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The monasteries of Cyprus
From Neophytos to Kykkos, a world apart, distantly inspired from the Manichean example
At the age of twenty-five the hermit [Saint Neophytos] had scooped out these grottoes with his own hands, but a quarter of a century later, in 1183, his followers were clustered like bees around him and his walls were being covered with frescoes. Annoyed beyond endurance, he escaped them by burrowing a cave still higher in the cliffside, reached only by a ladder which he could pull after him.”
–Colin Thubron, “Journey Into Cyprus,” 1975
What does it mean to be alone?
The institution of the Christian monastery has been asking that question for a long time. There have always been holy people in this part of the world—the sybil at Delphi, the Vestal Virgins of Rome—and of course other religions, such as Buddhism, have monks, nuns, and monasteries as well. And yet, there is something distinct about the holy personality who lives apart from society.
The origins of Christian monasticism trace their roots to legendary hermits who established the example of an alternative lifestyle. Perhaps the first was Saint Anthony of Egypt, who wandered into the desert and lived out his days in a cave. Stories glorifying his asceticism—as well as suggesting he was both healthy and vigorous despite his poverty—helped promote the idea that one didn’t have to participate in the Roman and Late Antique society in a traditional way, particularly in the 3rd and 4th centuries CE, when that society was in a state of sustained collapse—why work for others when one could work directly for God?
The history of Western monasticism may derive its inspiration from an outside source. In Late Antiquity, the period of Roman collapse and the rise of Christianity, there was a wave of religious disruption in the form of the Manicheans—in modern terms, a countercultural movement.
The Manicheans, Augustine, and the invention of the monastery
In the third century, a religious movement swept across both the Western and Eastern worlds. The prophet Mani, from the kingdom of Parthia (modern-day Iran), lived from 216 to 274 CE. The Manichean cult achieved popularity in not only Mani’s native Iran but the Mediterranean world and China. The movement’s followers believed that Mani was the final prophet after Zoroaster, Buddha, and Jesus. At the center of their theology was belief in an ongoing battle between light and darkness. Modern fantasy stories, like The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, owe more than a little inspiration from the example of this duality-based theological conflict.
One of the key components of the Manichean beliefs included that a small group of believers would serve as the “Elect”—taking vows to abstain from meat, alcohol, and even from preparing plant-based foods. The “Auditors,” a larger group of believers, would support the elect financially and prepare vegetarian foods for them. Though the Auditors would commit the “sin of food preparation,” the elect would pray for them and absolve them of these sins. This social structure—a community supporting a monastery of individuals who had taken up a vow—proved an influential model for Christian monasticism.
Among the adherents of Manicheanism at one time included St. Augustine of Hippo, one of the most influential figures in the early Catholic Church who helped steer the Church into its more recognizable, medieval form. Though Augustine later characterized his Manichean period as a dalliance, it certainly left its mark on how he viewed the world.
According to historian Peter Brown, early in his spiritual evolution, Augustine tried to set up a commune for his like-minded intellectual friends (many former Manicheans) today known as the “Jerusalem Community.” This was sort of an ancient form of counterculture. Unlike the hippies of the 1960s, these commune members were giving up their wealth and other vices to become more conservative (as opposed to America’s 20th century hippies, who became more liberal). Augustine’s circle was radical—just in the opposite trajectory of what we might expect.
Augustine’s initial failed commune influenced his later design establishment of a monastery in his home of North Africa (modern-day Tunisia). He called his new community a monastery, a word of Greek origin, which meant “to live alone.” Augustine’s monks gave up their property, wealth, and swore off marriage. They gave up (most of) their individual clothing. They were supported by the revenues of the church. All of the preconditions for the medieval monastic system were in place.
As Brown wrote in his magnum opus, Through the Eye of a Needle, about the transition of civic wealth from the pagan-secular Roman State to the Roman church:
“Compared with how we tend to imagine monks and monasteries, based on their later history in the West, Augustine’s monasteries and those who lived in them were almost indistinguishable from the world around them. Yet Augustine expected these men and women to participate in the most carefully thought-through experiment in the Christian West.” (p. 175).
While Augustine didn’t exclusively “invent” the monastery, his previous (and later disavowed) relationship to the Manichean cult is certainly an interesting example of how cultural exchange helped create an institutional model that came to define the Middle Ages in Europe.
The monasteries of Cyprus are mostly in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, a different sect than Augustine’s Catholicism owing to an ancient schism. But on the island today, monasteries continue to play an important role in Greek-Cypriot culture as well as those of Christian minorities on the island such as that of the Maronites and Armenians.
