As I nervously got out of the car, a genial, portly man in uniform hurried forth to welcome me uttering a reassuring “I know all about you”. It was well past five in the evening and I had just reached the archaeological site of Palaipafos (‘old Pafos’ in Greek) in Kouklia village, Pafos. During our conversation, I learnt he was the man in charge of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. This site was about 14 kilometres from Pafos city and was one of the three that were jointly inscribed on the UNESCO list in 1980—the other two being in the city, close to Pafos Harbour.
While the museum here closes at 5pm during spring, apparently someone from the tourism department had called ahead to accommodate this photographer from India who was keen to check out the 3,200-year old mosaic masterpieces. As I exhaled a deep sigh of relief, I could feel my admiration for the department going up.
Palaipafos, one of the most important ancient city-kingdoms of Cyprus, is linked to the Aphrodite Cultural Route. While archaeological excavations here are still on, some remarkable finds have already been unearthed. From the excavated ruins replete with two feet-thick walls and Gothic columns, some of the 12th-century artefacts and mosaics have been moved into the museum on site.
One such piece is a mosaic rendition of a scantily clad Aphrodite, the greek goddess of love. As a photographer, I know my task is to create the illusion of the third dimension in a two-dimensional frame. Looking at this artwork, I was mesmerised by the finesse of the artist who faced a daunting task to conceive and create the third dimension in a jigsaw 2D medium. It required perfection in planning and in its execution. For me, it was not just about assessing the direction of light and pressing the trigger. It was about assessing it, and then conceiving hundreds of tiny pieces—each to perfectly reflect the subtle hues that would ultimately provide the illusion of that elusive third dimension. The body contours and the natural fall of the drape were perfect.
It seems the rare art of mosaics was extremely advanced in 12th-century BCE Cyprus. My visit to Palaipafos’s sister site the same morning, the one near Pafos Harbour, had brought me face-to-face with another set of brilliantly conceived mosaic floors. It is believed to have been the ancient home of a wealthy Cypriot from that era. The site was an aggregation of multiple mosaic collages of the Greek god of wine—Dionysus.
Besides the varied manifestations of Dionysus, the other mosaics on this site ranged from geometric patterns to animals, hunting to elaborate war scenes, and more. Amongst the animals depicted here, the ones that intrigued me the most were a peacock and a tiger. It made me wonder if the artisans who created these masterpieces were from the distant lands of Southeast Asia.
Seeing more heritage gems from Cyprus, it increasingly became clear that over the centuries, Cypriots have demonstrated amazing talent. They have not only showcased their talent in their three-millennia old mosaics, but also via the painted churches from the medieval Byzantine era.
Some of these Byzantine and post-Byzantine churches are sprinkled across the Troodos mountain range in central Cyprus. In 1985, UNESCO had accorded World Heritage Site status to a set of 10 churches from this region, dating between 11th and 15th centuries CE.
Architecturally, I found these structures simplistic, almost inconspicuous looking, with steep sloping tiled roofs like normal village houses. But the highly refined decorations and murals inside were in stark contrast to their unassuming exteriors. Additionally, my guide pointed out, the painted murals have a wealth of dated inscriptions —an important factor that helped establish the chronology of these Byzantine paintings.
These murals are a splash of gold, rich blues, deep reds and yellows, and they depict the local manifestations of various saints, notably the Virgin Mary and Jesus. Some of these, especially the ones inside the Church of St Nicholas of the Roof, betray a strong stylistic similarity between Cypriot and Western Christian art.
The rich decorations were not limited to just the UNESCO-inscribed churches. I saw similar ancient paintings and murals in churches across Lefkara and Larnaca too. These artworks were equally stunning. All in all, it provided the perfect inspiration for the photographer in me.
Ironically, before my visit to Cyprus, my vision of this island nation was limited to some stunning beaches overlooking the predictable deep turquoise of the Mediterranean Sea, and some buzzing pubs and vibrant hangouts. Not even in my wildest dreams had I imagined that I would find such gorgeous heritage masterpieces here. But then, shouldn’t travelling to a new destination always be a colourful riot of discovery?
There are 12 airlines that can take you to Cyprus from many of the majors cities in India, but none of them fly directly. The three most convenient connections are Emirates, Qatar and GulfAir. The average return airfare is around ₹ 45,000. The most convenient connections are to Larnaca International Airport (LCA). Since the entire island is 240km x 100km, it is not difficult to get around and see the various attractions. Albeit a little expensive, taxis are the most convenient mode of transport. If you would like to save on transport, book your itinerary by bus.
Where to Stay
Pafos: Aliathon Holiday Village, 4-star from €250
Nicosia: Hilton Cyprus, 5-Star from €315
Larnaca: Palm Beach Hotel & Bunglows, Dhekelia Rd, 4-star from €170
Ayia Napa: Limanaki BeachHotel, 4-star from €220
What to See & Do
Nea Pafos: Part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, famous for its stunning mosaics. The site is still under excavation and is about 200m from Pafos Harbour.
Petra Tou Romiou: This is a short scenic stop, said to be the mythical birthplace of Aphrodite. It’s part of one of the most stunning coastlines in Cyprus. Located around 25km from Pafos Sanctuary of Aphrodite.
Palaipafos: Located in Kouklia, the archaeological site of Palaipafos was one of the most important city-kingdoms of Cyprus. It was the first Cypriot site to be included in the World Heritage List in 1980.
Troodos: Sprinkled across the areas of Pitsilia, Solea and Marathasa, a cluster of 10 Byzantine and post-Byzantine churches were collectively inscribed on to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1985 for their stunning paintings and murals that throw a light on the chronology of the spread of Christianity in Cyprus.
Nissi Beach, Ayia Napa: The sandbar of this spectacular beach extends 500m into the Mediterranean to take you to an islet. If you choose to wade through the crystal-clear waters to get to this islet, the water is just waist-high.
Choirokoitia: (locally called Khirokitia) Inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List, this Neolithic settlement was inhabited from 7th to 5th century BCE. It is about 33km from LarnacaHarbour.