Around just about every corner, Cyprus holds countless surprises. And sometimes, they stand in stark contrast to modern day life; historical places surrounded by mystery and intrigue. It’s common knowledge that Cyprus has a rich religious heritage, and beyond the imposing monasteries and churches that dominate village squares, are places with a profound raw appeal that once provided solace and peace for those who sought refuge. And if you take the time to find them, you’re more than likely to be lost for words. My Cyprus Insider takes you on a journey to some of the most fascinating spots around the island.
1. Panayia Chrysospiliotissa cave church, Deftera, Nicosia district
Out in the countryside not too far from Nicosia in the village of Kato Deftera, the cliffs that flank the Pedieos river bank paint a rugged picture against the open skies. Take a closer look and you’ll spot an exterior staircase, taking visitors up into the pretty little church of Panayia Chrysospilitiotissa, carved right into this magnificent rock. Walk up the 104 steps and you’ll catch a wonderful glimpse of the surrounding countryside from above, while the church itself is made up of three caves, connected by narrow corridors, the biggest of which operates as the church.
According to local legend, villagers often spotted a mysterious light shining from the area, and one day, they stumbled upon a cave carved into these rocks and discovered an icon of the Virgin Mary and Child, now kept in the church of St. Nicholas in the village of Kato Deftera. Once a year, on Assumption Day (August 15th), it is brought back to the cave.
Byzantine historians say that it was very likely that the cave was first used in the first century by the area’s first Bishop, Saint Herakleidios. It is then believed to have been used between the 8th-9th century as a place of monastic refuge, often suggested that this cave church was once used as a small hermit monastery. With the biggest cave converted into a church, fragments of frescos once painted on the walls are visible to this day, dating back to the 12th and 13th century.
2. Ayias Solomonis cave church and catacombs, Paphos
About a kilometre from Kato Paphos port, near Fabrica Hill, is a catacomb carved out of limestone rock dedicated to Agia Solomoni; one of the first saints to reject idolatry and embrace Christianity on the island. It is said that she took refuge in the cave to escape persecution from the Romans, who then walled up the entrance, condemning her to a slow death. But when the door was opened 200 years later, she miraculously walked out alive.
Photo credit: http://flickrhivemind.net/Tags/catacomb,paphos
Many archaeologists have said that the places forms part of small underground complex of chamber tombs dating back to the Hellenistic period. Walk down a set of stairs into the open court and then on into the church and you’ll spot the remains of 12th century frescoes. And you can’t miss the centuries-old terebinth tree above the catacomb, with colourful pieces off cloth adorning its branches, left by visitors as offerings to the saint to cure their ailments. It’s worth noting that in medieval times, the place was a popular pilgrimage site and has been called ‘The Chapel of the Seven Sleepers’, or ‘The Seven Maccabees’.
3. Ayia Thekla cave church, under Ayia Thekla Church, Ayia Thekla
Ayia Thekla is a gorgeous blue and white chapel that commands a prime position taking pride of place on coastal cliffs, overlooking the turquoise waters of Ayia Thekla beach, just before you reach Ayia Napa, not far from Sotira village. A popular place for wedding ceremonies and picture taking, the church is dedicated to Saint Thekla, a saint of the early Christian Church, and a reported follower of Paul the Apostle, while the place used to be a monastery for women until 1937. But what often goes unnoticed, is the tiny cave carved into the rocks which is believed to have been a place of worship before the new church was erected. The remains of this older church date back to the 4th century.
Walk down a few steps into the tiny cave church and you’ll see numerous icons and candles in the small dark cave as people pay their respects to Ayia Thekla (St Thekla), in the belief that she will offer help with their loves lives. Often mistakenly referred to as the tomb of St Thekla, she was in fact buried near the village of Ma’loula in Syria; a place where she eventually retreated for a life of peace and solitude in the area’s mountains.
Photo credit: Anton Kudelin
4. Ayioi Saranta cave church, Protaras
Shrouded in mystery and set away in a location so wild and rugged (yet also so very idyllic), anyone who visits the area is quite simply lost for words. It may be located in one of the most popular tourist areas of the island – Protaras – but it feels like a world away from it all, totally off the beaten track, with a raw appeal so very magnificent that it has been located by a number of curious intrepid travellers and recently featured in the ‘Travel News’ section of the UK’s MailOnline as one of the quirkiest churches to visit in the world.
Walk up the stairs which lead you to the brilliant blue door set against dazzling whitewashed stone, push it open, and you’ll be overwhelmed by a feeling of peace once you step inside (whether you are religious or not, there is a very special feel to the place). Icons have been placed in whitewashed crevices of the stone and there are no glass windows; light simply shines through the opening above the door, and you’ll immediately look up at the natural skylight, with the bright sun’s rays beaming through a drum dome.
There is no official reference of when this church was first built, and as for the name of the church, it is believed that the word ‘Saranta’ which means ‘40’ in Greek is derived from forty stalagmites on the ceiling of the cave, linked to the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste. For more detailed directions on how to reach the church, click here.
5. Cave church and catacomb of Ayios Sozomenos, Ayios Sozomenos, Dali
Ever visited the gorgeous and haunting Ayios Sozomenos just outside Nicosia? Then you may know that the abandoned Turkish Cypriot village is named after the early Cypriot Saint Sozomenos. But not everyone is aware that a nearby cave – practically in the middle of nowhere – used to be his sanctuary; a place which stood as his Hermitage when the saint arrived in the village in the 12th century AD.
Photo credit: Dimitris Vetsikas, pixabay.com
Open the wooden doors of the small cave church and you’ll spot images of saints painted on the walls, while the saint’s tomb is located at the end of the cave, said to have been carved by Sozomenos himself.