One of the island’s best known religious landmarks has more than one story to tell finds PAUL LAMBIS

Although Nicosia is the island’s bustling capital, its surrounding communities provide a perfect opportunity to get away from the city centre and appreciate the surrounding countryside, including its rural, traditional villages.

“Nicosia is renowned for many things, but it is also a distinct region that allows visitors to experience the best of rural Cyprus, from awe-inspiring religious landmarks and unspoiled countryside to hidden gems, each with its own unique story to tell,” president of the Nicosia Tourism Board Theodoros Kringou said.

In the countryside, pine-clad mountains rise up to the centuries-old monastery of Macheras. As one of the island’s best known monasteries, Macheras is a world unto itself, housing icons and other sacred artefacts that bear witness to the island’s religious legacy. However, this monumental site has been at the centre of many historical battles, fires, and experienced significant transformation over the years.

At first view, the monastery resembles a fortress. It has thick stone walls, strong buttresses, ascetic cells and is embraced by dense forest on all sides. Located on the slopes of Kionia, in the valley of the Macheras mountains, the monastery houses the miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary of Macheras, which is attributed to Saint Luke the Evangelist.

dom tourism inside machairas monastery

Inside Macheras Monastery

According to tradition, an unknown hermit secretly brought the icon to Cyprus from Constantinople during the iconoclasm years to avoid its destruction during a turbulent period in Byzantine history when icons were considered heretical. The icon was hidden in a cave until 1145, when it was discovered by hermits Ignatios and Neophytos, who gained access to it by cutting down the thick vegetation that had enclosed the cave.

“Although there are several theories regarding the origins of the icon’s name as well as the name of the monastery, the most common belief relates to the miraculous knife, which was given to the hermits through divine intervention, and thus the revealed icon was given the name ‘Machairiotissa’ from the Greek word for ‘machairi’, meaning knife,” Kringou explained.

According to Kringou, the hermits decided to return the icon to Constantinople, seeking financial assistance from the emperor for the construction of a church devoted to the Virgin Mary. “The emperor provided the funds, and they returned to Cyprus to oversee the construction of a new monastery on the original site of the cave.”

Over the years, the number of monk cells grew, and the inhabitants took on various roles, including bakers, blacksmiths, shepherds and even treasurers. Everyone was required to follow rigorous communal rules.

However, it wasn’t until the monastery was granted stavropegial privileges, meaning it came under the archbishop rather than the local bishop, that it became a centre of Christian culture and spiritual hermitage, Kringou added.

According to archives, the monastery hosted a number of royal visitors, including Queen Alice, the wife of King Hugo IV, who attempted to break the rule prohibiting women from entering the altar space of the monastery’s main church, and King Jacob I, who sought refuge from a plague within the monastery’s walls.

“In 1530, a large fire completely destroyed the monastery, but the miraculous icon was unharmed,” Kringou told the Cyprus Mail. “After its destruction, the monastery was abandoned for many years until the 18th century, when a renowned Russian monk visited the island and noticed that renovations were underway.”

According to historical accounts, Vasily Grigorovich-Barsky noted in his travel diaries that the monastery was undergoing a revival, with church books being rewritten and a Greek school and clinic providing medical help had been established on the premises.

However, the monastery would experience another devastating fire in 1892, destroying a significant part of its buildings, but the monks were able to save many of the icons. The current monastery, with its domed three-nave basilica, impressive murals and iconostasis, is the product of extensive renovations that took over seven decades to complete.

“The monastery was once one of the richest in Cyprus, but the Turks seized a significant portion of its assets in 1821, when the island was under Ottoman rule.”

dom tourism afxentiou's cave

Afxentiou’s hideout

The area itself became an important point of conflict in Cyprus’ modern history when British soldiers encircled the entrance to where Eoka leader Grigoris Afxentiou was hiding in 1957, demanding he surrender. Afxentiou chose to resist until British soldiers poured petrol into the hide and burned him alive.

Today, Macheras Monastery is one of the most impressive religious sites in Cyprus, attracting both locals and visitors from abroad. Inside, a large museum showcases a vast collection of religious art, decrees confirming its stavropegial status, ancient relics, liturgical garments, manuscripts, and books, including a rare 16th century icon of Saints Joachim and Anna.

Nearby, an imposing statue of Afxentiou stands at the entrance to a small museum that documents Cyprus’ struggle for independence from British colonial rule, as well as Afxentiou’s history and time when he sought refuge at the monastery.

“Nicosia’s well-preserved landmarks allow visitors to get up close and personal with its architectural wonders, impressive museums, and fascinating culture,” Kringou said. “And a visit to Macheras Monastery is bound to impress, as every visitor will be captivated by its timeless beauty, the island’s rich historical past, its deep connection to Christianity, and its persistence in the face of adversity.”