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Friday, June 3, 2011

Aphrodite's Island

Many in Lebanon associate Cyprus with the notion of civil marriage. Civil marriage does not exist in Lebanon, only churches and mosques can marry, and interfaith marriage is nearly non-existent (though some types of interfaith marriage are acceptable--e.g., a Muslim man can marry a Christian woman). So, Cyprus has become a bit like the Las Vegas of the Middle East, providing a haven for Lebanese people--often from different religions--who want to get married.

Cyprus is a small island nation in the Mediterranean, less than thirty minutes by plane from Beirut. In part due to the close proximity and low cost and in part because a relaxing trip sounded good, Nicole and I visited Cyprus earlier this week. As Nicole has noted, the trip did not start well because on Saturday our last week of tutoring at the Palestinian high school program was abruptly canceled, leaving us unsure if we'll be able to say goodbye to the kids. Bummer. But that night, we flew out and as soon as the plane was in the air it was heading for the runway.

Our tickets came with a free transfer to our hotel. Score. Unfortunately, the driver did not show so we had to take an expensive taxi. And our hotel room was hot, thanks to dodgy air conditioning. I have much patience when it comes to most things, but when it's too hot to sleep, my patience disappears. So that first night was a bit rough. Luckily, the next day they fixed (more or was still not as cool as I'd prefer, but oh well) the a.c.

We spent the first morning in Larnaca, a beachfront city full of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine sites and artifacts. It felt odd to hear Greek, instead of Arabic and French, on the streets. Cyprus attracts loads of European tourists, as it's an inexpensive place to escape to the beach. You get used to the warmth of Arabs so, as was the case when we visited Istanbul, Turkey, we just had the impression that people weren't as friendly. Though that's probably not the right word. Cypriots seem perfectly nice but, like Istabulis, they just don't have that intense hospitality you feel when visiting Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Plus, different notions about appropriate swimwear. Europeans love the speedos in a big way.

The morning's highlight was definitely the church of St. Lazarus, a tenth century Orthodox "Agios" built over the tomb of Lazarus, who Jesus raised from the dead. Turns out Lazarus traveled with St. Paul first to Antioch and then to Cyprus, where he became a bishop. Many of his relics were relocated to Turkey but his tomb is still beneath this church. I had worn shorts (it was hot!) but luckily they church provided a wrap to cover my legs, so Nicole and I were able to walk down into his tomb. The church itself, like many Orthodox churches, is FULL of amazing icons. As always, we took loads of pictures.

We also went to the nearby Agia Faneromeni, also a beautiful church built over ancient tombs. The site was originally a Phoenician holy place known for magical, healing powers. The "pagan" tomb is now a chapel, full of candles (creepy) and of course its own iconostasis (pretty). We spent the afternoon swimming, reading next to the water, and napping. We had also seen a sign advertising Indian food, which we hadn't eaten since leaving the U.S., so we took a really long stroll along the sea and found the place. Expensive, but pretty good, and reminded me how much we miss Indian food.

The next day we took a little daytrip to some of the important archaelogical sites around the island. Kourion dates back to the 12th Century BC but really thrived under the Roman empire. It's got a huge Roman theatre and a royal home with great mosaics. Similarly, Pafos, on the western cost of the island, was an important Roman site, with several cult houses full of amazing mosaics, as well as several castles and another theatre. We stopped at the Petra Tou Romiou, a rock formation where Aphrodite was born, according to legend. Also, Choirokotia, a stone-age settlement from 7000 BC. Always interested in the odd corners of Christianity, I visited the church in Pafos built on the site where St. Paul recieved thirty-nine lashes. The pillar to which is he was tied is still in the church's courtyard.

According to legend, St. Paul made his inquisitor go blind. Also: when Sts. Paul and Lazarus arrived on Cyprus, they were hungry and thirsty and Lazarus, according to legend, asked a woman at a vineyard for some grapes. When she refused, Lazarus turned her vineyard into a salt lake. Finally, this: on Christmas Eve, Cypriots believe the "kalikantzari" arrive to wreak havoc on their homes. Kalikantzari are ugly, gnome-like creatures, the ghosts of babies who died before being baptized. They show up on Christmas and dirty the water supply and play other pranks. So villagers cut olive branches, take them to church, dip them in holy water, and then sprinkle the water around their homes to protect against the spirits. But families who have lost babies put out food for the kalikantzari. Who says Christianity isn't any fun?

Ate Cypriot food on the boardwalk in Pafos that day. Yummy. Back at the hotel, Nicole was tired and caught a quick nap in the kinda air conditioned room while I went swimming again in the attempt to work off some of the mousakka and kieftedhes (kefteh meatballs).

On our last day we went to Limassol, another beachside community. We ate lunch in a little cafe with turtles and birds and fishtanks. It was called Astarte, which seemed like a good sign, as Astarte is the Phoenician/ancient Lebanese version of Aphrodite. I also found two great buys: an amazing cookbook called "Kopiaste" and can't wait to start making some of the Cypriot and Greek goodies therein. Also, an icon of St. Lazarus. I'm not a big souvenir guy, but cookbooks and icons tempt me every time. We went to the crusader castle in Limassol, which has been converted into a medieval museum, complete with weapons, stoneware, mosaics, and the like. The castle was the site where Richard the Lionhearted got married during one of the crusades.

Luckily, our transfer to the airport showed up and spared us another pricey taxi ride. And the plane ride was shockingly fast. Back in Lebanon, safe and sound. About three weeks until we return to the U.S. Cyprus was lots of fun and the historical sites (especially those connected to Orthodox Christianity) were very interesting. Hard to complete with the Mideast, though, and places like Jordan and Syria remain the most treasured places we've seen this year!

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