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Tiny Island of Cyprus Opens Door to Rich History

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, DEC. 13, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Thousands of years ago, the Greeks pondered the mystery of beauty and love. How did these mighty forces, which could bend the strongest men to their will, come into being? They wove wondrous stories of a goddess, born spontaneously from the waves of their mesmerizing Aegean sea, who alighted among men at Paphos on the island of Cyprus. Aphrodite, one of the most powerful Olympian deities, was catalyst to the Trojan War, inspiration for the most celebrated work of Greek sculpture and champion of the Roman people (after all, Roma spelled backward is "amor" or love). 

So the small island of Cyprus, slightly larger than the state of Delaware, ushered love and beauty into the world. Without Cyprus we would never have marveled at Praxiteles' statue of the goddess or sighed over Botticelli's Birth of Venus. 

Cyprus has always been a lynchpin in the commercial, cultural and political world of the Mediterranean. Encircled by Turkey, Syria, Israel and Egypt, the platypus-shaped island faces toward Greece and the West. A window to Africa, Europe and Asia, one can imagine how Cyprus might seem like the perfect place for love to land before conquering the world.

Unfortunately, the strategic position of the island has not only attracted Aphrodite but also her erstwhile companion Ares, or war. The lovely shores have been invaded time and again by Greece, Egypt, Persia, Rome and in more recent times, Turkey. 

This ebb and flow of its history have shaped, like the waves that sculpted its shores, a very distinct personality for the island and its inhabitants, who have charted a unique and challenging course through the squalls of history.

Treasures

In honor of Cyprus' presidency of the European Union until the end of this month, the island has decided to share some of its history and culture, the ancestry of all of Europe. Many treasured artifacts are gracing four important museums: in Paris, Brussels, and Princeton as well as the Quirinal palace in Rome, once a papal residence and now home to the president of Italy. 

Simultaneously, the spiritual richness of the island is celebrated in a new book by the ambassador of Cyprus to the Holy See, Giorgio Poulides. "Un Papa a Cipro" records not only the troubled modern history of Cyprus but also the significant visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the island in 2010.

The art exhibit, called "Cyprus, Island of Aphrodite," is free of charge and will continue until Jan. 5, 2013. The show contains 56 pieces in two rooms, succinctly charting the most ancient history of Cyprus up to the Roman era. In such a synthetic exhibit, it is amazing to see the culture develop as time flies.

The first pieces are 5,000 years old. Carved out of limestone or fashioned from clay, they depict voluptuous, if somewhat stylized, female figures. Looking over the display, the overwhelming majority of the artifacts represent women. Clearly Aphrodite was warmly welcomed here. Interestingly, many of the images depict women embracing a child, which makes for an intriguing visual evolution from the love that provokes desire to the more binding love of motherhood. 

The first millennium before Christ saw Cyprus skyrocket into economic prosperity. Her land was rich with copper and soon new cities were built as trade flourished. This is all visible through the art of the island. The figures of 1,000 BC remain fairly rudimentary in form, but the decoration develops rapidly. Patterning hints at clothing while large dangling loops indicate earrings. Embossed gold plaques suggest trade with other centers, while a distinctive design on pottery reveals contact with Phoenicia. 

As the Greeks built their greatest temples in the sixth century, so the art of Cyprus became more ambitious. Monumental deities, attempts to render movement in dance, and even models of sanctuaries, complete with cult statues, expand the Cypriot artistic repertoire.

The Egyptian style images in the second room herald conquest. Frontal, contained within the block and wearing the sheer, smooth drapery typical of Coptic art, these fragments testify to the arrival of Egyptian King Amasis II in 570 BC.

But the Hellenized west left the deepest mark. The star of the show dates from the era of Alexander the Great, a marble torso of Aphrodite by Praxiteles, the most famous statue of antiquity. The first life-size sculpture of a female nude, it was so lovely that Aphrodite was rumored to have asked, "Wherever did Praxiteles see me naked?"

The Romans who took over the island in the first century BC were clearly enamored of these legends of love. The four imperial-era works all focus on love and seduction. 

This exhibit starts with love softening the warlike people of the Mediterranean, and sets the stage for the next part of Cyprus' history: the island that found the true meaning of love in Christ.

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Nowadays

From a pagan past we catapult to Cyprus' Christian present. In his new book, presented Wednesday in Rome, Giorgio Poulides takes readers through the striking modern history of the island. Although only available for the moment in Italian, it gives a behind-the-scenes account of Pope Benedict XVI's historic June 4-6, 2010, trip to Cyprus, the first papal visit ever to the island. 

