Friday, March 13, 2015

Cyprus | Larnaca | Church of St. Lazarus

The day after I visited the Statue Of Zeno I wandered into town again, but instead of walking the whole way down the Phinikoude I turned left a block past the Fort and proceeded a couple of hundred yards to St. Lazarus Square. The Church of St. Lazarus, one of Larnaca’s most famous landmarks, fronts the square on the west. Although the square is on the southern edge of the highly developed area behind the Phinikoude it serves as the symbolic center of town. Saint Lazarus, who according to the Christian Bible was raised from the dead by Jesus of Nazareth, was supposedly buried here, and over the last 1500 years or so three different churches have stood over the site of his tomb. The current church is used by a local Greek Orthodox congregation. It is also visited by many pilgrims from all over the Orthodox world and figures in most tourist itineraries. As I walk by a service is in progress, and I can hear the chanting of Greek Orthodox priests. I want to view the interior of the church but decide to come back later after the service is over.  As it turned out, I soon moved from my guesthouse out in the hinterlands to a small “boutique” hotel fronting the square itself and thus had ample opportunities to visit the church. 
 View of the Church of St. Lazarus Square and church from the balcony of my hotel (click on photos for enlargements).
 Frontal view of the Church of St. Lazarus
Another view of the Church of St. Lazarus
First, however, I visited the cafes on either side of the square. The one on the north side, with the chi-chi name Da Vinci’s, had captured the tourist trade with  a menu of waffles, freshly made pie, cakes, iced coffee drinks, and mint tea. They also touted an “England Breakfast”, an abomination of burned eggs, undercooked bacon, baked beans (!) and white bread toast. This meal in itself was enough to explain the decline and fall of the British Empire. All of their outdoor tables facing the square were often full. On the other side of the square was a cafe which called itself Stoa. I assume this was a reference to the Ancient Stoa In Athens, where the philosopher Zeno had first lectured on Stoicism. For whatever reason tourists resolutely avoided this place. Most of the habitués were old men who appeared to have taken on the outward attributes, if not the inner meaning, of Stoicism; that is to say, they ordered a Cyprus coffee and then sat staring into space for the next hour or two. 

Naturally I became an regular at this place. After the second day the old men would slowly swivel their heads in my direction when I entered, nod almost imperceptibly, and then return to their meditations. After the third day the young woman who ran the place brought me my coffee without asking and sat it down without saying a word. No one ever attempted to start a conversation, for which I was grateful. The main real reason I came here, however, was for the one Euro Cyprus coffees. Cyprus coffee is the same thing as Turkish coffee—slightly boiled, unfiltered, and served in a demitasse—but here in southern Cyprus references to Turkey are not appreciated. On menus it is alway Cyprus coffee. In Istanbul nowadays a Turkish coffee can run more than two dollars, and the quality is lamentable in most places. Here in this place it costs one Euro ($1.06), which seems just about right for what was basically a shot glass of thick coffee, and unlike so many places in Istanbul it is excellently prepared. Most mornings I would linger a half an hour or so over one cup of coffee. (Curiously, I have noticed that it a bad form to actually order a second shot of coffee in these places; these are not American diners with the bottomless cup. If you need another hit you move on to another establishment.) Then I would wander over the Church of St. Lazarus. By then the morning service was over. I would go in, buy a small candle, and light it as an offering. I am not Greek Orthodox of course, or even a Christian, but I do like to cover all the bases. Then I would take a seat an indulge in historical ruminations about Lazarus. 
Interior of the church
Those of you who were paying attention in Sunday school and not pulling the pigtails of the girl in the seat in front of you will no doubt recall that Lazarus was born in Bethany, a small town just east of Jerusalem. Jesus of Nazareth was a friend of the family and had visited Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha on numerous occasions. According to Luke X, 38-42), while Martha "was distracted by her many tasks,” Mary sat "at Jesus’s feet and listened to his preaching.” It was Mary who had anointed Jesus’s feet with spikenard oil and dried them with her hair. There has been rampant speculation in some quarters that Jesus had a thing going on with Mary. The Gospel of John, more discretely, tells us only that “Jesus loved Martha and her sister” (John XI, 5). During Jesus’s last trip from Galilee to Jerusalem he received an urgent message from the sisters informing him that their brother was seriously ill and probably dying. He made a detour to Bethany in hopes of curing Lazarus but did not arrive until four days after he had died. “Deeply moved in spirit,” he stood in front of Lazarus’s tomb, and through his spiritual power he managed to bring him back to life, even though the body had begun to decay and there was a bad odor. (John XI, 44)

There are, of course, historiological  problems with this account. I will not question the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth, although of course this issue continues to be debated by some. In light of subsequent events, Lazarus would also appear to be an historical character, and not simply a figment of imagination on the part of the Gospel writers. The event in question is Lazarus’s resurrection from the dead. Whether or not Jesus of Nazareth was capable of performing this miracle will have to remain a question of faith. A more mundane explanation, that Lazarus was simply in a deep coma and that Jesus managed through non-miraculous means to revive him, would seem to be ruled out by the detail, reported by John, that by the time Jesus arrived on the scene the body of Lazarus had already begun to decay and was giving off a foul odor. Of course, John may have invented the entire story of Lazarus’s resurrection, including the detail of the decaying body, simply as a means of adding luster to Jesus’s reputation as the Son of God who was capable of performing miracles. 

