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Steni
Steni
A Lost Paradise in the Hills
355
Evgeniya Kondakova-Theodorou
Author: Evgeniya Kondakova-Theodorou
Translation: Frances Ransome
Photo: Daria Saulskaia
17.01.2018

It’s highly likely that you’ll drive through this village as you make your way from Paphos to Polis. The village of Steni is in north-western Cyprus, five kilometres from Chrysochous Bay and 6 kilometres from Polis town centre. At 200 meters above sea level, it boasts an ideal climate all year round.

It’s still a bit of a mystery how the village of Steni (Στενή) got its name but there are two versions of events that get told by the locals. The first story has it that Steni comes from the surrounding terrain that the first settlers cultivated in ancient times: a narrow stretch of land (Steno) along the river banks that the residents waded across.

Another set of locals will tell you a different story about the origins of the name Steni. Their tale maintains that the very first settler built a barn near the land where cattle were driven from the pastureland, which was then called Stani. Over time, as the village grew, and new buildings and houses were built, the name evolved into Stenia and then into Steni

Steni is referred to under a different name in the decree published by the British authorities dated November 17, 1882 No. 718, a once important document that states that «the villages of Poli, Chrysochous, Istemi (and this is our Steni), Prodromi and Peristerona in the province of Paphos from here on in acquire a municipal council...».

There is no exact information on how old the village is. However, the ruins of the old mill by the river that traverses the Steni region mean some local historians feel they can authoritatively declare that the building dates back to the 16th century. It follows that the village must have sprung up around the same time. Others tend to believe that Steni is of a much more an impressive age: it could well have existed when the nearby monastery of Panagia Chrysolakournas was being built in the 12th century.

Like all the villages in this region, Steni’s roots are in farming, in particular livestock and husbandry: an agricultural history that stretches back to ancient times. The village flourished thanks to its excellent location.

The old name shows the Ottoman Empire formerly ruled here. Right up until October 7, 1987 (more than 100 years ago), Steni came under jurisdiction of the municipality of Polis.

According to the archives, by 1925 the village already had a school with 35 pupils (27 boys and 8 girls). The name of the first schoolteacher is ingrained in the minds of the locals: Lucas Argiridis, from the village of Katidata, in the valley of Solea.

The population continued to increase up until 1930, reaching about 300 inhabitants. Later, two significant waves of immigration to South Africa from 1930 to 1950, and 1960 to 1975, saw Steni's population take a severe downturn. The drastic drop in student numbers led to the school being closed in 1983. Nowadays, the local children go to school in nearby Polis Chrysochous.

The life of the villagers, especially the farmers, changed drastically when the Evretou Dam was built. Its construction opened up new opportunities to grow a wider range of crops, not just cereals as before. Since then, Steni’s main agricultural output has been citrus fruits, olives and grains. What’s more, many villagers gave up working the land and forged their careers in the regional tourism industry or other technical professions.

These days, Steni has about 120 inhabitants but its population is on the rise thanks to its flourishing economy and an influx of foreigners. Predictions have it that the village will double in size over the next five years.

We first got to know the village at the local history museum. Smart architectural planning has the museum, village hall and doctor’s surgery all in the same building. We soon realised we were in Steni’s main square. In the centre of the square, which serves as an open-air stage on holidays, there is a double-capital column — we’d never seen such a memorable artefact before.

The Museum: bigger on the inside than outside

To our surprise, the museum’s spacious interior was perfectly suited for its purpose and well-organised. Its extensive collection is clearly well curated: all items have been collected, described, arranged and displayed on the floor, walls, shelves and even on the ceiling, all with a deep love for the Cypriot history. You really can see it all here: from the life and customs of the villagers to artefacts illustrating Cypriot history, traditions, and, of course, its natural and cultural treasures. The exhibition mainly covers 1800 to 1945.

We’d never come across such a well-thought-out and informative exhibition anywhere else in Cyprus! It exhibits the local arts and crafts as well as numerous aspects of village life in displays that encompass forges, brick production, basket weaving, home-made textiles, lace and embroidery, decorative panels using silkworm cocoons, and even artistic glass painting.

Each exhibit has a number and you can learn all about what everything is called by taking a catalogue on the counter by the entrance marked «rental».

