hidden in the sand

Have you ever found something special hidden in the sand? Maybe a precious shell or a piece of jewellery left behind? You may have been pretty chuffed, but not as much as the archaeologist who started digging in the sand a few kilometres from here and probably couldn’t believe it when he uncovered a whole city buried in the sand dunes!

I think you can have too much of a good thing and walking round ancient ruins might not be everyone’s cup of tea…but despite recent trips to a ruined castle and a ruined abbey with our latest guests, yesterday we decided we couldn’t put off a visit to the ruined city of Salamis any longer. Arriving in the afternoon the sun was still beating down and with the sea at our backs looking an inviting blue, it was on with the sun cream and hats, bottles of water at the ready and we were all set to go ‘time travelling’…

Wisely, the help of a local guide was enlisted for half an hour and she was, as one person said, “worth her weight in gold”, even if comments were made about quite how much that might add up to, since she was not a small person. Like every great storyteller she immediately began painting pictures from the past of life in 300AD under the Romans or Byzantines as they later became. Her tales of naked bathing and gym sessions and eaves-dropping by the slaves in shared toilets ‘with a view’ brought to life the crumbling walls, alcoves and pillars as we trailed around the site. We could almost hear the rich young men splashing in the shallow baths, heated by hot air and special heat-holding bricks from beneath. Although the stone was now rough and worn in places we could still see the slabs and traces of the white marble that would have covered most surfaces. As I glanced up at a wall and columns towering above us and envisaged them coated in shimmering marble, I shivered to think how incredible the city would have looked in the sunlight. In many areas the beautifully coloured mosaics were still visible and intact and I have to confess we walked across them, as if they were tiles in our own hall. There were so many gems, like the remains of a fresco in an archway above our heads, the colours still strong with powder blue, greens and deep reds. We could see pomegranates and leaves depicted in mosaics and in other places more mosaics and areas that were still tiled with the original colours of black, white, red, orange and blues. There were constant sighs of ‘incredible’ and ‘come and see this’, as we wandered in amongst a network of rooms and half crumbled buildings.
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photo painting
Surprisingly, I have never been so informed about the origins of English words and phrases as I was yesterday, because our guide was a fount of information. For example, the low level semi circular area in one building housed a communal toilet, which looked across the gymnasium and exercise area where naked male wrestling was the top show. We gradually realised it was a pretty clean one all in marble with fresh water running continuously through it, unlike the rough dusty sandstone blocks above the drain that were all that was left today. Apparently people would sit here and rather than read a newspaper or a book privately, as you do, they would chat to each other and watch the wrestling! I didn’t spot any old stone toilet roll holders that’s because they used sponges on sticks instead…not a pleasant thought. Meanwhile, the slaves left outside the wall behind these toilets would listen in to private conversations in order to gain information and use this to bribe people later. It was this practice that led to the phrase: ‘the walls have ears’. So, phone hacking and listening in is nothing new, it was just a little less techie in those days, but just as dangerous. Further on in the site we saw the partly excavated amphitheatre which we expected to be semi-circular. No, explained the guide the word amphitheatre means two halves of a circle coming together, to either form a circle or an elongated circle. The semi-circular buildings with seats and chairs are technically called ‘theatres’…and she noted with a smile that it was amazing how many universities use the wrong word for their buildings, calling them amphitheatres when they are actually theatres.

We all became a bit blasé about the mosaics… saying, “I’ve found some more here!” behind another little low wall in a basilica, while everyone just nodded. The site was quite extensive and I believe the largest on the island. It included several acres spreading down the coastline with temples, forums, roads, baths, villas, a stadium, various basilicas or churches, a theatre and of course a gym. At one basilica we were searching for a special tomb, as our guide had given up on us by then, and I felt sure I had found a stone shaped hole the right size for a body – not everyone was convinced, as there were quite a lot of stones and holes for that matter! The afternoon included plenty of leaping between low walls and then nearly falling off them when a pair of giant lizards, or ‘Leonards’ as we call them, startled me. The guide had told us to be careful of snakes and we all held our breath slightly when one inquisitive member of the party decided to try and squeeze under a low roof at the bottom of some steps leading into a very dark cellar which would have made a good setting for an Indiana Jones sequel. “Be careful,” said the guide, “You may find someone else in there….it’s a good place for snakes.” After that I kept hissing quietly round corners and stamping my trainers heavily in order to warn any basking snakes I was armed and dangerous.

