By Evie Andreou
THE DIVINE Liturgy will echo within the walls of the Armenian Church of Virgin Mary in northern Nicosia for the first time in 50 years today.
For the hundreds of the Armenian Cypriots attending – some from abroad – it will be a profoundly emotional moment as they return to a church and its surrounding buildings which once formed the core of their everyday lives. The medieval church of Virgin Mary, or Sourp Azdvadzadzin, is located in the heart of what was the Armenian quarter of Nicosia until 1964, when the community abandoned the area during the inter-communal troubles. The last liturgy took place in January 1964.
“I don’t know if I will be able to control my tears when I hear the choir sing from the balcony,” said Sebouh Tavitian who as a boy used to serve in the church every day with his cousin.
I met Tavitian and other members of the Armenian Cypriot community at the church on Friday when they went to clean and prepare it for today’s service.
He remembers the time when the church compound met most of the community’s religious, educational and social needs from births, baptisms, weddings and funerals. Within its confines was a pre-school and elementary school, the Armenian Bishopric, the monument to the genocide and even a scouts’ hall.
“I am very emotional. I belong to the generation that grew up in the area. I attended all schools here, I served the church every day with my cousin, I was baptised here, and my parents got married here as well as all my relatives,” said Tavitian.
“Back then there was no TV, no computers. We used to spend our time playing football in the church’s yard, we were also scouts.”
Alexander-Michael Hadjilyra, the spokesman of the Armenian MP Vartkes Mahdessian, explained how Armenian was spoken everywhere.
“On funerals they would plaster announcements on the electricity poles to inform everyone. Opposite the church complex is the first hotel in Nicosia established in 1875 by the Soultanian family. The Armenian Club was one of the oldest clubs in Nicosia, it was established in 1902, and it hosted the community’s cultural events,” he said.
For Sirvat Kouyoumdjian, a member of the Women’s Church Committee and once a resident of the quarter, her most vivid memory was the church’s icon.
“There used to be an icon of Saint George in the church and it was a miracle maker. People used to come and place their babies’ shoes in front of it so that they would grow and be healthy,” she said
“This is my first time here since 1964. I was sleepless for two nights,” said another helper, Elsie Utidjian. “I used to live in Tanzimat Street. I was baptised in the church and attended both pre-school and elementary school here.”
“I have mixed feelings. I am excited. I am very happy I was able to be part of the group that helped prepare the church,” said Anahid Eskidjian also a member of the Women’s Church Committee with Utidjian and Kouyoumdjian.
Like them, she also went to school there, as did her brother who has been living in the United States since 1964. He, and many former pupils who now live abroad, have returned especially for the service.
“It will be like a reunion after all these years,” said Eskidjian.
The liturgy will be carried out by the Armenian Archbishop Varoujan Herkelian, and the Armenian Church’s Choir will take its traditional place in the balcony.
Sourp Azdvadzadzin was originally a Latin church built in 1308-1310 after being commissioned by King Henry II of Cyprus. It stood on an earlier 12th century church which, before being destroyed by earthquake in 1303, had housed religious orders and been a nunnery.
The monastery came under the Armenian Church in 1504. Two firmans (edicts) issued in 1571 and 1614 during the Ottoman rule, confirm the Armenian ownership of the church.
Over time the church underwent various changes. It was restored in 1688, 1884 and 1904. Between 1960 and 1961, the Antiquities Department replaced the medieval tombstones in the floor and installed new flooring.
Between 1964 and 1998 the church complex was used as barracks for the Turkish Cypriot militia and Turkish soldiers.
It was restored between 2009 and 2012 by the UNDP-ACT and USAID funding in close co-operation with the office of the Armenian Representative Vartkes Mahdessian and the Armenian Prelature of Cyprus.