Thursday, January 8, 2009

Cyprus: Day 3 -- More Gothic architecture, and two kinds of ruins

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Our final day in Cyprus was absolutely jam-packed with touring. We started in the capital of Nicosia, which has the dubious distinction of being the only divided capital remaining in the world. The Northern half belongs to the Turks, the Southern half to the Greeks. As soon as we arrived in town, our bus driver drove us along the No Man's Land and wall in the middle of the city. It is such an odd arrangement. One moment you are on a street, the next moment there is the wall. It cannot be compared to divided Berlin in that there is not a large disparity between the standards of living on the two sides, but it is still unsettling and sad to see such an obvious, unmoving symbol of conflict in the middle of a city.

Our main goal in Nicosia was to see the Gothic cathedral of St. Sophia. There are six cathedrals that remain in the city, but St. Sophia (Holy Wisdom), which is now Selimiye Mosque, is the most impressive and important. Construction on the church was begun in 1209, but not completed until 1326. although this is over 100 years, it is actually a respectably quick time for Medieval builders to finish a cathedral of this size and complexity. It was built on the site of an earlier church of the Knights Templar, in which Guy of Lusignan (the founder of the French dynasty here) was buried.

The exterior of St. Sophia from the back (the only angle that we could get a clear photo).

St. Sophia is a true French Gothic cathedral. It was designed on the model of Reims cathedral in France, which was the coronation church of the French kings. This was appropriate because this church served as the location for the coronations of the Kings of Cyprus. Although the decoration on the interior of the church was stripped away by the Muslims when it was converted to a mosque, they left much of the exterior sculpture decorating the entrance way. You can still see stone hands holding crowns reaching out over the niches by the doorway, symbolizing that this is the coronation church. We were surprised to see many sculpted human figures left in the porch of the church, since we had assumed that the Muslims would have destroyed them since the Koran includes an injunction against representing the human form in art. But luckily they did not, and scholars have been able to determine from the style of carving that they were created by French master sculptors, who probably accompanied Louis the Pious here on the way to (or from) his Crusade.

In its original state, the interior of the nave had a blue ceiling spangled with gold stars (it must have been beautiful!). But you can see from our pictures that the whitewashed walls and ceilings also give the building a certain impressive appearance.

The interior of St. Sophia/Selimiye Mosque

Another interior shot

A strange sight in a Gothic cathedral!

After seeing the interior of the cathedral, some of us went to a small building behind it to visit the Lapidary Museum, which houses examples of Gothic stonework that have been found in Nicosia. It was a tiny museum, but very interesting. The window below, which probably would have held stained glass, is not from a cathedral, but from the palace of the Venetian rulers who eventually took the island from the French. Gorgeous!

An older Turkish gentleman sits in front of a Gothic window at the Medieval stonework museum.

A little (weird) Christmas in Nicosia.

It began to rain on us in Nicosia, unfortunately. We reboarded the bus and drove to another major city, Famagusta. Those of you who are literature buffs may know that Famagusta is considered to be the probable setting for Shakespeare's Othello. The stage direction for that play states that the action takes place in a a port city on the island of Cyprus, and there is a castle/fortress here that was the base of the Venetian governor Cristoforo Moro (1506-08). Since Othello was a Moor and Moro actually does mean "Moor", some scholars have taken the leap and named Famagusta as the location Shakespear had in mind. Whether it is true or not, the city definitely benefits from the assocation as tourists come to visit "Othello's Tower" in the fortress. We did not make it there before it closed for the night, but we saw it from the outside, which was enough.

Before we delved into the history of the city, though, we had to encounter the disturbing reality of its present state. There is a section of town called Maraş that in the 1960s was a thriving upscale resort area. Tourists from all over Europe poured in to stay in boutique hotels and sun themselves on the best beach on Cyprus -- made of sand imported from Egypt! In 1974, when the Turkish military moved in to occupy the Northern section of the island, the vacationers and all the locals who lived in that neighborhood fled in a panic. There was no time to pack properly, to turn off lights, to retrieve personal belongings, even to finish breakfast. Since that time, this area has been a No Man's Land, and remains frozen in time exactly at that moment of violence. Locals report that on some nights they still see lightbulbs flickering inside hotel windows. The few reporters who have been allowed in to document the area report car dealerships stocked with the "newest" 1974 models, breakfast dishes with the remains of the last uneaten meal, even cars standing with their doors open in the street, abandoned suitcases beside them.

