The Guest Room
Musings, Memories & Epiphanies Inspired by Place
Cyprus Landscape: Eons of Inspiring Awe
By David Pearlman
We must go beyond textbooks,
go out into the bypaths and untrodden depths of the wilderness
and travel and explore
and tell the world the glories of our journey.
John Hope Franklin, 1915–2009
It’s funny that most people turn to Archaeology to answer these questions, but in fact, seldom, if ever, can Archaeology provide the definitive answers. This is because archaeologists can only work with the evidence they have, and we are always wary of making definitive statements about the “earliest” this or the “oldest” that, when, perhaps next Tuesday, some new finds will make these statements obsolete.
On the island of Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean, where archaeologists have been searching for the earliest colonization evidence since the late 19th century, the foundation date for the first human settlers is being pushed back in time all the time. We still don’t know definitively when the first people arrived, and in all honesty, we probably never will. But whoever they were, and wherever they came from, we do know that they adapted to their new island home successfully, and did so without destroying the landscape that provided them with raw materials to survive and build a flourishing culture.
Oh how far things have come! Today, this island is a major holiday destination for most parts of Europe, Great Britain especially. The landscapes explored and utilized by the first Cypriots has changed for sure. But even now, more than twelve thousand years since humans made first landfall, there are still virgin areas of wilderness to be explored, and new surprises to be found on the Cypriot landscape.
Although Cyprus has been inhabited by human beings for over 12,000 years, there has never been much agreement over where the island’s best beaches are located. The earliest visitors to Cyprus, the Neolithic colonists who arrived in primitive sea craft during the 10th millennium B.C., certainly enjoyed some of the Mediterranean’s cleanest, most untainted beaches. But sadly, these have been either eroded away or covered up by tons of recent soil material, so we don’t know exactly where the prehistoric Cypriots spend their seaside holidays.However, there is a theory — not very popular in traditional academic circles — but widely bandied about amongst groups of “new archeologists” (these are the ones who think they understand the thought processes and behavioral patterns of ancient peoples), that the major stimulus behind Cyprus’s initial colonization was, in fact, the presence on the island of the attractive beaches.
Those graduate students who have procured funding to do research on the subject unanimously point to the sudden upsurge in coastal settlement which characterized the pre-pottery Neolithic cultures of the Levant during the 8th millennium. They conclude that this would have caused unprecedented competition for prime beachfront property all along the Levantine coast, forcing straggling tribes to migrate over the sea in quest of unoccupied bathing grounds. Finally, these scholars argue that all the initial settlements on Cyprus are located within the zones of Lefkara Group chalk and Pakhna Formation marls (i.e. fine grained limestone deposits), which suggests that the Neolithic Cypriots marginally preferred the chalky/marly beaches of the southern coast.
Of course, nowadays things have changed quite a bit. Today most visitors to Cyprus fly in, and the majority of these people believe the sandy coves of Ayia Napa, which are well away from the chalk/marl landscape, are the crème de la crème of Cypriot beaches. I say these eastern beaches are too soft, too wimpy to even consider. You see, I, like the prehistoric beach connoisseurs before me, am a rock person.
Others say the so-called “Coral Bay area” just north of Paphos is the best Cyprus has to offer in the way of beaches. But here again, I find cause to disagree. First, where’s the coral? And anyway, I don’t want to waste my time wading into the sea. I want to get it over with fast by diving off a rock platform. I want to feel the Med’s warm blue water all around me right away.
Now, having found fault with two of Cyprus’ traditional best, you may think me extremely picky — even arrogant. But please understand that some of us get very offended when we see people treading water with brandy sours in their hands.
So where do people like me go to get away from it all on a hot August day? Do we go to Limassol? No-o-o-o. Do we drive up to Polis Bay? No way, too many people everywhere. Here’s a tip: we go to Ayios Yeoryois tis Peyias.
The pristine bathing grounds of Ayios Yeoryis tis Peyias comprise a five-kilometer stretch of coastline about half-way up the western coast of Cyprus, just north of Coral Bay. Swimming in these immaculate waters, along a stretch of coastline that locals call Thalassinies Spilies (“Sea Caves”) one can understand why Neolithic man first came to Cyprus.
The settlement of Ayios Yeoryios tis Peyias is actually no more than a hamlet standing on a high cliff overlooking a small fishing harbor. It cannot be considered a proper village, for it lacks its own post office and the population–now dwindled to a mere handful of people–has hovered at 20 people or below during modern times. But in previous centuries, the settlement was undoubtedly larger and more important. The hamlet partly overlies the ancient city of Drepanum and there are ruins of several old churches, including a 6th century basilica. Hellenistic/Roman tombs have been cut into the cliff overlooking the modern, man-made fishing harbor.
