Παρασκευή, 30 Νοεμβρίου 2012

Times and seasons in Cyprus

By Idris Tawfiq 

Cyprus today is as modern a nation as any other, currently holding the Presidency of the European Union and acting as a bridge between East and West because its culture and traditions span both. The legendary island of Aphrodite, Cyprus is truly beautiful. In addition, the recent discovery of gas reserves off its shores means that the economy of Cyprus is set to soar.
  Conquest, invasion and occupation have been part of human history since history was first written and the beautiful Mediterranean island of Cyprus has had its own share of invaders. Even today, this island situated strategically at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, feels the pain of division and has been split in two since the Turkish invasion in 1974. The people of Cyprus, though, have managed to cope. After all, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Venetians, Genoese, Ottoman Turks and the British have all at one time occupied their island and left their own mark on its people and on the way it looks.
   The Crusader knights had their kingdom in Palestine for 200 years. The Lusignan dynasty, which had its origins as feudal lords in Poitiers in France, travelled to the Holy Land and made their name there. Through scheming and skillfully arranged marriages, the Lusignans became kings of Jerusalem and reigned there from 1186 to 1205. Their rule, though, was not successful and they were defeated and lost Jerusalem to the great Muslim leader, Saladin. They ruled again in Acre from 1268 to 1291, but always claimed their lost territory in Palestine.
Richard the Lionheart had conquered Cyprus on his way to the Crusades and he sold the island to Guy de Lusignan. So when their rule in Palestine came to an end, instead of returning home to France, they packed their bags and went off to be kings of Cyprus as well.
   As we have noted, modern-day Cyprus is divided in two. Muslims are to be found all over the island, but, since 1974, most of them have been living in the Turkish occupied north. Muslims had been in Cyprus since 649, but came in the greatest numbers with the Ottoman conquest in 1570. And it is this complicated mix of invasion and conquest, of religion and culture that concerns us here.
   The Ottomans turned many of the Catholic churches of Cyprus into mosques. The two greatest of these were once Christian cathedrals and it is now possible to travel from the south of the island to the occupied north and visit these two splendid buildings. The cathedral of the Holy Wisdom (Santa Sophia) in Nicosia is now the Selimiye Mosque and the cathedral of Saint Nicholas in Famagusta is the Lala Pasha Mosque. Both buildings are truly magnificent and worthy of a visit.
   The Lusignan kings remained in control of Cyprus until 1489. Not many kings have two coronations, but on ascending to the throne, each new king was crowned first as King of Cyprus in the cathedral in Nicosia and then, in another ceremony, as King of Jerusalem in the cathedral in Famagusta.
   Lala Pasha Mosque in Famagusta is now named after the commander of the 1570 Ottoman conquest. Famagusta itself is now a shadow of the town it once was built between 1298 and 1312. The cathedral of Saint Nicholas was then and is now its greatest building. It has three doors, twin towers over the aisles and a flat roof. So much does it resemble the French Gothic style popular at the time, although rare outside France itself, that it has been called the “Reims of Cyprus”.
   Walking north from Ledra Street in the Greek part of Nicosia, with its chic boutiques and Western brand names, it is possible to pass through a checkpoint into the occupied north of the city, where the chic boutiques give way to winding streets selling handicrafts and local goods. Most tourists make the journey to visit the Selimiye Mosque. Fascinated by the shoe shops and shops selling towels and blankets, the visitor turns a corner and his breath is taken away by the sight of what was once an enormous Gothic cathedral.
   Begun in 1209, the cathedral took 150 years to build and it towers above modern day Nicosia. Consisting of three aisles, the present mosque, according to Islamic custom, has none of the frescoes and mosaics with which it was once adorned. Indeed, visitors unaccustomed to the interior of a mosque might at first be slightly disappointed by the present day simplicity of the white interior.
   Outside, though, three of the four arches on the building’s great West façade bear statues of apostles and kings. Walking around the outside of the mosque is like walking in any cathedral city in France. The great buttresses holding up the walls, and the intricate stonework of the windows, compare with any of the great Gothic cathedrals of the world. When the Ottomans turned the cathedral into a mosque, they added two great minarets to the western part.
   Although their tombstones and funerary monuments are no longer to be found, underneath the carpet of this mosque and beneath the slabs of stone are buried the Lusignan kings. What an irony that these men who fought the Saracens in the Holy Land should now lie beneath the feet of their descendants when they pray five times a day in the mosque.
   But life is like that. Muslims read in the Holy Qur’an:
“And every nation has its appointed term;
When their term is reached, neither can they delay it
nor can they advance it an hour (or a moment).”
(7:34)
   Just as the Lusignan kings of Jerusalem, when their time had come, moved on to Cyprus, so they left Cyprus when their time there had run its course. Modern day politics is very complicated. One country invades another and occupies its territory for a period. At the time, it seems as though that period will never end. But times and seasons are as nothing to Almighty God. Even centuries to Himare like brief moments.
The history of Cyprus’ two great mosques teaches us that, for a moment, one nation holds sway over another, believing itself to be invincible. People of faith, however, have a different vision and believe that times and seasons belong to God. Inshallah, God willing, all the people of Cyprus will one day be united once more and will be able to pray and worship side by side, as they have done for countless centuries.
Until then, we can enjoy the beauty and the legacy those different faiths have bequeathed to this island of Aphrodite.

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