I had an opportunity to visit Cyprus, the pearl of Mediterranean, in May 2002. That was for presenting a paper in an international conference, hosted jointly by the Commonwealth Science & Technology Secretariat and WAITRO. After a change of flights in Dubai I landed in Larnaca, the international port of entry for Cyprus. I headed for Paphos, a resort town in the western part of Cyprus and host city for the conference. The drive along the southern coast of the island was breathtaking with the azure blue Mediterranean Sea keeping company all along! We crossed the port city of Limassol on the way. Limassol also thrives on software development activities thus attracting a sizeable population of expatriate Indians. Smoothly weaving through the hillocks of limestone and plains growing oranges and grapes, the four-lane highway brought us rather fast to Paphos.
The St. George hotel at Paphos was the conference venue and we also stayed there, courtesy Commonwealth Secretariat. The hotel was a beach resort right on the Mediterranean Sea. It had a golf course too to keep the guests busy. I headed straight to the small private beach the hotel had at its back yard and experienced an ethereal sun
set in the Mediterranean. The hotel had a small but beautiful cathedral as an adjacent property. The cathedral was an added incentive for a whole lot of guests to tie their nuptial knots followed by the honeymoon at the hotel, majority of them blissfully mixing up the sequence though!
Cyprus is the third largest island in Mediterranean (after Sicily and Sardinia) with an area of 9520 square kilometers. As a nation, it is culturally closer to Greece though physically nearer to Turkey, only 64 kms. away. The Troodos Mountains dominate the topography with its highest peak, Mount Olympus rising to 1952 meters. The island climate is typically Mediterranean with two major seasons : hot & dry summer (June to September) and rainy winter (November to March).
The island nation is sparsely populated with 7,72,000 Cypriots, majority of whom speak Greek while English is commonly used as the second language. Though Greek spoken in Cyprus is different from that spoken in mainland Greece. Turkish is widely spoken in the northern part of the island. Greek Cypriots are mostly Greek Orthodox Christians (78%) and Turkish Cypriots are Muslims (18%), the second largest religious group in the island.
an enviable level of literacy (around 99%) with education made available free by the State up to high school and also for technical vocational training. The island boasts of the University of Cyprus, an abode of advanced learning. The State support and quality of healthcare especially for the middle & lower income groups is quite reassuring – this has resulted in very high life expectancy rates among the islanders.
Cyprus can be best described as the cradle of human civilization with the country’s history dating back to Neolithic age in 8000 BC as established by the archaeological evidences. Due to its central position among Europe, Africa and Asia, Cyprus has always been an important trading post. Cyprus was invaded by almost all the powers of history that tried to exercise control for its strategic location. The island was grabbed by Mycenaeans, Phoenicians, Assyrians, Egyptians and Persians. The invasions continued – Alexander the Great followed by Ptolemy and then the Romans took it over in 58 BC to rule over eight hundred years during which the island truly prospered. Cyprus witnessed a series of power tussles and change of masters through the next nine hundred years with the great Ottoman
Empire finally taking over the island in 1571 AD. They ruled for three hundred years and handed it over to the British in 1878. Cyprus became an independent nation in 1960 but then started the bloody politico-religious strife with the interventions by Greece and Turkey. The island nation got divided in 1974; the northern part got separated as Turkish Republic of North Cyprus (TRNC). Cyprus today is a young member of European Union having joined the community in March 2003.
Large areas of the island have been declared as world heritage sites by UNESCO. Sneaking out of the conference, I did visit a few of those historical places. The underground tombs used for the burial of nobilities and men close to the King in 4th century BC were excavated in Paphos. The tombs are carved out of rocks and some of them are decorated with Doric pillars. The amazing ruins of Choirokoitia settlement, situated 48 kms. south of Lefkosia (Nicosia), were believed to be 9000 years old; they were the earliest Neolithic settlers in Cyprus locating their habitat near a river flowing down a hillock. The habitat comprised several circular units with flat roofs all made of stone blocks
and limestone collected from the neighbourhood. Five dwellings have been reconstructed as per the Neolithic model using the same method and traditional materials just to give a feel of the settlement to the visitors.