Entry to the museum is free. Donations are welcome.
Opening Hours: Monday – Sunday 10:00 – 16:00
Telephone: +357 26352143, +357 99625004
Email: info@steni.org.cy
For more information: www.steni.org.cy


As we were leaving the Museum to head towards the church up the hill, we bumped into the mayor, Mr. Ilias Lampidis, just as he got to work. We introduced ourselves and got chatting. Mr. Lampidis kindly suggested that he could arrange a small tour of Steni. It turned out to be a real adventure, with all kinds of little discoveries and stories each leaving a lasting impression.

The church of Saint Trifon (Άγιος Trifonas)

During the tour, our new friend said, «Have you noticed how good our village looks? We recently restored it to its former glory, renovated the square and the church of St. Trifon. We received a grant from the European Union for the work».

The mayor opened the doors of the church and we stepped inside the ancient building. There is an old carved iconostasis inside. The artist that painted the murals on the walls also painted the icons in the iconostasis as well as the church icon (all of which date back to 1915).

We also learned that the church in Steni is dedicated to St. Trifon Apameya or Nicaea (232-250 AD), who, according to church tradition, is the patron saint of farming and protector of animals. The church was built in 1913 on the site where the first village church of Steni once stood, which was sadly destroyed in a fire caused by unattended burning candles.

All the local villagers took part in the construction of the new church: either working alongside the builders or bringing stones and other materials in their carts.

The church’s bell tower, considered one of the most beautiful in the region, was built entirely in ashlar masonry using the hardest stone from the local quarries. It was erected later in 1940. It is the work of the famous architect, Constantinos Zoppos and his son Dimos from the village of Geroskipou (Paphos).

The money for its construction was raised and sent to Steni by former villagers who had emigrated to South Africa.

The church was renovated and restored in 1961 and 1988. Agios Trifonas day is celebrated annually on February 1. The people of Steni and other villages gather in the church to commemorate the Saint. The incumbent priest is Father Joseph (Christodoulou Vodommatis).

In the church grounds on the top of the hill, there is an area where you can sit and relax against the backdrop of unfathomable panoramic views. After admiring the incredible landscape, we were ready to get going again.

Next, our hospitable tour guide-cum-mayor with a heavy old key in hand led us up to the church of Aya Panagia higher up in the mountains. Suddenly the sun came out and a few brilliant rays fell into the valley and lit up the sea. The wet leaves in the woods along the slopes of the hills came alive brightly dancing, glinting and sparkling like scattered diamonds.

The mayor turned to us and said «You’re lucky you came here today. There hasn’t been any rain for a long time and all the trees were coated in dust. You’ve just seen everything come to life! Our climate is unique and very good. Nowhere else in Cyprus does such a variety of crops grow together like here. For example, alongside wheat and olives, we grow cherries, avocados, mangoes, all kinds of citrus fruits, cabbages, bananas, watermelons, and apples.

Oh, and our vineyards are exceptional! ... I remember how, right up until the 1970s, we had to work these terraced fields and orchards every Tuesday and Wednesday. The new road (that we’d just driven along) was built later. Before that, people just went up and down stony paths. In fact, we used to have camels to transport goods until 1945».

Interestingly enough, after hearing this story, I decided to find out exactly how and when camels were first brought to the island. It turned out that single-humped camels (Camelus dromedarius) were even around before Alexander the Great and until relatively recently served not only as vehicles but also worked in the Cypriot fields alongside donkeys and mules. To this today, they can be found in the Camel Park or in small private zoos (for example, in Oleastro and Anogyra).

The Church of Aya Panagia

Our next stop was at an ancient church built of limestone. The Department of Antiquities has been carrying out restoration and restoration works for several years, which will very soon be completed. The interior is also being restored and it’s as if the building is almost «new». However, when you take a closer look, you can see small fragments of fresco paintings that have been preserved on the small stones on the vault, and on the walls. According to the mayor, the restorers compared old photographs of the interior and archival documents then undertook the painstaking work of assembling the fragments like a big puzzle.

Mr. Lampidis went on to add, «The church here (also called the Temple of the Golden Chalice — Chrysolakourna) dates back to the 15th century and its walls were covered with numerous frescoes. However, when the floors were uncovered, it was discovered that there was another ancient church (probably from the 12th century) underneath. It remained as ruins for various factors: in 1953, an earthquake caused the roof of the church to collapse; it was exposed to the weather; and, later, it was located near the Turkish population. There is still a legend that in ancient times, that the monks of the once rich monastery that stood here managed to hide great amounts of treasure somewhere nearby from being plundered by the French when they came in 1191 to bring Catholicism to the cities. However, no treasure or hiding place have ever been found».

