Cyprus: Island of Love - and War

By Zukowski, Helena | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), January 30, 2000 | Go to article overview

Cyprus: Island of Love - and War


Zukowski, Helena, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


At certain times of the year the sea foam whirls itself into a great, bubbling lather around the rocks of Petra tou Romiou on the western shore of Cyprus. Locals say a kind of magic seems to hang heavily in the air and they insist Aphrodite has returned to cast her spell over the island once more.

According to legend, this is the very spot where the goddess emerged from the sea and where the Cult of Aphrodite, the love goddess (also called Venus), began in the 12th century B.C. Since that time, Cyprus has been known as the island of love. However, as anyone who has loved knows, it always comes with a price. For Cyprus, it has been war and strife.

As the template for feminine beauty and the patroness of sexual desire and love, Aphrodite lured pilgrims from all over the known world to Cyprus to take part in fertility rituals on the island. Assyrians, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Greeks and Byzantines all made the pilgrimage, sometimes bringing gold, sometimes their daughters who would become ritual prostitutes in the service of the goddess.

Ancient Greek writers hinted that Aphrodite loved to flirt with danger and blamed her for starting the long series of wars that plagued the island. They accused her of launching the Trojan War by arranging for Helen to run off with the Trojan prince Paris, and of throwing herself into an affair with Ares, the god of war, just to royally tick off her husband.

Later, Cleopatra used love to persuade Caesar into giving her Cyprus as a love token. Other leaders, such as Richard the Lion- Hearted, battled for the island because of love.

The island's association with war actually started somewhere around the third millennium B.C. when Cyprus was found to hold immense deposits of copper, which, when blended with tin, created bronze. (It's said that the word "Cyprus" comes from a primitive word meaning copper.) Because bronze could be transformed into swords and chariots to wage war, Cyprus drew a yeasty mix of traders and conquerors with a nose for early international commerce.

Among the island's conquerors, Assyrians, Phoenicians and Egyptians gave way to Persians, Greeks and Romans. Of all of them, the Greeks planted the deepest roots. In the mid-15th century the Ottoman Turks began to threaten the island and waged a devastating war with 80,000 Turkish casualties. Even though they established a strong foothold, this was the Age of Navigation and the island was no longer as important as it once had been. For the next 400 years, it became a sleepy backwater.

Suddenly in the middle of the 20th century, Aphrodite returned, this time fanning nationalistic love into ethnic rivalry. Greeks and Turks who lived side by side for centuries became overnight enemies and fighting broke out in a series of wars that left animosity and revenge. The island was divided into two rigidly defined zones with Turks in the north and Greeks in the south, and with little hope of bringing the two sides to any kind of understanding. Tourists cross the line for short visits, but most opt to stay in the south.

Even though remains of temples dedicated to Aphrodite exist all over the island, the main place of pilgrimage and the center for fertility rituals for travelers in the Hellenistic world was the Paphos district in western Cyprus. Always the least-developed part of Cyprus, today's visitors find some of the island's best Greek and Roman archaeological treasures there. Paphos at first glance looks like an unlikely treasure house. It slumbers in a wild, stark terrain bordered by a craggy coastline. Terraced vineyards splay across empty limestone hills set against the Troodos mountains.

The city of Paphos is one of the smallest of the Cypriot district capitals, but a new airport helped transform it recently into a full-blown tourist resort where visitors come armed with Nikons to capture the golden light as it transforms the ancient monuments. …

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