Friday, January 2, 2009

Cyprus: Day 2 -- A Monastery, Bitter Lemons and a Castle

The Gothic Abbey of Bellapais

We started our second day in Cyprus by getting our first taste of the amazing Gothic architecture to be found on the island. Before we started reading up on the history of Cyprus for the trip, neither one of us realized that it is home to some of the most well-preserved and important Gothic architecture in the world. Because Candace's minor field for her Ph.D. is Medieval art and architecture, she volunteered to do short site reports on the major Gothic monuments that we would be visiting during the trip.

Candace delivers her talk in front of the Abbey.

A captive audience in the porch of the church.

Some of you might be wondering from the outset why there should be Gothic architecture on Cyprus at all. When most of us think of Gothic cathedrals, we think of France, Spain, and other Western European countries. So what is it doing so far east and south on Cyprus? The short answer is that it was brought to the island by the Crusaders. But the long answer is much more interesting than that, and a brief lesson on the Medieval history of the island will give a much clearer picture of why the buildings are there, and why they are so important. For those of you who want to skip down to the pictures, please feel free -- it won't hurt our feelings!

Because of its geographical position just off the coast of Asia Minor, Cyprus was a holding of the Byzantine part of the Roman empire. The last of the Byzantines to rule the island was Isaac Ducas Comnenus (I'll just use Isaac from here on). Isaac had been governor of Cilicia (a region of Asia Minor), but he was captured by the Armenians and sold to the Knights Templar. The Byzantine emperor bought him back from the Templars, but he sent more than the required ransom, and Isaac used the extra money to raise an army and invade Cyprus, where he became, in effect, the Emperor of the Cypriots. Then he did something incredibly stupid.

In 1190 Richard I, the Lionheart, was en route from England to Palestine with other members of the Third Crusade, as well as with his sister and his bride-to-be, Berengaria of Navarre. Their fleet was separated in a storm and the ship with the ladies on it put in to emergency port at Lemessos on the southern shore of Cyprus. Rather than welcoming them, Isaac was so rude to them, so the story goes, that they did not even leave their ship. Of course Richard was not far behind them and when he arrived he was so furious at their treatment that he waged war and took the island before continuing on on his Crusade.

Richard soon found himself in need of funds to continue the Crusade, so he sold the island of Cyprus to the Knights Templar. The Templars decided the island was a drain on their resources and tried to sell it back, but Richard had no use for it. Instead, he brokered a deal with Guy de Lusignan of France, who happily bought the island from the Templars for the same price they had paid Richard. And so in 1192 began the Lusignan Dynasty in Cyprus, a dynasty which would last until 1489. Vast amounts of wealth flowed onto the island under the Lusignans, and the urban fabric of the major cites was transformed, a process which was marked by the construction of great Gothic cathedrals.

The social effect of these cathedrals on Cyprus must have been tremendous. For the Western Europeans who came here on their way to or from the Crusades, some of whom stayed, they must have been a strong and emotional reminder of their homelands. Also, these buildings were a statement of the triumph of the Latin Church over the Greek Orthodox Church.

When the island passed into Muslim hands, the cathedrals were converted into mosques. This is important because the result was that the elaborate interior decoration of the churches in the form of frescoes and tapestries, etc., was stripped away or covered. While we may mourn the loss of these works of art, what these structures now provide is a whitewashed case study in which the immense skill of the Gothic masterbuilders who designed these buildings, and of the stonemasons who constructed the walls and vaults, becomes more evident to the eye than in any of the churches of Europe. In effect, the essence of the buildings can be appreciated in a completely different way than is possible when visiting Chartres or Notre Dame. This makes the Gothic cathedrals of Cyprus unique and important, and while they are much less famous than those of Europe, they deserve to be visited, studied, and preserved. Candace definitely plans to include them in any courses on Medieval art and architecture she teaches in the future, so this trip was very formative for her.

The first of the Medieval buildings we visited was not a cathedral, but a monastery. This monastery was first constructed between 1198-1205 by a monastic group called the Premonstratensians, also known as the White Canons, because of the color of their robes. The Premonastratensians were not a completely cloistered order, but were dedicated to a life of preaching. They were the first to be sent to the Holy Land, where they arrived as early as 1131. When Jerusalem fell to Saladin in 1187, they fled to Cyprus and founded this monastery, which they named Abbaye de la Paix ("Abbey of Peace"), shortened over the years to Bellapais (pronounced bella-pie-ees). Over time, the Premonstratensians became wealthy and badly behaved. Church representatives sent to investigate in 1571 found some of the monks living here with as many as two or three wives! However, that same year Cyprus was absorbed by the Ottoman Empire, which turned the monastery over to the Greek Orthodox Church. The Orthodox continued to use it as a place of worship until as recently as 1976. Now it is a museum.

