In a diplomat and lifelong churchgoer involved in a significant phase of Cyprus’ history, THEO PANAYIDES finds a man focused on culture and the value of education

It was back in the day, of course: 1956, to be precise, when Charalambos ‘Pambos’ Christoforou was 17. (He’s now 84.) He was working at the Ledra Palace hotel in the afternoons – but secretly working for Eoka, keeping tabs on a prosecutor named Pereira. The British authorities found out about him; knowing he was going to be arrested, he rushed home and quickly packed a bag, planning to flee to the mountains – but four cars pulled up outside as he was packing. Charalambos’ mum knew nothing of her son’s guerrilla activities; “Come on out, son, someone wants you,” she said – then burst into tears as they bundled him into one of the cars. He was taken away for interrogation – and there to meet him was Pereira, the man he’d been watching! He spent 18 months as a prisoner at the Kokkinotrimithia detention centre, then served as head of Eoka’s Nicosia Mountain subdivision till the end of the struggle.

It makes sense to start with Eoka – because all of it stems from Eoka, really, both his professional life as a top diplomat and our current location, a restored old building in Aradippou just outside Larnaca that houses a Museum of Christian Art made up of artworks Charalambos and his wife Ritsa have collected over the years. The exhibition – around 350 pieces spread across five rooms, dating from the 15th century onwards – is only part of what they’ve amassed. There’s also a bigger collection of Greek art (over 500 pieces) that will hopefully find a home soon, in a new museum in Larnaca.

profile in the detention centre in kokkinotrimithia

In the detention centre in Kokkinotrimithia

His life has been relatively seamless, and much of the credit goes to Eoka. It’s common, of course, for young men to be idealistic and patriotic; they’re the fodder behind most wars, guerrilla or otherwise. What’s not so common is for those same young men to find themselves – barely out of their teens – in the inner circle of a newly independent nation that’s eager to show its gratitude. Many Eoka fighters instantly landed good jobs, just by virtue of having been Eoka fighters. Charalambos himself was devout, a lifelong churchgoer and member of the Orthodox Christian Youth – which meant he was close to the head of the Church (and new president): “Makarios was like a god to us then”. He’d been part of a small posse of Eoka fighters who drove to the airport on motorbikes to welcome Makarios when he returned from exile – and now, post-independence, the Archbishop asked what he wanted to do. Charalambos replied that he wanted to go and study – so a job was arranged in the Diplomatic Corps, at the embassy in Athens, where he could get his degree while working. It was March 1961; he was 22 and knew nothing of diplomacy, “in fact I remember I was still wearing the jumper that I wore when we came down from the mountains, and [Ambassador Nicos] Kranidiotis was like, ‘Maybe we should go and buy a suit…’”.

profile main2Thus began a 40-year career which, unusually, focused mostly on ‘big’ postings; he didn’t spend much time in less strategically-important countries (the exception was Mexico, where he was ambassador from 1984-89), his years abroad being largely in the US – both the embassy and our permanent mission to the UN – then Moscow from 1989-92 and Athens again in the 90s, this time as ambassador. It was also unusual that he chose to study at all; some of his former comrades didn’t bother – but Charalambos gives the impression of being obsessed with learning. “I craved education,” he recalls, adding to his studies while in Washington DC by completing a Master’s in International Relations at the University of Maryland; that way he felt qualified, not just an interloper whose only previous skill was having been detained by the British. “There was a tendency to say, ‘You’ve brought all these illiterate fighters [into government]’,” he says, sounding like he was quite perturbed by this tendency. “Well, I was among those who replied, ‘No, we’re not illiterate. We’re being educated’.”

The other unusual – and related – aspect of his diplomatic years was that he began collecting art; a little bit in Athens, then compulsively in the States, then later in Russia and Latin America. (The museum in Aradippou has rooms devoted to both those regions.) It wasn’t a natural development; there are no artists in Charalambos’ family background – his parents owned a bakery – nor does he have any particular creative streak himself. Admittedly, that’s often the way with collectors: Paul Petrides, one of the biggest art dealers in post-war Paris, started out as an illiterate tailor from Paphos. Still, you have to wonder – why did he do it?

profile with his wife in the museum

With his wife in the museum

One big reason was undoubtedly that Ritsa (an amateur painter herself) supported her husband in his new hobby. Indeed, she actively helped, going to college while they lived in New York and getting a degree in art restoration – and of course the collection was something they could pursue together as a couple, while also raising their three sons. “We’re low-key people,” he explains, “so we liked nothing better than to go to museums and exhibitions. And we went to auctions too, and bought things – when time and money allowed”. Later, he describes the collection; the room devoted to printmaking is especially prestigious, including a Durer, a Rembrandt (‘Christ Driving the Money Changers From the Temple’) and two Salvador Dalis. (People are always surprised to find Dali in an exhibition of Christian art.) “You may wonder, ‘But how did you find them?’,” he chuckles. “But because I was constantly visiting museums, exhibitions, I was constantly learning! I became an encyclopaedia in the end… You become an expert without even studying.”

