PAFOS (locals still often use the old spelling, “Paphos”) comes in two parts, each with a distinct character. Kato (Lower) Pafos is the area around the harbour and castle, from which it also runs south along and behind a palm-studded promenade (Poseidonos). This is the main tourist area, packed with hotels, cafés, bars, restaurants, souvenir shops, amusement arcades, a couple of indifferent beaches, boat-cruise touts and all the other joys of the seaside. However, leavening this unrelenting holiday heaven/hell are some truly excellent historical and archeological sites which require no effort to see. As well as the castle there are the magnificent Roman mosaics immediately behind the harbour, a group of Byzantine remains linked with Saint Paul directly across the road, and the eerie Tombs of the Kings to the north.
Ktima Pafos (perhaps best translated as “the lands of Pafos”) lies 3km north, on a steep hillside overlooking the lower town. Its narrow winding streets provide a contrast with Kato Pafos and there are several worthwhile sites including a medieval mosque and hammam as well as an art gallery and a couple of diverting museums. In general, Ktima Pafos offers a less hurried experience than the rather brash lower town – it even seems cooler, though the 65m elevation is hardly enough to account for it.
The original town, Palaipafos, lies some 22km to the southeast of the present one, on the edge of the modern village of Kouklia. It was established during the late Hellenistic period, and was one of two city kingdoms in the west – the other being Marion, near modern-day Polis. When Alexander the Great died in 323 BC, the Pafiot king Nicocles was faced with the same dilemma as all the other towns in Cyprus – which of Alexander’s warring successors to support. He chose the Egyptian Ptolemy dynasty, who indeed eventually won. This did Nicocles little good, however. Deciding to rule Cyprus directly rather than through a proxy, the Ptolemies used a false charge of treason to get rid of him (Nicocles avoided execution by committing suicide). The new rulers of Cyprus decided to move the administrative capital from Salamis in the east to the fine new city of Nea Pafos in the west: apart from being closer to their home base of Alexandria, it was convenient for patrolling the western approaches to the island, and, through the thick forests inland, able to meet the almost insatiable demand for timber of the Egyptian navy.
The transition to Roman rule in 58 BC did Pafos no harm at all, and it continued as the capital of the island. This period was the high point of Pafos’s fortunes, and the origin of its wonderful Roman mosaics and plentiful early Christian ruins. The New Testament (Acts 13, verses 4 to 13) relates how St Paul visited Pafos and converted the Roman ruler of the island, Sergius Paulus, to the new faith, though not before the evangelist was tied to a post (the so-called St Paul’s Pillar) and lashed “forty times less one” for spreading the gospel.
In 365 AD the city was destroyed by an earthquake, and in 653 AD by a Saracen raid. It never recovered. Most of the inhabitants moved away from the coast, onto the hill of what today is Ktima Pafos, and the status of capital was moved back to Salamis. The harbour silted up, the land around it became marshy, and for centuries visitors to what remained of Pafos had little good to say about it. In the fourteenth century the Lusignans built a castle to protect Christians in transit to the Holy Lands; in the sixteenth century the Ottomans built a fort on its remains. But Pafos continued as a quiet backwater until the building of the airport and the motorway in the late twentieth century brought about a surge in tourism.