But Lazarus, raised from the dead or not, refuses to leave the stage. We are told that he became one of Jesus’s biggest supporters and actively attempted to convert others to the new faith of the Nazarene: “. . . for on account of him, many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in him.” (John XII, 10-11). Faced with defections from their flock, “. . . the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus . . .”  It is possible that the historical Lazarus was a staunch follower of the Nazarene who converted others to his new faith and as a result he did earn the hatred of the local priesthood. John may have later invented the whole resurrection tale as a means of also adding luster to Lazarus, one of Jesus’s main early supporters—assuming of course we do not buy the miraculous version of the story. 

In any case, according to tradition his two sisters Mary and Martha, fearing for the life of their brother at the hands of the local pharisees, spirited him away from Bethany. Reaching the coastline, they placed Lazarus in a small boat and put him out to sea. His tiny craft eventually came to shore on Cyprus Island, here at Kition (modern day  Larnaca). Assuming that he began his sea voyage somewhere along the coast west of Jerusalem he would have had to cross about 210 miles of open sea to reach Kition. 

Lazarus’s escape from Judea was been dated to 33 a.d., or around the time St. Stephen, The First Christian Martyr, had been stoned to death by pharisees. According to Acts XI, 19, the Christians of Judea who had “been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen, traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch.” According to tradition, Lazarus was thirty years old when he fled Bethany. After his escape to Cyprus he lived another thirty-three years, making him sixty years old when he died in 63 .a.d. 

Lazarus was a well-known figure in the Christian community of Kition by the time the apostles Paul, he of Road to Damascus fame, and Barnabas, a Jew who had been born on Cyprus Island, now returning a converted Christian, arrived in Cyprus in 45 a.d. They soon appointed him as the first bishop of Cyprus. He had an uphill battle in promoting the teachings of the Nazarene, facing opposition from both the pagan elements who continued to worship Greek deities, first and foremost Aphrodite, and the large and well entrenched Jewish community, for whom Jesus was an impostor and false prophet, or worse.

Legends about miracles which Lazarus performed while living at Kition abound. One concerns a huge and highly productive vineyard located on outskirts of what was then Kition. Wandering through the vineyard one day, Lazarus asked a woman for some grapes to quench his thirst. She refused, saying that there were no grapes available. When Lazarus pointed to a basket full of grapes, she replied that the basket contained only salt. Outraged by the woman’s duplicity, he miraculously turned the entire vineyard into a huge salt lake. This lake became one of area’s most famous features, and indeed during the middle ages the current-day city of Larnaca was called Saline, a reference to the saline water in the nearby lake. Now the lake, located near the airport, is one of the first sites visitors see when they arrive by plane. Regardless of whether or not it was miraculously created, an aura of sanctity still emanates around the lake. The mosque of Hala Sultan, regarded by some as Islam’s fourth holiest place, after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem, is to this day found on its shores (I’ll get to this story later).

There’s another legend, one not recorded in New Testament, that Mary the mother of Jesus visited Lazarus while he was here in Kition. According to this tale, Lazarus, dearly missing Mary, whom he apparently had met earlier, sent a ship to Judea to bring her to Cyprus. She set out on the sea voyage accompanied by the disciple John and other early Christians. Their ship was blown off course and they ended up in the Aegean Sea. They made landfall near Mt. Athos, in what is now Greece, and here Mary managed to make many new converts. They were the foundation of the devout religious community that continues to live at Mt. Athos to this day. Eventually she and her party did reach Cyprus and she presented Lazarus with a bishop’s robe she herself had woven. A variant of this story suggests Mary visited Cyprus before proceeding on to Mt. Athos. In either case, this yarn may well be apocryphal. Mary is credited with visiting innumerable places all around the Mediterranean, including France. It is hard to believe she had the time and means for so much travel. Of course there is also no firm evidence that she did not visit Cyprus. 

During his years in Kition Lazarus became famous for his lachrymosity. Supposedly his melancholia was a result of witnessing the fate of the unredeemed souls he had seen in Hades during the four days when he had been dead. During the thirty years he lived on Cyprus he was seen to smile only once. This was when he saw a thief steal a clay pot. “The clay steals the clay,” he observed, with a smile on his face. Obviously he had a highly refined sense of humor.

After his death—for the second time if we chose to believe the Gospel of John—Lazarus was buried here in Kition (now Larnaca). His sepulcher may have been part of a larger cemetery. Around the mid-sixth century a church was built over his tomb. This first church, built in the shape of a three-aisled basilica, was probably destroyed during the Arab incursions that started in 649. At some point in time a smaller church was built over the site of the sepulcher. In the 890s Byzantine Emperor Leo VI the Wise heard rumors about the tomb and sent agents to Cyprus to investigate. They soon discovered a marble sarcophagus beneath the church inscribed with the words: “Lazarus, the Four Day Dead and Friend of Christ.” Leo was apprized of the discovery, and he ordered that the sarcophagus and the remains of Lazarus be brought to Constantinople. In return, he provided money and craftsmen to build a new church—the third—on the site. This was the foundation of the church which exists on the site today.

