From ancient Neolithic settlements and early Greek temples, to Crusader castles steeped in medieval intrigue, a plethora of awe-inspiring sites dotted around the island have contributed to the modern day culture and traditions of an island saturated in history. My Cyprus Insider highlights some of the best of the lot.
1. Famagusta Gate
If you’re in the capital and want to seep up the past in all its glory, make a beeline for Famagusta Gate. A glorious sandstone gate which once led into the old city, it stands as the largest and most imposing of the three gates of the Venetian Walls which surround the old city of Nicosia, built between 1567 and 1570 by the ruling Venetians, and designed by the famous engineer, Giulio Savorgano.
Head here to catch a magnificent glimpse of the remains of the earliest recorded settlement in Cyprus, distinctly marked out by cylindrical stone and mud dwellings that lay claim to the earliest permanent housing on the island. Scattered across a looming hillside just off the Nicosia-Limassol highway, the Neolithic colony of dwellings were constructed in 5,800 BC and inhabited until about the year 5,200 BC, when the site was abandoned, possibly because of a sudden catastrophe, such as an earthquake.
3. Hala Sultan Tekke
Just a stone’s throw away from Larnaca International Airport, this is one of the holiest shrines in the Islamic world. Its prime position is a sight in itself, proudly sitting at the edge of the salt lake surrounded by shady palms and cypress trees. In the winter, the lake is a haven for exotic birds like flamingos, while in the summer, it’s a shimmering expanse of white. The Tekke, which is the reputed burial place (in 649 AD) of Umm Haram – a maternal aunt of the Prophet Mohammed – consists of a mosque, mausoleum and some fine old ancillary buildings.
4. Ancient Amathus
A city immortalised by Homer’s Iliad, the ancient city of Amathus just outside the centre of Limassol is one of the most significant ancient city kingdoms of Cyprus, dating back to 1100 B.C. Bearing a strong connection to the cult of Aphrodite, it is said that the worship of the goddess once flourished here. Head down to the site and you can catch a glimpse of the ruins of the Temple of Aphrodite and tombs dating back to the early Iron Age. What’s more, this is the very stop where the world’s largest stone vase was discovered, now displayed at the Louvre Museum in Paris.
5. Kolossi Castle
Driving out of Limassol towards Paphos, make a slight detour and visit the Crusader castle of Kolossi. It is here that the oldest wine in the world still in production – the sweet Commandaria – was first produced, while the rambling vines that blanket the nearby hillsides still supply the Limassol wineries with grapes to continue the tradition. Once in the grounds, the remains of what was once a large sugar refinery can still be seen, while the castle itself is imposing and completely restored. The battlements soar to a height of around 23 metres and the views from the top are magnificent.
6. Curium Amphitheatre
Hit the road towards Paphos and you simply have to stop off at the breathtaking Curium, a Greco-Roman theatre sitting high on a cliff top and commanding tremendous views of the sea. If you visit the island in the summer months, be sure to watch a performance at the theatre at night as the starry night sky makes for the perfect backdrop to high drama on stage.
7. Sanctuary of Apollo Hylates
Just a few kilometres westwards, along the cliff that cradles the Curium are the remains of an ancient stadium and the Sanctuary of Apollo Hylates (Apollo of the woods), which was built around 100 AD. In the days when the cult of the god still flourished, anyone who defiled the inner sanctum was promptly thrown off the nearby cliff- a fall of around 100 metres.
8. The Paphos Mosaics
Once you get into Paphos, you’ll be entering a place quite often tooted as a ‘living’ museum, and one of the most important areas of archaeological significance in the Mediterranean. In fact, wherever you step foot in the town, you can be fairly sure there is something of archaeological value beneath your feet with the entire town included on the official UNESCO list of cultural and world heritage. Be sure not to miss the Paphos Mosaics in the Paphos Archaeological Park, each with their own brilliantly intricately colourful tales to tell as mythological scenes jump to life.
9. Tombs of the Kings
The name of this place in itself is a bit deceiving as it’s not really the burial place of kings, but that of the wealthy noblemen and their families that once lived in the Paphos area. Nonetheless, the impressive necropolis is still worth a visit with the imposing burial monuments dating back to the Hellenistic period in the 3rd century BC. Squatters took over some of the tombs in the medieval period and made alterations to the original architecture.
10. Paphos Castle
Head to this much photographed castle that so gracefully characterises the harbour-front at sunset and you’ll be in for a real treat. Originally built as a Byzantine fort, the castle is connected to the harbour via an arched bridge. Head to the area in the evening to enjoy the building lit up in all its glory, while surrounding harbour side cafes and restaurants provide plenty of spots to take in the view.