I grew up among people who were never able to return to their homes. They spent their entire lives pining for their wives and children, wondering about the state of repair of their places of abode and died without ever seeing them. One of them, who we called “pappou Niko” would muse, every July: “With us it was foretold. Saint Kosmas came to the village and said: ‘One day this village will be cut by a vast iron chain.’ And right where he stood, that is where they drew the border between Greece and Albania. My house fell on the Albanian side, and my fields on the Greek side. It was foretold. But Saint Kosmas never went to Cyprus. What curse was this that cut an entire island in two?”
The first time I went to the Cyprus Archaeological Museum in Lefkosia, I was surprised to see a large number of Assyrian artefacts.
“What, did you think that Cyprus belongs to Greeks alone?” a young man sniggered. Hady, a Lebanese student of archaeology referred me to the Sargon stele, found in Kition, to commemorate the Assyrian conquest of Cyprus, along with the prism of Esarhaddon, which listed 10 Cypriot kingdoms tributary to the Assyrians. He went on to explain that the main deity of ancient Cyprus was the Great Goddess, the Assyro-Babylonian Ishtar, and the Phoenician Astarte, only later known as Aphrodite. Hady pointed to amulet evidence to suggest that many of the gods worshipped in Cyprus included the Phoenician Anat, Baal, Eshmun, Reshef, Mikal and Melkart. As a parting shot, he mentioned Carpasia, symbol of the enclaved Greeks stuck in their homes under the Turkish occupation regime, which was founded by the Phoenician ruler, Pygmalion of Tyre.
When my brother-in-law went to Cyprus, he could not visit the iconic Nestorian church aptly named St George the Exiler. Built in 1360 by the Syriac Lakhas brothers in Gothic style, this church was a refuge for the Syriacs fleeing Islamic religious persecution in the Middle East and remained so until 1571 when the conquering Ottomans converted it into a stable for camels, with worship being allowed on only one day of the year, the Feast of “Saint George the Exiler.” The church is in occupied Ammochostos. Though it is no longer in use, it remains an important point of reference for both the Assyrian Church of the East and the Chaldean Catholic Church, for it was in Cyprus that the latter church first obtained its name and it was to Cyprus that the Assyrian Patriarch Mar Shimun was effectively exiled by the British in 1934, for inconveniently reminding them that they had reneged on their promises to provide his flock with a national homeland and to protect them from Islamic intolerance. For the Assyrian people, therefore, Cyprus is synonymous with sanctuary.
My friend Varant dates the presence of Armenians in Cyprus to 577 when, during a war against the Persians, Byzantine general Mauricius deported 3,000 captured Armenians to Cyprus. He is proud of the fact that after Emperor Isaac Comnenos’ wedding to the daughter of the Armenian prince Thoros in 1185, Armenian nobles and warriors came with him to Cyprus, many of whom defended the island against King of England, Richard the Lionheart. Though he could conceivably do so, he says he has not the heart to visit the centre of Armenian spirituality in Cyprus, the monastery of Sourp Magar, founded in the early 11th century, because it falls under the occupying regime. Consequently, since 1974, it has been vandalised, stripped of building materials and allowed to fall into ruin. Varant also waxes lyrical about Saint Nerses Lambronatsi, one of the most significant figures in Armenian literary and ecclesiastical history. A fervent advocate of the union between the Greek and Armenian churches, he studied at the famous Ganchvor Monastery in occupied Ammochostos. This monastery was partially burnt by Turkish Cypriot militia in March 1957. It exists in a ruined condition within the occupied zone and Varant becomes teary when he speaks of it.
Every week, academic and poet Erma Vassiliou can be heard on multicultural radio 3ZZZ analysing the vocabulary of the Cypriot dialect. According to her, many of the words used in villages that sound quaint or outlandish are of French origin and she points to the linguistic and cultural influences of the mainly French-speaking Crusaders upon Cyprus as a whole. She has engaged in extensive study of the Lusignan family’s rule in Cyprus and it is ironic, given Cyprus’ later fate, that its rulers styled themselves heirs to the Kingdom of Jerusalem – a state whose successor also exists within the stasis of a de facto partition.
My friend Hamza takes issue with me when I speak of the invasion of Cyprus. His family came to Australia at about that time. He tells me I take no account of the inter-communal violence of 1962-1963. Before he discussed the matter with me, I had no knowledge of the fact that a court ruled in 1963 that President Archbishop Makarios had failed to uphold article 173 of the Cypriot constitution which called for the establishment of separate municipalities for Turkish Cypriots. I did not know President Archbishop Makarios subsequently declared his intention to ignore the judgement, resulting in the West German judge resigning from his position. Similarly, I did not know that in 1962, a Greek Cypriot policeman, called to assist officers with a taxi driver refusing access to check the identification documents of his customers, took out his gun upon arrival and shot and killed the taxi driver and his partner, causing inter-communal conflict. Nor did I know that in the ensuing violence, a total of 364 Turkish Cypriots and 174 Greek Cypriots were killed, or that it is claimed that 25,000 Turkish Cypriots were displaced from their homes. Our narrative of the invasion tends to start in 1974 with the installation of Samson’s pro-Junta regime. Turkish Cypriots are largely absent from it.
I try to tell Hamza that though violence is regrettable, it can (and was) resolved and that this has no bearing upon the enormity of the crime that is the invasion of Cyprus, a sovereign state, a decade after those events. I call a situation where two peoples cannot accept the rule of law and live side by side, respecting each other’s identity and narratives, a failure of civilisation and of International Law. He does not see it that way. According to him, the Turkish invasion was a godsend, designed to ‘protect’ the Turkish population of the island from the Greeks. He cares nothing for the cultural crimes of looting, destruction of archaeological sites that attest to a Greek presence on the island, or the desecration of churches.
“Come off it,” he scoffs. “Your 1821 Revolution and the ‘Invasion’ of Turkey in 1919-1922 proves that we can’t live together.”
I ask him whether in his heart of hearts, he believes that Turkey ever intended the Turkish Cypriots to try.
“Don’t forget. It is our island. The British forced us to relinquish it in 1878. That was the real crime. But guess what? They wouldn’t give it to you either. Blame the British, not us.”
Last year, members of a nationalistic group attended the annual Justice for Cyprus protest, bearing a banner calling for Cyprus’ union with Greece. To their consternation, organisers asked them to remove it. At the time a woman in the crowd with a thick Cypriot accent opined: “What the hell do these καλαμαράες want? For them to stuff up Cyprus the way they have stuffed up Greece?”
Cyprus thus means different things to different people. In the ebb and flow of history, it has stood at the confluence of crucial events on more than one occasion. A conflict that has ‘frozen’ into a stalemate, that seems unlikely to thaw anytime soon, has merely served to legitimise the aggressor and allow it to employ its monolithic narrative as a means of cynically scoring foreign policy ‘points’ that will allow it to maintain a strategic supremacy in the region.
We go to protest this Sunday, in solidarity with the Justice for Cyprus organising committee, against a power whose thirst for aggression has not been slaked and for whom remorse is an unknown word. We go to protest, against an International Community that has failed to punish blatant breaches of International Law and as a result, has aided and abetted that power in committing its crime and getting away with it. We go to protest this Sunday, against a cynical international system that even now, as the same power threatens aggression against Cyprus, in order to steal its resources, sits idly by and mouths mere platitudes of sympathy, doing nothing. But most of all, we go to protest this Sunday, to ensure that the memories, the cultural narratives and religious convictions of all to whom Cyprus is significant, are safeguarded and respected. For it is only in the recognition and the hallowing of those narratives that peace, cohesion, and justice for Cyprus can ultimately be effected.