The River, the Mound-Shaped Hill and the Royal Saint: The links between the Vasilikos River, “Tenta”, and St Helena (Ayia Eleni)

One of the great stories hovering over southern Cyprus concerns the legend of St Helena and the Holy Cross. According to all versions of the local legend, some of the events recounted in the story happened in and around the Vasilikos River, one of the great historic river valleys of the island’s South Coast.


The Vasilikos River and Its Name

With source areas and tributary streams in the high eastern Troodos Mts near Layia Village, the Vasilikos flows past rich copper deposits in the Upper and Lower Pillow Lava zones, before entering the white chalky limestone areas near Kalavasos Village in the western Larnaca District.

Sometimes people translate the Greek name of the river, Vasilikos Potamos, into English as the “King’s River.” However, this is in fact not accurate and slightly misleading. The name of the river is connected to the story and legend of St Helena and her shipwreck with the Holy Cross (sometimes referred to as “the True Cross” or in Greek “O Timios Stavros”). Helana, who was the mother of the Emporeror Constantine the Great, is usually shown in Byzantine representational art with a crown on her head, and is sometimes called “a Queen.” Research into the topographic name “Vasilikos” offers the best English translation of Vasilikos Potamos as the “Royal River.” We can refer to the entry for this river in Jack Goodwin’s all-encompassing work “An Historical Toponomy of Cyprus”:



Local Legends and Oral Traditions

It’s probably not too far a stretch to say that for generations –quite possibly for dozens of generations—virtually every person born and raised or even connected to Kalavasos Village has heard and knows the story of the St Helena and her shipwreck with the Holy Cross somewhere on the coastal area adjacent to the modern village of Zyyi. That’s a location at or just next to the delta of the Vasilikos River. This puts the shipwreck location more or less where the Vasilikos Cement Works stands today.

While it is important to point out there is no direct physical evidence from archaeological sources for the shipwreck or several other elements to the legendary saga of St Helena in the Vasilikos Valley, the story of her unfortunate ordeal and the Holy Cross in Cyprus is so deeply embedded in local traditions that its validity cannot be dismissed. Against this background (of little to no direct physical evidence, much of which would have been perishable organic materials), we can conclude that some events important to the establishment of early Orthodox Christianity did occur within the Vasilikos Valley in the first part of the 4th Century A.D. In this context, we can point to the imporant existence of an early Basilika (5th-6th Century) at Kalavasos-Kopetra, a locality situated just next to the exit from the modern motorway as one travels in the direction towards Larnaca and Lefkosia. (Note: The site of Kalavasos-Kopetra underwent excavations organised by Drs Murray McClellen and Marcus Rautman in collaboration with the Vasilikos Valley Project.)


The Legend of St Helena, the Holy Cross (“Timios Stavros”) and the Mound-shaped Hill of “Tenta” in the Vasilikos Valley

Although there are a few different versions of the legend that vary in certain details, I have collected the most important story elements and plot lines. These come from stories told to me during conversations with numerous old men from Kalavasos Village over several years when I lived there in the late 1970s-early 1990s. (Note: I remember on the very first day, when I came as an archaeological student to work at the Neolthic excavations at Kalavasos – Tenta in 1978, Mr Christos Hadjicharalamous, whose family had owned and operated an old stone-built watermill not far from Tenta, told me the full story of St Helena and her shipwreck with the Holy Cross.)

Here are the bare bones of the story told to me, which I have interlaced with information and data from other historical and archaeological sources:

  • In the year 320 A.D. or thereabouts, the Roman Emperor Constantine, (whose mother, Helena was to become canonised as a saint later in history) decided to move the capital of the Empire from Rome to a relatively obscure ancient Greek trading post called Byzantium, where he started a decade-long project to build a new capital city, Constantinople (“Constantinopolis” or “City of Constantine”).
  • Exact dates are in slight dispute, but most sources agree that in the year 326 or 327 A.D., at the behest of her son the Emperor Constantine, Helena went to Jerusalem. It was a “Holy Mission” to find the Holy Cross of Jesus and bring it to Constantinople, where it would stand as a noble relic to Orthodox Christianity.
  • Helena sailed in a wooden ship with a gallant crew from Constantinople to the Holy Land, where she travelled overland and into the city of Jerusalem. She conducted investigations and interviews to find the secret location of the Holy Cross (i.e. the actual wooden cross that Jesus died on in ca. 33 A.D.), which had remained buried underneath a hill outside the city since shortly after Jesus’ death. She was able to pinpoint the location of the cross and unearth it. (Note: This might make Helena the first director of any archaeological excavation project.) The Holy Cross was carried back to the coastline, where the ship received it for the return journey back to Constantinople.
  • Shortly after the ship left the Levantine shore, a severe storm developed and the ship’s captain decided to alter the course of the return voyage in order to avoid the worst of the storm. Instead of heading directly towards south coast of Anatolia (today called Turkey), which would have put the ship’s course off the eastern tip of the Karpass Peninsula of Cyprus, he turned the direction towards the southern coast of Cyprus, hoping to avoid the vicious winds.
  • Despite these efforts, the storm followed behind them and a giant rogue wave engulfed the wooden ship as it tried to outrun the storm. The strong winds and waves forced the wooden ship into rocky cliffs of the coastline, where it was smashed and broke up into many pieces. Helen and her crew along with all the ship’s contents, including religious relics like the Holy Cross, tumbled into the raging sea just off the coast.
  • Somehow, they managed to wade into the surf and retrieve the Holy Cross from the angry sea. They were also able to salvage some bits of the smashed ship, including wooden planks, part of the mast and significant bits of the canvas sails.
  • Taking what they could, they marched inland a short distance along the banks of a flowing river. They found a mound-shaped hill next to the river. There they used the salvaged materials from their doomed ship to construct temporary shelters or “tents” to protect themselves and the cherished Holy Cross from the elements.
  • The marooned crew lived in the tents on the hill for many weeks, perhaps even months, as they recovered from their ordeal and pondered what to do next and how to get themselves and the Holy Cross back to Constantinople. They decided the best course was to send a messenger to the Emperor Constantine, who would organise a rescue ship to collect them from Cyprus.
  • Helena, however, fearing for the safety of the Holy Cross, decided to hide it inside the trunk of an aged olive tree, which she found within walking distance from their tents, in a neighbouring valley. (Note: The location of this tree is believed to be the centre of today’s Tokhni Village, which proudly possesses a church to St Constantinos and St Helena.) Helena also removed small fragments of wood from the cross, which she carried to various locations across southern parts of Cyprus to establish churches dedicated to the Holy Cross. It is widely believed that the first such church was established on the summit of the highest peak of the eastern Troodos Mts., a place that took on the name Stavrovouni (“Mountain of the Cross”). Shortly after Helen did this, a group of Orthodox monks took over this church and expanded the facilities into what most regard as the earliest monastery to exist in Cyprus. (Note: The summit of this peak, which stands at some 970+ metres above sea level, can only be approached by climbing extremely steep slopes. At this stage of her life, Helen would have been well into her 70s, so one must assume she was quite fit.)
  • Over the ensuing years and centuries, locals paid homage to Helen and her saga with the Shipwreck and the Holy Cross by calling the hill that sheltered her under the name “Tenta” or “place of the Tents” (of St Helena).
  • In the 1940s, purely by chance, during the construction of a rail line to transport copper ore to a processing plant on the coast, it was discovered that beneath the surface of the hill called “Tenta” there existed a tightly nucleated settlement of the Aceramic Neolithic period. Test excavations carried out by the Cypriot archaeologist, Porphyrios Dikaios, initially revealed part of a massive stone perimeter wall and fragments of round architecture. Starting in 1976, British archaeologist Dr Ian Todd formed the Vasilikos Valley Project (VVP) and assembled an international team to make a full-scale investigation of “Tenta.” The VVP spent nearly a decade excavating Tenta, expanding on the limited test excavations of the 1940s. The VVP team, which included assistants from their base village at Kalavasos, revealed more of the massive wall enclosing a residential mound filled with circular-shaped houses characterised by stone-built foundation walls and mudbrick superstructures. Surrounding the perimeter wall, a deep ditch or channel was found cut into the local limestone called locally “khavara”. The exact purpose of this ditch is not known, however several theories exist.
  • In 1992, the Leventis Foundation (an organisation established by the family of A.G. Leventis for the protection of the cultural and historical heritage of Cyprus) provided funding to erect a large canvas yellow-coloured shelter, shaped like a tent or “Tepee”. This shelter is a conspicuous landmark visible just next to the Lemessos-Lefkosia motorway on the north side. History is sometimes ironic: The hill of Tenta got a tent to protect the fragile stone and mudbrick houses with well-made plaster floors.


A Slightly Different View: The legend of St Helena and her discovery of the Holy Cross as portrayed in Byzantine art and tradition

In their landmark book “The Painted Churches of Cyprus,” Andreas and Judith Stylianou offer a quite detailed, and more harsh, account of St Helena and her quest to find the Holy Cross. Their account differs in some details from the version recounted above, which was compiled mainly from local sources in and around the Vasilikos Valley.

In terms of representational art, perhaps the best example in Cyprus of the Discovery of the Holy Cross comes from the church of the Holy Cross of Ayiasmati (painted in 1494), located outside Platanistasa Village in the Pitsylia region of the Troodos Mts. Referring to a wall painting, which depicts “ten miniature compositions,” Stylianou and Stylianou give us the following description and analysis of St Helena’s discovery process (Stylianou and Stylianou, 1997: 203-4):

  • “In her desire to discover the Holy Cross, she assembled all the Jews before her and demanded to know the whereabouts of the place where the Cross of Christ was buried. They deny any knowledge and she threatens them with fire and starvation. In the end they betray a certain Judas who is supposed to know, having heard from his forefathers (scene one).
  • “She then interrogates Judas, who denies any knowledge (scene two), and is cast into a dry well for three days; under the pressure of starvation he decides to tell his story and is then relased (scene three).
  • “Judas then prays on Golgotha (scene four), and after a divine revelation to him of the exact spot where the Cross was buried, the earliest archaeological excavations of a Christian site were organized by St Helena (scene five).
  • “Three Crosses were discovered (of Christ and the two thieves), and they were triumphantly carried to Helena (scenes six and seven). The three Crosses were then tested on a dying woman to decide which was that of Christ (scene eight).
  • “Judas becomes a Christian and is ordained Bishop of Jerusalem under the name Cyriacus. Through a further prayer, he then discovers the Holy Nails (scene nine), and presents them to Helena, who falls down on her knees to receive them (scene ten).
  • “A great revolution then begins. Helena leaves part of the Holy Cross in Jeruslalem and takes the rest and the Holy Nails to Constantinople. On the way she leaves part of the Holy Cross in Cyprus to stop a drought and drops Holy Nails into the sea to calm the storms.”

Note: In their account of Helena, and the aftermath of her discovery of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, Stylianou and Stylianou make no mention of a shipwreck in Cyprus. However, the shipwreck is found in the version of Helena’s legend as told in Cyprus, where it remains firmly embedded in local tradition.


Notes about the Life and Times of St Helena

  • Greek Name: Eleni; Roman Name: Flavia Iulia Helena Augusta
  • Life Span: 248-330 A.D.
  • Most sources say she was born outside the Roman “Noble Class” and that she was a Greek.