With its sunshine and beaches; luxury hotels; quaint villages; Roman, Hellenistic, Byzantine and Crusader monuments; and a rich Jewish heritage, Cyprus has it all for the Israeli traveler.
Cyprus was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1571, who ruled the island for over 300 years. Britain took control of Cyprus in 1878 and annexed it in 1914. Cyprus became an independent republic in 1960.
In 1974, Turkey invaded the northern portion of the island. Since then, the island had been divided into a Greek Cypriot southern section comprising 63% of the island and a Moslem Turkish section in the north. They are separated by a United Nations-policed Green Line. Some 200,000 Greek Cypriots were expelled to the south and 100,000 Turkish Cypriots fled to the north. Since 2003, recognized checkpoints have been established allowing people to visit the other side. In December 2015, the population of the independent Republic of Cyprus exceeded 940,000, of which 75% are Greek and 10% Turkish Cypriots. It joined the EU in 2004. Turkey is the only country to recognize the Republic of Northern Cyprus.
With its distinction of being the only divided capital in the world, Nicosia (population 330,000), is the island’s commercial center and is steeped in history and culture.
Until 2003, the borders between the two sections were impermeable.
Today mobility and interaction between the two populations is possible but they are by no means integrated.
Its old city is surrounded by massive Venetian walls with a perimeter of 4.5 km. The walls have 11 bastions and three gates. The Famagusta gate is the most impressive and comprises a large vaulted passage with two side rooms serving as a cultural center. The external entrance opens onto a moat that surrounded the walls.
The best place to view the divided city is from the Ledra Museum observatory on the 11th floor of Shacolas Tower. One of the most prominent landmarks is the St. Sophia Cathedral, originally erected in the Crusader period and situated in the Turkish part of the capital.
Built in the Gothic style, today it is a mosque. The flying buttress arches, a characteristic of Gothic cathedrals, can be clearly seen.
The Cyprus Museum is the island’s largest archeological museum and charts its development from the Neolithic to the Early Byzantine period. In this museum, there is an inscribed column written in Greek dating from the 4th century, recording the renovation of a synagogue.
We also visited the Center of Visual Arts and Research (CVAR), established by Kostas and Rita Severis.
This outstanding four-story exhibition and research center explores the cultural heritage of Cyprus. The unique collection, lovingly assembled over many years by the Severis family, comprises more than 1,000 paintings of Cyprus by artists from the 18th to the 20th century, more than 5,000 books, extensive archival material, a gift shop as well as a delightful café. The CVAR is one of the crown jewels of the city.
We stayed at the Hilton Park Hotel, which caters mainly to business people and is situated in a wealthy suburb of the city. This well-appointed luxury hotel has extensive conference facilities, fine restaurants and a spa. We particularly enjoyed a dinner on the terrace with excellent service.
The Troodos mountain range abounds with forests, valleys and orchards. It serves as a refuge for walks in the hot summer. When covered by snow in winter, it is ideal for skiing. It is dotted with charming traditional villages and narrow cobbled streets offering a glimpse of village life where old traditions are still practiced. Of particular interest is the winemaking village of Omedos, with its narrow alleys, medieval winepress and Monastery of the Holy Cross.
Other villages are famous for their handmade folk art.
The principal hill resort is Platres, an ancient village that existed during the Lusignan era. The town’s resident population of about 300 increases to 10,000 during tourist seasons. With its numerous hotels, Platres has gained a reputation as the destination of choice for high society. Farouk of Egypt and the Nobel Prize-winning poet Giorgos Seferis were frequent visitors.
We were shown round the old municipal market by Mr. Papadopoulos, chairman of the Platres Community Council. This has been transformed into a modern wellequipped cultural center and can host exhibitions, conferences, seminars, concerts and theater.
In the Troodos area are 10 Byzantine churches included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. They contain ancient frescoes depicting stories mainly from the New but also from the Old Testament. These churches have steep-sloping timber roofs, a single aisle, wooden doors and have remained largely unchanged for centuries. We visited two churches in the village of Galata. The church of Panagia Podithou was built in 1502. The mural paintings include a panel depicting Moses receiving the tablets of the Law from the hands of God, and one of him loosening his sandals in front of the burning bush. There are also depictions of Aaron, David, Solomon, some prophets and the Virgin Mary.
