Larnaca

Larnaca, 3rd-largest Cypriot city Pop. 51,000 (metro 81,000), is on the southeast coast of Cyprus, on Larnaca Bay. It is home to the main commercial airport of Cyprus.

Larnaca is one of the oldest continually inhabited places in Cyprus. The original place name for Larnaca was Kition, or Citium in Latin, which was the chief city of a small kingdom dating from the 13th century BC. Tradition puts Citium's founding date at a much earlier time, around 4,000 BC, by Kittim, the grandson of Noah, making it not only one of the oldest inhabited places in Cyprus, but in the world as well.

Citium was the birthplace of the Greek philosopher Zeno (334-262 BC), founder of Stoicism. Stoics believed in living a life of virtue in harmony with nature, which resulted in a life of peace and goodness.

The city's chief gate, known as the "mound gate," was near the present-day Phaneromeni Tomb, which was an 8th century catacomb church. This dual-chambered, rock-cut cavern was thought to be an ancient pagan tomb. It is believed to have curative properties. People who desire healing walk around it 3 times, then leave an item of clothing, or a sample of their hair, on the grill at the south window. It is a favorite destination for women who pray for the safety of their men who are overseas. A modern church- the Phaneromeni Church- is built 7m from the tomb.

It is theorized that the name Larnaca came from the many small sarcophagi (larnakes in ancient Greek) that have been found in the area. Upwards of 3,000-plus tombs have been found in the surroundings and in the modern city.

Archeological evidence pointing to the incursion of Achaeans (northern Peloponnesians) date from 1200-1000 BC. At about the same time, Phoenicians began to settle in there.

By 1000 BC the Phoenicians were established as the predominant power in Citium, leaving behind them the ruins of cyclopean walls (Mycenaean-era walls using large, un-worked limestone boulders), several temples, and a commercial port which was destroyed by earthquake in 332 BC.

From 1000 BC to the time of Christ, Citrium changed hands repeatedly, falling under the rule of the Assyrians, the Egyptians, the Persians, and the Greeks. In 499 BC all of the kingdoms of Cyprus banded together to fight Persian occupation. In 312 BC the Egypt of Ptolemy I, an heir of Alexander the Great, took Cyprus. Rome annexed the island (and Larnaca), in 58 BC. The city suffered damage from several earthquakes from 76-342 AD.

The Byzantines, who came after the Romans, made Larnaca a prominent trade center, which allowed the city to grow. The church of Agios Lazarus, a  Byzantine-era building (9th century), is one of Larnaca's chief attractions.

The Ottoman Turks came in the 16th century, cementing Larnaca's place as a commercial hub. The Ottoman-era port was located in the Skala area, which was just past Larnaca Castle, at the south end of present-day Mackenzie Beach. The Ottomans built The Kamares, a nearly 10km-long aqueduct, in 1747.

In 1878, the British, needing a port in the eastern Med, rented Cyprus from Turkey, and remained until the island was declared independent in 1960. In 1974 the city's population more than doubled, from 25,000 to 65,000, when thousands of refugees settled there after the Turkish invasion and annexation of the northern third of the island.

The City

The Phoinikoudes Promenade is the palm tree-lined seaside walkway which stretches almost the entire length of the central city's waterfront. Along it you can find all the best that seaside Larnaca has to offer: restaurants, cafes, tourist shops, the city beach (Mackenzie Beach), Larnaca's Marina, and the Larnaca Castle. You'll find on the Promenade a statue of General Kimon the Athenian. Kimon was the military leader and statesman son of Miltiades, the victorious general at Marathon. In 450 BC he had lain siege to Larnaca (Citium) in an effort to free the city from its Persian masters, and had died on a ship offshore. He told the men who witnessed his death to keep it secret so as to not demoralize his troops, who then went on to defeat the Persians.

Mackenzie Beach is at about the mid-point of the Promenade. Since the airport is just south of the city, landing patterns at certain times a day allow you to do a bit of plane spotting as you read your book, get your tan, or play in the water. It's a pretty decent beach and, being in the city, there's not much that you might need that you can't find in a few minutes' walk.