The sarcophagus and most of the remains and relics of Lazarus were taken to Constantinople and in a grand procession were brought to the great church of Hagia Sofia, which of course exists to this day, although as a museum. Leo then had a new church built in honor of Lazarus in Constantinople to house his remains, including his skull. Relics associated with his sisters Mary and Martha brought from Ephesus, in what is now Turkey, were also placed in the new church. (I have not been able to locate this church; either no longer exists, or has been converted into a mosque).

When Crusaders led by Venetian opportunists attacked their fellow Christians and sacked Constantinople in 1204 they carted off the remains of Lazarus along with so much else, and the relics finally ended up on Marseilles, France. They eventually disappeared and their current whereabouts are unknown. Apparently, however, not all of Lazarus’s remains were removed to Constantinople back in the 890s. Tradition maintains that locals held back some the relics associated with the famous saint of their town. A new marble sarcophagus was crafted to contain these remnants and placed in the crypt beneath the new Greek Orthodox church which had been built by order of Leo VI. During a renovation of the church in November of 1972 these relics were discovered. The sarcophagus can now be seen in the crypt beneath the church.

Not much was reported about the church built by Leo the VI for the next century or two. During Frankish rule (1192–1428), when the Catholic Church became dominant on the island, it may have become part of a Catholic monastery. It was during this time that the southern portico was added to the church, The pillars, crossed vaults, and gargoyles are all of Gothic design, demonstrating Frankish influence. A pair of stone lions in relief, now barely discernible, above the southern entrance to the church also reportedly date from the Frankish era, as does the crossed coat of arms of the Kingdom of Jerusalem found above the northern entrance. The Kingdom of Jerusalem had of course been founded by Occidental crusaders in 1099. After the legendary Saladin defeated of the kingdom’s army at the Battle of Hattin on July 4, 1187, the leader of the Frankish noble house of Lusignan, Guy, decamped from the mainland and set up a new kingdom here on Cyprus. 
 The southern portico added during Frankish times
Interior of the portical with classic Gothic arches
Another view of the portico
Round pillars with cross above from the Frankish era
 Two stone lions in relief above the southern entrance to the church. They are now barely discernible.
Coat of Arms of the Kingdom of Jerusalem above the northern entrance
Around the end of Lusignan rule, from the 1460s to the 1480s, the church appears to have been abandoned.  There is even a report that at point it was used a pig sty. The church was apparently reopened in the 1480s, but travelers in the region continued to report on its derelict condition. After the Ottoman invasion of Cyprus in 1570 the building was turned into a mosque. In 1589 the Ottoman authorities sold it back to the Orthodox Greeks for 3,000 silver Turkish coins. Local Catholics were allowed to perform services in the Church two days a year, reportedly in return for helping in the renovation of the building. This arrangement remained in effect until 1784, when apparently the Orthodox Greeks took complete control. Thus the church has remained active down to the present day. 

Every time I visited the St. Lazarus’s Church a near steady stream of out-of-town visitors were passing through. Maybe half of them were speaking Russian. Many were simply tourists visiting one of Larnaca’s most famous sights, but a good percentage were pilgrims, dutifully lighting candles and praying before the many icons in the church. Most visitors take the low-ceiling staircase down into the crypt to see the coffin of St. Lazarus. The faithful pray and meditate here. Thus St. Lazarus continues to fulfill its centuries-old role as a pilgrimage site.
Icon in the stairwell leading to the crypt beneath the church. The icon painter appears to have conflated two separate incidences here: Mary and Martha, with Mary washing Jesus’s feet, and Lazarus in his tomb. 
Marble coffin in the crypt beneath the church. I have not been able to determine if this is the one that held the relics of Lazarus that remained in Larnaca.
Of course there have been Doubting Thomases along the way. The Roman nobleman Pietro Della Valle, who visited Larnaca in the early seventeenth century, was so bold as to suggest that even if Lazarus did exist he did not come to Cyprus. He said told by the local clergy that Lazarus’s presence on the island “is proved by the miracles which the Saint works in his church daily.” I am not aware of any miracles occurring here recently. 
 Stone plaque on the side of the church
Detail of the stone plaque. Who could the woman be? Anyone have any ideas?
The Church of Saint Lazarus

3 comments:

  1. Thank you for a beautiful story. Though not as holy as Lazarus, I do have two sisters and lots and lots of relics. Enough even for Frankish Catholics and Greek Orthodox alike. The church is beautiful. I especially like the coffee tradition at Stoa. Not everyone would have perceived the nuances of custom.

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  2. There may be many reasons for a body to give off odor after 4 days. Just saying...

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  3. I would say there are only two: you forgot to use deodorant, or you are dead.

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