Famagusta’s Religious Heritage: Past, Present and Future

by Michael Walsh*

Famagusta’s story is one that is worth telling and one from which there is yet much to be learned, replete as it is with the contrasts of triumph and tragedy; avarice and devotion; influence and neglect. It is a history from which we learn of the historical complexity and richness of Mediterranean economics, politics and aesthetics, and also become aware of the pressing need that exists for a re-evaluation of the responsibilities of the international community concerning endangered heritage in regions where warfare may have ceased but where a political solution is yet to be found.

Though the city was founded in and around 964, and moved directly into the French sphere of influence in the 1190s, its meteoric rise to prominence did not truly begin until after the fall of Acre in 1291. At this point Lusignan Famagusta, via a negotiated balance of trade between east and west, became one of the principal entrepôts in the E/eastern Mediterranean and also, not insignificantly, the new coronation place of the Kings of Jerusalem. The majestic Cathedral of St. Nicholas in the main square, modelled on Rheims and the great ecclesiastical structures of the Rhinelands, was surrounded by smaller gothic churches of the many orders present in the Medieval city which included Greeks, Armenians, Nestorians, Jacobites, Georgians, Nubians, Indians, Ethiopians, and others.

There was a castle, a palace, and a port from which radiated trade connections with the known world. But Famagusta was also infamous for corruption, political treachery, the slave trade, and murder, so much so that Saint Brigitta preached in the city’s square that divine retribution was inevitable. Dante too wrote of Famagusta in Canto XIX of ‘Paradiso’, mentioning it by name.

At the end of the 14th century, catalysed by the enforced government of the Genoese (1373 – 1464), the decline began from which Famagusta would never fully recover. Trade began to re-route to Alexandria and Beirut while the Black Death cruelly decimated the population. Nevertheless, when the Genoese departed in 1464, Famagusta became a source of renewed interest for Venice which, after a strategic marriage and the subsequent abdication of Caterina Cornaro, acquired the city and the island in 1489. The Senate invested heavily with all the artistry and engineering of the Renaissance to remodel the magnificent walls (which Vasari tells us were constructed by Micheli Sanmichele) and these were completed just as relations with Venice’s Ottoman rivals in the eastern Mediterranean deteriorated and led to war.

The fall of Famagusta came in 1571 when Ottoman commander Lala Mustafa Pasha brought one of the most infamous sieges in the history of warfare to these impregnable walls. A year later, with the starvation of the Venetian garrison and subsequent flaying alive of its commander, the transfer of the city and port to ‘Selim, Ottoman Sultan, Emperor of the Turks, Lord of Lords, King of Kings, Shadow of God, Lord of the Earthly Paradise and of Jerusalem’ took place. One botched attempt was made by the Duke of Tuscany to recapture the great city in 1607, but it failed, and from that point to the British takeover in 1878 Famagusta receded into history and the ‘European imagination’ – becoming synonymous with martyrdom in the sense of losing one’s very soul. It was for that reason that Shakespeare’s ‘seaport in Cyprus’ in Othello, was most probably Famagusta. Though Christian travellers were forbidden entrance to the city over the next three hundred years, artists, writers and cartographers could still sketch, describe and depict it from beyond the walls, leaving behind a visual and written record of decline, depopulation and decay catalysed by several crippling earthquakes.

With the next imperial transfer, this time from Sultan to Empress (ie Ottoman Empire to British Empire) in 1878, Famagusta’s fortunes began an upward swing once again. Now, the abandoned city had life breathed back into it: the port was dredged and rebuilt, schools were erected, roads were made, swamps were drained and importantly, the churches, mosques and fortifications of Famagusta came in for considerable long-term conservation projects that spanned seven decades. With Empire, however, also came war. Famagusta, so long ghostly, again became a bustling sea port in the Great War, a centre of military intelligence, and a hospital base (and cemetery) for casualties from the Middle East theatre of operations. Several decades later it was bombed during the Second World War, and then, between 1945-47 housed tens of thousands of Jews in detention camps in the months leading up to the creation of the state of Israel. In the 1950s it witnessed the violent stirrings of Cypriot independence which arrived in 1960, experienced the subsequent intercommunal strife for over a decade, and then bore the brunt of the 1974 invasion of the island by Turkish forces – leaving its suburb of Varosha / Maraş a ghost town to this day.

Famagusta is located just beyond the ‘Green Line’ which divides Cyprus into two and within the self–declared, but internationally unrecognised, ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ which was declared in 1983. Its historic core is quiet again – home to a few businesses and a modest number of inhabitants, its sprawling suburbs host the Eastern Mediterranean University and offer the usual trappings of a university town, while the historic port plies its trade uniquely with Turkey. Though the war finished some decades ago being in an ‘unrecognised state’ means that Famagusta’s religious heritage (and archaeological sites etc) are now virtually ignored by the international community. How, the argument goes, can one work legally in a state which came into existence illegally?

