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Monastery of Agios Nicolaos of Cats

The Monastery of Agios Nicolaos ton Gaton is located east of the centre of the community of Akrotiri and the Salt Lake of Lemesos. It is probably the most ancient monastery in Cyprus, which, according to tradition, was founded by Saint Helen in the 4th century. In fact, Saint Helen left a part of the Holy Cross in the Monastery. So, let’s find out more about this renowned Monastery…

The naming “ton Gaton (of cats)”
Firstly, we are going to refer to some of the stories, legends and traditions which justify the naming “ton gaton (of cats)”. More specifically, in the 4th century, when Saint Helen, mother of Great Constantine, founded the Monastery, the peninsula of Akrotiri suffered from poisonous snakes which multiplied due to an extensive period of drought. So, Saint Helen, who had found the Holy Cross and was coming back from Jerusalem, brought cats to eliminate the snakes, as well as workers to build the Monastery. Moreover, Saint Helen, after consulting with her son, sent Kalokairos to the island to assume Command and to help in the extermination of the snakes in the best possible way.

According to another source, Kalokairos, aiming to eliminate the snakes back in the 4th century, gathered approximately one thousand cats. As Karouzis preserves, when the cats heard the bell sounding, they would stop hunting snakes and would gather around the church where there used to be circular wooden buckets with food for them to eat.

The Great Cyprus Encyclopaedia adds, by citing the French version of the 16th century book “A description of the Island of Cyprus”, that Kalokairos had instructed the monks to feed at least 100 cats on a daily basis. More specifically, Kalokairos ordered the monks to give the cats some meat both in the morning and in the evening so that they would not be constantly fed on poison. Moreover, we learn from Villamont, who visited the island in the end of the 16th century, that on the name day of Agios Nicolaos the entire fish catch from the Salt Lake of Akrotiri was offered to the Monastery so that fishermen would have successful catches throughout the year.  

What is also worth mentioning is that around 100 cats still live in the Monastery today. 

The Monastery…
It appears that this well-known Monastery was abandoned for some centuries. In 1570, the church of the Monastery, according to the Great Cyprus Encyclopaedia, was burned and looted by the Turks, while its monks, as Villamont remarks, were either killed or forced to abandon it. So, from 1570 until the 18th century, when the Metropolitan Bishop Makarios I undertook the restoration of the Monastery, it remained abandoned. Although Metropolitan Bishop Makarios I tried to revive the Monastery by sending monks to live there, this was once again abandoned. Consequently, the management of the property of the Monastery was assumed by the Bishopric of Kiti to which the Monastery belonged to as far the church administration was concerned.   

Later on and more specifically in 1960, the church of the Monastery was repaired, while shortly after 1974 an elderly monk from the occupied Monastery of Apostle Varnavas initiated efforts to revive the Monastery. The monk began making efforts to reconstruct the Monastery, but unfortunately he passed away before his efforts were completed. In 1983, two nuns from Agios Georgios Alamanos resumed the efforts which had been initiated by monk Varnavas. In fact, these nuns decided to do exactly what Saint Helen had done centuries before as they found the Monastery abandoned and full of snakes. In particular, they decided to keep 100 cats in the Monastery. Some years later and more specifically on the name day of Agios Nicolaos in 1991, when the Monastery was resided by five nuns, nun Kassiani was declared abbess of the Monastery. Today, the Monastery is administered by the Bishopric of Lemesos, which has also assumed the responsibility of restructuring it.   

Moreover, it must be mentioned that according to tradition the Monastery sheltered monks who were persecuted by the iconoclast Byzantine emperors.

The Church of the Monastery
The church of the Monastery, as it has already been mentioned, is a 14th century building. It is a single-aisled arched-roofed church.

Particularly impressive is the central entrance of the church which manages to captivate visitors with its embossed figures of Apostles Peter and Paul. Actually, Apostle Peter is presented holding the keys of Paradise, in accordance to tradition, while the eastern entrance of the church with the five blazons, two of which are symbols of the Lusignans, is equally impressive. 

Inside the church visitors will detect traces of old hagiographies, while on the southeast edge of the church and near the chancel one can admire the miracle-making icon of the Monastery’s protector saint, Agios Nicolaos.  

Source:
Giorgos Karouzis, Strolling around Cyprus, Lemesos, City and District, Nicosia 2001
Great Cyprus Encyclopaedia, vol.10, Philokypros Publications, 1989
Akrotiri Community Council

 
 
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