Monasteries in Cyprus and the legend of Kykkos
Two of the most famous are the monastery of Saint Neophytos in Paphos, and Kykkos Monastery in the Troödos Mountains. While the Neophytos monastery shows the example of an organic foundation of a monastery based on a charismatic leader, the Kykkos monastery’s foundation story had its origins in political intrigue of an imperial dimension.
Saint Neophytos was a hermit monk who lived in a cave near Paphos. His followers started living in adjacent caves, and they eventually painted frescoes inside the grottoes. These humble beginnings launched a monastic community that grew to encompass a building adjacent to the cave complex. Thus, the example of Neophytos represented a monastery created organically by a trailblazing monk, whose followers and neighboring villages gradually turned the monastery into an institution with an important spiritual, political, and religious role on the island. Many monasteries in Cyprus and in the former Roman Empire followed this model.
But arguably the most important monastery on Cyprus was created in an act of political (and allegedly spiritual) intrigue. Regardless of its veracity, the legend of the foundation of Kykkos Monastery, located deep within the Troödos Mountain range—with a view of both the island’s Mount Olympus and the sea—is an interesting narrative in itself.
In the 11th century there was a hermit monk in the Troödos named Esaias who lived peaceably in the forest. One day, the Byzantine governor of Cyprus went hunting in the woods and encountered Esaias and asked him for directions. Unbothered by ordinary concerns, Esaias refused to answer.
Angered, the governor cursed out the hermit, but when he returned to Paphos, he fell gravely ill. He prayed for forgiveness, and he was cured. However, God apparently appeared to him and said that to pay back the favor, he’d have to go to the imperial capital of Constantinople and bring back to Cyprus an icon of the Virgin Mary painted by the Apostle Luke.
The governor was skeptical—would the emperor really give up an icon painted by Luke? But Esaias persuaded him that it had to be done. Together they took a ship to Constantinople.
As expected, the emperor didn’t want to give them the icon. He told them he would, but he secretly ordered a copy produced of the icon in question, with the idea that he would keep the original and give them the copy. (In effect, the old “switcheroo”.)
But then the emperor’s daughter fell ill—of allegedly the same illness which had previously befallen the Cypriot governor. After witnessing the Virgin Mary in a dream, the emperor finally relented, and gave the Cypriots the original icon after all, after which his daughter miraculously recovered.
Feeling guilt for his deception, the emperor went on to found the monastery of Kykkos, the icon being its principal possession. Today, the icon is encased in protective wrapping; with some exceptions, it is forbidden to be witnessed by even the monks, lest the bearer be blinded by its power.
Sure. You need not buy into this legend or any other. But Kykkos remains an important site in modern Cyprus, and not just as a religious place. Because it was once the home of the Archbishop Makarios, the first president of the Republic of Cyprus, the area is also a national monument of sorts. Makarios’ grave is located on the top of the mountain, accompanied by a monumental statue of him, the Throni, a pagoda-like monument with mosaic shrines to many saints. (Notably, Kykkos is also the namesake of one of the brands of bottled water popular on the island).
As a result, no cultural visit to Cyprus is complete without a visit to a monastery, and Kykkos, thanks to its remoteness and general aura of mystery, is one of the more spectacular island locations.
The monastic legacy
Monasteries may have started out as “counterculture”—a way to rebel from society by ironically becoming more conservative—but they eventually became part of the institutionalized tapestry of life in Medieval Europe, a legacy that extends to the present. In many ways, it’s a story as old as time—what is initially radical becomes incorporated and subsumed into mainstream society.
One more lesson—it’s probably wise not to insult a monk on a mountaintop. Bad ju-ju. You may even have to go to the White House and ask for a painting.
Peter Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West 350–550 AD (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 2012).
Colin Thubron, Journey Into Cyprus (London: Vintage, 2012).
Rupert Gunnis, Historic Cyprus: A Guide to its Towns and Villages, Monasteries and Castles (London: Methuen, 1936).
L. & H. A. Mangoian, The Island of Cyprus: An Illustrated Guide and Handbook (Nicosia: Mangoian Bros, 1947).
This is the thirty-first post in The Cyprus Files, a newsletter series from The Usonian chronicling my Fulbright experiences in Cyprus. Thanks for reading, and if you haven’t subscribed to The Usonian to read about storytelling and design from the edge, please consider joining the list.