Cyprus: Paphos and the history of Cyprus

Agios Kendeas church in Paphos.

Agios Kendeas church (1930) in Paphos.

Paphos and environs are a good spot to learn more about Cyprus’ complex history. Monuments of most of the civilisations that have been present on the island can be seen here. From the cult of the goddess Aphrodite to the Lusignan dynasty, and from the Ottoman Turks to the British domination of Cyprus, Paphos and the surrounding area are a treasure trove for history enthusiasts.


Ancient Paphos – also known as Palaepaphos – is located some fifteen kilometres east of modern Paphos. It was here that a cult of the goddess Aphrodite was established as early as the twelfth century BCE. It should be noted that Aphrodite was originally not a Greek goddess. Her cult came from the East, and she was worshipped as Astarte in Phoenicia (present-day Lebanon). Since both Phoenicians and Greeks were present on Cyprus, it is not hard to explain how Aphrodite became part of the Greek world as well.

Aphrodite was the goddess of love, beauty and fertility. Her sanctuary in Ancient Paphos was famous throughout the Ancient World and people from all over Europe, Asia and Africa came to her temple, where the goddess was worshipped in the form of a conical stone. The sanctuary is mentioned by Homer in the eighth book of the Odyssey (eighth century BCE):

“Ares headed for Thrace, but laughter-loving Aphrodite to Paphos in Cyprus, where she has a sanctuary and fragrant altar. There the Graces bathed her, and anointed her with such heavenly oil as gleams on the limbs of the gods who live forever. And they dressed her in beautiful clothes, marvellous to behold.”

Remains of the temple of Aphrodite (photo: Carole Raddato, CC BY-SA 2.0 license).

Remains of the temple of Aphrodite (photo:
Carole Raddato, CC BY-SA 2.0 license).

The priestesses of Aphrodite were young Cypriot maidens who sacrificed their virginity to the goddess. Ritual sex between the priestesses and pilgrims was common, but obviously non-sexual rites – ceremonies, libations, sacrifices, chants – were also held at this location for hundreds of years.

In the early fifth century BCE, Ancient Paphos, like the city-kingdom of Marion, participated in the revolt against the Persians, but was soon defeated and brought under Achaemenid rule again. The city was largely destroyed by an earthquake in 325 BCE and its then king decided to move Paphos to a different location, further to the west. This became Nea Paphos, New Paphos. Aphrodite’s sanctuary remained in use though. When an earthquake severely damaged the complex again in the first century, it was restored by the Roman emperor Vespasianus. Aphrodite’s cult remained popular until the rise of Christianity caused it to be abandoned.

Petra tou Romiou

According to Greek-Cypriot mythology, Aphrodite was born and rose from the sea near the location that is known as Aphrodite’s Rock or Petra tou Romiou. From there she moved to her sanctuary at Palaepaphos nearby. Aphrodite’s Rock actually consists of three limestone rocks. This location on the south coast of Cyprus is truly beautiful. The pebble beach, the bright blue sea, the imposing rocks: it is crystal clear why Cypriots want this to be Aphrodite’s birthplace.

Petra tou Romiou.

And yet the location is known as Petra tou Romiou in Greek. ‘Petra’ means rock, so Petra tou Romiou mean Romios’ rock or Rock of the Roman. The name refers to a legend from the Byzantine period in Cyprus. The term ‘Byzantine’ is actually a bit of a misnomer, as the inhabitants of the eastern part of the Roman Empire continued to call themselves “Romans” even after the fall of Rome itself in 476 and even though they spoke Greek and not Latin. So it is really no surprise that this location is called the Rock of the Roman. This Roman was a hero called Basileios, and nicknamed Digenes Akritas. His named suggests that he was of mixed blood (di-genes) and guarded the borders of the Empire. When the island was under attack by Arab raiders, Digenes Akritas hurled immense rocks at the Arab ships to prevent them from landing.

Nea Paphos

New Paphos was the capital of Cyprus during the Ptolemaic and Roman eras. It was the seat of the Roman governor and the apostle Paul visited Paphos on his first missionary journey. Beautiful mosaics from the Roman period are the main tourist attraction in the city today. I have previously discussed these mosaics and the Archaeological Park by the sea.

Saint Paul’s missionary journey to Cyprus is commemorated at at least two locations in Paphos. First of all, there is a rather ugly plaque at the edge of the harbour, with a text in both Greek and English, that says that “St. Paul the Apostle visited this place during his first missionary Journey”. Below this is the text from Galatians 3:28:

“There is neither Jew nor Greek,
slave nor free, male nor female,
for you are all one Christ Jesus.”

Chrysopolitissa archaeological area (photo: Nikodem Nijaki, CC BY-SA 3.0 license).

