I’ve never been very good about ‘no go areas’ it must be something to do with my rebellious nature. Put a sign up saying ‘private: no entry’ and I just wonder what’s in there and what they are trying to hide. ‘Off limits’ areas at school were just the same – we all deliberately played in the ‘out of bounds’ basement of the old building and found a way into the ‘forbidden’ gardens of the White Lodge on the edge of the school grounds. I also contemplated scaling the walls down into the gardens of the Martello tower in the school grounds – but that never happened. I still think it would have made a brilliant party venue though. So given the rule breaker that I am today’s trip up the mountain to a ‘men only’ monastery at the top was looking tricky.
The Stavrovouni Monastery is one of the oldest in Cyprus, founded in 327, and was pointed out to us on our arrival in the country by a talkative Cypriot bus driver, who delighted in mentioning that women were not allowed in. The imposing building can be seen from miles around as it sits on the top of a lone peak which rises out of the plains towards Larnaca. It was an English bank holiday so what better idea than a trip up to the Monastery…. Did I want to go with the guys? Well, apparently there was a great view at the top and I could go in the church by the gate, so I decided to join the party.
As the car chugged its way up the winding road towards the Monastery we reflected on why women were not allowed.
“Obviously they lead the monks astray and are a distraction…and I don’t blame them!”
Hum…I was feeling uncomfortable about this and the thought that I would have to remain outside the gate while the others were welcomed in.
“I could get in if I wanted of course. I could go in disguise – I could dress as a man, they wouldn’t know.” But The Major wasn’t convinced…”that’s against the spirit of it….anyway, they’d sniff you out!” Well I wouldn’t wear perfume of course – but he might have been right because on the way back he told me the monks considered showers evil, so they all smelt very bad.
Suddenly we were at the top and the road was barred by a big brown solid metal gate – with a cross on it. That felt a bit contradictory – Jesus arms spread wide on the cross, with no-one excluded? There were buildings either side of the gate, one a kind of gatehouse beyond that I could see a little cobbled path which lead enticingly up towards the building perched on top of the mountain’s peak. It was slightly like a castle in pale stone with a look out area that almost looked like turrets on a tower, but was in fact a terrace overlooking the valleys below – but I didn’t see the monks doing much sunbathing up there. The rest of the building was a series of pitched roofs butted together with little windows, which I later discovered were the monk’s cells, looking blankly out into the distance.
Just in case I had any doubt about the no women policy, a large sign on the gatehouse wall stated women were not allowed and men must be fully clothed. This caused a bit of shuffling outside the car as shorts were swapped for trousers and there was a brief debate about whether short sleeved Tshirts would be classed as fully clothed – well at least they had the sex right! Ironically the Monastery was founded by a woman – St Helena – who brought a piece of the Holy Cross to Cyprus from Jerusalem and apparently part of this cross is now in the chapel inside. According to my sources you can’t see this very old piece of wood because it is covered in silver and ornate stuff….but nice to know it’s there. A friendly gesture would be to let anyone with the name Helen in once a year. I resolved to put it in the suggestion box, when I found it.
Once the men headed off through the gatehouse, I was left in the car park to reflect on what it means to be a woman…50 seconds later I was on my iphone, thinking how much I had in common with suffragettes and women priests, or at least would-be anglican women bishops. The car park did have its compensations, there were a few trees for shade, some toilets (yes, for women too actually!) and panoramic views across to the south coast of Cyprus and in the other directions towards to the Troodos mountains, which were shrouded in a grey-blue heat haze. Glancing at one or two other lone women left to wander the carpark like outcasts, including one particularly chunky lady on a quad bike, I decided solitude was the answer and made my way towards the little church. Inside it was a typical Orthodox scene, with the small space lined with icons and wall paintings in deep shades of blue, red and green and so much gold paint everywhere. There were a few wooden seats with very high arms. These are not designed for very tall people, but for people to lean against as standing is very much part of the Orthodox church tradition. I looked up at the images of Jesus, Mary and various bearded saints and thought how they all seemed to have the same sad brown eyes…had they been shut out of somewhere too perhaps? I wasn’t cross with the monks really, I admire them for giving their lives to prayer and God in this way, but I am in favour of equality, so if they don’t want female visitors, don’t have any, that way no-one gets upset.
It was very cool but airless in the church and I was quite alone – but I couldn’t get those rebellious thoughts out of my head. I looked at the gilt carved eagles and swooping angels and gold bunches of grapes. I had a sip of water and thought it might be nice to have something to eat. This was probably forbidden in the church…’all the more reason to do it’…said the little voice in my head. I fished about in my handbag and felt that familiar crinkle of a sweet wrapper. Out came a green chewy sweet. I gingerly turned my head to see if anyone was coming in, or worse still hiding in the alcove behind my chair. Coast clear, I tucked in and enjoyed the fruity flavours filling my mouth – so much more tasty because it was probably not allowed.
A few minutes later the men returned. They had been shown round by a young monk and heard stories of monks gone by. They told me the current Abbott (chief monk) joined Stavrovouni (which means mountain of the cross in greek) when he was 15 and is now 88 years old. He has spent his whole life in the building on the hill, longer than I’ve been alive, and only venturing down for food occasionally or to see family who could come twice a year to the gatehouse to meet him. Mind blowing as this all sounded, the nearest I would get to the inside was an illustrated booklet with the monastery’s history, which had been donated to the penniless Major (who forgot his wallet!). I’ll read that later and maybe repent of my sweet eating in church.