Indeed, the monastery of the Blessed Virgin (Panagia) Chrysolakourna has long existed and is located about 3 km north of Steni in an incredibly picturesque region with views over Polis Chrysochous Bay and Cape Akamas.

However, the exact date of the monastery’s foundation and its destruction are still unknown. Some historical information has been partially preserved that reveals the activities of the famous intellectual, Archimandrite Kiprianos. Historians used it to draw the conclusion that the monastery was abandoned in the early 19th century. Out of all the buildings of the monastery, which had stood empty for more than 50 years, only a small part of the church survived until 1974.

In 1974-1975, the Department of Antiquities carried out restoration work, during which it was further revealed that the preserved fragment of the church actually contains remains dating back to different periods. This testified in favour of the hypothesis that the monastery is indeed ancient and witnessed numerous historical events.

Despite the fact that most of the frescoes that remained intact to the present day are dated to the 16th century, there is clear evidence that the church was built much earlier. For example, a fresco depicting St. John the Forerunner found on the western wall of the church dates back to the 12th century. There are also inscriptions on the western wall from the same period.

After studying the artefacts, historians suggested that the original church underwent significant restoration in the 14th century following destruction. They also agree on the idea that in the 16th century Aya Panagia was seriously damaged and that the church was later rebuilt remaining practically unchanged until recently.

Fragments of the icon of the Great Panagia («Platytera») between the figures of the Archangels have been preserved under the roof of the arch. On the lower level, you can see expansive scenes involving the apostles («The Last Supper»), as well as those depicting church ceremonies. The best-preserved icon is that of St. Gregory the Theologian. An icon of St. George was also found on the north wall.

We moved on to the next sight and the mayor continued telling us about the region:

«Life here used to be very tough. People lived off the earth. These days, of course, most people work in the cities in the tourist industry and the civil service ... Now, I'm taking you to the «Russian lands». Is that surprising? We really do have such a place!» The mayor then pronounced a name that sounded like «Mirimikoff».

In all likelihood, it’s a derivative of Meringoff or Mariengoff, the rare, although famous names of the Russian aristocracy.

Some sources say that Mirimikoff or Mirminko was a settlement of Turkish Cypriots. The historian, Goodwin, clearly unaware of Russian etymology, argued that the name is just an abbreviation of «myrmkopholia» (or «ant hill»). This does not explain why, however, there would be a Russian chapel built in the Turkish settlement on Cypriot soil.

The Russian Legacy

The mayor continued to regale us enthusiastically. «The older generation say that Russians exiled by the Russian tsar came here. This was their village and they began to cultivate the land ... You can imagine my surprise when a group of tourists from the US visited us and one guy, the son of Russian immigrants, said that his ancestors had been born here! There hasn’t been a village here for years and years. Only the name and a number of ruins of houses survived …I remember who once lived here… but mostly it’s just orchards and olive groves ... The only thing here is the old chapel of Aya Marina standing there between the trees. Legend has it that it was built here by Russian emigrants».

We were convinced it was true straight away. We went inside ... the fresco paintings inside the chapel have been preserved but have been blackened by the candles. However, there is evidence of the Turkish rule here: the faces of a lot of the saints have been scratched or chipped into.

The mayor explained that young goatherds took shelter from the bad weather in here and passed the time damaging the unique paintings by throwing their metal-tipped staffs at them (there is particularly a lot of damage in the niches on both sides of the apse).

These days, people come to light candles are and place icons in the church. I took a closer look and noticed that one of the frescoes had clearly been painted by a Russian artist. In fact, it seemed that most if not all were of Russian origin.

As well as the particular style attributable to the Russian school, the techniques and images (the six-winged seraphim — the highest-ranking angel and closest to the Creator in Christian tradition), you can also clearly see the floral ornament that is found both in old Russian churches and in the medieval miniature books of Ancient Rus.

What’s more, you can make out an almost illegible inscription in Church Slavonic. The few visitors that come here can also see how thick the plaster layer was applied to the walls and arch of the chapel underneath the mural that covered it.

