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Byzantine Church Crawling

As we wrapped our house-sit on Cyprus, we celebrated with a final dinner welcoming back our hosts and bidding farewell to the new friends we made on the island.  We toasted the occasion with “Commandaria,” a local liqueur made from sun-dried grapes.  It’s a sweet, amber-colored fortified wine, reminiscent of tokay or muscat.  

As a younger woman, I would have called you nuts if you had predicted that later in my life I would devote myself to church crawling. Surely you were off your rocker! But I have crawled more churches than you can shake a stick at during the past couple of years, with many more on my “list” as desirable destinations. Who knew this would transpire?!?

I blame John Beebe. He taught me that introverted intuition “has a natural tendency to try to work things out at the religious level,” and in his opinion, introverted intuition “should be providing the religious vision”—that’s its job!

He cites Jung, who observed that “introverted intuition is used for seeing archetypes.” These teachings have whet my appetite to view religious archetypes of all kinds in a variety of settings so as to cultivate my introverted intuition and expand my “religious vision.” An image I’m fond of expresses my relationship with this conception titled “Flammarion” (shown below).*

We thus decided to indulge ourselves during our final days in Cyprus and experience a “tension of the opposites” by shifting from the paganism of Aphrodite and Dionysus to the theophany of monotheism through sampling the earliest Christian traditions on the island.

A series of ancient Byzantine churches and monasteries in the beguiling Troödos Mountains take a stand against the influence of the pagan gods with a rich treasure trove of painted frescoes and carvings. Set in idyllic forests, some of them are unassuming, almost cottage-like buildings, whose simple exteriors belie the wealth of artwork and icons housed within.

We drove up into the Troödos Mountains to our Airbnb “home” for the duration. As it happens, this region is also a winter destination for skiers, sledders, snowboarders, and snow-lovers. We had been hearing reports for weeks now about road closures and the difficulty of driving through the area. 

We were fortunate that the weather behaved extremely well while we were in residence. 

The Troödos area was favored as a haven for monks seeking distance from temptation and nearness to God then evolved into a sanctuary where the Church could secure its relics and riches during three centuries of Arab raids that began in 647 A.D.  This region is home to 10 (ten!) UNESCO World Heritage listed painted Byzantine churches, numbered on the following map.

The Byzantine Empire, which lasted from 330 AD until the mid 1400’s, was a continuation of the Roman Empire that eventually became part of the Byzantine Empire in 395 AD and remained so for hundreds of years, except for a short period when Arab Caliphates gained control. In 1192, Richard I of England (aka “Richard the Lionheart”) captured the island, sold it to the Knights Templar, who sold it to Guy de Lusignan of France, whose descendants sold it to the Duchy of Venice, and so on, and so on. 

Turmoil raged in the coastal cities and towns, year after year, for centuries. No wonder people took off for the hills. From the 11th to the 16th centuries in the ruggedly beautiful Troödos Mountains, the central massif of the island, they built their churches—tiny, remote, barn-like churches–some hidden in forests, some in remote villages. These churches, still in use today, display some of the most exquisite Byzantine and post-Byzantine religious art ever produced. In 1985, UNESCO listed 10 of them on their World Heritage list because:

  • They are a testimony of Byzantine culture on the island

  • These are important monuments of ecclesiastical rural architecture that are preserved in very good condition, and

  • The art of these churches includes elements that demonstrate the relationship between Eastern and Western Christian art.

During the Byzantine period, most people could not read and write, so in order to understand the Word of God, church walls were decorated with painted scenes from the Bible. Frugal mural paintings were the medium of poorer communities and most monastic establishments. Walls of churches were thereby transformed into open, illustrated books.

Since less than one percent of the whole output of Byzantine art survives today, it is remarkable how these wall paintings survived in a large number of rural churches in the Troödos mountains and provide precious documentation of the development of Byzantine art, as well as being of great value in themselves. Every period and style from the 6th to the 18th century is represented, and many are dated precisely. No other area offers this comprehensive of a series, so these monuments hold a special place in the study of Byzantine art, and Byzantologists are ecstatic about them.

Remarkably, 11th century frescoes have been discovered underneath later 14th century frescoes, creating a terrible dilemma for the custodians of these churches—do they strip off the newer frescoes in order to reveal the earlier ones?  Or leave them hidden?  Luckily, modern technology has developed a way to remove the later paintings intact (in most cases), so we now have the luxury of being able to see the older images in situ, with the more “recent” ones displayed in museums.

