A Monument to Faith and History


The Monastery of Ayia Napa, a truly emblematic landmark, emanates an authentic medieval ambience, offering a serene oasis.

Text: Charalampos Nikolopoulos

Outside the port near the bustling square of Ayia Napa is the medieval monastery. It exudes a unique energy and provides a revered journey through time, attracting history buffs and the faithful.

Built during Venetian rule in 1500 CE, the monastery –devoted to the Virgin Mary of the Forests (from the Greek napi: wooded valley)– was nestled in an idyllic habitat featuring a lush gorge, natural springs, and wild deer and boar. Sometime in the 13th century, a significant discovery was made in a large cave. An icon of the Virgin Mary was uncovered, likely concealed to safeguard it from the fury of heretics during the iconoclastic period of the 7th and 8th centuries. Its recovery resulted in the creation of a site for Christian pilgrims from the southeast of the island. A sacred place, the faithful flocked to pray to the Virgin to intervene miraculously in their lives – a tradition to this day.

Initially a monastery for women, it is believed that a Venetian heiress built the enclave as a refuge from her family, who opposed her marriage to a poor farmer. A Roman Catholic chapel on the grounds supports this hypothesis, though the monastery’s main church is Orthodox. The affluent heiress funded the construction of the church, living quarters, a central fountain, a flour mill and a distinctive, vaulted stone monument in the courtyard – her final residence.

The monastery transitioned to a male population after 1650. Despite its spacious layout, the number of monks remained limited, a circumstance not surprising given the era of Ottoman occupation. At the onset of the Greek Revolution in 1821, the monastery witnessed massacres, leading to its abandonment. Under British rule from 1878 onwards, it served as a parish. Restoration began in 1950. Archbishop Makarios III proposed the monastery as the most suitable to become an ecumenical conference centre for Christian denominations. This was the case from 1978 until 2006 when it became a meeting place for the Christian Churches of the Middle East.

Venetian architectural elements are evident in its semicircular arches, large windows and embossed coats of arms. They coexist with Byzantine structures and later additions. The monument is unique in that it is made entirely of stone quarried locally. A part of the church is carved into the rock where, according to tradition, the icon was found. An experienced architect would immediately recognize the cave as a natural design for a church due to its shape.

The profound sense of devotion experienced by visitors is unparalleled, evident from the abundant vows made by the faithful. The heart of this reverence is the miraculous icon discovered in the cave by a hunter and his dog. Today, this icon rests in the iconostasis of the monastery’s new grand church, constructed in 1990 and dedicated to the Virgin.

On September 8, the monastery celebrates the birth of the Virgin with a grand festival. Various events are organised throughout the year, with the highlight being the renowned Medieval Festival held every autumn. This event offers a captivating journey into the island’s knightly history, featuring performances, dances, exhibitions, workshops and hosts of characters, including crusaders, acrobats, dragons, witches, princesses and kings. All of this unfolds against the backdrop of a monument that evokes the atmosphere of a period film.


The monastery also inspired the great Greek poet Giorgos Seferis, who visited in 1953, ten years before he was awarded the Nobel Prize. It is no coincidence that in Imerologio Katastromatos III (Logbook III) –a collection of his poems– Ayia Napa is the only place name with which he titled two of his pieces: Ayianapa A and Ayianapa B. Although not explicitly mentioning the monastery, the poet alludes to the majestic sycamore tree (Ficus sycomorus) that has graced the south gate for over six centuries. Underneath this widely photographed marvel of nature, visitors can find solace, embracing the essence of faith and exploring the historical echoes surrounding them.

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