Call me stubborn. Call me contrary. But I refuse to believe that there is anywhere in the world without a site or two of Jewish interest. The belief is based on observation: Jews travel and trade. They have always traveled and traded. There are Jewish traces from Tahiti to Timbuktu. Therefore, it is likely that wherever I go, there are traces of Jews who have been there before.
When I arrived on the north-eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus recently, with its miles of coastline and harbors, fertile agricultural land, copper mines, sunny climate, olive trees, wine-making and history of occupation by Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians, Crusaders, French, Venetians, Turks, British and everyone else who could get a foothold in the strategically-located land, I figured that Israelites had certainly come there to settle and to do business, but no one could tell me where there were any sites to attest to this.
In the town of Paphos, known for its stately Greek tombs from the period of Alexander the Great and its spectacular Roman mosaics, my guide drove by a large, spreading terebinth tree which had dozens of handkerchiefs hanging from its branches. "People leave personal items here as prayers for healing," the guide said. "There is an old shrine underneath the tree."
I got out of the van and climbed down a steep flight of stone steps behind the tree. There was a series of stone rooms with burning candles and icons left as offerings on stone altars. Another staircase from the rooms led down to a large pool of underground water. It was so dark that I almost fell in. I stood there for a long time.
That night, I found a guidebook and read about the shrine, called Ayia Solomoni. One sentence reported that the rooms were catacombs where, in antiquity, a Jewish woman, who may have converted to Christianity, hid out with her children. In a cruel act of persecution, the Romans walled up the catacombs so that she and her children were buried alive. She became a martyr and the site became a sacred place of pilgrimage, and then a church. Today, only the stone chambers remain.
Aha! It was a hint of a Jewish presence. I was convinced there was more, much more.
A few days later, with another guide, I drove past a sign that pointed to the ghost town of Famagusta (abandoned by Greek Cypriots after their country was invaded by Turkey in 1974). Famagusta. The name jogged a memory of the film Exodus, which I had seen as a child. I asked my guide if she knew of any Jewish connection.
"Yes," she said. "From 1941 to l946, Jews were trying desperately to emigrate to what is now Israel. The British blocked their ships from landing in Haifa harbor, and many Jews were shipped and held here--because it's so close to Israel--and they were interned here in camps. The Brits claimed that they lived here in good conditions and were well cared for, but Jews I met told a different story."
"Tell me, tell me," I begged, as we drove along a very modern freeway.
Zeev and Shainel Raskin, co-directors of Chabad in Cyprus
"Where we are driving now, outside the village of Pyla, there used to be Jewish refugee camps. When they were building the freeway some years ago, elderly Jews came from Israel to find traces of their lives in those camps. I was fortunate to be their guide, and I was crying as I walked through the fields with them. They were looking for spoons, any objects that were left behind. They were crying, I was crying, we were all crying. They told me they lived in terribly crowded conditions with metal barricades. That sixty to seventy thousand people had passed through these camps. They wanted to visit this place from their past before the freeway eliminated it forever."
I was now hot on the Jewish history trail. Someone told me that there was a rabbi who had settled in Larnaca a few years ago, and, with my guide, we went to his white stucco house. It had a welcome mat in Hebrew, a huge mezuzah, and a sign over the door indicating it was a Chabad center. I rang the bell. The door swung open and there stood Rabbi Arie Zeev Raskin, a robust, vigorous, extremely tall Israeli who ushered us inside, offered us food and drink, and told us there are 130 Jewish families in Cyprus today, most of them recent émigrés from England, Russia and Israel. Zeev is such a powerful, dynamic force that it didn't surprise us that he often hosted up to 40 people for Friday night service and supper in his house.
"What do you know about the Jewish history in Cyprus?" I asked him.
"Not much," he answered. "I know there was a synagogue and an old cemetery in Margo, which is now in occupied Turkish territory, about 10 kilometers from Nicosia. About a hundred years ago, they tried to make a Jewish agricultural settlement there. But it didn't work because of the heat, the lack of water, and malaria."
Zeev thought for a moment. "There is one place I can take you," he said. "It's about ten minutes from here. A small cemetery with some Jewish headstones. Let's go."
Raskin leaps the wall of the locked and abandoned Jewish cemetery, Larnaca, Cyprus
We drove to the southwest part of Larnaca and were faced with a high stone wall with a locked fence which sheltered the old tombstones. Zeev is Brobdingnagian, and he could easily see over the top where there were seven stones. I am Liliputian, and could see nothing. Without hesitating, Zeev leapt over the wall like a rabbinic Superman. He picked up fragments of tombstones and called out to me what they said. One of them had a date in Hebrew: toff, reysh, ayin, vov. Zeev calculated that it went back ninety years. About the same period as the cemetery in Margo.
