This article first appeared in the August 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine.
Cyprus is the most easterly island in the Mediterranean, one of the largest, and one of the richest in the remains of history and prehistory. It is also one of the most varied in its landscapes. The interior has mountains hung with waterfalls and grown with cool evergreen forests, including fragrant cedars and candle-bearing pines, but also level agricultural plains, naked solid by the summer sun.
The coasts are mostly limestone, with ragged crags and pebble beaches – and those souther summer waters, which shade between azure, emerald, indigo and sapphire. Scrubland farmers, on the stony western peninsulas, still wear long boots against snakes, and the country bars there still keep a viper picked in spirit on the counter as a sign of power over this timeless enemy. Nature has given the island many riches: copper in its rocks, fish in its oceans and lush crops in its fields, of which sugar was in medieval days the most valuable.
Cyprus boasts remains from five successive eras of prehistory, from Neolithic villages onward. History has dealt hard with it, as the price of being such a strategic and desirable property stationed between Africa, Asia and Europe. Most of the ancient near eastern empires swallowed it at one time or another, culminating in that of the Romans. After the island passed to Byzantines, crusaders, Venetians, Ottoman Turks and then the British.
The Royal Air Force still keeps a major base on the coast, and the period of British rule, including the whole first half of the 20th century, has left a culture patina of signs, foodstuffs and spoken language, which makes most visitors from the UK feel at home there. I twas also in this period that many of the historic and prehistoric states were excavated and restored.
Recent history has been harsh again, as savage little guerrilla war that ejected the British was followed by a brief period of unity and independence succeeded by further war, between Turkey and Greece, in 1974. Since then, Cyprus has been effectively partitioned into two small independent states (although Turkish Northern Cyprus is only recognised as such by Turkey).
The heavily fortified line of demarcation runs through the capital, Nicosia, which resembles a Mediterranean version of Berlin during the Cold War. Visitors to the Greek part of the island can get a day pass to the Islamic territory if they turn up early enough at the right office in the city. This political tension lends an atmospheric piquancy to all the physical beauty and historic interest of the island. The superb Cyrus Museum in the island’s older and largest archaeological museum, and lies but a short walk from the miniature Iron Curtain that splits from Nicosia, on the Greek side.
A few monasteries survive in the woods of the interior, but most of the medieval remains are on the coast. My favourites are the massive and almost intact castle of the Knights of St John at Kolossi and the small nunnery of St Nikolaos on the most southerly cape. The latter is famous for its cats, nurtured there for centuries, supposedly to keep snakes off the surrounding fields. When I visited, hungry felines were gathering, like an undulating furry carpet, to be fed by an old nun who sang to them in her reedy voice. Greek temples and cities raise their tattered columns from limestone crags: one, Amathus, was home to sculptor Pygmalion, whose beloved status supposedly came to life.
The most famous ancient inhabitant of Cyrus is, of course, luxuriantly female: the love goddess Aphrodite. She came ashore from the sea where she was born at a place known now as Romeo’s Rock, named not for a legendary lover but for a local pirate hero. Her sacred spring is preserved at the north-western corner of the island, while her most famous temple lies in sprawling ruin at Paphos (sometimes spelled Pafos) in the south-west.
The museum on site contains her original icon, spared, when Christian hands destroyed so many of the lifelike statues of her, because of its in human nature. It is a shapeless hunk of rock, a symbol of the mineral-rich land and representing ‘merciless Aphrodite’, bringer of the enslaving or ennobling passion of human attraction, at her most primeval and fundamental. In one object it renders the lady and the land as single entity, forever.
Advice for travellers
Best time to go
The island’s tourist season lasts from April to October. If you can, try to visit Cyprus during the Greek Easter, which is a major celebration in the Orthodox calendar, and sees many events and celebrations taking place.
Many British airports offer flights either to Larnaca, Paphos or both, including London, Manchester, Bristol, Birmingham and Edinburgh.
What to pack
Taken sun block in summer; warm wraps in winter (when the wind blows off the Turkish mountains and across the island); and both in spring and autumn.
What to bring back
The sweetmeat known everywhere but on Greek Cyprus as Turkish Delight, made with special succulence in what was once a garden sacred to Aphrodite.
Hire a car, get up into the mountain villages, seek out the tiny but beautifully decorated Byzantine churches @howardbatey
Limassol Castle is worth a visit. Richard the Lionhearted married Berengaria there @stuartroxy
Ronald Hutton is a professor of history as the University of Bristol