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The Treasures of Cyprus

A visitor to Cyprus uncovers a wealth of Byzantine treasure.

The small island of Cyprus has played a prominent role in the history of the eastern Mediterranean. Coveted by the ancients for its copper mines, timber and ports, Cyprus has been conquered by Arabs, Byzantines, Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Romans and Turks. Today Cyprus is divided between the Turkish-speaking Muslim minority in the northern third of the island and the Greek-speaking Orthodox Christian majority in the south.

I visited this small island 60 miles off the coast of Syria in September after seven intense months in Israel and the Occupied Territories. I welcomed the opportunity to walk uninterrupted through the island’s Byzantine treasures.

In the middle of the first century the Apostle Paul brought the Gospel to the city of Paphos in the western portion of the island. Today a 13th-century Byzantine church stands near the column to which according to tradition, Paul was bound and whipped by a few members of Paphos’ Jewish community. Also extant are the foundations of an early Christian basilica, a Byzantine cathedral and many columns.

For more than 800 years, the Byzantines ruled the island, leaving an indelible mark on its culture and people. In the nearby village of Yeroskipou stands a model five-domed Byzantine church built in the ninth century on the site of a Roman temple. Dedicated to St. Paraskevi, an early Christian maiden martyred for the faith, the church houses fine 15th-century frescoes, including an excellent Passion cycle featuring the kiss of Judas.

A rare example of a double-sided icon, which dates back to the 15th century, is also enshrined in the church. Protected by a sheet of glass, the icon features a dignified Virgin and Child on one side and the crucifixion on the other. It was found, buried, by a peasant more than 100 years ago in a field near the sea. It is quite possible the icon had been hidden from the Turks who invaded and occupied Cyprus in the 16th century.

Not far from the church, in the mountain village of Polemi, I met Helen, who sat quietly peeling almonds. Although uneducated, the peasants of Cyprus are proud: proud of their fields, labor, church, culture and language.

I encountered another Helen while on my Cypriot journey. Enshrined in the Monastery of St. Neophytos, a mountainous 12th-century foundation, are a series of frescoes that cover the 12th and 15th centuries, including an imposing fresco icon of SS. Constantine and Helen. The imperial regalia seems to burden the emperor’s lean and expressive figure. Helen, the mother of Constantine, shares a large cross with her son.

According to Eusebius of Caesarea, early Christendom’s premier historian, Helen found the cross of Christ while on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The dowager’s exploits do not end there: a popular local legend says that Helen came to Cyprus with a ship full of cats from the Holy Land to rid the island of snakes and rats.

Although my journey to Cyprus was brief, it opened my eyes to a people with a rich culture who take pride in who they were, who they are, and who they hope to be.

Karen Lagerquist, a frequent contributor to Catholic Near East, lives in Jerusalem.

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