It was quite amazing to think that this was the place where St Paul landed on his very first missionary trip and that he had walked on these same mosaics and probably lent against a few of these actual pillars. In the forum there was a very lonely column with some fine leaf carvings that towered against the skyline and it seemed a little sad that this was all that was left from this immense building, part of a once bustling, cosmopolitan city. Although Salamis is just a ruin now, partly destroyed by two earthquakes, the last one did so much damage it was abandoned. But some of the inhabitants went to a nearby fishing village where they re-built their homes, palaces and churches with much of the rubble and stone from the broken buildings. The name they gave the city, now known as Famagusta, was ‘Ammochostos’, which in Greek means ‘hidden in the sand’. A fitting tribute to Salamis – the city they had left behind.

We eventually decided we were ‘ruined-out’ but I think I’ll be going back, if only to keep those snakes and lizards on their toes. But next time you start digging in the sand dunes remember that you never know what lies beneath…you may find another Salamis.

Cypriot harvest

I feel like I want to reach out and give Cyprus a great big hug today. Driving past ploughed fields of red soil, gazing across at parched olive groves and stony hills scattered with limestone rocks and scrubby green bushes, I’m beginning to feel connected to this barren part of the island.
There are friends here now – in the villages we pass – people we share a joke with or who subtly hand me baskets of fruit grown in their gardens and nearby orchards. We’ve been enjoying the delights of local fruits for the past week which has included succulent and sweet smelling guavas. Every time I open the fridge the scent is a reminder they need eating.
Last Sunday we came back laden from the Muktar’s house (like a village mayor), where we had joined in the special event to mark the 10th anniversary of his father-in-law’s death. His mother-in-law is a beautiful Cypriot lady. By beautiful I mean she is someone who spreads welcome, hospitality and care and it is this inner beauty that shines out. Small, with dark hair, olive skin and a smile that creases across her face right up to her twinkling brown eyes, she is often dressed in black and whenever I see her she is always bustling off to fetch food or drink. Even on this sad day remembering her husband’s death she had time for a joke, asking if I would be jealous if she sat by the Major! We were late arriving, but treated like honoured guests as dish upon dish was bought to the table from a pastry roll filled with olives to Cyprus delight (a kind of gelatine sausage made from grapes) and even a refreshing but strange dish of pomegranates and bugler wheat. The hospitality was amazing and we listened as they explained some of the Orthodox church traditions and how the different festivals and occasions were celebrated. The Muktar told us ‘name days’ are celebrated more than birthdays…people don’t know when their birthdays are, it doesn’t matter, but they all have a ‘name day’ when they celebrate the saint of their particular name. This could be a slight problem if you aren’t named after a saint! Anyone heard of Saint Rachel?
We talked about the war and the village and the struggles for local people and we laughed as different ones around the table were teased. Then we talked about Jerusalem, which his mother-in-law had visited over a number of Easter trips. There was talk of miracles, visions and strange happenings, and we listened enraptured by her obvious faith and assurance that God is very much at work, even in the midst of strife and conflict in that sacred city.
We left laden with various dishes wrapped in kitchen roll, a massive bag of grapes from her sister’s garden and as if we couldn’t carry anymore, she picked pomegranates from a tree in the front garden and these we’re bundled into our already full arms. It wasn’t just the food I was full from; it was how they had filled up our hearts, welcomed us into their home and made us feel part of something. I don’t belong here, but gradually I am feeling more connected with both the land and the people… and I’m looking forward to breaking open those pomegranates, since a knowledgeable friend told me the best way to deal with them.

in search of treasure

I love treasure hunts and this past week I’ve been introduced to an alternative sort of pursuit. In fact I’m not sure it is really treasure hunting at all, but it did involve clues, searching and finding things or sometimes not finding things.
We have prided ourselves in knowing quite a few of the major ‘must see’ visitor spots round and about and also some of the hidden gems, but suddenly last Saturday afternoon we found ourselves guided to places we had never been to before by my visiting sister-in-law and an iPhone app. At first this was a case of making unplanned detours on our journey to hunt out special locations which led us to an area called ‘ground zero’. First stop we found ourselves in a children’s park by an ancient medieval church. While some were intent on a hunt for a hidden canister, I wandered over to the pretty stone building and drew back the heavy bolt on the ancient wooden doors and stepped inside. It was lit by a soft glow of candlelight from small tea lights on a rough table with bowls of charcoal and bottles of incense and oil piled around in a homely state of untidiness. In front of the pale stone walls there were easels and tables scattered around with gilt framed icons, while some paintings were fixed on the walls. Further in I noticed ancient crumbling frescoes in blues, greens and reds still visible on the walls. In a darker area of the church, not penetrated by the candlelight, a pair of frescoes were just visible through the gloom. We all spent time peering at the worn paintings and images, captivated by this little ‘jewel’ on our doorstep. It was a fascinating little church and it is only about a mile or so from our house, but we probably wouldn’t have gone there without the ‘treasure hunt’.