Today, Ayios Yeoryios possesses two modern landmarks. First, there is a massive and ultra-flamboyant church–dedicated to Ayios Yeoryios (“St George”) of course — which dominated the entire headland. It was built in 1928. Then there is the St. George Restaurant, which serves some of Cyprus’s freshest seafood. Harris, the proprietor claims, “The local fishermen bring their catch to me first, before they go to the market in Paphos.” The restaurant commands a panoramic view over Lara Bay and the offshore island of Yeronisos.
Technically, Ayios Yeoryois sits on a point called Cape Drepanum, so-named because the coastline here supposedly resembles the shape of a sickle (drepani). North of the cape, the beachfront curves like a giant sickle blade all the way up to Lara, whilst, on the south side, a series of elaborately carved and eroded chalk formations extend uninterrupted to Keratidhi and Coral Bay. It is here, along what would be the sickle’s handle, that some of Cyprus’s most impressive coastal locations can be found.
From the center of Ayios Yeoryios, a small road leads past the towering modern church and continues down to the small fishing harbor. Turning south, away from the harbor, it degenerates into a rocky dirt track. The land is sparsely vegetated except where banana groves and other recent attempts at villa construction break the otherwise rocky landscape. The soils are clay-rich and very red, classic examples of the so-called “terra rosas,” which form throughout the Mediterranean on limestone topography of this type.
About 1.5 kilometers south of Ayios Yeoryios, the track finds a small inlet where occasionally a few fishing boats are moored. This appears to be one of the few natural harbors in the area, and the presence of many potsherds on the ground suggest that a settlement-cum-harbor installation existed here long ago, perhaps during the Roman period. This is also where the chalks start in earnest, for on the far side of the inlet, chalk cliffs rise majestically from the sea. Here the spectacle begins.
Because the track quickly merges into bare rock and the coast becomes jagged and extremely precipitous, it is best to explore the region on foot. One can either follow the cliff edge high above the sea, or pick one’s way along the watermark by following the natural contours of the chalk. Either way, you’ll be rewarded with superb scenery and unparalleled swimming locations. For the next few kilometers southward, one enters an awesome zone of chalk sculpture, beauty which only the hand of nature can create. Wave-cut staircases cascade down to the water like giant escalators. Straight columns of chalk shoot like saplings from the sea. Dark hollows in the pale rock mark the location of underwater grottos, and perfectly symmetrical arches stand as gateways to a swimmer’s paradise. And at the end of the day, the sunset’s multi-colored refraction is reflected vividly across the face of the chalk, which changes from white to cream to yellow to orange and finally to red. Luckily this place is not that well known, so, especially towards the end of the day, one can experience all the serene charm and power of the place in an environment of peaceful solitude.
It’s funny how so often one good thing leads to another, and that’s exactly what happened the first day I ever visited this unique coastline some twenty-odd years ago. I had just finished a long snorkeling session, during which I was able to explore some of the younger, semi-submerged sea caves. As I emerged from sea, I had a sudden urge for cold beer, so I worked my way back up the coastline to the small restaurant at Ayios Yeorgios. It was late in the afternoon, so as I sat down and started drinking, I noticed several locals, both fishermen and farmer-types, were gathering here talking and playing cards, drinking coffee or brandy. One of them, an older balding man named Savvas, struck up a conversation with me, asking me the usual stuff, like “Where you from?” “What are you doing here?” This man, Savvas, had an air of importance to him, and it seemed that when he spoke, everybody else at the table remained silent, almost in deference to him. I later found out that Savvas had just retired from the Customs Dept., and he was locally famous for being the first custom’s agent to work at the newly opened Paphos Airport.
As I sketched my little biographical tale, I looked right at Savvas and spoke directly to him. I mentioned that I was busy exploring the area, trying to find the best, most impressive coastlines on the island. I told him I had just finished exploring the Sea Caves cut into the white cliffs. I explained how impressive they were, and added, “Too bad most of the fish and sea life had disappeared from the area. I only saw some small fish, nasty sea urchins and a calamari (squid) or two. . . .” Some of the older fishermen were listening to our discussion and they started to get animated at the mention of degraded sea life. “It wasn’t always like that, I can assure you” shouted one of them. “Yes, I remember when we were young men finding fish in this sea was like picking grapes from the vine! There were so many.” Another old geezer from the next table, interjected: “Tell him about the seals! Remember all those seals?”
