In the mukhtar of Fikardou AGNIESZKA RAKOCZY meets a fiery man who has no time for government or civil servants but is happy to toil for one of the island’s most picturesque villages
A walk on the Troodos with Sophocles Markides is much more than a stroll along steep and winding nature paths. It is a walk through the history of the country he loves with equal amounts of passion and, let it be said (indeed, it must be said), exasperation. Bounding along the familiar trails, he enthuses about the scenic contours, clearly a source of great pleasure and serenity to this complex and multi-faceted man. His love of nature and landscape is infectious but stray from the topic of the great outdoors and into the world of pettifogging bureaucrats and the sky will darken and the storm clouds will gather.
Sophocles does not suffer fools gladly and in his view bureaucrats and politicians mostly fit that category. Ironic this, given that late in life, the now 76-year-old Sophocles became the mukhtar of Fikardou, the unique mountain village transformed in the late 1970s by the Department of Antiquities into an open-air museum, full of original 18th-century stone-built dwellings.
Sophocles Markides was born into a prosperous Nicosia family, one of two children, privileged and, by his own admission, somewhat spoiled. His father launched into business in his early twenties and by 1947 had set up the Cyprus Transport Company, which was the largest non-public sector employer on the island with more than 1,000 employees.
Sophocles attended the Pancyprian Gymnasium during turbulent times when his parents were active in Eoka to the extent that the family home was raided frequently. His father’s business provided an invaluable network for the Eoka movement, four of whose top leaders worked for the company. At one point his mother was jailed for 18 months. Sophocles himself became a member of the Eoka youth movement. In the spring of 1957, he was arrested and taken to the police station. A friendly police chief, a Turkish Cypriot called Niyazi, called his father to tell him ‘They’ve got your son and they’ll beat the hell out of him to find out what’s going in your house so it’s best if he disappears.’ The police chief arranged for Sophocles to be let out to fetch some clothes. Instead, he was hustled away to the airport, put on a plane and sent to Greece.
Once there he found himself enrolled in the Anavryta Classical Lyceum with its exclusive intake of the sons and heirs of the Athenian elite. However, 15-year-old Sophocles, showing the stubbornness that was to become a signature characteristic, was unimpressed.
“I went on hunger strike. I wanted to go back to Cyprus and fight in the mountains.” For four weeks, he held out, not eating, just sipping water. Finally a friend convinced him to stay, arguing that there was no need for him to go back to Cyprus just then. “I stayed there three years and I had a great time.”
Once he reached the sixth form, he qualified for even greater privileges since it was part of the curriculum for the top class (literally) to dine every fortnight at the palace with the royal family. They were “very nice”, he says, recalling that Queen Frederica was a “fantastic person”. His favourite was Princess Irini.
Despite such heady outings, it was a tough school and he benefited from its emphasis on the responsibilities of duty and leadership. “I was a spoiled kid. I didn’t know the world. I thought everyone was well off. The school taught us humanity, the need to help and lead, to be compassionate and civil, considerate of others, not condescending.”
After graduation Sophocles read economics at the City University of London, taking his degree in 1967. Back in Cyprus, he came first among applicants for a position with the government planning bureau, took up the think tank post and found himself answering direct to the President. He married the next year and worked in government until 1971, when he left Cyprus to pursue a PhD. He never got to finish it because he was called back to Cyprus to help with the family business.
Fast forwarding to the invasion, Sophocles was aghast at how disorganised “our side was”. Having served in the Intelligence Corps, he was familiar with defence planning and thought what was happening “was unexplainable”.
“We are still trying to find out why. Everything is very disconnected. I can tell you what happened in Ayios Kassianos but not in Paphos Gate or Kyrenia. A friend there said there was no plan in Kyrenia either, just chaos.” To this day, Sophocles believes there was “some dirty business” involved.
He was released from military service in October 1974, but as his wife and two children were in the UK and the house was empty, he headed off to the family-owned hotel in the Troodos. There he found his parents and practically the entire pre-coup government as well as many refugees from his father’s village of Yerolakkos. “We told them ‘nobody pays for anything, as long as there is food we share but don’t expect luxury’”.
Seeing that many government houses in the vicinity had been vacated, Sophocles broke in and he commandeered some empty hotels to accommodate the hordes of refugees who had been huddling under trees in the cold. The British base in Troodos helped with blankets.
In January 1975, Sophocles was the recipient of an official letter from the district office in Limassol, accusing him of damage to government properties and of housing refugees who he must now remove from said premises. “We had a copy machine so I copied this letter, put it in envelope, said something nasty on top of it and sent it back – never heard from them again…”
Those sentiments continue to inform his view of a political aparatchik-favouring system which, he maintains, “has been designed to produce stupid politicians.” He doesn’t mince his words. Never has. “They have no interest of the country as their priority. They care more about their party’s interest. They are bunch of liars.”
