Cyprus Mail

Minaret as identity

Under Ottoman rule the Turkish Cypriots were largely dependent on vakif or religious foundation system

By Evie Andreou

OTTOMAN GREED, British colonial policies and Turkish nationalism are the main reasons why the majority of Turkish Cypriots are so secular, according to Mete Hatay, senior research consultant at the Cyprus centre of the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).

Hatay presented the results of a joint study carried out with fellow academic Altay Nevzat into why many Turkish Cypriots tend to have such a relaxed, almost indifferent attitude towards Islam, at the Centre of Visual Arts and Research in Nicosia on Thursday.

Even though there were Muslims in Cyprus before the Ottoman conquest of 1571, a sizeable and enduring Muslim community was only established on the island after the conquest, Hatay said.

The first Ottoman Muslims in Cyprus consisted of soldiers from the campaign who remained behind and were later joined by settlers brought from Anatolia as part of a traditional Ottoman population policy, he said.

In Cyprus, there were several religio-cultural identities: mainstream orthodox Sunni Islam dominant in towns; ‘folk’ Islam that incorporated magical and mystical elements mainly in rural areas, and tekke Islam that provided mystical interpretations of Islam and combined various Sufi aspects.

The social cohesion of the Muslim community of the island was greatly dependent on the vakif system as most mosques, schools, libraries, soup kitchens and orphanages were funded and maintained by vakifs, or inalienable religious endowments.

Vakif founders, those who donated buildings, plots of land or cash for religious or charitable purposes, could specify who could benefit from it, and could stipulate what part of the profits would go to their family, the rest of the community, the poor, travellers, etc.

“In the 19th century, two-thirds of arable land in the Ottoman Empire was vakifs,” Hatay said, explaining how the vakif system caused great loss of revenue to the state, since all of their income was going to the chosen charity.

This all changed under the Tanzimat reforms, introduced in 1839 by Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II who sought to modernise and centralise power in his shrinking empire. He created the Ministry of Evkaf (plural of vakif) to centralise vakifs, and all affairs concerning the religious endowments from all provinces of the empire, including Cyprus, were placed under its control.

By the time the British colonial government took over in 1878, the vakif system in Cyprus was in shambles.

“The Evkaf treasury was empty, mosques and buildings almost in ruins, schools neglected; everything connected with religion had suffered; all interests and wants were subordinated to the greed of the Ministry of Evkaf, at Stamboul, and the grasping wants of trustees who in most cases were only trustees in name,” wrote the first British delegate to the Cyprus Evkaf, Captain Seager, quoted by Hatay.

Islamic teaching and practices had suffered as a result and the only religious guidance Muslims in Cyprus received was by travelling Sufi dervishes, Hatay said, adding that Christian Catholics and Orthodox sought to fill that void.

He quoted a Greek scholar, Englezakis, who wrote:

“To give a taste of the period before 1900 I note that the credit for saving ten villages of linovamvakes in the Limassol district from Latin propaganda and securing them for Hellenism belongs to the Limassol money-lenders at 40 and 50 per cent, who, at the Church’s instigation, immediately ceased to lend to their formerly Turkish and now Maronite [Catholic] customers until they had forced them to become Orthodox.”

‘Linovamvakes’ were a fascinating sub-group of one might call ‘in-between’, ‘half-and-half’, or literally ‘linencotton’, who adhered to a blend of Islamic and Christian beliefs, customs and practices.

“The British aimed at closing down Efkaf but enforced some laws instead that led to its decline, like abolishing the tithe and turning some vakif properties, into private property and paid a fixed sum in compensation, that over time lost its value due to inflation,” Hatay said.

An added prod towards secularism came in the early 20th century, as Cypriot Muslims were influenced by ideas coming from Turkey, Hatay said, such as nationalism, Kemalism and the adoption of the Latin alphabet and western dress.

By the 1920s when the Efkaf proposed the construction of a theology school in Nicosia, the increasingly powerful Kemalists reacted strongly.

From the mid 20th century onward, nationalism rather than religion was dominant in any kind of arrangements, Hatay said, citing a pertinent example.

“In 1956, when the Efkaf administration was returned to the Turkish Cypriot community by the British, the first thing they did was to use the land to secure a loan from Barclays to build the Saray Hotel in Nicosia.”

While Turkish Cypriots certainly used Muslim symbols during the intercommunal troubles of the 1960s, according to Hatay these were an expression of identity rather than religion.

“In the 60s in the enclaves as soon as the Archbishop [President Makarios] allowed the use of concrete, the first thing that was built was minarets, but it was to show that they are Turkish Cypriots,” Hatay said.

The tekke at Larnaca, Cyprus' most important Islamic site
The tekke at Larnaca, Cyprus’ most important Islamic site

Even so, before 1974 religion still played a role. The years post-74 have seen Turkish Cypriots increasingly influenced by the political situation in Turkey, secularism, socialism and communism.

“For a long period Islam was under persecution within the Turkish Cypriot community. For those who are believers, who wanted to send their children to learn to read the Quran or to pray, there was no school or any selective courses in schools. Even afternoon religious courses, much like Sunday school, caused great reaction from secularists. This did not allow a place for believers to exist,” Hatay said.

He added that since the rise to power of Islamist Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) over a decade ago, the religious community has fought back. The AKP offered to construct a mosque and a religious school in Nicosia, which led to a fierce debate in the north.

But Hatay also sees this as a sign of nationalism.

“The Turkish Cypriots have very few symbols to show, the flag and minarets. It Turkifies the place,” he said.

He added that even though 30 mosques have been built in the north in the last ten years, the number had not actually increased. After a decision to deislamise churches, the new mosques simply replace the Orthodox churches that had been used as mosques since the invasion.


Mete Hatay’s lecture formed part of the SHARE lecture series sponsored by USAID.

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