Such is the ubiquity and range of monasteries in Cyprus that visiting them can begin to feel like a chore, at least for the non-believer. Not so in the case of Agios Neofytos, about 17km north of the centre of Pafos (best accessed by climbing up through Emba and Tala). It boasts a fascinating back story, and a spectacular setting worth a visit in itself. For a full appreciation of the monastery, do buy the guidebook published by the church authorities (€5).
The monastery itself, through the main gate, past the gift shop and café consists of a residential block, church and cloisters surrounding a lush garden; beyond here there’s a spacious terrace dotted with benches overlooking the valley. At the far end of the terrace, accessed by a stone bridge, is the reason for all the fuss – the Enkleistra, the caves dug out by St Neofytos himself.
The Enkleistera consists of three rooms – the first two are the nave and sanctuary of a chapel (the Church of the Holy Cross), the third is Neofytos’s cell. The walls of the nave are covered in frescoes, the upper ones sixteenth-century, the lower ones earlier works which could possibly have been painted by the saint’s own hand. In the sanctuary are more frescoes, this time twelfth-century. Look out in particular for the one at the western end of the roof of Neofytos (the bearded figure with wings) being escorted to the Day Of Judgement by two angels. The saint’s pious expression seems to suggest that he’s taking nothing for granted and the inscription reads “I fervently pray that this image should come to pass”. Beyond the sanctuary, through a low doorway, is the saint’s cell, also frescoed, and containing a bed, table, desk, chair, bookshelf, even a quill niche, all carved out of the rock. It also houses his tomb – he expressed a wish that when he died, his body be interred in it, and the cave sealed off. However, in 1756 the sarcophagus was opened and his bones transferred to the monastery church, where, once your eyes have adjusted to the gloom, you can see (and if you wish, kiss) his silver-encased skull, and inspect his sarcophagus – it’s on the left, under the pulpit.
Across from the church is a museum (summer: same hours as monastery, winter: 9am–4pm), housing the monastery’s many treasures – crosses, chalices, censers, sacred texts, bibles, vestments, icons and much else. Some of these objects are unbelievably exquisite: the 1560 Venetian bible, for example, and an illuminated manuscript from the late eleventh century.
Agios Neofytos – the hermit saint
Agios Neofytos – the hermit saint
Agios Neofytos (1134–1219) was born near the village of Lefkara. As a boy he had a strong yearning towards the spiritual life, especially when his family arranged a marriage for him to which he took exception. He fled to the monastery of Chrystomos, near Buffavento Castle in the north, became a monk, and finally occupied a cave north of Pafos which had been vacated by a previous ascetic. Neofytos expanded it, and settled into a life of quiet contemplation. God clearly had other plans. Neofytos’s reputation for piety had spread, and acolytes from far and wide converged on the cave, bringing food and other gifts. So raucous did this informal encampment become that poor old Neofytos had to retreat further (in 1197) by moving into the cave above, accessible only by a ladder which he pulled up behind him. The new cave he called, with touching optimism, “New Zion”. Here he wrote a variety of commentaries, meditations, hymns and prayers, as well as a chronicle about the catastrophe that was overcoming Cyprus at the time – conquest by Richard the Lionheart and the start of Lusignan rule of the island. Not bad considering that he only learnt to read aged 18. Neofytos communicated with his followers through a hole in the floor and the site became the basis of an official monastery, the forerunner of the current one, established in 1170 AD. Neofytos died in around 1219, aged over eighty.