“Ah, yes, the seals. . . . Let me explain” said Savvas, once again taking command of the conversation. Some forty, no maybe even fifty years ago, those caves you’ve just been swimming in were home to a small group of seals. We used to see them swimming in and out of those caves, especially when they were producing young ones. There were maybe fifteen or twenty of them. But over time they started to get fewer and fewer. Then one day there were none left. We were happy at first, because we always knew they were eating the fish. But now, we all speak about them and would love to see them back. They’re just gone now, and for a long time no fisherman has seen any trace of them. Sad, really. . . .” This was the only local reference I ever encountered to the now, nearly extinct Mediterranean Monk Seal. It’s now believed that there may be a grand total of three seals left anywhere in Cypriot waters, so strong has been the degradation of the coastal environments in Cyprus and across the East Med.
As the conversation went on, the beer was replaced by brandy, and our separate tables merged into one. We spoke about a variety of subjects, but at one point I started asking about birds. I was especially interested in any recent sightings nearby of the elusive Griffon Vulture. This was the largest bird in the Cypriot sky, but the numbers of vultures on the island were dwindling due to destructive farming practices and the general lack of carrion on the landscape these days. Most of the men agreed that there were hardly any vultures to be seen these days, but Savvas, with a wry grin on his face, said he knew where the last vulture nests in the area were and he agreed to meet me the next day to show me.
Early the next morning we met at the coffee shop of his village, Peyia, and he drove me in his green pick-up truck into a forested area some 10kms from the sea. After about fifteen minutes driving down a bumpy dirt track, we came to an impenetrable wall of pine and juniper, but a small goat-path led into the thick bush. We followed this track deeper into the forest by foot. Eventually we came to a magnificent viewpoint over a large canyon or gorge. The cliffs beneath our feet sunk precipitously down to depths of nearly 200 meters, and all around us we could see crows and swallows circling around us in the air currents. On the cliffs and canyon walls opposite us, the sharp eye could make out dozens of goats, heads down and mouths busy, oblivious to everything. And there, on a series of rock ledges, high above the valley floor, Savvas pointed out the last nests of majestic Griffon Vultures. Two of them were there sitting on the cliffs like kings on their thrones. What a scene! What a magic place! This was the Avakas Gorge!
As I said, all of that was some twenty years ago. Little did I know at the time, but the Avakas Gorge was to become a place of great power and importance to my life. Over the next several years, I walked, hopped, climbed, clambered, fell and banged my knees through nearly every nook and cranny of this fantastic canyon system. At first I would just follow the goats, who knew by instinct the easiest and logical paths through the gorge and along the steep cliffs. After a while I felt so comfortable in the place that I was able to earn my living by organizing trekking excursions for adventurous tourists from the nearby hotel resort of Paphos. (We never used the word “tourist” actually, but always called our clients “sophisticated travelers” . . . It sounded better you see!)
Today, the Avakas Gorge is considered one of Cyprus’ most spectacular natural wonders. One of the deepest and narrowest limestone canyons on the island, it runs for a distance of approximately 8kms East-West, forming the centerpiece of an area called the Peyia Forest.
Although the gorge lies less than 2 kms inland from the sea, it is so deeply incised within the chalky terrain that its precise location cannot be observed from the coast. Nestled inside the hills, it exists as a hidden valley. Indeed, unless you happen to stumble across it by accident, you can only find the place by taking a nondescript dirt track leading from the seashore into the juniper forest.
If you know exactly which narrow goat path to follow, you will find yourself walking down a small river floodplain where huge boulders of gypsum sit, their salinities crystals glistening in the sun. The gorge itself begins several hundred meters further on, where giant cliffs protrude high above the river banks, casting deep shadows on the landscape below.
The cliffs, composed of two distinct rock units, pose a sort of a geological riddle. The lower two-thirds are composed of young chalky marls (i.e. fine-grained limestone) of the Pliocene epoch, dated to ca. 4–5 million years ago. They are overlain by much older deposits of coralline limestone belonging to the Miocene epoch, which are 7–5 million years old. Normally, younger sediments are found on top of older rocks, so the reversed situation in the gorge is rather mysterious. It can perhaps be explained by suggesting some great mass movement or earthquake even re-deposited the older limestone on top of the younger chalky material.
Walking beneath the cliffs, one notices swifts, rock doves and kestrels flying overhead, encircling their nesting sites in the heights above. As you move past the cliffs and into the gorge, several changes take place: the temperature suddenly drops several degrees and a forest of deciduous trees and pink-flowering oleander erupts around you. This all has to do with the micro-climate effect within the gorge. Even in the heat of summer, it’s always cool inside the gorge. Parts of it, perennially enshrouded in shade, never see direct sunlight, and there is always a sweet-scented breeze caused by evaporating spring waters running down the stream-bed.
