Restoration work has begun at last on one of Cyprus’ holiest sites
By Evie Andreou
POLITICAL differences have finally been set aside as renovation work many, many years overdue has finally begun on one of Cyprus’ most symbolic and loved monuments, the historic monastery of Apostolos Andreas in Karpasia.
Years of disputes and disagreements between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, and also between experts on the way the complex was to be restored meant warnings that the structure could soon collapse came perilously close to being ignored.
Finally, in September the Church of Cyprus and the Turkish Cypriot religious foundation Evkaf signed two contribution agreements worth € 2.5m each with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) that oversees the project. USAID has also donated €25,000.
Less than two months after the keys were handed over to the bi-communal technical committee on cultural heritage – the facilitators of the restoration – journalists from both sides of the divide were invited by the UNDP on Tuesday to join the heritage committee and visit the monastery.
After nearly 30 years of being out of bounds, the monastery on the furthest tip of the Karpas peninsula has been accessible to Greek Cypriots ever since the checkpoints opened in 2003, yet its crumbling walls and sagging ceiling made this holy place a melancholy sight.
The monastery traces its roots to Apostle Andreas himself since, according to legend, the monastery was built on the spot where a boat carrying the saint ran aground on rocks during a journey to the Holy Land. Natural spring water flows from the site which locals call holy water (ayazma) and consider it to have healing powers.
A small chapel had been built close to the shore in the 15th century, while the church of the main monastery was erected in 1867. Lack of any maintenance work since the 1974 invasion and on top of shoddy 20th century additions meant the monastery was quite literally in danger of collapse.
The church is now a construction site and visiting journalists were made to don a safety helmet and jacket.
After a three-hour long journey through a changing scenery, from the vast fields of the Mesaoria plain to the coastal splendour of the Karpasia peninsula, we arrived at the monastery.
But before we negotiated the scaffolding of the building work, we had to run the gauntlet of the wild donkeys, almost as much a tourist attraction as the monastery itself. A banana packed for a snack, became a treat for two young donkeys and a member from the group tried to take a selfie with one of them. Not an easy task as they kept running away and towards the next person they hoped would give them food.
Torn away from this distraction, the journalists met with the members of the UNDP, the heritage committee members and the project’s engineers who were waiting at the church and were eager to show us around.
“I am very satisfied watching Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots working together to restore this monastery. This heritage is all of our duty to protect, and to pass on to our children,” said Andreas Pirishis, co-coordinator of the bi-communal technical committees.
After being instructed to stay on the path and always follow the engineers’ instructions, we were allowed into the church, small groups at a time.
Above the church, a building was added in 1914 to accommodate pilgrims that were staying overnight. The rooms will be turned into an archive and will store religious items.
Glued on the wall of this later addition is a weathered piece of paper, typewritten and dated April 10, 1962.
“All pilgrims are urged not to write or put nails on the walls, throw anything they do not need in the dust bins, not place room mattresses on the floors and not leave their cars in front of the rooms,” the notice says.
The tattered piece of paper reminded the younger journalists of the stories from home or school of the many families in pre-invasion days which would organise a pilgrimage to the monastery.
Getting there was not an easy task as the monastery sits on the island’s north-easternmost point, nearly a three-hour drive from Nicosia even today.
Depending on the point of departure it could take people two to three days.
Eighty-three-year-old Lefki Yiakoumi from Kseros, a village in the Morphou district remembers the pilgrimage well.
“When I was a child, I remember people even walking to Apostolos Andreas monastery, the same for Kykkos monastery too,” she said.
Those few fortunate ones that owned a car would take with them as many people as the car could carry, but most people travelled there by bus and at least up until the1950s, donkey-rides were not unusual.
Apostolos Andreas was important not only among Greek Cypriots but Turkish Cypriots too. During those pilgrimages, many Turkish Cypriots would ask their Christian neighbours to light a candle at the church on their behalf or they too would seek help for ailments or bring offerings to the monastery.
“We believe that this monument is not only the cultural heritage of the Greek Cypriots but also of the Turkish Cypriots and all humanity,” said Ali Tuncay, co-chair of the technical heritage committee.
“It is very important to us. Many Turkish Cypriots come here to make a wish,” he said.
Prior to the restoration works, all icons and church artefacts were removed and stored and some of them were used to set up a temporary place of worship in one of the rooms of the monastery’s complex.
“We have set up a temporary church here until renovation works are over. This is where we will carry out the liturgy to celebrate the saint’s day on November 30,” said Father Zacharias Georgiou, the only priest who serves the church and the Greek Cypriots who remained enclaved in the nearby village of Rizokarpaso after the invasion forty years ago.
He is from Ayia Triada, a village close to Rizokarpaso, and first came to the monastery in June 1961. On our visit, he was sitting on a chair at the side door of the makeshift church, enjoying the cool sea breeze.
“We hope everything goes well, it was our wish to renovate the monastery. Had these works not been done, it was going to be ruined,” he said.
The works are being carried out by two construction companies, one Greek Cypriot, the other Turkish Cypriot.
“The two contractors have built a cooperation; it is the first time this is happening in Cyprus and we hope that in the future we will expand on this model and expand in the restoration of the other monuments, the churches and mosques which are our common culture,” said Glafkos Constantinides, member of the heritage committee.
The first part of the four phase restoration is expected to take 19 months, and the heritage committee hopes that this cooperation will become an example for the whole region.
“I hope it sets an example to our region which is torn apart by religious extremism and fanaticism. People with different national and religious backgrounds can work together for the common good and create hope for a peaceful and better place,” said Takis Hadjidimitriou, the head of the heritage committee.