South of Pyrga, and accessible from the old Lemesos to Lefkosia road (the B1), the monastery of Stavrovouni (“Hill of the Cross”) – the oldest in Cyprus – tops an impressive 690m hill that rises steeply from the surrounding plain. According to legend the original monastery was established by St Helena in 327 AD to house some of the numerous relics she brought back from Jerusalem – a piece of the true cross, the whole of that of the penitent thief, and pieces of rope and nails used in the crucifixion. The monastery buildings were destroyed in 1426 after the battle of Choirokoitia again in 1570 during the Ottoman conquest, and yet again by fire in 1888 – so the current buildings date from the late nineteenth century.
With strong historical links with the monasteries of Mount Athos in northeastern Greece, the monks follow a similar regimen, setting aside a third of their day for prayer, a third for physical labour, and a third for rest. For the same reason Stavrovouni is the only Cypriot monastery that follows the Mount Athos practice of banning females – even baby girls are not allowed within its precinct. Ironic, really, given that the monastery was allegedly established by a woman. Photography is also banned (the whole mountain sits in the middle of a military zone). So men who visit the monastery must leave their cameras and their female companions at the gift shop/bookshop entrance. Women are allowed into the church at the opposite side of the car park, though this may be scant recompense.
Once through the entrance building, steep steps and a paved path lead up onto the summit, where the monastery buildings surround a courtyard. Visitors are allowed to enter the church, but not the area beyond the courtyard, which is reserved for monks. The church is small, and the only thing of note is a silver-encased wooden cross to the right of the iconostasis, perhaps representing St Helena’s penitent thief’s cross, and sometimes though not always present, a gilt reliquary containing, it’s claimed, a few splinters of the true cross.