At first sight, it seems impossible to believe these unassuming little stone buildings conceal such glories behind their mossy stone walls. Yet the isolated Troödos churches are the guardians of a unique treasury of Byzantine religious art and some of the most superb early Christian frescoes in the world. Since attaining UNESCO World Heritage status in the 1980s, several have been restored.

Every surface is covered in murals and some include carved and gilded iconostasis plaques.  Many of these churches look quite plain from the outside, but the stark contrast of the surprising beauty of the interior is a great and joyous jolt to the senses.

Robin printed out tour guide scripts that described each church in detail, explaining the fresco programs and religious scenarios. He read several of them aloud while we were visiting as a substitute for a knowledgeable guide accompanying us, which added that much more pizzazz to our trip! 

Some of the UNESCO churches were well-advertised with signs and visitor facilities (gift shops, ticket booths, toilets, etc.) whereas others were quiet and lonely. It was a treasure hunt—we dug up some initial information but were unsure whether it was accurate. We drove through tiny villages with narrow, winding, cobblestoned streets, and traversed the countryside on switchback mountain roads, enjoying the spectacular scenery and the glorious weather.

In many cases, these churches were small and nondescript—without the benefit of a map and GPS we might have driven right past them, never suspecting they were anything special.

Several of these churches have “shell” buildings with a steep roof built over the original church to protect it from mountain snowfalls. Some sites required us to obtain a key and then let ourselves in.  Entering by ourselves, completely alone, to wallow in the history of a tiny mountain chapel, was a tremendously special moment. It’s hard to convey how tiny some of these spaces are, and how stunning their beauty.  Pictures found online are nothing compared to actually standing inside the church and being mesmerized by the artwork. 

We loved the cartoon-like style, the feeling of innocence, the unerring sense of design and color, and the no-doubt-unintended impression of whimsy.  

The names of almost all the artists who painted the icons and frescoes of the Troödos churches are unknown. Legends claim many of the oldest icons “flew” to Cyprus of their own accord in the 8th century in order to escape destruction by a purist Christian sect, the Iconoclasts (“icon breakers”). 

Common themes for the frescoes include the Crucifixion and Resurrection, and the Last Judgement, with halo-wearing saints and martyrs, grinning demons, crimson dragons, and Roman soldiers. Despite the fact that these frescoes were dated to the early 11th century, many of them were in excellent condition and looked as though they had been painted recently.

We managed to squeeze in a visit to a Byzantine museum which housed numerous ecclesiastical artefacts that survived through the centuries.  (It was one of many Byzantine museums in Cyprus—we had no time to drop by any others.)

We managed to visit 8 out of the 10 churches (only because one was closed for renovation and the other one reported the keyholder was ill and unable to open the church for us). We did not try for any of the monasteries (which in my view necessitates a return visit someday! Don’t you agree?).

Robin concocted a masterpiece of an itinerary and spent untold hours developing the logistics. (Didn’t I mention his knack for “orchestrating” last week?) Well, he knocked it out of the ballpark this time.  ​​The churches are spread out and it requires a dedicated trip to reach them on remote, winding mountain roads. The Cyprus tourist website provides contact numbers, opening times, etc., but that information is largely inaccurate and outdated. Most of the churches have varied, unreliable opening times, and problems obtaining access to many of them with respect to keys can be challenging to chase down. Even local tourist offices can’t help; you must find the ubiquitous “person with the key.” An adventurous spirit was required to embark on this quest!

A disgusting number of the churches have been looted, most recently as a result of the Turkish invasion of the northern part of Cyprus. Byzantine wall paintings and mosaics were detached in the 1970s and found later on the antiquities market; ​​some have been recovered from art dealers.

I found this 4:08 video online if you’d like to see what it’s like to vicariously visit them in person:

On our way out, we intended to drive back over the Troödos mountains to return to Paphos, but we encountered snowy roads and the beginnings of blizzard conditions (following three days of perfect, sunny weather), so we turned tail and departed in the other direction instead—which added time to our trip, but we averted getting stuck in a snowdrift or sliding off the road and missing our flight!

We made it! Here we are aboard our plane back to Bristol, UK, where our adventure continues next week.

warmly, -Dr. Vicky Jo

* At one time thought to have been created during the Renaissance, the origin of this woodcut (or, more accurately, a wood engraving, according to Wikipedia) has been traced to L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire (1888) by astronomer and science writer, Camille Flammarion. It has been widely reproduced, and is referred to simply as “Flammarion.”


If you want to read more about the ten UNESCO World Heritage churches in the Troödos area, here are links to pages describing them, including the audio tour guide files and scripts I mentioned above:

(The numbers in parentheses refer to the numbers on the map above.)

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