Most of what remains now dates to between 1267 and 1284. The cloister is of the 14th century. Much stone was taken from here over the centuries by builders constructing other projects in the area. It is a testament to how well it was constructed originally that so much of it remains intact, and in good condition.

The entryway to the cloister from the top of one of the walls.

The Gothic arches in the cloister.

An ancient column stands in the center of the chapter house (where the monks held meetings).

This pictures gives a good idea of the size and shape of the chapter house.

Peter stands in the chapter house doorway. There is a cliff beyond it.

The contrast of Gothic arches and tropical palms is difficult to get used to!

After enjoying the monastery, we walked a short distance up the hill to the house of a famous writer named Lawrence Durrell. Neither of us were familiar with him before this trip. He was a British author of (among many other things) a book about the political and social troubles in Cyprus in the 1950s, called Bitter Lemons of Cyprus. He experienced the unrest on the island first-hand, while he spent several years living there and working in public relations for the British government.

Apologies -- this is the only picture we have of Durrell's house. Everyone was ordering what they wanted for dinner that night.

Several of the Fellows are big fans of his writing, although most agree that the Cyprus book is not his best work -- he is best known for his series The Alexandria Quartet. He lived all over the world and wrote about his experiences, and the house where he lived on Cyprus is a well-known tourist attraction. We were able to view it only from the outside, where our British Fellow, Alison, gave a talk on the author. Durrell had also spent some time in Serbia, so Alessandra asked our Serbian fellow Ivana what she knew about him, and she surprised us all by saying that while he was in her country he had actually stayed with her family in her home!

An interesting decoration over a door in the village where Bellapais and Durrell's home are located (it's called Guzelyurt).

Next we traveled east up the length of the Karpas peninsula. Our first stop was Kantara Castle, a Medieval Lusignan fortress constructed on a high point and used as a location from which to light signal fires to send warnings about possible invading forces approaching the island. The landscape in this area is very rugged, and it was extremely windy and quite cold, so we did not linger very long after climbing up to the castle. The views were amazing:

Kantara Castle from below.

A view of the approach to Kantara castle from one of the towers.

Some of our group in one of the defensive towers of the castle. In front is Canan, our zooarchaeologist, behind her Dror (to your left) and Sait, behind them L to R Amanda and Ben, then Ivana and Fulya, and Peter in the back.

A view of the landscape around the castle. There is a tiny house on the top of the next mountain. Just the kind of place Candace's parents would like to retire to!

Our Director, Alessandra, stands at the brink of the cliff. Is she admiring the view or has the group finally gotten to her?

After descending from the mountaintop, we drove further up the North coast. We stopped for lunch at the small Oasis hotel and restaurant, barely large enough to accomodote the twenty of us.

The Oasis.

It sits at the site of ancient Carpasia, directly on the shore, from which are visible the remains of a Roman breakwater and harbor and, as Asa informed us, Roman fishponds as well. This was undoubtedly the best meal of the trip. The fish was very fresh, and the dark and desolate mood of the shore, with the waves crashing up on the beach, was very dramatic.

The Roman breakwater (T) and fishponds (B)

The most interesting thing about this hotel/restaurant is its location. It has the feeling of being very far removed from civilization, and the only building within sight is actually one of historical importance. A few steps from the restaurant are the remains of Agios Filion, a 12th century Byzantine church built over an Early Christian basilica of the 5th century.

The 12th century church of Agios Filion

There is some debate as to whether the hotel actually owns this significant building or not, but at any rate it is in a fairly good state of preservation, although we cannot guess how long it will stay that way. The most astonishing thing about it is the elaborate and (for now) well-preserved mosaics belonging to the earlier church. They are lying here exposed to the elements and to any passing tourists, without any protection at all. We can only hope that someone is keeping an eye on them!

Agios Filion: mosaics from the 5th century church.

A well-preserved example.

Dark was already falling when we finished poking around Agios Filion and boarded the bus to continue almost to the tip of the peninsula, to the monastery of Apostolos Andreas. We have already written about this in an earlier post called "Christmas at the Patriarchate." If you have not read that post, please do scroll down and do so. We feel that our visit to that location was one of the most interesting, and important, events of the trip.

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