Aphrodite, the Ancient Greek goddess of love, beauty, sexual pleasure and fertility plays a significant role in Cyprus’s history. Paphos, where we currently are in the south west of the country, is credited as one of the chief centres of her cult worship (alongside Corinth) for a period beginning around 1,500 BC and lasting up until 400 AD. For two thousand years prior to this, other pagan fertility goddess’s were idolised by the locals before Aphrodite assumed the mantle as pop idol queen. Nowadays, her name is associated with UNESCO World Heritage Sites (Sanctuary of Aphrodite Paphia), sea stacks (Aphrodite’s Rock), cave pools (Baths of Aphrodite), golf course resorts (Aphrodite Hills), walks (Aphrodite Nature Trail), numerous wines and countless restaurants and hotels on the island.
Our first encounter with Aphrodite was on our way down from the Troodos Mountains when we stopped off at Petra tou Romiou. Literally meaning "Rock of the Greek”, this beautiful sea stack just off the main road between Paphos and Limassol marks one of the places laying claim to Aphrodite’s birth. Supposedly the foaming waters around the rocks, under certain weather conditions, match the description of her legend where she rose from the foam of the sea hence providing it with its alternative name, Aphrodite’s Rock. No amount of Lightroom trickery is going to reproduce that shot but thankfully, due to the beauty of the place, it isn’t really needed.
If you’re wondering how notable the legend of Aphrodite’s birth might be, you’ll be pleased to know that it has produced one of the most famous paintings in the world. An icon of the Italian Renaissance, Botticelli’s late 15th-century painting, The Birth of Venus, is on display at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and has enthralled scholars and art lovers for hundreds of years, ensuring that Aphrodite’s fame continues to live on.
Whilst we couldn’t see that much to convince us that this really was Aphrodite’s birthplace when we visited, there were a lot of other people who weren’t taking the chance and who chose to swim around the rock hoping that the local myth blessing them with eternal beauty would come true.
While the rock itself is quite beautiful, the surrounding area isn’t too shabby either, with lovely clear waters and pleasant views out to sea across the headlands.
Getting to the rock is very easy being less than 30 minutes from Paphos. It is free to visit with an underpass providing safe pedestrian access from the nearby carpark. There is also supposed to be a viewpoint from which to gain a better appreciation of the scenery from above but, try as we might, Google Maps (or the Sowerby navigator) just wasn’t up to the task and with tetchy kids in the back seat we had to call it a day.
Sanctuary of Aphrodite
Situated about 5km from Aprodite’s Rock in the village of Kouklia is the Sanctuary of Aphrodite Paphia (or Sanctuary of Aphrodite at Palea Pafos). This UNESCO Word Heritage site was an important pilgrimage site and gave rise to the city-kingdom Palea Paphos (meaning old Paphos). It is believed that ritual prostitution played a significant part in the cult of Aphrodite at the temple and young maidens went to the sanctuary to make love with a stranger at least once in her lifetime. As men got to choose the maiden they slept with, the fairer maidens were able to get their duty over and done with quickly, whilst the less fair could end up with considerable waiting periods, sometimes lasting for years.
I paid my 4.50 Euro entrance fee but there were no maidens waiting for me when I entered. In fact, there wasn’t much of anything to see as hardly any of the hilltop temple’s foundations have survived.
Just past the entrance to the Sanctuary is the Leda Mosaic House which displays a replica mosaic of Leda shaking her booty to the lustful Zeus-swan. Depicting another Greek mythological tale, it is definitely worth checking out in detail. Purely for artistic/research purposes, of course
From here it is a short walk down towards the Lusignan manor, La Cavocle, that used to be the headquarters of the Crusaders' surrounding sugar plantations.
A gallery/museum consisting of two rooms now resides within the manor, which has signs stating that flash photography is not allowed. The first room has a range of phallic monoliths and bathtubs that have been found in Cyprus, some of which date back an impressive 3,500 years.
The second gallery holds a wider range other artefacts, including pottery fragments, weapons and stone carvings. When entering this gallery, an overzealous security guard informed me that I wasn’t allowed to take individual photos and instead was only allowed to take photos of a “general” nature. I’m not quite sure the whole point of that but complied all the same.
The most interesting thing on display, without doubt, was a stone sarcophagus which was inscribed on all four sides with Greek mythological stories.
The glare from the open windows striking the glass protecting the sarcophagus makes it difficult to get a decent picture, but all the same it was the highlight of the museum. The best side shows a picture of the Cyclops Polyphemus letting his goats out to pasture prior to Odysseus getting him drunk and blinding him before escaping. This certainly provides new insight to the saying getting blind drunk!
Sarcophagus aside, I wasn’t overly enamoured with the sanctuary. However, the surrounding countryside views sweeping down to the coast, like most of the views around Cyprus, were extremely pretty.
The 12th century Byzantine Church Panagia Katholiki situated right alongside the Sanctuary was also quite striking. In another hat tip to our favourite goddess, until recently, worshippers used to call the church the Church of Panagia Aphroditissas (Our Lady Aphrodite).
In Greek mythology it’s not Aphrodite who is associated with sunsets but rather a group of beautiful nymphs with sweet voices known as Hesperides or Daughters of the Evening. The name Hesperides originates from the world Hesperos or Vesper in Latin which also provides the origin for the name Hesperus, which in Greek mythology is the Evening Star, also known as the planet Venus. Of course, the planet Venus is named after the Roman goddess Venus with whom Aphrodite was extensively syncretized. Which is an extremely long winded way of allowing me to close the Aphrodite/Venus loop and include some sunset photos in this post!
So ends our dalliance with the goddess Aphrodite. From here we are set to explore some of the beaches of Paphos and more importantly, some of the other better known archaeological sites popular in the area.