I asked what the plans were for this cultural monument and Mr. Lampidis replied that it is believed that it has remained in the same condition since the last Turks left to the north of the island 39-40 years ago. What’s more, the chapel’s archway that had once collapsed has been restored. It is expected that it will only need a few small repairs over the years. For example, members of the Steni community will replace the old cracked wooden door etc.

However, people come here on a daily basis. It is particularly popular on St. Marys Memorial Day. Baptisms are even held here so the door is kept unlocked during the day.

When we left the church, the mayor said that horse racing has long been held nearby; it has become a local tradition. Keeping horses has a long history here, and the mayor also pointed out the influence other cultures had had on bringing this tradition to the island… For example, Russia. After all, riding was one of the Russian aristocracy’s favourite pastimes.

A little while after our trip, I managed to find an excerpt from the book «Historic Cyprus» (second edition, 1947), where the author, historian Rupert Gannis (an expert on the antiquities of the island in that period) gives a description of this area:

 «About two miles from the village (Steni. — author’s note) lie the ruins of the rich and important Monastery of Chrysolakhourna. The original thirteenth-century church consists of a central nave and two side aisles ending in a semicircular apse. Over the west door was a small lancet window of two lights. In the sixteenth century, owing to an earthquake, the church was much remodelled. The west front was covered with a heavy buttress wall four feet thick at the base, which blocked the two entrances into the side aisle. The north wall was rebuilt, and the windows in the west and east end of the church were blocked up…»

A row of Hellenic tombs surrounds the monastery, and the marble columns and pillars scattered throughout the grounds lends you to assume that there was a pagan temple here at some point in the past.

A little below the church there is a small valley in the shadow of giant oaks. A sacred spring flows out from cracks in the rockface; it is often visited by sufferers of ophthalmia. Local tradition has it that a bishop resided in this monastery and it is quite possible that during the Roman rule (in the era of the Kingdom of Cyprus), the Orthodox Bishop of Paphos was forced to permanently move here. The last archpriest is said to have been hanged by the Turks in 1821. The Turkish farmsteads, Agios Isidoros and Mirimikoff, are both near Steni and both still have ruins of medieval churches that were built prior to the Turkish conquest».

St. George’s Chapel

We got back in the jeep and sped on along the dirt road with a view on both sides of horses grazing among the olive groves. The sun began to warm up again. The jeep stopped at the newly constructed chapel. It was built in 2008 by one of the locals, the owner of the surrounding land who then donated it to the village. The chapel was later consecrated. It also has its own belltower.

If you manage to get here yourself, it is worth taking the time to admire the views over the valley ... oh, and the sea and hills, too.

Our mayor shared an old belief with us: if you entered a Cypriot village back in old days and you saw a lot of olive trees, it meant that Christians lived here; if it was mostly palm trees, it was a Muslim community.

The mayor then explained, «In the 1850s, huge numbers of palm trees were imported to Cyprus. Before that, they didn’t grow here...»

Upon our return to Steni, we thanked our new, kind friend, Mr. Lampidis, and went on way.

The local community regularly takes effort to develop village life by holding events, they also study the region and modernise the village. All the events in Steni are also attended and participated in by expatriate communities.

Fun Facts:

There is a bat local to the area, the Mediterranean horseshoe bat or Rhinolophous Euryale. It’s a rather rare species. It only eats fruit, which, as we know, the region never runs short of! Local wildlife specialists have reported that about 50 horseshoe bats have recently settled in one of the caves in the region surrounding Steni.

The village emblem proudly boasts a... chanterelle mushroom! They are very common on Cape Akamas and around Polis.

Where to stay:

Savvas Villas, — two villas that can each house 6-7 people.

Telephone: +357 26352322, +357 99675041 (Savvas Charalampous)

Email: savvasvillas@cytanet.com.cy

Where to eat and drink a coffee:

Neromylos Café (or the «Water Mill» Tel.: +357 26352059, www.neromyloscafe.com) Of course, this place is also steeped in history: this cosy, popular place was named after its 700-year old mill whose ruins are nearby.

How to get there:

From Paphos by car (42 minutes) on the В7 road, via Mesogi – Tsada – Strоumpi – Yolu – Miliou – Arkoudalia – Skoulli – Steni.

The 640 bus also departs from Paphos.

For more information: www.cyprusbybus.com

 

We wish you pleasant travels, memorable experiences, and look forward to seeing you soon!