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For three weeks, I got to call the island of Athena home. St. Paul shipwrecked here. Phonecians, Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, Turks and more Greeks have called this island home before me. I spent the better part of July living in an apartment with a pool, two kilometers from the beach, with an agenda that primarily included visiting orthodox churches and historic sites while preparing my first university syllabus.
Cyprus is an island divided, and I wonder if my Irish friends would find something familiar about it. On the southern side, Greek flags are abundant, but it took a couple days before I saw my first Cypriot flag. On the north side, the flag of Turkey is seen at least as often as that of Northern Cyprus.
Most of the world (except Turkey) sees the northern part of the island as occupied territory, with a massive amount of Turkish military and settlers who arrived in response to an attempted coup (by Greek Cypriot nationalists) in 1974. About 200,000 people were displaced, both Turkish and Greek Cypriots, forcing ethnic Greeks to the south, and Turkish Cypriots to the north. The Republic of Cyprus (south) controls a little less than 60% of the island, while the Turkish Republic of Cyprus holds most of the rest. There is a UN buffer zone between, and a couple of British military reservations on the south side.
The total population of the island is about 1.1 million, with about 300,000 living in the north, perhaps half of whom are actually Turkish or the children of Turkish settlers (in contrast to ethnically Turkish Cypriots). The Turkish military maintains about 30,000 troops on the island. One Turkish Cypriot shared this analogy with me:
Imagine the UK invaded the US in response to a crisis (say, an attempted coup by the western states, who wanted to unite with Canada), and left a garrison of 30 million British troops on American soil for the next forty years. Obviously, there’s a shared language, ethnicity, history, and origin… but British soldiers on American soil, numbering 10% of the population in the occupied area? Say, New England? How would that go over at home?
Recently, however, relations seem to have relaxed a little, and some transit across the border is allowed. The capital city of Nicosia (Lefkosa) is divided, not unlike Berlin during the cold war, an image Cypriots of both sides used while I was there. While sipping lemonade in the Buyuk Han, an Ottoman-era inn and market, we got to meet one of the northern Cypriot politicians who was working toward reunification, reflecting a significant minority view, that, it seems, is growing with younger Cypriots there.
The first day in Cyprus saw sunset from the church of Agios Giorgios (St. George). Before that, though, a visit to the ecumenical center of Pahos, Agia Kyriaki Chrysopolitissa – otherwise now known as St. Paul’s Catholic Parish of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem in Paphos, Cyprus (entrusted to them since 1986). The Anglican community of Paphos also accepted an invitation to use the Church for worship (since 1988). The invitation was extended to the Maronite, Lutheran and Finnish communities. The site includes “St. Paul’s Pillar”, where according to local tradition, the apostle was lashed 39 times for preaching Christianity, before managing to convert the local Roman proconsul, Sergius Paulus, the first recorded Roman official to convert. (cf Acts 13)
In the south, I spent most of my time near Paralimni, on the southeast corner of the island, with a couple days around Paphos, and a couple days around the local region, such as Agia Napa and Cave Grecko.
It is common for many of the Orthodox churches to have some exterior space where the faithful can light candles or incense, even when the church is closed. Sometimes this is as simple as a converted barbecue, or as elaborate as a completely separate building. In the case of Agia Thekla, it was a sea cave turned grotto, covered in icons. (Never heard of St. Thecla, disciple of Paul? You have, you just don’t know it. The oldest image of Paul in the world is in the catacomb of St. Thecla in Rome, just discovered a couple years ago, under a modern office building!)
With more experience of Byzantine orthodoxy from the Russians and other slavs, I was unprepared for the relatively casual approach to worship here: No heads covered, summer clothes (sundresses rather than beachwear, though) some impromptu recruiting of a very excited young acolyte, and observing the feast day by passing under the icon of the saint. Antidiron (it seemed) and a mix of pomegranate, sesame, and almonds were distributed regularly after vespers.
In the north, a local couple showed us around – a Turkish Cypriot high school teacher and his Turkish wife, both generous hosts, showed off a few choice sites. There’s an English village clinging to a cliffside called Karmi, where remnants from the British occupation settled and never left, even after the Turks took over. Bellapais abbey looks out over the port town of Kyrenia, and dates back to the 14th century.
The last, we celebrated vespers on the hilltop church of the Prophet Elijiah, overlooking Protaras, on his feast day. If I had planned it, I might not have made it in time, it just happened that my friend and I decided to climb the hill that day, at that hour, and found ourselves ready to get good seats and join in the liturgy honoring the prophet just after the sun set on my last day in Cyprus.
The next morning, a few hours before I flew to Romania, air raid sirens sounded to commemorate the 39th anniversary of the Turkish invasion. Prior to that, most days were filled with church bells and/or the call of the muezzin, both of which fill me with prayerful peace.