It may have taken 2,000 years for a pope to arrive, but St. Paul and St. Barnabas visited Cyprus at the dawn of their evangelizing mission. The conversion of the proconsul Sergius Paulus made Cyprus the first Christian-ruled country in history. From here, Paul prepared the path that would earn his title of the Apostle of the Gentiles. Those Christian roots held strong; despite centuries of domination by Muslims, Cyprus' population of 1.1 million is 78% Greek Orthodox. Eighteen percent of the population are adherents of Sunni Islam and the remaining are Armenians, Maronites, Roman Catholics and Anglicans. Indeed, the first president of Cyprus, Makarios III, elected in 1960, was also an archbishop. 

Ambassador Poulides explores the complicated and occasionally explosive events of the last century as Cyprus fights for independence amid internal divisions. Part of the country is settled by Turks and the majority of the island is inhabited by Greek-speaking Cypriots. 

What might have remained just a turf spat between the Capulets and the Montagues of the Mediterranean took on global dimensions as the USSR and the USA got involved. Seen as a gateway between the Soviet Union, fundamentalist Islam and the West, the internal instability of Cyprus threatened the whole world. Cypriots themselves were divided on which path to take. "Enosis," or union, with Greece seemed an ideal solution to some, while "Taksim," or partitioning the island into separate zones appealed to others. All the while full-out invasion on the part of one of its more powerful neighbors always loomed.

The year 1974 saw a coup d'etat, a Turkish invasion, bombings and the displacement of thousands of Cypriots. Today Cyprus is divided in two: The Republic of Cyprus covers two thirds of the island while the rest belongs to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (not internationally recognized).

Poulides points out, however, that even as the political underpinnings of the island trembled, the Christian roots held fast and opened a new era in relations between the Eastern and Western Churches. The Orthodox Church of Cyprus has grown increasingly close to the Roman Catholic Church, in particular after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. As the world began to look towards Islam with suspicion, Blessed John Paul II, worked to unite people of all religions in prayer. The Republic of Cyprus, despite its enduring hostilities toward Turkey, its 120 churches turned into mosques, and the geopolitical fissure in her land, was the first to respond to John Paul's plea.

In 2003, Cyprus established an embassy to the Holy See and Giorgio Poulides has filled that role from the outset. He narrates the first visit of President Tassos Papadopolus to John Paul II in 2004, and the ailing Pontiff's desire to visit the island, made impossible by his deteriorating health.

With the election of Pope Benedict XVI, dialogue between Cyprus and Rome intensified. New president Dimitrias Cristofias came to Rome, and not only made an official visit to the Pope, but also joined the Holy Father at the homeless shelter of the Community of Sant'Egidio, a Rome-based lay association committed to helping the poor as well as promoting ecumenical dialogue.

Friendship

Through the good will of President Cristofias, the dynamic Archbishop Chrysostomos II, and the efforts of Sant'Egidio, Cyprus became a world leader in the ecumenical movement. In 2008, Cyprus hosted the 22nd "Spirit of Assisi" interfaith meeting, called "The Civilization of Peace: Religions and Culture in Dialogue," and then welcomed the International Commission for Theological Dialogue in 2009. 

Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Community of Sant'Egidio, spoke of Poulides' book as "a diary of a friendship" and indeed, through the many trials of its recent history, this great accord among religions is a shining thread that holds the story together.

The time seemed right for Pope Benedict to see the land where beauty was born, and in 2010, President Cristofias, Archbishop Chrysostomos II and Ambassador Poulides welcomed the Pontiff to Cyprus. This extraordinary visit through palaces, cathedrals and universities also included a tour of the archeological site of Paphos. Looking over the dusty stones, Pope Benedict evoked the presence of St. Paul, who from here began to spread his message of Christ's love all over the world. 

Poulides closes the book with an appeal to preserve the rich artistic heritage of Cyprus, citing Pope Benedict's homily at the consecration of the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona: "Indeed, beauty is one of mankind's greatest needs; it is the root from which the branches of our peace and the fruits of our hope come forth." Aphrodite's statues may be broken, but the love of beauty lives on in Christian Truth.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University's Italian campus and University of St. Thomas' Catholic Studies program. A new paperback version of her book, "The Tigress of Forlì: Renaissance Italy's Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de' Medici" was published by Harcourt, Mifflin Houghton Press this Fall.  She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org.