Pafos for History Lovers
Text: Sotia Zeniou
Photography: Demetra Panaretou, Anna Tselepou
The smell of damp soil invades the car through the open window. I park, climb the stairs, and all of a sudden the whole of Pafos lays like a carpet under my feet. This is Mοusallas, as the locals call this hill in the heart of the city. Anna waves at me from afar. We do not know each other and have only spoken over the phone. In addition to her bohemian style, the warmth of her welcome impresses me. A branch of plumeria rubra, traditional Pafos delights –mint and bergamot– and a huge hug: “This place was once surrounded by lush green” she notes with nostalgia, telling me that this particular cafeteria is identified with the history and the dolce vita of the city.
Her friend Xenia appears not long after saying: “I had my share of dances in here…” and we laugh. Dynamic and casually stylish, Xenia is one of those restless spirits that is capable of doing thousands of things simultaneously. She studied Civil Engineering and she has a postgraduate degree in Coastal Engineering. In 2000 she founded her own company with her brother; she sits on the Board of Directors of the Cyprus Tourism Organization (CTO) and is a founding member of the volunteer organization AKTI. Anna, on the other hand, left a career of 35 years in shipping behind her, to take part in AKTI’s activities, by discovering small producers from nearby villages who are making authentic products, and presto… she found the meaning of life.
For those two, Pafos is more than their hometown. It’s their memories, their passion and their concern. I allow myself to get lost in their precious memories and our journey in time begins...
A living necropolis
“Just in front of you are the famous Tombs of the Kings”, as Xenia extends her arm to show me. “During Hellenistic and Roman times, many high ranking officials and members of the aristocracy were buried here. In the old days, archaeological sites were not fenced. We went with our families for a picnic. Our parents used to pick up cyclamen flowers and snails and we played hide and seek inside this vast necropolis, barricading ourselves behind the Doric columns, getting lost in the crypts...”. They show me the Lighthouse on the left, bringing to mind images from Virginia Woolf’s novel. Built under the British rule in 1888, it used to be the locals’ meeting point on Ash Mondays. “If your eye follows the alley on the left, you will see one of the most important archaeological sites, the Ancient Conservatory”, Anna tells me and goes on: “Just over there, where you see the tree cluster, are the Forty Columns. It’s the Roman customs house in the harbor of Pafos, where we used to go and enjoy the full moon”. They still remember the time when all the kids took their bikes and ran to Aphrodite’s Rock to watch the August full moon rise. They also tell me that all young lovers had their first dates at the Castle, where “the police used to conduct raids, arresting couples for public indecency”. The Byzantine fort, built to protect the harbor, is a testament to the island’s tumultuous past. Erected by the Lusignans, demolished by the Venetians and rebuilt by the Ottomans…
The first tile
“I was there when the first tile of the Labyrinth, inside the House of Theseus, was found”, says Xenia spontaneously, as I am hanging on her lips. We talk about the mosaic masterpieces that decorate the floor of the four Roman villas –Dionysus, Theseus, Orpheus and Aion– depicting scenes from Greek mythology. Xenia’s father, Mr Yannis Loizidis, a middle school headmaster for years, along with historian Yiorgos Iliadis and other teachers –all intellectuals who gave their soul to the city– decided to invite the Polish archaeological team of the University of Warsaw for excavations: “We hosted them in our houses. It was Professor Desensky team. We, as kids, used to fool around and our 'job' was to empty the buckets filled with dirt by the archaeologists. I will not forget their screams of joy when the first piece came to light”.
The recent excavations at Fabrica Hill brought the Ancient Theater of Pafos to light, which is soon expected to open to the public. “Further down you’ll find Apostle Paul’s Pillar, where the Saint was tortured and flogged by the Romans with three straps, each of them ending in 13 tips. That is how 'forty but one' prevailed”, Anna tells me, explaining: “The Hellenistic element, along with the Christian and Roman, are found throughout the city. In the same place, you’ll find the magnificent mosaics with the famous inscription ’I am the grapevine’ and the beautiful 14th century church of Ayia Kyriaki. All these places are connected with bridges and stonewall trails. The best season for a walk there is in autumn. The salty tang of the waves, the magnificent purple color of the immortals, the smell of the earth...”, says Xenia before getting up and returning with two small branches. “This is the smell of Pafos, schinus and thyme”. They ask if I have ever heard of Ayios Agapitikos (“agapi” means love) and Ayios Misitikos (“misos” means hate). “We’ve all cried our eyes out there, during our teenage break-ups” they say while laughing and looking at each other with complicity. It is a rock, empty like a shell, with two arches. On one hand stands Ayios Agapitikos and on the other hand, Ayios Misitikos, and –according to tradition– they often exchange positions. So, when one presents an oblation, they have to light a candle to both Saints in order to ensure that everything goes according to plan. A little further up the hill is the Church of Panayia Theoskepasti that got its nickname from the fog that covered the church during a Saracen raid. They also tell me about the Seven St Georges: “Pafos is built on a rock that hides seven caves underneath it, each one of them being home to one St George. On Saturdays, women used to go there and light votive candles”.
Amongst all that, they both recommend that I pay a visit to Ibrahim’s Hani, which is part of the market that was unearthed after the refurbishment of Pafos in 2017, the Baths, where Turkish women took their beauty treatments, the picturesque alleys of Muttalos and the Ethnographic Museum... They’re both on fire talking about their city and I’m trying hard to catch up. Time flies... We hug each other and as I am leaving it feels like I’m carrying all those pictures, flavors, aromas, loads of positive energy and… two new friends in my heart!