A major tourist attraction of Cyprus are the Paphos mosaics – artwork on the floor of nobilities’ homes, houses of Dionysos, Theseus and Aion built during 3rd. to 5th. century AD. The mosaics depict mythological stories, Greek gods & goddesses and also various ornate designs, all painstakingly crafted by piecing together tiny ceramic tiles of many colours and hues. The locations with all such mosaic floorings have been declared as world heritage sites, now protected with excellent conservation efforts. The most famous of them, the House of Dionysos, has intricate artwork on the floors.
Any description of Cyprus would be incomplete without Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of love and the most beautiful woman ever to set foot on the earth! As per Greek mythology, Aphrodite was born out of an oyster in Cyprus. The great oyster was wafted across the Mediterranean by a gentle ‘zephyr’ to reach the Cypriot shore and Aphrodite walked out of the oyster! The place, Petra Toy Romiou, 25 kms.
east of Paphos, is greatly revered as the birthplace of Aphrodite. Here the Mediterranean forms a beautiful crescent hemmed in by the hill and the panoramic view of the sea from the meandering hillside road is truly mesmerizing!
The sanctuary dedicated to Aphrodite, located at Kouklia village 14 kms. east of Paphos dates back to 12th century BC. The place is an archaeologist’s delight with remains and relics of stone constructions strewn all over. The museum, housed in Lusignan Manor there, had busts of idols, curved stone pillars, bathtubs, large pots etc.
Paphos also boasts of a small Byzantine fort built originally to protect Kato Paphos harbour. The view of the harbour from the fort roof was superb with many vessels jostling for space on the coastline. There were cruise liners to personal luxury yachts to small motorized boats to fishing vessels. One could take a cruise to Egypt, Greece, Italy and Turkey. Kato Paphos promenade was bustling with tourists walking briskly along the harbour or leisurely savouring on seafood delicacies in a large number of restaurants, which dotted the shore.
Talking about food, Cyprus is truly a gourmet’s delight offering tastefully prepared Greek ‘mezze’
meaning lunch or dinner served in several courses. Indians, not wanting to venture too much, could stick to vegetarian mezzes serving multiple veg. preparations. One could limit his non-veg intake by ordering only fish mezzes. And Cyprus is also Bacchus’ paradise overflowing with the finest of wines.
Our conference dinner was hosted at the Pinto’s, a small family run Greek restaurant in the outskirts of Paphos. As we were experiencing the heavenly treat of mezze accompanied by the boisterous music from a live band, I saw a darkish elderly person approaching our table. Looking for the Indians, he went straight to the group of Sri Lankans. On being directed to me, he asked, ‘Are you Indian? I am from India’. I said, ‘Which part of India are you from?’ ‘Calcutta’ was his instant reply. As I spoke back in Bengali, he was quite surprised. Two Bengalis in Paphos; that was quite something! He introduced himself as a general practitioner having retired from the British health service. He was a 1960 graduate from RG Kar Medical College of Kolkata. He took me to his British wife, who appeared to be quite an Indophile having visited India several times. The doctor owned a villa on the beach at Paphos and preferred to spend a few months in Cyprus every year to soak in the golden sun escaping from the all too famous English weather!
I did also visit Nicosia, now known as Lefkosia, the capital of Cyprus. The city, almost located centrally in the island, became the country’s capital in 11th. century AD. The Lusignans built a magnificent Royal Palace and over fifty churches in the city. Lefkosia is a walled city surrounded by star shaped 16th. century Venetian walls enclosing many museums, churches and mediaeval buildings with a nostalgic past. Lefkosia is a little laid back, trying to maintain an old world charm. The city has many restaurants and a bustling market flowing into the narrow alleys and offering a veritable fare of Cypriot artifacts and handmades. A visit to the market is a must for tourists looking for memorabilia at affordable prices. Lefkosia is the only divided city in the world today, with UN forces maintaining ‘Green Line’, the border with Turkish Republic of North Cyprus (TRNC).
My six-day stint at Cyprus ended rather too soon! Given another opportunity, I would love going back to the streets of Nicosia and shores of Paphos for the great Greek music, food and the magical, mystical Mediterranean for a chance meeting with Aphrodite perhaps!
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