Cyprus Icons: Saint Neophytos Monastery Lower Paphos

This is the first in a four-part series on Cyprus, which explores the island through the lens of its Orthodox Christian heritage and iconography. This piece and the ones that follow offer a snapshot of selected sites of spiritual significance to Cypriots, focusing on the stunning scenery in which each is set and the inspirational and artistic imagery contained within. The series also offer a glimpse of the country’s culture and traditions through my observations and the voices of its citizens whom I came to know. — MP

Known as the birthplace of Aphrodite, Cyprus is a treasure trove of historic sites. Near Larnaka, for example, one can time travel from the ruins of the Neolithic settlement Kalavassos-Tenta, practically cross the street to the remains of a 13th century castle where Richard the Lionhearted wed Princess Berengaria of Navarre, and, down the road, find a 4th century monastery founded by Emperor Constantine’s mother. NeophytusAmid the wealth of archaeological relics, the island nation’s Orthodox Christian iconography calls to visitors of all faiths. The religious artwork found in ancient caves, tiny roadside shrines, painted churches and majestic cliff top monastic communities offers a colorful and inspiring road map through the history of Cyprus and its central Orthodox Christian faith.

My husband Tom and I began our exploration of Cyprus at the far end of a deep valley, where we slowly made our way up into the steep hills in the country’s south, past the villages of Mesogi and Tremithousa. The soft peach pastel of the sandstone escarpment that loomed ahead was in vivid contrast to the bold green of pines and poplars reaching toward the brilliant topaz sky. Crossing a narrow footbridge, we heard the sound of rushing water from the mountain stream below and the wind rustling the branches of nearby olive trees.  We reached the cliff face and climbed the stone-carved stairs to the top, where we paused to catch our breath and return the gaze of a winged and haloed angel, who looked down upon us from above an ancient door frame.

We crossed the threshold into the first of four tiny chambers that Saint Neophytos is said to have hewn from the rock here with his bare hands. When he arrived at this remote patch of wilderness in 1159, Neophytos was 25 years old, and he had finally found what he had been seeking for seven years: peace and quiet. Faced with the prospect of a traditional arranged marriage at 18, the future saint had fled his poor village of Kato Dhrys near Lefkara in the hills of southern Cyprus to a monastery, where he had hoped to lead a cloistered life as an ascetic. The abbot who welcomed him did not grant his wish to live as a hermit, but did entrust the monastery’s vineyards to Neophytos’ care while also teaching him to read and write.

When his request to live a life of solitude was still denied seven years later, Neophytos asked the abbot for permission to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where he hoped to find an ascetic that would take him under his wing. However, six months of wandering in the Holy Land did not present the spiritual teacher Neophytos sought. He returned to the monastery, where yet again his plea to live as a hermit was denied. No doubt frustrated, Neophytos headed for the port in Paphos and a ship to take him to Asia Minor, where another major monastery was located. Alas, the young saint was arrested as a fugitive and then robbed by his guards. Though released after just one night in jail, he had now become penniless and probably all the more intent on withdrawing from his fellow man. It was then that he made his way up into these lofty bluffs.

Neophytus cave

As I came to understand the very human story of this figure revered in his homeland of Cyprus, I admired his ideals and conviction in the throes of seemingly relentless adversity. I too am often ready to head for the hills, even when faced with far less opposition from my fellows and the Universe. We explored the humble cells that Neophytos carved from a small natural cave on the mountainside, recognizing the uneven walls and sloping ceilings as testimony to his tenacity. I felt large and clumsy in the cubbyhole where Neophytos had spent a year chiseling out a utilitarian bed, a desk, a niche where he kept books, and his own sarcophagus. He forged a rock-cut alter in an adjoining space that constituted his prayer room.  In 1183, he added a third chamber, a chapel. The stark angles and rough, bumpy surfaces of the engleistra, or “hermitage,” were poignant in their simplicity, and made an eloquent statement about the saint’s austere lifestyle, and the era in which he lived and died.

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