With a touch of relish, Sophocles admits that he likes to challenge the system. “The last time was a few weeks ago. They passed a law to capture crooks in the government and local authorities. So now we have to disclose not only our incomes and properties but also our wife’s and those of our children who are not adults, and what’s more they claim the right to go back some 30 years.
“All this I fine with me. But then when they send me a form to fill in and the currency stated on it is British pounds – not euros! I wrote them back in January and said ‘you made a mistake, I am not going to fill the form with sterling because we are the Republic of Cyprus so you need to change the form’.
“In May, a letter arrived saying ‘you failed to fill this form so you have to pay a fine of 100 euro and 10 euros a day until you pay”.
True to form (in every sense of the word), Sophocles hit the roof and wrote back saying the sender was unsuited to public office having ignored the gist of his letter that sterling is not the legal currency of Cyprus, adding that “I am suing you for damages, you personally and not the Republic, because I don’t think the Republic should be paying for idiots like yourself’. The form has since been modified to euros and an eager Sophocles looks forward to his day in court.
It won’t be the first and it’s unlikely to be his last. He says he has won many cases and spent considerable sums in taking such actions. But why?
“When something is wrong it has to be put right. You have to try. I don’t attack the system as such. We still have a democracy and I don’t want to see it overthrown. I take on people within the system who make wrong decisions be it the president, ministers, whoever. If somebody is wrong, they have to be removed. It is usually people who do wrong – the actual law is good but implementation is wrong. Like the law on local government – something that is very close to me as a mukhtar.”
Sophocles and family lost access to friends and properties in the north after the events of 1974. For years he and wife were looking for a place in the mountains.
Twenty years later, thanks to a friend who lived nearby, they were introduced to Fikardou and there they found what they were looking for, literally, a property perched on a peak. An architect friend helped build a home making sure not to spoil the mountain or the stone walls lining the plot. Today, the house is fully biological and environmentally friendly, complete with its own water and electricity (photovoltaic and generator-powered) which means “we don’t need anything from the government”.
Not long after arriving in the village, Sophocles was asked to join the village council and he agreed principally to help the then mukhtar, Yiannakos, a local taverna owner, with administration. Five years on and he was asked to be the new mukhtar, a post he reluctantly accepted, conditional on Yiannakos agreeing to be part of the council.
Yiannakos said yes and Sophocles was handed 15 pages of documents about the village’s administration. Today, those pages have grown to big boxes full of files, lots of correspondence and, as Sophocles says, “practically, my office in Nicosia works for Fikardou.” He is currently in his third five-year term, having been ready to wrap up in keeping with the two-term limit that was proposed and then blocked by MPs.
These days there are only three permanent residents in the village proper, while some 50 people live in the immediate hinterland. Added to this, 200 or so former residents or their children return to Fikardou each summer. The fluctuating population presents its own problems. When no-one is around, security is a concern, especially that of the church. Sometimes Sophocles ventures forth at midnight, a one-man patrol, checking doors to ensure that all is well.
If Fikardou is to have a future, people have to be convinced that it is a desirable and viable place to live. Currently, there are building re-strictions and employment opportunities are virtually non-existent. There is no transport link for those who might wish to live in Fikardou and work in Nicosia. There is no school bus service and the seven children living in the village, all members of the one family, are driven daily by their mother to Klirou. It will take decades of planning, Sophocles maintains, to address the problems of rural Cyprus, where the countryside is becoming increasingly depopulated and more and more resembles an old people’s home.
The village’s budget is raised from a combination of donations, taxation and a big voluntary work effort that keeps costs down. For example, Sophocles donates his mukhtar salary to the village. The Antiquities Department looks after the open-air museum and is responsible for restoring the old houses and showing people round. Visitors pay a small fee. Though the government objects, Sophocles refuses to tax the coffee shop, a break-even enterprise at best.
Sophocles likes to boast about some of Fikardou’s accomplishments. For example. thanks to voluntary efforts, they were able to provide water to the village of Pyrgos, about six km away, at a fraction of the actual cost. He is proud too that “we have the best public toilets in the East Mediterranean, with great views and biologically treated water”. The architect responsible for the design, the daughter of a Fikardou resident, now teaches at Oslo University. Turning the design into a reality clearly irked Sophocles because he reckoned had they gone with the old village craftsmen they could have delivered the job for €35,000 whereas, thanks to the government’s insistence on tender bids by companies, it wound up “costing us almost 100,000”. Even then, they had to call the old-timers in to correct and fine-tune the work done by the contractors.
And with Sophocles and people like him still in the saddle, it looks like the old-timers will continue to ride into the sunset over Fikardou.