St Mamas Monastery in Güzelyurt

Güzelyurt, or Morphou as it was once known, is a charming market town situated in the north west of Cyprus.

Located close to the foothills of the Troodos mountains and awash with underground springs, the town sits on one of the island’s richest agricultural areas. Whilst it is off the beaten tourist track it is well known for its oranges, lemons and grapefruits that thrive in Güzelyurt’s fertile red soil.

Abundant with blossoming citrus groves and a name that translates to beautiful homeland in Turkish, this is also the lush setting for a fascinating piece of Cypriot folklore, the sarcophagus of St. Mamas.

The sarcophagus, an ornate marble coffin, is displayed at St Mamas Monastery in Güzelyurt, one of fourteen churches on the island dedicated to St Mamas and around whom many legends have arisen. According to the most popular legend St Mamas was a 12th century Christian hermit who lived in a cave and pleaded poverty in response to a demand for taxes under Roman occupation. Following his arrest by armed troops, and on his way into the capital to face punishment, he saved a lamb from a ferocious lion attack and then rode the wild lion the rest of the way to meet his own fate. This astounding bravery showed Mamas to be a holy man, which in turn earned him exemption from tax for the rest of his life. Not surprisingly St Mamas became the patron saint of tax avoiders.

Another legend tells instead of how St Mamas was placed in a coffin after his death and sent out to sea by Jesus Christ himself. After being washed up on the shores of Güzelyurt, a local peasant hauled the sarcophagus inland as far as he could drag it with the help of his sons and two oxen. In accordance with an apparition advising him what to do next, the obedient peasant proceeded to build a church around it.

Whilst the legends differ widely, the importance of any saint to Catholic liturgy often transcends historical truth, so despite the conflicting accounts surrounding St Mamas he is worshipped just the same. In fact, St Mamas Monastery in
Güzelyurt remains one of the most important places of worship for Greek Orthodox living in the north.

For any non-Orthodox visitors, you may be surprised to find that many of the votive offerings left by the sarcophagus are shaped like ears. During Ottoman rule it is was widely believed that there was treasure hidden in the coffin so holes were bored to release its riches. Whilst there wasn’t any treasure to be found, the coffin did contain a medicinal balm said to protect against earache.

The monastery itself which houses the sarcophagus is built upon ancient Byzantine ruins although it dates predominantly from the 18th century. Its humble façade doesn’t give a hint of its splendid interior and inside a majestic crystal chandelier takes centre stage, together with a fabulous iconostasis, a stunning example of religious wood carvings from the 16th century painted in blue and gold. The lower part of the iconostasis is carved in marble and features figs, grapes and acorns together with Venetian shields that once bore painted coats of arms. The monastery is full of hundreds of religious icons to feast your eyes on.

Back outside the monastery the scent of blossom in the spring is divine, or if you are near Güzelyurt in June you can also enjoy the famous annual orange festival.

From Kyrenia head west and follow the coastal route, travelling through miles of unspoilt countryside before soaking up the legend of St Mamas and some of the fascinating  cultural heritage of the north – followed by a refreshing glass of local-grown fruit juice.