Chrysopolitissa archaeological area (photo: Nikodem Nijaki, CC BY-SA 3.0 license).

The second monument is at the thirteenth century church of Agia Kyriaki Chrysopolitissa, which has a pillar that is called “Saint Paul’s pillar’. Paul was allegedly tied to this pillar and flogged, before he could bring the Roman governor Sergius Paulus to reason and convert him to Christianity.

Just north of the Archaeological Park is another archaeological area where one can find the Tombs of the Kings (Τάφοι των Βασιλέων). This a basically a necropolis from the Ptolemaic and Roman eras. No kings were buried here, just members of the local aristocracy of Paphos. The place owes its name to the splendour of their tombs, which resembled those of kings. The tombs have been hewn into the soft sandstone and many of them betray Egyptian influences. Yet they have lost much of their beauty, as they have been systematically looted over the centuries and stripped of almost anything of value.

One of the Tombs of the Kings.

One of the Tombs of the Kings.

During the Byzantine era (5th-12th century), Paphos – like Kourion – was vulnerable to Arab raids and the citizens moved further inland onto a hill, where Ktima was founded. This is now the main residential area in the city of Paphos and also the administrative, cultural and trade centre of the region.

Medieval and Venetian Paphos

Cyprus was conquered somewhat by accident by the English King Richard the Lionheart in 1191. He was participating in the Third Crusade and was on his way to the Holy Land, when some of his ships were driven towards Limassol during a storm. The Byzantine ruler of Cyprus captured the ships and held the king’s sister Joan and his fiancée Berengaria as hostages. King Richard was furious. He landed his army at Limassol, crushed his opponent and occupied the island. Since the king was not interested in Cyprus, he sold the island to the Knights Templar, who in turn sold it to the titular King of Jerusalem, Guy de Lusignan. King Guy established the Kingdom of Cyprus and the Lusignan dynasty, which was in control of the island until 1489.

The Lusignans were Catholics and they gave preferential treatment to the Catholic Church, while the indigenous Cypriot Orthodox Church at times faced persecutions. Latin and French replaced Greek as official languages and the feudal system was introduced on the island. In Paphos, some monuments from the Lusignan era can still be seen today. The first is a heap of rubble in the Archaeological Park. It used to be an early-medieval Byzantine castle that was later remodelled by the Lusignans. The castle is now known as Saranta Kolones, which means ‘fourty columns’ in Greek. It was meant to guard the harbour of Paphos and was destroyed by an earthquake in 1222. It owes its name to the dozens of granite columns that were found among its ruins.

Paphos Castle.

Paphos Castle.

Saranta Kolones was not rebuilt, and the Lusignans used another castle on the waterfront near the docks instead. Paphos Castle still exists today and can be visited by tourists. In 1489, Catherine Cornaro, widow of King Jacques II, was forced to sell the island to the Venetians. Venetian rule lasted less than a century and Cyprus was conquered by the armies of the Ottoman Turkish sultan Selim II in 1570-1571. The Venetians had dismantled Paphos Castle, but it was rebuilt by the Ottomans, as is demonstrated by the Turkish text in the Arabic script above the entrance to the castle.

Ottoman Cyprus

With the Ottoman Turks, Islam came to Cyprus and Turkish colonists settled on the island. The feudal system was abolished and land was distributed among the farmers, but at the same time many churches were converted into mosques. A good example of this practice is the Grand Mosque (Cami Kebir) in Paphos, which was an orthodox church dedicated to Agia Sophia before its conversion. The Turks kept the original form of the church and simply added a minaret and mihrab. The mosque is closed to the public, unfortunately, and it looks a bit neglected. Not far from the mosque, one can find another souvenir from the Ottoman era: the Loutra or Turkish baths.

Grand Mosque.

Grand Mosque.

When Greece declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821, many Greek Cypriots left the island to fight in the ensuing war on the side of their Greek brothers. In retaliation, the Turkish governor of Cyprus, Küçük Mehmet, had several prominent Cypriots arrested and executed. Among them was Chrysanthos, the bishop of Paphos. A column near the nineteenth century Agios Theodoros cathedral commemorates his tragic death and that of other members of the clergy.

British rule and independence

Ottoman rule on the island came to an end in 1878, when the British took control of Cyprus. The British presence on the island is the main reason why traffic drives on the left here. Cyprus won its independence in 1960, but animosity between Greek and Turkish Cypriots led to a pro-Greek coup in 1974, followed by a Turkish intervention and occupation of about 40% of the country. A Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus was proclaimed in 1983, but it is only recognised by Turkey. In 2004, Cyprus became a member of the European Union. Sadly, the island is still divided and there does not appear to be a solution in sight for this ‘frozen conflict’.


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