Polis is the Greek word for ‘city’ or ‘city state’. The Polis I discuss here is a town of some 3.500 inhabitants in the northwest of Cyprus. It is also known as Polis Chrysochous, ‘city of the golden land’. The town itself is small but interesting, and further to the west are the fishing village of Latsi, the Baths of Aphrodite and the Akamas Peninsula National Park with some wonderful nature trails.
Polis used to be called Marion. The city was founded by Greek colonists in the seventh century. Marion soon became a powerful city-kingdom; other such kingdoms were Paphos and Kourion, as well as Kition and Salamis in the south and southeast of the island. Marion grew rich because of its access to the copper mines of the region. It is no coincidence that the word ‘Cyprus’ is presumably derived from the Greek word for ‘copper’.
Cyprus has always been a crossroads of civilisations. It was settled by Greeks and Phoenicians, became part of the Assyrian Empire in the early eighth century and was subsequently ruled by the Egyptian pharaohs after Amasis II conquered the island in or after 570 BCE. Egyptian hegemony in Cyprus did not last long. In 525 BCE, Egypt itself fell prey to a new power in the Middle East, the Achaemenid Persian Empire. The Persians had by that time already taken Cyprus. The city-kingdoms, Marion among them, were granted autonomy, but had to pay their Persian masters tribute and supply them with ships. Persian rule was sometimes resented and when the Greek cities in Asia Minor rebelled against the Persian King Dareios I in 499, many of the Cypriote city-kingdoms joined the rebellion. However, the rebellion soon lost momentum and eventually faltered. The king’s forces were able to retake the cities one by one and the rebel leader Onesilos was killed.
The Athenian general Kimon tried to liberate the Greeks on the island from the Persians in 450. He took Marion – a fact that is commemorated in present-day Polis with a bust of the general – but died during the siege of Kition in the south later that year. Persian domination would continue for more than a century, until the cities on the island managed to throw off the Persian yoke when Alexander the Great and his army destroyed the Persian Empire. The Cypriote cities then pledged allegiance to Alexander and supplied him with ships. When Alexander died in 323 BCE, his immense empire was divided among his successors (diadochoi), who almost immediately began to fight each other. Marion was destroyed in 312 BCE by Ptolemaios I, one of Alexander’s ablest generals, who ruled from Egypt and had added Cyprus to his Ptolemaic empire.
Ptolemaios was driven from Cyprus by Demetrios Poliorketes in 306 BCE, but he managed to retake the island in 294 BCE and it remained in the hands of his successors until the Roman conquest in 58 BCE. Paphos now became the capital of the island. Marion was rebuilt by Ptolemaios II Philadelphos, who renamed it Arsinoe, after his sister and wife. The city prospered again, but more or less existed in the shadow of Paphos for the rest of the Ptolemaic and Roman periods. I do not know what happened to Arsinoe, nor when the present city of Polis was founded at this site. Polis today is a friendly little town with some interesting churches and good restaurants. The sheftalia are excellent here. There is also an archaeological museum here, dedicated to finds from Marion and Arsinoe, but I did not visit it.
Latsi and the Baths of Aphrodite
The village of Latsi is some two kilometres west of Polis. An elderly British couple we met told us it was lovely once, but had become a terrible tourist trap in recent years. That is obviously an exaggeration. Yes, Latsi is no longer the traditional fishing village where you can expect to find sponge divers, living a simple life by the sea. But it is far from terrible. Modern Latsi is all about fish taverns with excellent fresh seafood and water sports. Its marina offers all kinds of cruises: two hours, three hours, four hours, all day, glass bottom, no glass bottom, lunch or no lunch etc. You can also rent a boat for yourself if you want. The prices are quite reasonable.
We were there in July of 2013 and decided to go on a four-hour cruise without lunch, and to our surprise found out that drinks and a slice of water melon were included. Our modern boat – with lots of Russian tourists – sailed along the coast of the Akamas peninsula, named after Akamas, a son of Theseus and a hero in the Trojan war. The Roman poet Vergilius claimed he was among the elite Greek soldiers who hid inside the wooden horse and opened the gates of Troy from the inside at night. The peninsula is rough and uninhabited and can only be explored on foot or by four-wheel drive. Sailing along the coast was wonderful, and after about an hour and a half the boat anchored near a cove, where we were allowed to swim in the cool and crystal clear blue water.
Back in Latsi, we took our car – a simple Kia Picanto – and drove further west to see the Baths of Aphrodite (Λουτρά της Αφροδίτης). This is the place where, according to legend, the goddess of love met the hunter Adonis, whom she fell in love with. It was described to us by the elderly British couple mentioned above as some sort of public dump, with the baths being used as an ashtray. But once we got there, we saw no litter or cigarette butts. The place was tidy and looked well-kept. The atmosphere was peaceful and it was nice and cool here. The baths are basically a pond in a cavern in the rocks, with overhanging branches of fig trees. It was not spectacular, but we certainly did not feel cheated.
Exploring the Akamas peninsula
Several nature trails run across the peninsula. There are a few short ones, but most are about 7 kilometres. Warning: if you decide to take a midsummer walk in this part of Cyprus, be sure to bring enough water with you! The terrain is rugged and you frequently have to take whirling dirt paths up and down the hills. It took us some four hours to complete the ‘Aphrodite’s trail’, but it was definitely worth it. We may have missed a few signs, so we did not start along the coast, but instead walked inland and into the hills. It did not matter much: we simply walked the trial in the opposite direction. From the highest point of the trail, we had a marvellous view. We could see as far as Cape Arnauti, which is the extreme western tip of Cyprus. We only met a few tourists on the coastal road, and plenty of goats and lizards.