty of it.
Detail of one of the panels, from a postcard
The courtyard of the monastery.
Wonderfully demonstrating the purpose of the frescoes as illustrations, or comic strips of the gospels for the illiterate, the Archangelos Michail church near the village of Galata, dating from 1514, reveals, panel by panel around its walls, the complete life of Christ. From a postcard, this is one of the panels:
The church also faces a field of bright red poppies.
We fell in love with Troödos. After weeks of being unwell and doing very little, it felt good, exciting, to be on the road again, discovering new places, and having new experiences. We couldn’t have chosen better than a road trip through the glorious Troödos Mountains visiting the tiny painted churches of Cyprus.
Next post: from Troödos we drove to Paphos where we found a wealth of ruins from antiquity – Aphrodite’s birthplace, exquisite beautifully preserved Roman tile floors, and the grand Tombs of the Kings.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – not just a travel blog, 2010-2014.