The most impressive part of the gorge is encountered soon after entering the stream-bed. Sheer walls of limestone rise some 30 meters in height and gradually come closer and closer together to form a natural “tunnel.” The tunnel runs for nearly 100 meters in length and is one of the most unique geomorphologic features in Cyprus.
Near the start of the tunnel, where the gap between the walls closes to only two meters or so, a huge lump of rock protrudes through the tunnel ceiling, hanging precariously overhead. This is actually a large boulder of coralline limestone which was dislodged from the Miocene deposit higher up and which came crashing down on top of the tunnel during some past earthquake event long ago. By chance, the boulder happened to enter the tunnel at its narrowest point, where it remains today suspended almost like an icon in mid-flight!
When viewed from certain angles, it looks as if the boulder might fall through the opening at any moment. Close analysis, however, shows that the giant monolith is firmly wedged between the tunnel walls, where it is likely to remain until the next great earthquake!
Below the “hanging rock” and throughout the tunnel generally, long, horizontal lines or groove-like striations decorate the smooth limestone walls. These are “sculpture marks” left from the original abrasion and down-cutting during various stages of the gorge formation.
Walking conditions within the tunnel can be difficult. There is always running water along the bottom of the gorge, and that means mud deposits too, so one must proceed with caution, hopping over slippery rocks and boulders. If you’re good at balancing acts and using stepping stones, you might successfully navigate the tunnel without getting wet. But during autumn the water is normally less than a foot deep, so it’s no big deal if you do happen to slip in.
All the running water in the gorge comes from fresh water springs, perhaps the largest of which can be found towards the center of the tunnel, where a mossy rock outcropping juts out from the sheer rock wall. Green ferns cover the rock, and vegetation hangs down all around. A wild fig tree sprouts out from the top of the rock, whilst here and there, clean, cool mountain water gushes out of fractures in the limestone. During the winter months, when the aquifers (i.e. water-bearing rocks) are at maximum water-holding capacity from the rains, this spring discharges quite a strong shower. But during the summer and autumn months the flow subsides to a mere trickle. In a unique display of natural sculpture, numerous stalactites descend from the rock, giving the place a cave-like appearance.
In addition to the tunnel, the gorge has other dazzling spectacles. There are numerous small waterfalls, horizontally growing cypress trees, and immense slopes of scree (“talus aprons”). At one point, the rock cliffs suddenly rise to heights exceeding 200 meters. They encircle the bottom of the gorge to form what looks like a natural amphitheater. In this region, huge boulders (some the size of two-story houses) are not uncommon, and amongst the cliffs one can find many pieces of rock that have been weather-beaten into strange shapes, some of them resembling man-made spires or even minaret towers. The area has been subject to numerous tectonic events, and rock falls occur relatively frequently.
The upper cliffs of the “amphitheater” are reached by hiking up narrow goat-paths, which traverse the canyon walls by following natural contours in the limestone topography. Here, the various crags and precipices are home to numerous kinds of bird life, and the autumn visitor will be treated to some superb opportunities for bird-watching.
On an average day in the gorge, one will encounter hundreds of jackdaws, dozens of woodpigeons and rock doves, as well as several ravens and kestrels. Particularly during spring and autumn, a host of other species, including migratory birds, also visits the gorge. Peregrines, buzzards, kites, a variety of non-resident eagles and the afore-mentioned Griffon vultures are also known in the gorge, though they are less frequently encountered.
If you know exactly where to stand and which time of day to be there, you will be able to see a unique sight: great clouds of birds composed of hundreds and hundreds of jackdaws descend on the amphitheater from the neighboring highland areas. Although the jackdaw by itself it’s a rather common bird and of little intrinsic interest for serious bird-watchers, to see hoards of jackdaws behaving as a group in a wild environment, to observe them wheeling about and performing acrobatic feats in the air currents or “mobbing” a kestrel among the high cliffs, is an incredible spectacle. Perhaps one of the most memorable things you will see on the island.
After exploring places like this gorge by foot, or even swimming along coastlines like the Sea Caves discussed earlier, one develops a strong sense of empathy for Cyprus and its natural landscape. Whenever I immerse myself into the elements at such places, I often reflect to myself: Here I am experiencing a part of Cyprus that has not changed much since prehistoric times.
I always chase the ghosts of Cyprus’ past, but never does one get closer to the pulse of the island, past and present, than when one finds a small patch of wilderness. Thank the gods, Cyprus can still offer the “sophisticated traveler” a small taste of the way it used to be.
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