Cyprus travelogue: Bellapais Abbey

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Κυπριακά δαμαί

Our second day trip was to Bellapais Abbey. If you regularly read my blog, you’ll know that the history of the island is a great passion of mine. I had only seen Bellapais on  framed posters/photos which lamented the loss of the occupied north, two-dimensional and meaningless if you had no knowledge of the space. I always wanted to visit it, so I set out one morning with the family. We crossed north from Ayios Nicolaos (4-mile point). This was the first time I’d been to the north in my dad’s car, so I had to buy insurance. I went to the insurance ‘cabin’ at the crossing. There were two Turkish-speaking Cypriots, a man and a woman. The man addressed me in Greek-Cypriot, while the woman was preparing breakfast. As I was supplying the man with the vehicle details (pick-up truck, empty shotgun shells in the back, all sorts of agricultural tools in the passengers feet, a tonne of dust), I was also observing the woman. She cut cucumber, tomatoes, halloumi, and then, to my surprise, took out a can of ‘polipif’ (the Cypriot word for ‘bully beef’, but actually used for canned pork, luncheon meat etc). I know that many Turkish Cypriots are not generally religious, and some probably eat pork. However, if eating pork is an insult to the prophet, eating ‘polipif’ goes beyond the insult. For me, this was another confirmation of our shared post-colonial culture, since it was the British who brought us ‘polipif’. In the UK, very few people still eat it, as they have access to real meat nowadays (although I do spot the old granny buying corned beef by the slice). In Cyprus it’s part of the culture, eaten with halloumi and water melon.

We slowly made our way to the Famagusta-Nicosia motorway. Only by taking this route can you possibly comprehend what Mesaoria actually means. Although us historians are fully aware of it as the bread-basket of Venice (and partly Istanbul), seeing it in all its glory, vast and flat, full of hay bales, is quite something.

A great problem I have every time I visit the north are the new names of villages. This attempt to erase the history of the space by changing place-names infuriates me. In the Ottoman sources, all villages and towns had names which were either a simple transliteration/pronunciation of the name in Turkish (Kyrenia/Girniye, Lemesos/Limesun,  Morfou/Omorfa, Lapithos/Lapta) or a translation of a particular feature, such as Değirmenlik (=place of many mills) for Kythrea, a village with a total of 36 flour mills. The changing of place-names with other, irrelevant (but ethnically loaded) names is nothing short of barbaric. As if it’s not enough to have lost the historical memory of space, we also lost the place-names so that we have no realistic point of reference (There was a feeble attempt to ‘Grecify’  some names in the south a few years back, which failed). Google Maps has both versions of names at the moment.

We finally reached Bellapais. I cannot adequately describe the beauty of this medieval space, another sample of the wealth of the Frankish Kingdom of Cyprus. The monastery appears fortified, perched in the bosom of the Pentadaktylos mountains. There are many symbols of the Lusignan kings, and Catholicism as you’d expect. There are also other pieces of evidence: a marble Roman sarcophagus somebody must have hauled from somewhere else, and on its stone base are carved two stars of David-who knows where they came from?

It goes without saying that around the monastery you have the usual tourist traps, but also-as someone pointed out too late-the house of Lawrence Durrell, author of The Bitter Lemons of Cyprus.

I left Bellapais feeling troubled. The rich medieval heritage of Frankish-Venetian Cyprus (the last Crusader kingdom, no less) is not adequately promoted (or celebrated), as it does not sit in with the island’s nationalisms. This feeling was reinforced during my visit to the (brilliant) Medieval Museum in the Limassol Castle-something I’ll be describing shortly.

We slowly got on to the road back to Famagusta, with the sun on our backs, baking the plains, and the place-names burning a hole in me.


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