To see as many archaeological sites as possible, our aim for the five days before our return to Nicosia, we had to rent a car. Driving in Cyprus is on the left, British-style. Cheaper rates are given for renting a car with manual transmission rather than automatic. Could I manage a stick shift? My last foray into this was twenty years ago, during a trip to North Cyprus. I survived then, so why not now? Changing gears, if learned when young, is a skill that stays with you forever, like riding a bike. Whether the gears are on the right or left of the driver’s seat matters little, and fortunately, whichever side, first gear is always upper left, second gear lower left, etc.
The Lion of Venice lands in Larnaca
We were soon on our way to Larnaca on an excellent highway, driving through an arid landscape studded with conical hilltops. Larnaca is a good-sized city on the seacoast.
The beach, extensive and well-tended, is lined by a strip of beach-style touristic hotels.
KFC and TGI Fridays along the beach at Larnaca
As soon as you penetrate the streets behind the waterfront, though, you leave the generic and enter a regular Cypriot town.
At Metro, a large supermarket, I was happy, I must admit, to find two British staples, both favorites of mine: Marmite (a brown, yeast-flavored spread) and bitter orange marmalade (this last in both Cypriot and British brands), virtually impossible to buy in Ankara. Whether they result from the years of British control of the island (1878-1960) or a large number of British tourists and residents, I can’t say.
Church of St. Lazarus (right)
Across from our hotel was a handsome Orthodox church dedicated to Saint Lazarus – the very same Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead (Gospel of John). According to Orthodox tradition, Lazarus left Palestine for Larnaca (= ancient Citium), became its first bishop, and ended his days here. Signage is not only in Greek and English but also in Russian, reflecting the increased number of Russians now visiting Cyprus or even living there.
In the outer precinct is a small English cemetery with ornate tombs for members of the English business community in the early nineteenth century.
Nearby, on the seashore, is a fortress originally built medieval times. The British used it as a prison. It’s now a museum.
Our main interest, though, was to see remains of the ancient city. Citium, or Kition, goes back to the Bronze Age. With French archaeologist Annie Caubet, we visited two main excavation sectors, Kathari (with temples to Astarte, from the Phoenician period)
Kathari: large ashlar blocks that surround the temple precinct
and Bamboula (with dry docks for ships, a very unusual find, dating from the Persian period).
We also visited the local archaeological museum, at least the wing that was open, devoted mostly to ceramics of the Bronze and Iron Ages, and the Pierides Foundation, a private museum in a restored house of the early nineteenth century, with a fine collection of antiquities and early modern maps of the island.
Early 19th century house
(the Pierides Foundation occupies a similar building)
After we left Larnaca, we headed for Hala Sultan Tekke, a mosque-mausoleum complex in a garden setting with palm trees on the edge of a large salt lake.
Hala Sultan (as she is called in Turkish) was the foster mother of the Prophet Muhammad and, according to tradition, she is buried here. This mausoleum is the most important Muslim shrine on the island. A busload of tourists, or perhaps pilgrims, was cheerfully preparing a lunch in one of the common rooms available for visitors.
Near the tekke is a Late Bronze Age town, excavated since the 1970s by Swedish teams. A notice of the spectacular discovery this summer of a rich tomb has recently appeared in “Haaretz”: http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/archaeology/1.734913
We didn’t find the site of current archaeological work, but did see some ancient wall fragments protected below an outlying building of the mausoleum complex.
After a short stop at Kiti to see an early Byzantine apse mosaic, we drove to Khirokitia, a Neolithic settlement, seventh millennium BC, well-known for its round houses, made of stone, built on a steep slope.
But first, we needed lunch. We missed the restaurant recommended by Annie Caubet, having arrived by a minor road from Kiti, not the main highway, and so ended in a bakery eating oversized rolls, one stuffed with pumpkin and raisins, the other with a bit of halloumi (hellim, in Turkish), a salty, rubbery white cheese beloved by both Greek and Turkish Cypriots. To drink, I picked airani, because it’s the same word as Turkish ayran, a diluted yogurt drink, slightly salty, of which I am very fond. This airani turned out to be sour sheep’s milk with lots of mint, not at all like the Turkish ayran. I burped unpleasantly for several hours after.
Our last visit of the day was Amathus, just east of Limassol. Phoenicians were there in the Iron Age, which is the main reason I wanted to see it. Moreover, Richard the Lionheart, king of England, passed through in 1191. He defeated the Byzantines to take possession of the island (soon passed on to Guy de Lusignan, a French crusader whose family would rule Cyprus for the next 300 years), and either in Amathus or nearby Limassol he married Berengaria of Navarre, whose family’s kingdom, Navarre, was adjacent to his own territory of Aquitaine.
We identified the location of this ancient city and obtained some idea of its topography, but the ruins of Amathus were a disappointment. Stone foundations of Hellenistic and especially Roman imperial houses and other buildings spread monotonously across the lower hillside with few concessions for visitors: no paths indicated through the ruins and few signs to explain what we were looking at.
The harbor was not at all evident, but coastlines do change over the centuries. Above, a prominent hill was surely the location of the Temple of Aphrodite, the city’s most important cult, but no information about this hilltop or how to get there was posted
We returned to the highway and drove on to Limassol (aka Lemesos, the Greek name used today) to our very attractive hotel, Nikis House, in an outlying district on the slopes above the city proper, with the sea visible in the distance. The owner had lived here as a young girl. The family kept the house after they moved downtown, and now it has been refurbished as a quiet, attractive guest house.
The room was equipped with a stove and refrigerator, so, although the guest house did not offer breakfast, with a short walk to a local bakery and market, we were ready with instant coffee, milk, and a tahin böreği (Turkish for a large sweet roll with tahini and sugar) for the next morning.
(to be continued)