Studying a 17th c. Italian manuscript, I stumbled across this phrase: “bisognava andare con / tutta la gente in un villaggio chiamato Santo Sagi dove era un / palazzo di Mustaffa Bei” (we had to go with all the troops to a village called Santo Sagi [Ais Serkis/Ayios Sergios] where there was a palace of Mustafa Bey). Because of the date of the document, it means that the ‘palace’, probably a large mansion, was Venetian. The village of Ais Serkis is currently in the north part of Cyprus, its inhabitants displaced in the conflict which ravaged my country in the 60’s and 70’s. Its name was changed to Mormenekşe by those who try to alter the island’s ethnic character by force.
I thought of going there, just to see if there was anything that would fit the description of a ‘palace’. Needle in a haystack, but “seek and you shall find” as the saying goes. An old British map also identified something called ‘Hadjipantelis House’ in the village of Limnia, practically merged to Ais Serkis. Who knows? I went with my brother. On the way to Limnia we saw 1-2 interesting buildings which we earmarked for the way back. In Limnia we found an interesting church, which I later recognized as Ais Yorkis (St. George). It was interesting, and it had a very peculiar figure of a man on its eastern wall. I had never seen the like before. The church was in a bad state of repair, and a sign saying “Mormenekşe sağlık ocağı” (Ais Serkis Health Club). Opposite was a ruined house with an interesting entrance. In the front, a barbecue. There was nobody about, very few people at best, all of them settlers from Turkey. A beautiful girl-with a headscarf-said hello.
We carried on. We stopped and photograph the Ais Serkis church and the Sunday school, both thankfully in good condition. On the way out of the village we stopped at a ruined house which looked like it could have once been important. Two stories, with arches, it looked like a wealthy house but was also a mess. I got off the car. My brother sensibly stayed in the cool of the air conditioned car.
There was a dog tied up on the side. I walked around him carefully, just out of the reach of its rope-I didn’t want to get bitten! I went round the back and saw the beautiful arches. I tried to enter-the house was full of dogs, tied up or locked up behind wire fences. Somebody was using the house as a dog-house. They caught my scent and started barking like mad. I took a few steps back, photographed it and we were on our way.
A bit further there was a small church, in an awful state. I thought of asking the locals, but the only people there are Turkish settlers nowadays, at least from what I could tell. Then I realised the true cost of the uprooting which took place. When people left their lands, where they had their roots, we also lost the historical memory relating to the landscape. The people who live there, or indeed in the former Turkish villages in the south, don’t have a relationship with the space which spans centuries. The legends and tales of the place were disrupted suddenly with the population movements. What if the refugee from Ais Serkis recounts the old tales to his/her grandchildren? With the change of the physical, geographical reality, the old tales are no longer relevant to the space, they will be lost. Working in the valleys of Atsas or Solea in the past, I found that the stories told by the locals had as much value as the more scientific data from the ground or historical manuscripts. In the villages which were cleared by this forced displacement or genocide, the testament cannot be gathered as easily, and will most certainly not pass to the next generations, simply because they are no longer relevant. This is another tragedy.
A few years ago I met an old man from Ais Serkis. In London.