The Larnaca Castle, overlooking the harborat the south end of  the Phoinikoudes Promenade, began its life as a small Byzantine-era fort dating from the 1100's. Larnaca experienced growth when Famagusta, 50km to the northeast,and her port were lost to the Genovese, which meant island-wide trade that had gone through Famagusta was now re-routed through Larnaca. Which led to a serious upgrade in the city's fortifications. From 1382-1398, a much more robust defensive structure was added to the old one, and a blockhouse in the shape of a fat, reverse letter "L" went up. The Ottomans added a heavy rectangular enclosure wall, creating a 50m X 35m compound and inner courtyard which, along with a long, narrow garrison building along the opposite wall, gives the fort the bit of an aspect of a walled monastery.

By the middle 1700's the castle had greatly deteriorated, although it still maintained a Turkish garrison. When the English came they used it as a prison, and a place of execution. The last man was hanged there in 1948. It now houses a museum displaying Early Christian, Byzantine, post-Byzantine artifacts, including utensils, weapons, and wall paintings. The courtyard has been converted to a 200-seat open-air cinema.

Besides the Phaneromeni Church and tomb (see above), Larnaca's most significant religious building is the Church of St. Lazarus, built in the 9th century. In one of the most dramatic passages in the New Testament, Jesus, about to raise Lazarus from the dead, says, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live." Then he called Lazarus, who had been lying dead for 3 days, out of the tomb.  

It's pretty good story, but people tend to forget that Lazarus was obliged to die a second time. Which he did, on Cyprus, tradition says. After the philosopher Zeno, and the general Kimon, the third great personage related to Larnaca is the religious figure Lazarus, who, tradition says, fled to Larnaca from Bethany in Israel after threats on his life. There he was appointed bishop by the Apostle Paul. After his second death, he was buried in Larnaca, and gradually the exact site of his grave was lost.

In 890 AD, a sarcophagus was found, inscribed "Lazarus, four days dead, friend of Christ." Inside it were the remains of a man. Byzantine emperor Leo VI had the relics transferred to Constantinople in 898. Crusaders looted them in the 13th century and brought them to Marseilles, where they were lost. Leo then had the church built over the site of the tomb to make up for losing Lazarus's body. A 4-story bell tower, built in 1857, rises from the back corner of the long, cut limestone building. An Gothic style arched portico was added to the south side by the Venetians while the church served as a Catholic basilica during the 13th-16th centuries.

The Ottomans turned the church into a mosque in 1571, and then sold it back to the Orthodox in 1589 because it had a Christian cemetery. Until 1800 both Catholics and Orthodox worshipped there. About 50 years after the Ottomans allowed the bell tower to be built in 1857, the church finally reverted to Cypriot ownership. Renovations to the church after a 1970 fire revealed human remains in a stone sarcophagus below the altar, leading to the speculation that not all of Lazarus's remains had been taken to Constantinople after all. On the Saturday which falls 8 days before Easter, known as Lazarus Saturday, the icon of Lazarus is taken in procession through the streets of Larnaca.

Other Points of Interest

The Kamares Aqueduct, just outside Larnaca on the road to Limassol, was the biggest water supply project (and public works project) on Cyprus when it was built in 1747 by Abu Bakr Pasha, the then Ottoman governor of the island. The 75 arches (kamares) of the aqueduct saw service until 1939. They are attractively illuminated at night. It carried water from the Arpera River, 10km away, to Larnaca. Financing for the project came from pocket of Abu Bakr Pasha.

The Larnaca District Museum, in the center of Larnaca, was opened in 1969. It has 4 galleries of archeological artifacts. The museum, about a kilometer northwest of the Larnaca Marina, is close to the archeological site of Ancient Kition. A copy of a stele (a commemorative stone slab) with a bas-relief image of Assyria's King Sargon II, stands in the museum's foyer. The original was sold after it was found, in 1845. It is now housed in Berlin's Pergamum Museum. It commemorates Sargon's conquest of Cyprus in 722 BC. The museum's exhibits are arranged chronologically, and feature sarcophagi from as early as the 6th century, BC, a rare stature of the goddess Artemis, and other objects dating from the Neolithic and Late Bronze Ages, the Cypriot Geometric period, the Classical, and the Roman periods.

About a hundred meters north of the Larnaca District Museum is the Kition-Bamboula archeological site, which is where the Sargon Stele was found. Remains of a sanctuary dating to the 9th century, BC have been found there as well. Other finds include the remains of ship sheds for dry-docked boats needing maintenance, 5 underground tombs, and a necropolis.