The Church of the Archangelos Michael (Panagia Theotokos) in Galata is entirely covered with frescoes that date to the first half of the 16th century. Amongst the Old Testament frescoes are depictions of David, Solomon and Isaiah, as well Abraham and Sarah welcoming the three angels and the sacrifice of Isaac.
In the quaint village of Pedoulas is the Church of Archangelos Michael. This impressive church was built and decorated in 1474 in the post-Byzantine style by a local painter. Amongst the frescoes, are those depicting the sacrifice of Isaac, as well as the prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah with medallions and halos.
Cyprus derives its name from the Latin cuprum, which means copper. Since antiquity, copper has been present in abundance in Cyprus. The first human presence on the island dates to 9000 BCE. Mycenaean Greeks settled the island around 1100 BCE. Being geographically close to Israel, it shares a similar history of invasions and conquest by powerful neighbors.
Cyprus came under Assyrian, Egyptian and Persian domination from the 8th to the 4th century BCE and was conquered by Alexander the Great. After Alexander’s death, Cyprus was part of the Ptolemaic Empire and in 58 BCE it became a Roman province.
Our excellent guide, Christakis Constantinou, contacted several experts on Jewish history on the island during our visit (including Evanthia Polyviou, who has published works on the Jewish Diaspora in Roman Times) but despite his valiant efforts, it was apparent that there were almost no known archeological remnants of the past Jewish presence in Cyprus.
Trade relations between Cyprus and Israel were established as early as the 3rd century BCE. Wine from Cyprus is mentioned as a component of the incense offering (Pitum HaKetoret) which is recited as part of the daily morning prayers. Literary sources attest to the fact that there was a large Jewish population in the island in Roman times.
During the Ottoman rule, the Jewish community of Cyprus thrived due to the influx of Sephardi Jews who emigrated after the 1492 Spanish expulsion.
At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, several attempts were made to settle Russian and Romanian Jews in Cyprus, a plan also backed by Herzl. These were all unsuccessful.
In August 1946, the British initiated a blockade of immigrant ships transporting recently released Jews from concentration camps in Europe into the then Palestine and sent them to Cyprus where they were detained in detention camps.
They were imprisoned in tents in five “summer camps” in Karaolos near Famagusta and in seven “winter camps” in barracks in the British army base at Dhekelia and in the village of Xylotymbou near Larnaca.
The Jews were incarcerated under harsh conditions with limited food, water, lack of clothing and no freedom of movement. Some 52,000 refugees were detained over the course of the year and a half in which the camps were operational.
Members of the Jewish Agency and the Hagana came to the camps to organize health, military and education programs.
One of the local inhabitants, Poly Spyros (email@example.com), who has researched the Jewish presence of the island during this period, took us on a tour of Xylotymbou and showed us the Garden of Peace memorial established in 2014 to commemorate the plight of refugees.
It is inscribed with the words of Zehavit Blumenfeld, one of the 2,200 babies born at the Jewish Detention Camps in Cyprus during her parent’s incarceration: “My half side, the left one, the side of the heart, is Israel. But the other half is Cypriot.”
Today, no traces of the camps are present. In Xylotymbou village, we visited a cave that has now been converted into a church. On one occasion, Jews who escaped British detention and hid there were found by Spyros’s uncle, who guided them to the coast where they were picked up by a boat. Other Jews who escaped these camps also hid in this as well as other caves in the area and were guided by local villagers to Famagusta.
In 2005, the Jewish community inaugurated Cyprus’s first modern synagogue, mikve, cemetery and Jewish educational program in Larnaca.
Subsequently, Jewish centers have opened in other cities. Today, some 450 Jewish families live in Cyprus, the majority involved in business.Additional pictures of Cyprus and other trips can be seen at www.irvingspitz.com and at www.pbase.com/ irvspitz.
The writer was a guest of The Cyprus Tourism Organization and Louis Hotels.
Special thanks to Louisa Varaclas, Director of the Cyprus Tourism Organization in Israel, Pandy Palaonta, Assistant Tourism Officer, Cyprus Tourism Organization in Nicosia as well as Stavrie Varnavidou, Commerce & Marketing Manager, Louis Hotels and guide, Christakis Constantinou (firstname.lastname@example.org), who was our constant companion during our trip.