Religions of Cyprus

LEARN Friday, 27 October, 2017

Religions of Cyprus

Perhaps because Cyprus has seen so many empires and cultural influences ebb and flow over the centuries, the country enjoys an exceedingly high level of freedom of worship. While the majority of Cypriots are Greek Orthodox Christian (85%), other religious faiths are represented on the island as well, including Armenians, Maronites, Roman Catholics, Latins and Muslims.

Cyprus and the Christian connection

In 45 A.D. Paul the Apostle, travelling with St. Barnabas to Cyprus, succeeded in converting the Roman proconsul in Paphos to the Christian faith - making Cyprus the first country ever to be governed by a Christian leader. Later, according to the biblical account, St. Lazarus was resurrected from the dead by Christ and sailed from Bethany to Cyprus where he lived for another 30 years (apparently not cracking a smile once in three decades!). His sarcophagus is in the crypt of St. Lazarus Church in Larnaka.

To find out more about the history of Christianity in Cyprus, consider the following itinery:

DAY 1

Begin your visit of Cyprus's religious treasures in Larnaka with a visit to St. Lazarus Church, which dates from 900 A.D., in the morning. In the afternoon take a short drive 11 kilometres west to the village of Kiti to see the church of Angeloktisti ("built by the angels"). This is an unusual 11th-century Byzantine church that was built over the ruins of an early Christian basilica, of which the original apse survives. What truly merits extra special mention, however, is an extremely rare 6th-century mosaic of the Virgin Mary and Child between the two archangels Gabriel and Michael. It is a jewel of the Byzantine period which rivals the Ravenna Mosaics.

DAY 2

The next day journey to Lefkosia (Nicosia), the capital, for a visit to the Byzantine Museum. Its collection of icons and murals spans Byzantine art in Cyprus from the 8th to 18th centuries. Icons are the painted devotional images of the Orthodox Church which reflected the Byzantine Christian soul for a millennium. Orthodox believers see in them the earthly representation of the saints. Next to the Byzantine Museum is the Cathedral of Agios Ioannis (St. John), built in 1662. Its beautiful interior frescoes date from the mid-18th century. From there it's a short walk to Chrysaliniotissa Church, the oldest Byzantine church in the city (built in 1450 when Cyprus was under Lusignan rule). Some of the icons inside date from the 14th century.

DAY 3

Whether you overnight in Nicosia or Larnaka, set out on your third day for the Troodos Mountains, a rugged region home to numerous Byzantine monasteries and churches. Make your headquarters in the resort villages of Platres or Pedoulas for one or two nights. From here, set out for Kykko Monastery, the richest and best-known monastery in Cyprus. It was founded in 1100 during the rule of the Byzantine emperor Alexios Comnenos. While all the monasteries in Cyprus have collections of painted icons, those in Kykko's collection are particularly rare and valuable.

Ten painted Byzantine churches, all in the Troodos Mountains, are on UNESCO's World Heritage List. The churches include Asinou (south of Nikitari village, it's among the most beautiful), Panagia tou Moutoulla, Panagia tou Araka (Lagoudera), Agios Ioannis Lampadistis (Kalopanagiotis), Stavros tou Agiasmati (near Platanistassa village), Panagia Podythou (Evrychou), Archangel Michael (in Pedoulas), Timiou Stavrou (in Pelendri) and Agios Nicolaos tis Stegis (5km from Kakopetria). Many churches with treasures of Byzantine art, such as Ayios Ioannis Lampadistis in the Marathasa Valley, are connected to monasteries.

DAY 4

After your mountain journey, retrace the footsteps of St. Paul in Paphos. Of course, you'll want to examine the beautiful Roman mosaics of the Houses of Aion, Dionysos and Theseus. On the grounds near Khrysopolitissa Church, slightly away from the harbour, is St. Paul's Pillar, where according to tradition Saint Paul was flogged by Romans with a 39-tailed whip for preaching Christianity. The white marble pillar is under a tree at the west gateway.

DAY 5

On your next day in Paphos pay a visit to Agios Neophytos monastery, on Melissovouno (Honey Mountain) on the outskirts of town. The learned hermit Neophytos burrowed two caves in the mountainside above the present-day monastery and lived in them beginning in 1159. In one of the caves there is a chapel with beautiful frescoes painted in rich shades of blue, red and gold. Agios Neophytos also has a small museum and a gift store where you can buy a variety of homemade honey.

DAY 6

If you set out early enough the next morning before a final overnight in Larnaka, you will have time to visit another monastery, Stavrovouni, situated at the top of a rocky 600-metre peak west of Larnaka and visible for miles around. Inside Stavrovouni's 18-century church is hung a fragment of the cross, left by Saint Helena in 327 A.D. a decade after her son, Emperor Constantine, officially recognized Christianity
(No women are allowed to visit Stavrovouni Monastery).