Tom Cleaver recounts a day spent in Kormakitis, the Maronite village in which the “Sanna” language is spoken

In my 24 years, I have been almost everywhere in Cyprus, and seen most of what this island has to offer.

I saw Paphos in its pomp as the European Capital of Culture, petted wild donkeys in Karpasia, partied for hours – if not days – on end at the Limassol carnival, and saw the Naqshbandi at worship in Lefka, among many other cultural experiences which have enlightened me and educated me about this island which I call home.

However, throughout all this time, there was one corner of Cyprus I had never had the chance to explore until last weekend: Kormakitis.

Kormakitis is a village of around 300 people tucked into Cyprus’ far northwestern corner, where the north facing Kyrenia coast gives way to the southward plunging Morphou bay.

It had always been a place of intrigue for me due to its status as the spiritual capital of Maronite Cypriots; an ethnoreligious group which is native to this island. Kormakitis was once the largest of four majority-Maronite villages, and the only one in which Cypriot Maronite Arabic, known to its speakers as Sanna, was spoken.

Following the intercommunal violence, coup d’état, and invasion which produced the modern division of the island, many Maronites dispersed southwards, given their constitutional status as constituents of the larger Greek Cypriot community.

However, as my visit to Kormakitis taught me last Sunday, Maronite Cypriots are most definitely not just spicy Greek Cypriots.

My trip up to the village was organised as part of a group event by the Cyprus Bilingualism Association and the Cyprus Linguistics Society, which aimed, among other things, to show off Kormakitis’ linguistic uniqueness.

I was ordered to be at the Ledra Palace hotel at 9am, and the bus, in typical Cypriot fashion, left promptly once the last stragglers had arrived about 25 minutes later.

The bus wound its way through Nicosia and onto the highway towards Morphou, before turning off at Skylloura to head northwest to Kormakitis.

The scenery this time of year is really beautiful past Skylloura, with endless picturesque, luscious green meadows stretching all the way to the mountains, the grass swaying in the spring breeze.

The road then swung past the villages of Myrtou and Diorios before the offering glimpses of the sea as we trundled ever closer to Kormakitis, which heaved into view with its striking Catholic church.

Maronites are in full communion with the Catholic Church of Rome and Kormakitis’ church looks markedly different to other places of worship around Cyprus.

feature tom a maronite liturgy book

A Maronite liturgy book

In contrast to the curved domes which define the landscapes of most villages centring on an Orthodox church or a mosque, the church in Kormakitis is angular. Two boxy cuboid bell towers flank a pitched centre of its façade, which is pointed at its top.

The only true giveaway that this was truly a Cypriot place of worship as the rest of us know them was the yellow sandstone with which it was built.

Inside, the church’s walls and ceiling are a brilliant white, with chandeliers hanging above its pews.

The wall behind its altar, by contrast, is gold, and features a statue of Saint George defiantly stood over a slain dragon, and Jesus on a cross above him. The altar itself features writing in the Syriac script, while various other frescoes and statues are situated around the church.

feature tom a statue of saint george on the altar

A statue of Saint George on the altar

Our bus parked next to the church after having (just about) successfully navigated its way into the village without hitting any of the buildings which line its narrow streets, and we disembarked and made our way up the hill to the Kormakitis Centre of Cooperation (KCC).

We were treated to halloumi, olives and bread inside, before being spoken to about the language which is unique to the village of Kormakitis: Cypriot Maronite Arabic, known to its speakers as Sanna.

The KCC’s chairman of the board Antonis Skoullos explained that a derivative of the Arabic language was brought to the island from Mesopotamia around 1,200 years ago, and that that derivative evolved into Sanna in Kormakitis over the course of the intervening millennium.

The language is not a gimmick, either. While the average age of its speakers is undoubtedly rising and most Kormakitis Maronites under the age of 50 do not have a native-level command of the language, the people who do speak it do so in much the same way as others on this island converse in Turkish or Greek.

This much was evidenced in the Sanna language quiz held at the end of the morning, which was won by a local villager named Marios.

After the end of the quiz, we made our way to the local tulip fields, which did not have many tulips in them, and then to the village’s coffee shop, which is its very essence.

feature tom the group visiting the tulip fields outside the village

The group visiting the tulip fields outside the village

Inside, it has a wooden ceiling, which is flanked by walls which are green up to the dado rail and cream above it, with green window frames, too. The space on the walls is occupied by pictures of popes and politicians and others who I did not recognise, and its tiled floor is punctuated by wooden tables adorned with gingham cloths.

There were men smoking and playing cards in one corner, and two women holding together a fierce production line in the kitchen, serving coffee on tin platters and stuffing the cash which paid for them into a drawer.

This is the Cyprus my grandfather used to tell me about. Kormakitis, with its absence from the Greek-Turk binary which has shaped our politics and our cultural identity, allows itself to be perceived by its bare, and quintessentially Cypriot, bones.

Kormakitis’ beauty and its interest is sourced from the juxtaposition of its inherent uniqueness and the fact that it, really, is just like anywhere else.

In the end, we whiled away the rest of the day doing what Cypriots do in any other village between Paphos and Rizokarpaso; drinking coffee and talking about nothing in particular.

This, as generations of Cypriots, whether they speak Turkish, Greek, Sanna, or another language, have concluded, is a Sunday well spent.

feature tom the interior of the coffeeshop

The interior of the coffee shop