About 500 meters further north is the Kition Kathari site, also called Area II, which was a sacred district. It is Larnaca's main archeological site. This is where the earliest signs of human habitation in the area can be found. Remains of 5 temples have been uncovered there, along with metal working shops. There seems to have been a mystic connection between copper metallurgy and worship. One temple has graffiti of ships on one of its walls dating from the late Bronze Age. Parts of a 13th century BC defensive wall have also been uncovered.

Bordering Larnaca on the south is the Larnaca Salt Lake. This roughly comma-shaped wetland, averaging only a meter in depth, is about 3km from north to south, and 1.5km from east to west. Just south of the salt lake is the Larnaca International Airport. Under various conventions and agreements, the lake is a protected wetland and bird refuge. The lake dries up during the summer. Locals used to harvest the skim of salt that the departed lake left behind. The salt was once one of Cyprus's chief exports.

The bird population varies, but estimates range from 20,000-38,000, members of 85 species, many of them migratory. There are several thousand flamingoes, who like the tiny brine shrimp which breed in the salt water. Bird watchers enjoy the sight, during the wet season, of the pink flamingoes wading about in the middle of the lake fishing for brine shrimp, or conducting their mating dance.

On the southwest shore of the Larnaca Salt Lake is the Hala Sultan Tekke, which is a former Mulsim convent, with a mosque, minaret, mausoleum and cemetery. ("Tekke" is Turkish for "convent.") Hala Sultan was the prophet Muhammad's wet nurse. The Tekke is one of the holiest Sufi Muslim and Ottoman shrines. The site also has pre-historical significance, as it was a cemetery for Dromolaxia Vizatzia, a major Bronze age population center a few hundred meters west, dating from 1500 BC and later. The modern town of Dromolaxia is near the ancient settlement.

It is thought that the site of the convent was chosen because it was where Hala Sultan, being advanced in years, fell off her mule and died, and was subsequently buried. Her grave was lost to history, then re-discovered in the 18th century by a dervish (a Sufi Muslim ascetic), who built the complex's first structure. There are a couple different stories about the construction of the mosque, the most intriguing of which comes from Giovanni Mariti, who traveled to Cyprus in the 1760's and claimed that it was built out of materials scavenged from an area church in an abandoned village. During the Ottoman occupation of Cyprus, ships which had dropped anchor in Larnaca Bay would lower their flags to half-mast and fire off a cannon salute in honor of Muhammad's wet nurse.

Finally, here's an interesting story: In May of 1980, the Zenobia, a large ferry, left Sweden on her maiden voyage. She was carrying 104 tractor trailers loaded with goods for Syria. After passing through the Strait of Gibraltar on May 22, she stopped at Heraklion, Crete, and then Athens.  On the way to Athens the captain noticed that the ship was beginning to list to the port side, with corresponding steering problems. The problem was traced to the ship's ballast tanks, which had been taking on water. After the water was pumped out, the ship continued on towards Larnaca. By the time the Zenobia reached Larnaca on June 2, the listing problem had cropped up again, and this time is was much more severe.

The ship's engineers traced the problem to a software error in the onboard computer which was giving the order for the port side ballast tanks to be filled. Nobody knew how to fix the error. After being denied permission to dock at Larnaca's harbor, the Zenobia, listing dangerously, was towed about 2km offshore, where she dropped anchor. The crew and passengers evacuated. During the early morning hours of June 7, the Zenobia capsized and sank in 42m of water, carrying the 104 tractor trailers with her.

The Zenobia is now rated the #3 best diving shipwreck in the world. Scuba divers offer tours of the wreck for divers with different degrees of expertise, the  least experienced exploring the starboard side the ship, which rests on its port side on the sand at the bottom of Larnaca Bay. The more experienced divers are allowed into the upper deck, with only those with the most experience allowed, and able, to go into the depths of the ship, with the engine room being the least accessible part of all. Proof of the difficulty of exploring the insides of the Zenobia lies in the fact that 8 divers have lost their lives doing so. Usually they get turned around in the complicated floor plan and run out of air before they can safely exit.

One by one, over the years, the chains holding the trucks to the open upper deck eventually snapped because of fatigue, causing the trucks to float down to the sea floor. Some are still chained down. One truck had a cargo of frozen animals, the bones of which can be seen on the second car deck. there is also cargo of eggs on the sea floor. No salvage work was ever carried out on the shipwreck. An excellent 25-minute National Geographic documentary can be found on YouTube.

Larnaca has just about anything you might want in a vacation to a warm weather destination. It does have its night life, but that is not the major feature of a place with so many other interesting features.