Collecting art, in other words, was another part of his education, the transformation from teenage fighter to man of the world. Going abroad changed Charalambos, as became apparent when he was posted back to Cyprus in 1973 and approached by some of his Eoka comrades, urging him to join Eoka B against Makarios. “I said to them, ‘No way, you’re going to destroy Cyprus!’,” he recalls. “I told them so. I’d matured. Unfortunately, my old friends had blinkers on.” His beliefs hadn’t changed, he makes clear, he still supported enosis, i.e. union with Greece – he refers to the “half-baked independence” we attained in 1960 – but “this isn’t how enosis is done,” he told the others.

profile with makarios and archbishop chrysostomos i in paphos

With Makarios and Archbishop Chrysostomos i in Paphos

Then came the coup, and many at the foreign ministry supported the coup; Charalambos spoke out, forever loyal to Makarios (even now, he’s furious at those who’d tarnish his legacy), and was banished from the ministry. On the 18th of July, pseudo-president Nikos Sampson asked to see him; “Re Niko!” warned Charalambos, ignoring a flunkey’s orders to address him as ‘Mr President’. “‘Re Niko, don’t you understand what’s going on? There’s going to be an invasion!’ I told him… ‘No, they promised us that nothing will happen,’ he says.” It’s a story that suggests – among other things – how small the circle was, a small circle of friends really (a day earlier, another former Eoka man, Kikis Constantinou, had been sent to arrest Charalambos, and demurred) who all knew each other, had fought together, yet somehow contrived – with outside help, needless to say – to destroy the country.

I wonder if there might be a link here. The art in Aradippou, after all, is Christian art, what his website ( calls “divine art”. Did its timeless religious transcendence act as an escape, in a way, from the disappointing world of men? But Charalambos Christoforou doesn’t seem to think in such florid terms – telling me instead that “most ambassadors from the big countries, especially Western countries, were also collectors”, meaning that his hobby was good for business. He’d often sit with other envoys, talking (and learning about) art – and would seldom miss an opportunity to mention the Cyprus problem too. Russia (still the USSR when he arrived) was even more impressive: even the politicians were art-lovers there. The Minister of the Interior and the KGB was a fellow connoisseur, and even supplied a plane (without being asked) to transport Charalambos’ artworks to Larnaca at the end of his posting, mightily impressing President Clerides. “The Russian minister brought them here,” he repeats with meaning. “And for who? For little Christoforou of Cyprus… Because he loved art.”

It’s all in stark (and rather embarrassing) contrast to what happened here, after his retirement, Charalambos being something of a prophet without honour in his own land – at least where art is concerned. People in Aradippou have been nothing but kind, and he’s full of praise for Mayor Evangelides who heard about the collection at a book presentation and offered to host it – but it’s fair to say Aradippou wasn’t his first choice. “I’ll be honest, I saw lots of ministers… I knocked on a lot of doors. They ignored me”. But why? “Indifference,” he shrugs. “The usual Cypriot indifference – to art in general, to museums in general.” Even now, the museum gets no help at all from the government. I wonder why Cypriots should be so systemically philistine – and the answer, yet again, is education, his constant passion. “We don’t cultivate our children in the right direction – or, at least, in this direction. I go to the sea for a swim, and all I hear around me is [people talking about] football!” He chuckles: “Now, I like football. I’m in favour of football. But culture is good too”.

His take on today’s Cypriot youth is predictably dismal; his own youthful exploits, after all, are a far cry from today’s 17-year-olds. (His American grandson – he and Ritsa have two grandkids in the US, and two more in Cyprus – was shocked, having read about Eoka, to learn that his grandpa had been part of a ‘terrorist organisation’.) “I won’t say it’s a disappointment,” he replies carefully. “But the young do seem disappointed, in general.” Could his generation have done things differently? “Eh, it’s not like we could do very much,” he replies. “After all, there was always war. We got independence and never gave it a chance to survive – then we ourselves, who’d fought the war, created Eoka B! To do what? To kill Makarios. The same one we’d elected.” Charalambos shakes his head grimly. “It’s this kind of stuff that makes you crazy.”

It’s a relief to turn to more practical matters. Charalambos Christoforou strikes me as a sergeant-major type – a trusted lieutenant – more than a high-flown visionary. “I’m very hard-working,” he replies when I ask about his strengths. “I was always first in to the office, last out.” Ritsa, who’s been sitting in on our conversation, adds another trait: “When Pambos gets something in his head, he’ll do it. No matter what!”. His art collection reflects that single-mindedness – because it was a labour of love, let’s not kid ourselves. Even on a diplomat’s salary, it’s remarkable that one couple managed to collect all these hundreds of artworks.

Two factors helped. The first is that a sizeable proportion of the art is unsigned, and by unknown artists; he shows me a painting from the Titian school, recalling how they bought it at Sotheby’s on a particularly snowy New York day – but it’s Titian school, not Titian himself, which makes a difference. (Most religious icons were unsigned in those days anyway.) The second is that many of the paintings were in very bad shape – but Ritsa’s art-restoration skills came into play; they’d buy a painting then “spend all night till morning” patiently removing the centuries-old grime, saving money into the bargain. The collection is very browsable, and full of surprises. A bleeding Jesus with a crown of thorns from Bolivia. Mediaeval ecclesiastical art from all over Europe. Recent local painters like Pol Georgiou. The vibrant colours of the Cuzco School. ‘The Songs of Mikis Theodorakis’ by a Russian artist, featuring Cyprus as a crucified damsel…

Looking back, how can one summarise that 40-year career, the life that stemmed from Eoka and went on to encompass art and politics? But Charalambos won’t be drawn into any grand statements. “It was circumstances, I think,” he replies mildly. “Was I born a diplomat? Was I born to fight the English? It was the circumstances. We are people who were utilised by those who utilised us, each in their own way,” he adds, ‘we’ meaning that whole pivotal generation of Cypriots. “We did our duty. I don’t regret it.” He chuckles, silently aware that Aradippou is a long way from New York and Moscow: “You can’t do everything. You can do some things. ‘Did you do the best for your country?’ – that’s what Kennedy used to say”.

He chuckles again: “I think I did”.