The monastery of Panagia tou Kykkou, widely known simply as “Kykkos”, is the most famous in Cyprus. Located on the far edge of the Troodos area, 15km west of Pedoulas and the Marathasa valley, it’s often dismissed rather scathingly by guidebooks but will tell you more about Greek Cypriots and their religion today than all the more venerable churches of Troodos put together. Add in President Makarios’s tomb and the nearby EOKA hideouts and you have a must-visit for anybody trying to get a handle on modern Cyprus.
The original monastery was established at the end of the eleventh century by the Byzantine Emperor, though none of the original buildings have survived the numerous fires that have swept through the region. Nothing in the current monastery predates the last fire in 1831, and much of it is later than that, though the famous icon of the Virgin Mary seems to have miraculously survived.
The Kykkos Monastery is the richest on the island and it shows. Its buildings are pristine and immaculately maintained, its murals vivid and bright, its monks numerous. This wealth grew partly because of the pulling power of the icon, and partly because, during Ottoman times, many people donated their money to the church rather than see it whittled away by heavy Ottoman taxes. On entry, through a highly decorated porch (even the cover-up clothes provided for visitors are a cut above the ones you’ll find elsewhere), you walk into a handsome courtyard with a museum at the far left and, above the monastery roof, a wooded hillside with a recently built bell tower.
The Monastery Museum is organized into antiquities (that is pre-Christian artefacts) and documents (on the left as you enter), vessels, vestments and ornaments from the early Christian and Byzantine periods and after in the main room, then icons, frescoes and woodcarving (on the left) and manuscripts, documents and books (on the right). Though of limited lay interest, nobody could fail to be impressed by the comprehensiveness of the collections and the lush complexity of the exhibits. A detailed account of the contents of the museum is available on the website, whose epilogue – “An exhibition that does not talk loudly but speaks suggestively” – probably doesn’t quite mean what it says.
Beyond the main courtyard the visitor is free to explore a series of passageways and flights of steps and paved courtyards that can’t seem to muster a right angle between then. Domed roofs and white walls of corridors bear colourful murals, stone and tile floors are buffed to a high polish. The monastery church is opulent even by Greek Orthodox standards, and is lined with icons (including the famous one of the Virgin, in its own silver, tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl protective case), usually busy being kissed by a line of supplicants. Nearby is a brass or bronze arm, the result of a punishment, it is said, meted out by the Virgin to a Turk who had the temerity to light a cigarette from one of the sanctuary lamps, and, a more cheerful story, the blade of a swordfish, presented by a sailor who was saved from drowning by the Queen of Heaven. The church and the courtyard outside it often becomes packed with people at weekends – some attending weddings or christenings, some making pious pilgrimage, others simply having a day out.