Conservation of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste

Conservation of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste

Accordingly in 2008 and again in 2010 the Walled City of Famagusta was nominated and placed on the World Monuments Fund ‘Watch List’ of endangered global heritage sites, not because it was in a war zone, but because it was in an area characterised for debilitating and long-term political stalemate. In 2012, following patient and cautious trust building measures, the preparation of several preliminary reports, and a number of international conferences on the subject (in Paris, Budapest and Bern) emergency interventions began with a pilot project funded by the World Monuments Fund, Nanyang Technological University Singapore and the Famagusta Turkish Municipality. This resulted in the safeguarding of the important mural of The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste in the Church of St. Peter and Paul. The project was published, educational materials created to accompany it in local schools, and a documentary film made.

Orthscan of the Carmelite Church of  St. Mary

Orthscan of the Carmelite Church of St. Mary

The value of the project had not only been to protect the painting but to show that it could be done. Over the following two years the same team then turned its attention to the extensive interior decorations of three other 14th century ecclesiastical structures – the Armenian Church, St. Anne’s and the Carmelite Church of St. Mary Now a large international team drawn from 14 nations embarked on a trans-disciplinary project working in a range of scholastic pursuits, from Armenian archives to virtual reality; from chemical analysis to complexity theory; from art history to international law, and so on. Encouragingly discussions also began on returning the Armenian Church to the Armenian community of Cyprus for worship on special feast days, as is currently practiced at the nearby Agios Exorinos Church for the Greek Orthodox community. Foundational survey work was also conducted in the Orthodox church of Agia Zoni (especially to protect the mural of Saint Michael Fig 5) and the ‘Underground Church’ outside the Martinengo Bastion (with special emphasis falling on the painted heraldic devices).

Armenian Church Virtual Reality Tour

Armenian Church Virtual Reality Tour

Lastly, a non-invasive 3D modelling project was completed in St. George of the Greeks and this has since been published, while much more advanced Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality models are currently being built in Singapore.

The depth and range of academic work, I believe, was essential in appreciating and understanding what Famagusta was, and is. Combine this, then, with the knowledge that in a 2008 survey 92 percent of Greek Cypriots and 72 percent of Turkish Cypriots believed that protecting each other’s cultural heritage was an important way to improve understanding over the political, ethnic and religious dividing lines of Cyprus. In 2015 the United Nations (UNDP-PFF, at the behest of the Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage) took over responsibility for the protection of the ‘Martinengo Cluster’, incorporating the four churches within it which had been at the heart of the WMF / NTU / Municipality projects.

Famagusta’s unique story, its priceless treasure of human experience, its fragile tangible remains, its proximity to war torn Syria, and its current international isolation, offer us much food for thought. What can we learn about ourselves when studying Famagusta’s long departed cultural and ethnic heterogeneity, or when examining it as a remnant of imperialism and colonialism, or a site of contemporary memory and mourning? Additionally, it presents us with a compelling and urgent case study for the careful revision of international law as it currently exists relating to the protection of cultural heritage in post-conflict (but as yet politically unresolved) regions. The current status quo is unacceptable while the pilot projects led by the long-term WMF / NTU Singapore / Turkish Municipality of Famagusta collaboration demonstrate that it is unnecessary. Andrew McCarthy, Director of the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute, Cyprus, offered us a clinical assessment saying

although archaeologists and historians are often uncomfortable and unprepared to deal with the intricacies of international law, negotiating the legal landscape is a simple fact of life in Cyprus. That said, just knowing the laws is not enough as Cyprus has become a special case requiring special treatment. The situation necessitates a custom-tailored solution to fit the situation in Cyprus.

The editors of a special 2015 edition of the Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies entitled “Occupied with Saving the Past: Advancing the Preservation Agenda in Northern Cyprus” concluded in a similar manner

The current political and legal situation on Cyprus hinders excavation, conservation, and preservation of sites and monuments that are not just important to the people of Cyprus—both Greek and Turkish—but to the world. While we must obviously live in the present, we must also strive to better understand and protect the remains of the past. Only by doing so now can we ensure the world’s heritage for the future.

The pilot schemes rolled out in Famagusta between 2012-2015 showed the value of international academic collaborations with NGO’s and local authorities and dismissed the notion that ‘scholars of the past are ill-equipped to deal with the political entanglements of the present.’ With this in mind I believe scholars and engaged citizens should begin long term planning for this magnificent city in toto in the event, or absence, of a solution to the Cyprus Problem. Additionally, I believe politicians (locally and globally) should concede that the heritage of Famagusta should not be asked to wait for a wider solution to the Cyprus Problem with all its inherent displacement and property issues. Instead efforts should be made to create strategies to protect, appreciate and fund heritage interventions and to contemplate new management and education potentials. With the good-will of NGO’s, universities, local authorities and special interest organisations, much can be done to ensure the Future of Religious Heritage in Famagusta so that it does not get added to an already long list of irreparable losses on the island. But it will require a new type of thinking, one which I feel confident may exist within the current membership of the FRH forum.

*Michael Walsh is associate professor at Nanyang University, Singapore. He was previoulsy employed at Eastern Mediterranean University (Famagusta, Cyprus) where he successfully nominated Famagusta for inclusion in the World Monuments Fund Watch List (twice) and acted as team coordinator for the United Nations project ‘Cultural Heritage Data Collection in the northern part of Cyprus’. Michael was Associate Chair (Research) at ADM from 2012 – 216 and is currently fellow of both the Royal Society of Arts and the Royal Historical Society. Professor Walsh is a member of FRH.

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