We drove along the military road that bisects this area, going as far as we could before we were turned back by an army fence.

The end of the road in Maraş

Although pictures are forbidden, some of us snapped them as best we could from the windows, when there were no soldiers near the bus. It is a compelling and creepy scene. Empty homes and churches fall into decay; decrepit windmills turn in the breeze, still pumping water that no one is drinking.

But, to make a strange situation even stranger, the beach is still in use, and still advertised as the most luxurious beach on the Northern half of the island.

A military sign warns people away from the No Man's Land.

A close-up of one of the rotting luxury hotels.

Although it was not beach season when we were there, we climbed off the bus and walked up the beach to take photos of the area from that vantage point. As you can see, the once-magnificent resort hotels appear desolate and bombed-out. It's difficult to imagine that in the summer season tourists can lounge on this beach without feeling the empty eyes of those buildings staring at them from behind the fence.

Just outside the military barrier, stacked beach chairs wait for the partying beachgoers who come here every summer.

But the locals seem to have come to terms with it as well. Here, two men have a beer in front of the most famous of the ruined hotels:

Many of us were very affected by what the desolation of Maraş still signals about how far Cyprus has to come to heal the wounds that violence has inflicted on it. But the fact that the local people, and happy holidaymakers, can so easily ignore the destruction and the utter waste does not seem to bode well for the future.

Next we visited the campus of Eastern Mediterranean University and had lunch in the faculty restaurant with the members of the archaeology department there, who were extremely friendly and interested in each of our projects. One of the young professors, Luca Zavagno , who had been a Fellow here at the Research Center last year, escorted us to the ancient site of Salamis after lunch. This city was first mentioned as an independent city-state on an Assyrian monument in 709 BC. Like most of the cities on Cyprus, it was later taken by the Persians, the Ptolemies, the Romans, and eventually the Byzantines. Of course those of us who are archaeologists were very interested to see the site, but it was quite a disappointment.

Its location is stunning, set directly on the beach. It is quite a large site as well, with the partially excavated areas covering about the size of the ancient site of Aphrodisias, for those of you who have been there.

The Roman theater at Salamis, one of the nicer monuments at the site.

However, enjoyment of the site was marred for us by the realization that it is being badly excavated, badly reconstructed, and badly preserved (note the concrete rows of seats inserted into the Roman theater in the picture above. It makes the building usable for holding modern concerts, but can be destructive to the original construction). Alessandra explained to us that it is unfortunately all too common that archaeologists who are working on Cyprus feel that they are outside the limits of normal Turkish governmental supervision, and away from the critical eyes of most of their colleagues, who do not bother to visit this out-of-the-way island (and those who do mainly stick to the Greek side it seems). Because of this, they proceed in any manner they wish, using the excavations as their personal projects without regard for their responsibility to publish their findings, or even to be careful with their work. At Salamis, the idea of "restoration" and "conservation" seems to be to pour concrete on top of everything.

None of us could figure out what these niches are supposed to be, but they definitely should not be covered in plaster! In the foreground you can also see where the team here has poured grey concrete along the tops of the walls to "seal" them.

In addition, trenches that had been dug during the last season were not filled in or even covered, but left open to the elements, so every bit of rain or heavy wind slowly destroys the evidence that could have been gleaned from these areas.

Part of a bath(?) building at Salamis.

Like Maraş, Salamis left a bad impression. But the visit to the site was not completely without interest or enjoyment. One area of the site which is well away from the normally visited areas, but to which Luka led us, is a Byzantine church and Bishop's residence. It is located directly next to the beach at the far side of the ancient city, and its lonely location and the beautiful mosaics made it well worth a visit:

The ruins of the Byzantine church by the sea.

Looking down into the Bishop's palace from the church.

Finally, we returned to Famagusta. We arrived in the late afternoon and so did not have a lot of time to see the sights of the city, which is a shame because it seemed to be one of the more pleasant areas we visited. We met back up with Matthew, the archaeologist who had taken us on the tour of the shipwreck museum in Girne. First, we rushed to the Gothic cathedral of St. Nicholas.

The exterior of St. Nicholas

Like St. Sophia in Nicosia, this church is also a copy of the famous Reims cathedral in France. Again, this is because of associations with coronation ceremonies. Just as St. Sophia was the coronation church of the kings of the island of Cyprus, St. Nicholas was the coronation site for the kings of Jerusalem. Ironically, the church was finished in 1326, several years AFTER the Crusader State in the Holy Land ceased to exist and the role of King of Jerusalem was no longer relevant. However, the Europeans continued to crown a King of Jerusalem here for 50 more years -- now that is optimism!