The next day we ventured into our favourite walled city for a ‘frappe’ and a wander and here too were new discoveries. Following the arrows on the iPhone we climbed the mountain of steps without a hand rail to the top of the ancient Venetian-built walls. Here they were as wide as two cars parked end to end, and at the far corner there were views across the city and out to sea. It was beautiful and there also happened to be another hidden cache somewhere up there amongst the gaps in the walls.
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Other searches involved looking underneath medieval canons and picnic tables, peering below low hanging branches and just generally scanning locations for clever hiding places. It’s probably obvious to some of you that I’ve been learning about ‘Geocaching’…it’s been fun and frustrating at the same time. I’ve enjoyed the way it’s taken us off the beaten track to a sunken church on the edge of a reservoir and remote paths to surprising viewpoints. But I’m slightly disappointed by the ‘treasure’ at the end of the hunt. At the very least I was hoping for a message in the hidden cache pots.

We found a message in a bottle once. We were on an island at the time and it was very exciting when we first spotted it bobbing near the shore. We waded out into the water to rescue it very intrigued about what might be inside and what secrets it would reveal…when we fished it out we saw there was a message inside. I thought it must be from a shipwrecked sailor and was all set to dial 999, but in fact it was a bit dull….so dull I can’t remember what it said, except that no one was in danger and I think someone had just thrown it in the sea to see if anyone would pick it up. We scrawled our own message and threw it back in the water further round the coast and tried to make the message slightly more dynamic.

Geocaching is a bit like this unsatisfactory experience…there are no mysterious messages to solve once you find the little box or container, you simply sign the paper inside and move on. The biggest excitement is finding a ‘travel bug’ which is a trinket that can travel round from cache to cache, so you don’t even get to keep it! Rather like a lot of things in life – the hunt was more exciting than the end result. Now if geocaches contained clues or maps to a small pot of gold or hidden jewels I could get into it… and then it really would be treasure hunting.

Where do loofahs come from?

If you thought sails were just for boats, think again. Here follows a tale of giant sails and cucumbers,,,
I knew there was trouble ahead when I came into the lounge and saw a very large bundle of cream material piled on the table.There was also a gathering of suspicious poles, bolts and what looked a bit like giant safety pins being placed strategically at the bottom of the stairs. Best plan of action was to allow the activity to continue and try to keep a low profile. I tried to ignore the banging and drilling, but eventually I was summoned to the roof terrace where help was required. Up on the top of the house it was all hands on deck where a huge sail was billowing – fixed now at two points to the roof I found myself holding a corner of the sail while other visiting helpers struggled to attach another corner to a pole with considerable heaving, stretching, wobbling on ladders and knots. Knots were the order of the day and there were bowlines in abundance and plenty of rope to secure and stretch the sail. At one point I found myself in danger of being lifted up with the wind as it gusted under our enormous sail shade, a few more mph and I could see myself becoming a human kite and floating off into the blue sky, while the ‘sail-makers’ were preoccupied with securing their knots. Anyway, after trips to buy paint and special expanding screws in strange dusty DIY stores and visits to neighbours to borrow drills that could tackle concrete, we eventually sank down under the wings of our giant sail shade – Mojitos in hand. We felt a bit like desert nomads, sipping our minted brews…and we all admitted that we liked the new ‘tent’ very much. Thank goodness for strings and things and sailing knots.

Later that night we were enjoying a meal at a favourite shack (not being rude that’s what it’s called) and my sister noticed what she thought might be giant cucumbers hanging from vines above our heads. They were half the length of my arm and I’d never seen cucumbers that size. Questions were asked about these strange marrow-like cucumbers.
No, they weren’t cucumbers….and all would be revealed said the owner, after we’d finished eating. But he gave us a clue: “you can’t eat them and you probably think they come from the sea.”
There was much pondering, of course I had a eureka moment and saw through their disguise…I’d seen a bunch of them on sale another day by the side of the road. Not much use to us as we don’t have a bath – these were ‘young loofahs’. The restaurant owner had one he’d prepared earlier in good Blue Peter fashion and showed us how, once dried, the skin could be peeled away to reveal the fibrous body of a loofah. Who would think when you spot them alongside the sea sponges and pumice stones on the shelves at Boots, that they are really ‘air pumpkins’ that have been dried out in the Mediterranean sun? Fancy keeping marrows or courgettes in your bathroom…
As for our sail… it’s still intact tonight, but come the winter tornadoes we may need to do some serious reefing or de-rigging to stop our little house being blown out to sea. I should have known living with a sailor would be unpredictable, but at least he has his sail and knots on the roof…all we need now is a flagpole!