“They Sailed Away to Cyprus”
IN THIS way the book of Acts begins its account of the experiences of the Christian missionaries Paul, Barnabas, and John Mark when they visited Cyprus about 47 C.E. (Acts 13:4) Then, as today, Cyprus enjoyed a highly strategic position in the eastern Mediterranean.
The Romans coveted the island, and it came under their rule in 58 B.C.E. Before that, Cyprus had an eventful history. It was occupied by the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Assyrians, the Persians, and the Egyptians. The Crusaders, the Franks, and the Venetians came in the Middle Ages, followed by the Ottomans. In 1914 the British annexed the island and ruled until its independence in 1960.
Tourism is a main source of income now, but in Paul’s day Cyprus was rich in natural resources, which the Romans exploited to fill the coffers of Rome. Copper was discovered early in the island’s history, and it is estimated that by the end of the Roman period, 250,000 tons of copper had been extracted. The industry, however, consumed much of the dense forest for smelting purposes. Many of the island’s forests had disappeared by the time Paul arrived.
Cyprus Under the Romans
According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, Cyprus was given to Egypt by Julius Caesar and, after him, by Mark Antony. Under Augustus, however, it reverted to Rome and was governed—as Luke, the writer of Acts, very accurately notes—by a proconsul, who was directly responsible to Rome. Sergius Paulus was proconsul when Paul preached there.—Acts 13:7.
Pax Romana, the international peace enforced by Rome, encouraged the expansion of the mines and industries of Cyprus, bringing a boom in trade. Additional income was generated by the presence of the Roman legions and by the pilgrims who flocked to honor Aphrodite, the patron deity of the island. As a consequence, new roads, harbors, and lavish public buildings were constructed. Greek was retained as the official language, and—along with the Roman emperor—Aphrodite, Apollo, and Zeus were widely worshiped. The people basked in prosperity and enjoyed a rich social and cultural life.
This was the environment that Paul encountered as he traversed Cyprus and taught people about the Christ. However, Christianity was introduced in Cyprus before Paul arrived there. The account of Acts tells us that after the death of the first Christian martyr, Stephen, some of the early Christians fled to Cyprus. (Acts 11:19) Barnabas, Paul’s companion, was a native of Cyprus, and being well-acquainted with the island, no doubt he was an excellent guide for Paul on this preaching tour.—Acts 4:36; 13:2.
Retracing Paul’s Steps
It is not easy to reconstruct Paul’s travels in Cyprus. However, archaeologists have a fairly clear idea about the excellent road system of the Roman period. Because of the geography of the island, even today’s modern highways generally have to follow the same routes that those early missionaries likely took.
Paul, Barnabas, and John Mark sailed from Seleucia to the port of Salamis. Why to Salamis, when the capital and main seaport was Paphos? For one thing, Salamis was situated on the east coast, only 120 miles [200 km] from Seleucia, on the mainland. Although Salamis under the Romans had been replaced by Paphos as the capital, Salamis remained the cultural, educational, and commercial center of the island. Salamis had a sizable Jewish community, and the missionaries began “publishing the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews.”—Acts 13:5.
Today, all that has survived of Salamis is ruins. Still, archaeological discoveries testify to the city’s former glory and wealth. The marketplace, the center of political and religious life, has the distinction of being probably the largest Roman agora ever excavated in the Mediterranean region. Its ruins, which date from the time of Augustus Caesar, have revealed intricately designed mosaic floors, gymnasiums, an impressive system of baths, a stadium and amphitheater, princely tombs, and a large theater with seating for 15,000! Nearby are the ruins of a majestic temple of Zeus.
But Zeus could not prevent the city from being ravaged by earthquakes. A great earthquake in 15 B.C.E. leveled most of Salamis, though it was subsequently rebuilt by Augustus. Destroyed again by an earthquake in 77 C.E., it was rebuilt once more. In the fourth century, Salamis was devastated by a series of earthquakes, and never again did it achieve its former glory. By the Middle Ages, its harbor had been silted up and abandoned.