This church also witnessed two key events in the history of the island. It was here that the wife of the last of the French Lusignan dynasty rulers, who had passed away leaving an infant son who also died, handed the ownership of the island over to the Doge of Venice in 1489. Venice held the island until the Ottomans successfully besieged it in 1571. After a long siege, the Venetians agreed to surrender on the promise that they would be allowed to live and to return to their homeland. However, when the Ottoman military commander, Lala Mustafa Pasha, entered the city and discovered that Ottoman prisoners of war had been executed, he decided to break his vow and retaliate. He took the Venetian commander, Bragadino, drug him to the square in front of this church, chained him between two columns brought from Salamis, and skinned him alive. The cathedral was then converted to a mosque and named after Lala Mustafa Pasha, the name it still bears today.

The plaza in front of St. Nicholas -- where Bragadino was executed.

We only admired the outside of the cathedral before hurrying on to a second monument nearby that we wanted to see while it was still light outside, and we figured we could return to the interior of St. Nicholas afterward, since its role as a mosque means it should be open to visitors even in the evening. This second important Gothic building is St. George of the Greeks, obviously a Greek Orthodox church. Only the shell of the building remains, but it is interesting for a couple of reasons. Along the exterior of the building marks made by the Ottoman cannon balls during the siege are clearly visible. If the light is right (which it was not for us), you can even see reflections off of the metal of some cannon balls still embedded in the wall!

What remains of the east end of St. George of the Greeks. Note the cannonball holes.

Inside what remains of the church (it's not open to the public, but Matthew got us in), some frescoes from the Paleologan period, that is one of the late periods of the Byzantine empire, still remain. But they are in serious danger because they are exposed to the elements, and because birds nesting in the ruins make a mess on them, which is of course very acidic and damaging. Archaeologists and historians in Cyprus have worked to have the site put on UNESCO's list of the most endangered cultural sites in the world, but that status expires this year and they have been unable to put together money to do anything in the meantime! Very sad.

The interior of St. George of the Greeks

An example of the endangered Paleologan wall painting.

Another interesting aspect of the building is the grafitti that has been scratched into the painted walls. At some point during the Ottoman period, someone gouged the shapes of dozens of Ottoman-style ships into the walls. No one knows why, but it certainly is interesting!

One of the many ship grafitti scratched into the plaster.

We returned to the Gothic cathedral just as the evening Call to Prayer was being sung. It was very interesting to hear it coming from a Gothic building! It just didn't seem right.

The porch of St. Nicholas illuminated in the evening.

There were four of us together at that point: Peter and myself, Dror, and Sait, one of the Turkish Senior Fellows. We waited patiently and quietly at the back of the mosque for the prayers to finish. Well, most of us did -- Sait went forward to where the prayers were being held, which was an area we could not see from our vantage point. He might have been going to pray himself. When the prayers ended, we started to move forward to look at the space of the cathedral, but the imam came and asked us to leave, refusing to let us walk around or make pictures. This was the first time in Turkey that we have been asked to leave a mosque. We certainly were not doing anything wrong (I had my head covered), but even with Sait speaking Turkish to the imam and telling him who we were and why we were there, he refused to let us stay. This seemed to be just one more example of the lack of hospitality in Cyprus! It was disappointing, but we got to see about half of the building from our where we had been standing at the back.

What we were able to see of the interior. That's Candace talking to Dror.

By this time it was completely dark, but a few of us walked to the so-called Othello's Tower to take pictures from the exterior.

For the literature buffs: "Othello's Tower." It actually looks quite Shakespearean in the darkness doesn't it?

Then we went to a very cozy dessert place and had hot drinks and too many different kinds of sweets. This was the first time Peter and I tried a traditional Turkish winter beverage called sahlep. It is a hot steamed milk drink flavored with ground orchid root and cinnamon. Yum! I highly recommend it if you are ever traveling over here, or can for some reason find it where you live.

I guess that pretty much sums up our Cypriot adventures. Our flight home the next morning was uneventful, but even now these few weeks later, we all occasionally talk about Cyprus and our impressions of it. They were not, on the whole, very positive, but it is definitely a place worth visiting. Maybe we did not give it a fair chance in some ways since we were there in pretty nasty weather, and did not see the nightlife or party beaches. Someone else will have to go and fill us in on those details!

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