Friday, March 18, 2011

A Brief and Complicated History of Cyprus

There was a book in the museum book shop about the history of Cyprus whose title read: The Island that Everyone Wanted. Honestly, I don't think that’s how that really how it played out. I think the book should really have been titled: The Island Everyone Thought They Wanted But Didn’t Realize How Hard it Would be to Keep. The island has had an ever changing cast of overlords beginning with the Hittites, cycling through Assyrians, Egyptians, Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Genoans, and Venetians, and ending with Ottomans and the British.

The Assyrians had it and lost it to the Egyptians, who were ousted by the Persians. The Persians were defeated by Alexander the Great and the island was just more spoils of war. When Alexander died, he left it in his will to Ptolemies of Egypt. The Romans annexed it – ‘cause that’s what they do – and briefly gave it to Cleopatra as a gift before she regifted it back to them. Many Christian kingdoms used Cyprus as a jumping off point to get supplies and fighters to the crusades in the Holy Land.

Eventually, the Romans entrusted it to the wrong guy who then declared himself Emperor of Cyprus. This was about the time that Richard the Lionheart stumbled on the island more or less by accident, conquered it, then sold it to the Knights Templar, who returned it as defective. Richard then sold it to Guy of Lusignan. When the last of the Lusignian Kings died out, his wife, a Venetian woman, eventually abdicated in favor of Venice.

Venice ruled for a while, but lost it to the Ottomans. The Ottomans sent settlers there and then more or less forgot it existed, outsourcing the running of the place to the British.

The British finally finagled it out of the Ottomans. They then tried to give it away to Greece, who didn’t want to honor the treaties made in the name of Cyprus and so refused. The British spent the next several decades trying to give it away to a good home like it was a lost puppy until they demanded their independence. Turkey and Greece more or less got joint custody. Either country had the right to intervene in the affairs of Cyprus if they thought that had to due to the fact that the island was made up mostly of Greek Cypriots but also some Turkish too.

In 1974, a year that I heard a lot about in my short stay in Cyprus, the Turks invaded the island, claiming the top half for themselves. The battles were fierce and to this day 1619 people are still missing.

Now I have clearly only heard one side of this story – not once have I met a Turk in Cyprus – but it is a powerful story nonetheless. Greeks in general have a long memory and they are not likely to soon forget what was taken from them.

The most of which is a large amount of ancient and beautiful churches with gorgeous frescoes, icons, and mosaics, all destroyed by the invading Turks. The frescoes and mosaics were either defaced, or cut out of the walls and sold on the black market to art collectors all over Europe.

In the museum we went to the first day, there were tons of beautiful religious icons – gold painted Marys holding baby Jesus’ and haloed saints – and almost every single one of them had been defaced in some way. They were almost all carried from churches on the Turkish side of the island. There are some very moving pictures of old women and men carrying the icons and nothing else out of Turkish occupied Cyprus (see how quickly it’s become ‘occupied Cyprus’?). One of the most tragic things I saw that day was an icon, a beautifully rendered Virgin Mary and child, half turned to charcoal. Like someone had pulled it from a fire it was half lying in.

Don’t get me wrong. This struggle had little to do with religion and everything to do with culture. Like the clash between the West and Muslim extremists or Hindus and Muslims, it is all about culture. In the case of the former, the extremists are simply living out their own apocalyptic fantasies (remember we talked about apocalypses?) where they are the gods who will one day overthrow the Titans (though I am almost certain they would not appreciate my characterization). The later have a deeply entrenched history of violence that cannot be forgotten by either party.

As for Cyprus, it is full of the bloody tales of martyrs to the cause of a united Greek state, and of injustices endured by the Cypriots at the hands of the Turks. I can’t say I am at all unbiased about the struggle here and I honestly don’t think I would have enjoyed a trip to Istanbul after being in Cyprus so I am glad I did it the other way around.

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