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The Fascinating History of Ancient Paphos, Cyprus

Ravi is a traveler and foodie who loves to visit off-the-beaten-track places and understand the culture, history and customs behind them.

The Birthplace of Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of Sex and Love

Ludolph von Suchem, a German priest and traveler who had spent years traveling in the Holy Land and the Eastern Mediterranean islands makes a very profound observation about Cyprus that had irked and amused in equal measure, several generations of Cypriots.

"The soil of Cyprus provoked men to lust."

The Greek historian Herodotus, writing about Cyprus in the 5th Century BC also makes similar observations, when he talks about some weird sex customs that need to be followed by the women of the land.

"The foulest Babylonian custom is that which compels every woman of the land to sit in the temple of Aphrodite and have intercourse with some stranger at least once in her life. It applied to all women high and low. A woman could not refuse payment. Once a stranger had made his choice and cast money into her lap she would be forced to have intercourse outside the temple.”

Both Ludolf von Sudheim and Herodotus are talking about Paphos, a city in Cyprus; the birthplace of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of sex and love.

Paphos was famous in the ancient world as the sex capital of the world where thousands of pilgrims from all over the world were drawn towards the celebrations held for Aphrodite which included a four-day long festival Aphrodisia, replete with sex orgies, exquisite fornications, and rituals conducted to appease the goddess.

James Frazer, the author of the book The Golden Bough, a study of comparative religions in the Mediterranean calls this custom ‘Sacred prostitution that was done to placate the gods and prevent the land from famine and drought.

And it applied to all classes and strata of society, rich or poor, upper or lower classes. And a woman had absolutely no right to refuse once a man paid money and made his choice.

Vintage copy statue of Venus (Aphrodite) de Milo, a famous Greek sculpture dating back to about 100 BC, discovered in 1820 on the Aegean island of Milos.

Vintage copy statue of Venus (Aphrodite) de Milo, a famous Greek sculpture dating back to about 100 BC, discovered in 1820 on the Aegean island of Milos.

The Cult of Aphrodite

Ancient Paphos is some 15 kilometers east of modern Paphos. It was here the cult of Aphrodite was established in the 12 century BCE. Interestingly, Aphrodite was not originally a Greek goddess.

She was worshipped as Astarte in Phoenicia (present-day Lebanon). Gradually she became an important (and of course, erotic) goddess in Ancient Greece as her cult spread rapidly across the Mediterranean.

Aphrodite was the goddess of love, beauty, and fertility. Her temple in Paphos, where she was worshipped in the form of a conical stone, was famous throughout the ancient world.

As the story goes, poor Aphrodite was forced to marry a metal worker called Hesperus, an ugly man. She was frequently unfaithful to him and had many lovers, including the troublesome God of War Ares and the beautiful Adonis. A beautiful painting by legendary artist Sandro Botticelli shows her born naked in a sea spume, with a nymph rushing to clothe her naked body in a cloak of silk woven with flowers.

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And the cult was Aphrodite was further propagated by the massive temple celebrations of Aphrodite held with great pomp and show in those times in Paphos. The priestesses of Aphrodite were young Cypriot girls who sacrificed their virginity to the goddess.

Ritual sex between the priestesses and pilgrims was common, but non-sexual rites like ceremonies, libations, sacrifices, and chants were also held for hundreds of years. And as the custom goes, sex with strangers was obligatory. It applied to all women high and low, though rich ladies often drove to the temple in covered carriages.

As Stass Paraskos, author of Aphrodite, The Mythology of Cyprus explains,

“The women of Paphos served in the Temple celebrating the union of Aphrodite and her lover Adonis at the beginning of spring. They wore special headscarves and sat in a line waiting to be chosen. Men paraded up and down and when a woman took his fancy, they threw a small silver coin in her lap. No woman can refuse.”

Finally, in 400 AD, the Roman emperor Constantine banned the riotous festivals. But still, memories of the breathtaking rituals lingered in people’s minds for a long time, and even today.

Travel Details

Paphos is one of the most famous tourist destinations in Cyprus and is known for its ancient history, beautiful beaches, and awesome Mediterranean food. You can fly to Paphos directly from most of the European cities as it has the second largest international airport in Cyprus. Alternatively, you can even book a taxi to reach it in less than 2 hours.

  • Getting around Paphos: Paphos International Airport is only a 15-minute drive from the center of Paphos town. You can hire a taxi or even catch the airport bus to reach your hotel. Traveling within Paphos town can best be enjoyed either on foot or on a bicycle.
  • Best Time to Visit: Paphos has a warm climate and can be visited throughout the year. But the best times to visit are between September and October or May to June when the weather hovers in the love 20s degree Celsius. Plan to spend at least 2 days in Paphos so you can visit the hidden treasures at leisure and also sample the rich Mediterranean food.

Things to Do in Paphos

Paphos has something for everybody—ancient history, beaches, food, and shopping. Here are some of the places to get you started.

  • Tomb of the Kings: This UNESCO-listed archaeological site dates back to the Hellenistic period (323–31 BCE) and is a collection of ancient tombs that were excavated in 1977. These tombs are an excellent example of ancient Greek architecture and splendor.
  • Agia Kyriaki Chrysopolitissa: This 13th-century church is still in use today and is famous for its brilliant mosaic floors.
  • Paphos Castle: This fortress was originally constructed by the Byzantines and has been destroyed and reconstructed many times throughout history.
  • Aphrodite’s Rock: This small but exquisite rock formation is said to be the birthplace of the ancient Greek goddess of love and beauty. You can go swimming at Aphrodite’s rock which is situated just 20 minutes away from the city center.
  • Explore the Old Town Paphos: Paphos was voted the European Capital of Culture in 2017 and the town is replete with lovely coffee shops, curiosity shops, and street art. You can just sit dreamily at any of the cafes and soak in the wonderful views of the coast.

Paphos Today Aims for a New Beginning

After being awarded the title of European Cultural Capital for 2017 by the EU, the sleepy city of Paphos came into the limelight. Paphos shared the Culture Capital title that year with Aarhus, Denmark. As the story goes, the Danish King Eric I fell ill on a pilgrimage to Constantinople. On his return journey, he was forced to stop in Paphos, where he died and was buried in 1103.

The strong cultural connection is there. The rich history remains, and most importantly, the omnipotent cult of Aphrodite is steeped in the psyche of Cyprus. Yes, ethnic strife is still present among the older generations, but the young people of Cyprus hope that, by way of Aphrodite, the city of Paphos can effect a miraculous rebirth and rightfully take back its unique position in world history.

As Aberjhani rightly said,

“A bridge of silver wings stretches from the dead ashes of an unforgiving nightmare to the jeweled vision of a life started anew.”

Sources

© 2022 Ravi Rajan

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