July 7, 2012

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The Chapel of Saint Cathrine's Prison at Salamis in Cyprus

"Near Famagusta is another city called Salamis, set on the seashore, where there was once a noble and wealthy city. It is there that St. Catherine was born and her tomb remains still."
~ German priest Ludolf von Suchen of Westphalia
In the 12th century, the story of the beloved St. Catherine was brought to Europe by the Crusaders returning from their battles in the East. She was from a noble blood line of Roman emperors and her father was Constantine ( Constas), King of Salamis. In 290 A.D. Constantine was appointed the new ruler of Egypt. When Constantine left to rule Egypt, he decided to leave his brother in charge of the Salamis kingdom. Unexpectedly, Constantine died in Alexandria, Egypt. During this time, Catherine converted to Christianity and her conversion sent her uncle, the interim king, into a rage. He had Catherine imprisoned in Salamis, later in Paphos, and finally Alexandria, Egypt. She was brought before the new Alexandrian emperor, Emperor Maxentius, who had replaced her deceased father. Emperor Maxentius was persecuting Christians. Catherine reprimanded him for this cruelty and asked him to stop. Insulted and astounded at Catherine’s boldness, the Emperor held Catherine prisoner at his palace. He called his scholars in to try to trick her into committing heresy against the Roman religion so she could be put to death. However, she converted many of the Emperor’s scholars to Christianity with her eloquence and knowledge of religion and science. The Emperor became so outraged he had his scholars put to death and Catherine was tortured and thrown into the palace’s dungeon. The Empress, Maxentius’ wife, had heard of this extraordinary young woman. The Empress and the Emperor’s military general secretly snuck into the prison to meet and talk with Catherine. They listened to Catherine and were converted and baptized into Christianity. The Emperor discovered their secret encounter and had them, the Empress and his general, put to death. The Emperor ordered Catherine to be broken on the torturer's wheel, yet when she touched it, it was miraculous destroyed. Distraught and infuriated, Emperor Maxentius ordered Catherine to be beheaded. After her death, her body was carried to Mount Sinai by angels and the place where Catherine’s body was found is also believed to be the site of the burning bush seen by Moses. One of the royal tombs in Salamis is known as St. Catherine’s Prison. In spite of the many catastrophic earthquakes that destroyed Salamis, St. Catherine’s Prison has remained intact throughout the ages.

From the 4th century, the Byzantines built a chapel on the top of the original 7th century B.C. tomb in Salamis, and dedicated it to Saint Catherine. The building was used as a Greek Orthodox chapel, a use which continued up until 1974. With the Turkish invasion in Cyprus, the area has become under Turkish control and like almost all Greek Orthodox places of worship in occupied north Cyprus, the chapel of Saint Cathrine's prison has been consecrated. The only reason it survives to this date is because it's located in Salamis and it has archaeological value as a prehistoric tomb. Inside, one could until recently see items of church furniture dotted around the t-shaped interior of the vaulted hall.

Today, the chapel of Saint Catherine's prison has been forgotten by all Cypriots, as well as the Church of Cyprus and the Cyprus Government. No mention is made, nor is anything written in Greek about this important archaeological and religious monument of Cyprus. If by chance someone asks a Cypriot in the street if there is such a monument Cyprus, he will be surprised and will reply that certainly such thing does not exist.

But let us see what relationship the Cypriots had with the chapel of Saint Catherine's prison before 1974, as we will read here:

The third megalithic building was built in response to a water spring of the once city of Salamis, near the homonymous town mentioned above, near a hill that contained a prehistoric grave. There , the British in 1896 discovered a stone room carved in the rock, with a large clay arch of huge volumes over the central room with a stone roof for cover. This building is from the Cypriot-Minoan era, namely the second half of 2000 BC. and is dedicated to Saint Catherine and is worshiped the same way as the Virgin Mary Faneromeni in Larnaca. The area between the hill and the building of the water spring is surrounded by a sacred grove with spinous shrubs (Zyzyphus Spina Christi L.), which currently is maintained intact with the same respect, just as 3.000 years ago. None, neither Christian nor Muslim dares to cut down any tree, or even to break a twig. And all this because they fear that the anger of Saint Catherine will strike them and be punished with blindness as sinners. When the trees grew old and died, new trees grew in their place. Only once a year at Easter, the inhabitants of the neighboring village of Saint Sergius, with the help of priests gathered the fallen trees and broken branches and burned them in the fire of Easter (lampratzia).

Magda Ohnefalsch-Richter
Greek Customs and traditions in Cyprus 1913
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