Cyprus Icons: Painted Churches of Troodos Mtns & Kykkos Monastery
This is the third in a four-part series on Cyprus, which explores the island through the lens of its Orthodox Christian heritage and iconography. This piece visits the miniature roadside shrines and tiny painted churches of the Troodos Mountains, the foundation legend of a majestic cliff top monastery and a day in the life of a monk. — MP
We made our way northeast on the Polis Road, leaving behind the villages and eventually the pavement. Heaving along a rutted, winding road, we entered the beginning of the Troodos Mountains and the Pafos Forest.
Cresting a hill, we saw a huge body of water shimmering in the morning sunlight below, created by the Kannaviou Dam. On the far side of the reservoir I could make out what looked like a miniature white church tucked among the pines. Following the shoreline, we reached the diminutive chapel and opened its door, beholding a hodge podge of icons. Images of saints were painted on the surface of a central recessed niche, and surrounded by portable icons propped up on shelves and window sills. Votive candles lay at the feet of the images, along with boxes of matches.
I later learned that isolated chapels such as this one are not uncommon, the remnants of former medieval monastic communities or the sanctuaries of shepherds.
We continued on, stopping at Stavros tis Psokas, a former monastery that is now a Forestry Commission station. We stretched our legs here with a short walk on a steep narrow path around the circumference of a refuge for moufflon, a type of wild sheep. Peering intently into the dense woods, we were privileged to get a glimpse of a group of the endangered species standing as still as statues, the males endowed with monumental curling horns.
We moved deeper into the Pafos Forest, climbing ever-higher along the north side of the Troodos range; to our south loomed its highest peak, the 1,952-meter Mt. Olympus. Our car chugged slowly along the narrow roads on the rim of the mountainside and we soon were cresting the contours of Cedar Valley. A narrow slash in the landscape that seemed bottomless, from it more than 200,000 majestic conifers fought gravity and pushed skyward, many growing to 25 meters.
The species of cedar grows only in Cyprus, Lebanon, Morocco and the Himalayas and at an altitude above 3,000 feet. These cedrus brevifolia are a relative of the famed Lebanese cedars, from which the legendary Phoenician maritime explorers built their ships. The trees’ strength is belied by their slim trunks, which hardly seem capable of supporting the immense wingspan of their far-reaching and fragrant boughs. Many of the Cyprus cedars leaned low toward the ground in contorted poses, as though trying to hang on to the hillside in the face of whipping winds, their tops flattened by the forces of the elements.
We rounded a hairpin turn on the winding ribbon of road and a flash of red caught my eye. Beyond the precipice, floating on a bed of greenery below lay the carrot-colored roofs of the village of Pedoulas. We had reached the upper part of the Marathassa Valley; the origins of the name are Greek and mean “the land of a thousand flowers.” As spectacular as we found the vista in mid-summer, in the spring, the valley is ablaze with flowering cherry trees.
Coasting down the mountainside, we glided to a stop at the far edge of the tiny town. We had reached our destination and were welcomed by a trio of calico cats who wore the same patchwork colors of gray, ochre and brown as the humble stone Church of the Archangel Michael.
The Troodos Mountains were both a haven for monks who sought distance from temptation and nearness to God, as well as sanctuary where the Church could secure its relics and riches during three centuries of Arab raids that began in 647 A.D.
Dating from 1474, the Church of the Archangel Michael is one of ten in the Troodos region that have been designated by UNESCO as World Heritage sites. This concentrated collection of monuments perched on remote aeries and hollows are all remarkable for their interiors, richly decorated with Byzantine and post-Byzantine paintings. The rural architectural style of the ten painted churches are in stark contrast to Cyprus’ many prestigious and sprawling monasteries.
The Church of the Archangel Michael is the smallest of the ten painted churches, with an asymmetrical exterior designed to compensate for the slope of the hillside on which it was built. The roof on one side began at ceiling height; on the other, the roofline plummeted to the ground. The resulting steep point was a protective measure against the deep mountain snowfalls.
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