That was all. He knew nothing else.
Suddenly, a light went on in our guide's eyes. "I just thought of something," she said. "About two months ago I went to a lecture by one of our top archeologists about the ancient site of Kition, which isn't far from here. He said that the Phoenicians came to Kition in the ninth century B.C.E, and found an old temple there. They rebuilt it and dedicated it to their goddess Astarte. From the ruins, we learn about the architecture of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, because it was built on the same model. Do you want to go there?"
I hopped into the van with Zeev and soon we were standing at the Kition archeological site. Among other ruins, from other periods, was the outline of a stone temple with an area for the Holy of Holies and the bases of two columns in the main room. "Like the Temple of Solomon," our guide said, and an explanatory plaque reinforced what she was saying. The Phoenicians had left behind the architectural outline of a temple that was contemporaneous to the Temple of Solomon. Zeev stared. I stared.
"Where are the entrances?" Zeev asked the guide. "The Temple of Solomon had more than one entrance." We scrutinized the ruin, trying to discern where the entrances may have been.
"Oh, one other thing," said Zeev. "I have this book to show you. I haven't read it, because I can't read English very well. It's about the history of Jews in Cyprus."
Excited, I borrowed the book from Zeev when we dropped him off at his house. Written two years ago by a very knowledgeable Cypriot historian and archeologist named Stavros Panteli, it contained everything I had been searching for. My feelings had been right. Of course there was a long-standing Jewish presence in Cyprus. "Cyprus has had a role in Jewish history unparalleled by any country other than Israel itself," the introduction read. I read--no-- I devoured the book.
Raskin points out the hebrew inscription on a fragment of a tombstone
The first Hebrew settlements in Cyprus may have been as early as the Assyrian conquest of Israel, but they most certainly were established after the Babylonian conquest of Judea. By the 2nd century BCE, Jews flourished as craftsmen, garment-makers, financiers and merchants. There is literary evidence as well as Hasmonean coins that have been found on the island.
A very cosmopolitan city, Salamis, housed a great number of Jews, especially following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E.
In the first and second centuries, there were Jewish rebellions in the Diaspora throughout the Roman-dominated world. There was also friction between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors and restrictions placed upon the Jews. In a violent uprising, Jews clashed with the Gentiles of Cyprus. A Roman edict was passed that no Jew, upon pain of death, should ever set foot again on the island. But this seemed not to have deterred some Jews from staying, and others from arriving there during the succeeding centuries.
Over the years, Cypriot Jews thrived as money-lenders, and, as a result, some of neighbors turned against them. A statute passed in the l3th century forbade usury, forced Jews to wear a distinguishing badge, and levied an annual poll tax. In the mid-sixteenth century, Pope Julius III ordered the burning of the Talmud, and authorities in Famagusta rounded up fifty books which were incinerated in the town square. In those times, handwritten manuscripts were extremely rare and precious and this was considered a terrible tragedy.
Under the Lusignan (French) occupation, Cyprus had the largest Jewish settlement of the islands off mainland Greece. They were guaranteed equal status to non-Jews, and they greatly boosted the island's economy. Under the Venetians, travelers spoke of a Jewish quarter or ghetto in Famagusta, and there were periods of well-being alternating with periods of repression and restrictions. In the l5th and l6th centuries, Jews thrived under Ottoman rule. But in 1568, an extremely powerful and rich Jew named Jospeh Nasi was accused of fomenting a rebellion, and all Jews were officially ordered off the island--but this apparently didn't transpire. Jews stayed, and more arrived, and they fared well, then poorly, sometimes at peace and sometimes at odd with their neighbors.
From the mid eighteen hundreds to the founding of Israel, Cyprus was viewed by such notables as Benjamin Disraeli (Britain's first Jewish Premiere) to Theodor Herzl as a possible colony for Diaspora Jews because of its proximity to Palestine. It was repeatedly considered as a potential homeland by early Zionists until their dream of a Jewish state in Palestine was realized.
When I finished reading the book, it was the middle of the night. I turned off my reading light and drifted off to sleep, content in the knowledge that there had been a significant Jewish presence on Cyprus for perhaps three thousand years even though, at the present time, there were few sites and little remaining to show for it.
I am happy to report that since my visit the Chabad community has been very active. A Jewish Community Center has been established, with the first and only synagogue in Cyprus. There is also a mikvah, a Jewish school and a tourist center. There are services on Friday evening and on Saturday morning. Kosher food and catering are available. There is a weekly Torah class on Wednesday evenings. For complete information see: www.jewishcyprus.com