How the people of Salamis responded to Paul’s preaching is not indicated. But Paul had to preach to other communities too. Departing from Salamis, the missionaries had a choice of three main routes: one to the north coast, traversing the Kyrenia mountain range; another westward across the plain of Mesaoria through the main body of the island; and a third following the southern coast.
Tradition has it that Paul followed the third route. It runs through rich farmland with distinctive red soil. Some 30 miles [50 km] southwest, the route approaches the city of Larnaca before swerving north toward the interior.
“Through the Whole Island”
The highway soon reached the ancient city of Ledra. Built on this site today is Nicosia, the modern-day capital. Any evidence of the ancient city-kingdom has been swallowed up. But within the 16th-century Venetian walls encircling the heart of Nicosia is a busy, narrow street bearing the name Ledra Street. Whether Paul journeyed to Ledra or not, we do not know. The Bible simply tells us that they went “through the whole island.” (Acts 13:6) The Wycliffe Historical Geography of Bible Lands says that “probably this means a relatively complete tour of the Jewish communities on Cyprus.”
Paul was definitely interested in reaching as many people as possible in Cyprus. Thus, he may have followed a southern route from Ledra through Amathus and Kourion—two great cosmopolitan cities with flourishing populations.
Kourion was perched high above the sea on cliffs that plunge almost vertically to the beaches below. This magnificent Greco-Roman city was struck by the same earthquake that destroyed Salamis in 77 C.E. There are ruins of a temple dedicated to Apollo dating from 100 C.E. The stadium could hold 6,000 spectators. The luxurious life-style of many in Kourion can be seen in the beautiful mosaics decorating the floors of even private villas.
On to Paphos
From Kourion the scenic route continues westward up through wine country, imperceptibly gaining altitude until, quite unexpectedly, the road makes a sharp dip to snake its way down the cliffs toward shingle beaches. According to Greek mythology, this is the very spot where the goddess Aphrodite appeared newborn out of the sea.
Aphrodite was the most popular of the Greek deities in Cyprus and was worshiped fervently until the second century C.E. The center of Aphrodite’s worship was in Paphos. Every spring a great festival was held there in her honor. Pilgrims from Asia Minor, Egypt, Greece, and as far away as Persia would come to Paphos for the festivities. When Cyprus was under the rule of the Ptolemies, the Cypriots became acquainted with the worship of the Pharaohs.
Paphos was the Roman capital of Cyprus and the seat of the proconsul, and it enjoyed the privilege of minting copper coins. It too was destroyed in the earthquake of 15 B.C.E., and as in the case of Salamis, Augustus provided the funds for the city to be rebuilt. Excavations have revealed the luxurious life-style of the wealthy in first-century Paphos—wide city streets, richly decorated private villas, music schools, gymnasiums, and an amphitheater.
This was the Paphos that Paul, Barnabas, and John Mark visited, and it was here that proconsul Sergius Paulus—“an intelligent man”—“earnestly sought to hear the word of God” in spite of the fierce opposition of the sorcerer Elymas. The proconsul “was astounded at the teaching of Jehovah.”—Acts 13:6-12.
After successfully completing their preaching activity in Cyprus, the missionaries continued their work in Asia Minor. That first missionary trip made by Paul was a milestone in the spread of true Christianity. The book St. Paul’s Journeys in the Greek Orient calls it “the real beginning of the Christian mission and of . . . Paul’s missionary career.” It adds: “Lying at the meeting-place of the sea routes leading to Syria, Asia Minor, and Greece, Cyprus seemed the inevitable first stage of a missionary venture.” But it was only an early stage. Twenty centuries later, Christian missionary work continues, and it can truly be said that the good news of Jehovah’s Kingdom has literally reached “the most distant part of the earth.”—Acts 1:8.
[Maps on page 20]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
[Picture on page 21]
Filled with holy spirit, Paul blinded the sorcerer Elymas while in Paphos