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Russian Tourist Stuck in Saint Lazarus’ Sarcophagus on Cyprus

Saint Lazarus
The Church of Saint Lazarus at Larnaca, Cyprus was the scene of a bizarre incident this week when a Russian woman climbed into St. Lazarus’ sarcophagus– and couldn’t get back out. Credit: Hannes Grobe/BHV /CC BY 3.0

A Russian tourist experienced her own resurrection of a sort when she was rescued by her friends after becoming stuck in Saint Lazarus’ sarcophagus in Larnaca, Cyprus this week.

After inexplicably thinking it would be a fun tourist experience to try to find out how it felt to lay in a stone sarcophagus — and perhaps be filmed making a “miraculous” exit from it, much as Saint Lazarus did 2,000 years ago — she found herself completely unable to get out.

After struggling to free herself from the sarcophagus, which has a slab covering almost three-quarters of its top, the elderly woman had to be pulled out by two of her compatriots, who finally pried her from the unforgiving stone coffin.

There is no information at present whether or not the monument suffered any damage.

Audio from the video taken at the scene indicates there were unhelpful comments from her fellow travelers that the Russian woman was trapped in the sarcophagus by her sins. After the incident, all the tourists quickly exited the historic church.

The Gospel of John recounts the story of Jesus Christ resurrecting Lazarus of Bethany after he had been dead for four days. Saint Lazarus went on to become the first bishop of the region, after he traveled to Cyprus after his resurrection by Christ.

According to Orthodox tradition, sometime after the Resurrection of Christ, Lazarus was forced to flee Judea because of rumoured plots on his life; he then came to Cyprus. There he was appointed by Paul and Barnabas as the first Bishop of Kition (present-day Larnaca). He is said to have lived for thirty more years and on his death was buried there for the second — and final — time.

Saint Lazarus Church desecrated, rebuilt  and restored multiple times

The Church of Agios Lazaros was built over this reputed second tomb of Lazarus.

Tradition says that Lazarus’ tomb was then looted and became lost during the period of Arab rule beginning in 649. In 890, a tomb was found in Larnaca bearing the inscription “Lazarus, four days dead, friend of Christ.”

Emperor Leo VI of Byzantium had Lazarus’ remains transferred to Constantinople in 898. The transfer is commemorated by the Orthodox Church each year on October 17. The transferred relics were later looted by members of the Fourth Crusade in the early 13th century and were brought to Marseille, France, but were subsequently lost once more.

In recompense to Larnaca for the removal of the saint’s remains, Emperor Leo had the Church of St. Lazarus erected over his tomb in the late 9th to early 10th centuries.

The church has a tripartite sanctuary, with semicircular apses internally, three-sided apses externally and a five-sided apse in the center. The interior structure of the church is divided into three aisles with double pillars and arched openings going through them.

These pillars bear the weight of the domes, thus allowing the expanse of the central aisle while the north and south aisles bear a semi-cylindrical roof, intersected by cross-vaults. The stonework of the church consists mainly of square limestone blocks about a meter in thickness. The church has an open porch, from which steps descend into the church.

Under Frankish and Venetian rule during the 13th to 16th centuries, the church became Roman Catholic. A stone covered portico, or stoa, in the Gothic style was added on its south side during this time.

Remains of Saint finally rediscovered in 1972

The original three imposing domes of this Orthodox Basilica and the original bell tower were destroyed, probably in the first years of Ottoman rule, approximately 1571 AD, when the church was turned into a mosque.

In 1589, the Ottomans sold it back to the Orthodox, most likely because of its Christian cemetery there. For the next two hundred years it was used for both Orthodox and Catholic services. The porch bears traces of Greek, Latin, and French inscriptions.

In 1857, after the Ottoman authorities again allowed Cypriot churches to have bell towers, Saint Lazarus’ bell-tower was rebuilt in a Latinate style.

The woodcarving of the unique baroque iconostasis of the church was created between 1773 and 1782 by Chatzisavvas Taliadorou. The iconostasis was plated with gold between 1793 and 1797.

Some of the icons were painted towards the end of the 18th century by Michael Proskynetes from Marathasa. Icon painter Hatzimichael completed the iconography of the iconostasis in 1797. Some of the wood-carved furniture (including a Rococo pulpit on one pillar for Catholic use) and icons on the walls are from the 17th century.

A fire in 1970 damaged much of the interior, including extensive damage to a section of the iconostasis together with the corresponding icons. The iconostasis has been partially restored and was re-plated with gold between 1972 and 1974.

During the subsequent renovations of the church, on November 2, 1972, human remains were discovered in a marble sarcophagus under the altar, and were identified as part of the saint’s relics (not all having been removed to Constantinople, apparently).

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