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Volume 23, Number 2March/April 1972

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Cyprus After Durrell

Written by Isobel Fistere
Photographed by Penny Williams-Yaqub

On the road to Bellepaix, on Cyprus, an elderly pair bicycled rather shakily along, she in her straw hat, he in a jaunty linen cap. Under his arm the man had a copy of Bitter Lemons, Lawrence Durrell's wry and loving sketch of life on Cyprus.

"We were hoping to find a little house somewhere here in Durrell country," she said wistfully. "Of course, up near the Abbey, where he built, it's much too expensive. But we hoped along here"—she waved hopelessly at silvery miles of olives, now showing gaps where new roofs poked through. Her husband spanked his Bitter Lemons with his riding crop. "Made it damn expensive hereabouts, that's what that feller's done for us," he muttered, and pushed off unsteadily through the road's white dust.

The man had a point. Since my last visit to Cyprus, land prices had tripled, cottages cost as much as villas and everywhere you looked "Land's Ends" and "Shangri-La's" were being restuccoed and roses were back on the trellises where they belong. The British were back, Cyprus was definitely having a boom and Durrell's book had certainly contributed to it.

Still, I thought, why blame Durrell? He just makes the introduction: the newcomer does the falling in love. He's a Johnny-come-lately marriage broker, you might say. He wasn't needed for the early British, nor for me.

My own affair with Cyprus goes back well before Bitter Lemons. It goes back to ART 11, and Botticelli's modest Venus riding up to that foamy beach; to Homer's description of her temple above old Paphos Cove, with "Aphrodite's Rocks" curling the breakers offshore; to my first air view of Famagusta's Venetian fort and the sudden flash that that was the setting for Shakespeare's Othello. Down there, I thought, that's Act M's "Sea-port town in Cyprus;" over there is the Land Gate where Desdemona waited as he came ashore, and the battlements where, poisoned by lago's lies, poor Othello brooded.

Nor, when I finally set foot on the island, was it Durrell who sent me searching back of Larnaca for Lazarus' tomb, and those curious Mycenean temples just coming to light. Or made me dislike hot, pedestrian Limassol, while loving equally hot Nicosia; Nicosia with its split personality, Turkish and Cypriot, reflected in its different names. To Westerners, it's Nicosia; to Greeks, Levkosia; to Turks, Lefkosha. And certainly, though Durrell sketched their beginnings, my vivid memories of the civil war are my own ... deep sharp scenes of boyish, tanned UN troops, of the No-Man's Land they called "The Green Line," of convoys crawling anxiously along the pass from Kyrenia to Nicosia at 20 cautious miles per hour, listening for the crack of a rifle.

Yet I had to admit it was Durrell that had drawn me back this time, and especially to the road where I met the cyclists. For it was at Bellepaix that he bought his famous house and wrote his famous book.

We were going to Bellepaix via Kyrenia but to get there, we noticed, the bus still avoided the Turkish enclaves in the mountains. It made a great circle around the foot of Mt. Hilarion, three hours of stop and go through back lanes and chicken runs, meandering along in an intimacy I've never known in other means of transport. School children, paternally disciplined by the driver, hopped on and off with bookbags; a sack of coffee handed aboard to be left at the next farmhouse spread its aroma; law students frowning over homework hissed for quiet at the gossipers, who chatted and smoked and occasionally passed a bottle. It was as cozy as a kaffe klatch—until you noticed the pistol by the driver's hand, as we got off in Kyrenia.

On our earlier visit, the Dome Hotel, a vast seaside folly, had just five occupants besides my husband and me and we had echoed and rattled in the enormous dining room. Taking advantage of the lull, we recalled, the owners, with commendable optimism, were installing air conditioning. Now their foresight was obviously paying off; they own a chicken farm, a cinema, and half the real estate in an area called Catsellis Street.

From Kyrenia we took bicycles and aimed for Durrell country along a road that branches right and bounds in jack-rabbit leaps through olive groves to the Crusader-Gothic ruins of the Abbey, a peaceful domain of pierced stone, long shadows and mossy courts struck with dark cypress trees. The monastery was built in the 14th century by the Lusignans, Crusader refugees from the Holy Land, and is one of the most elegant Gothic monuments left in the Levant. Its narrow columns support ineffably graceful vaultings; its rose window is broken lace in stonework; its cloisters are encrusted with marble coats of arms. The arched windows of its upper galleries command vistas of blue sea and distant violet Turkish ranges. Inevitably one imagines banners waving from the heights of the refectory, monks conferring with Latin kings in the Council Room.

Across gardens of rose trees and oranges we could see Durrell's famous Tree of Idleness, where the villagers were already drifting in to tables set in its shade. Feeling thirst, we started across through herb-bordered paths and came upon the caretaker. Memory stirred at that brown, beamish face—it was Kollis, still here, Kollis the Antiquities Warden in Bitter Lemons, who joined us and agreed he was himself, agreed he grew superb rose trees, agreed he had been the friend and companion of Durrell. Jolly times, then.

"But things are changing," he said mournfully. "Look—that new cafe"— it was large, and glassy, and concrete—"and look—they build big blocks of flats here, like those in Kyrenia"—he lowered his voice in shame, "and without gardens." Incredible, we said, the English renters would want gardens. He shook his head, despondent. We urged him toward the tables and narghiles winking in dappled sun, and ordered our coffees, asking for directions to Durrell's house. "Up that lane—and many times I've helped him up it," proudly proclaimed our host.

We pushed up the precipitous alley where "the Englishman" had lived, up smooth, worn flagstones with a drainage channel in the middle, houses pressing so close on either side that when a little Morris came chugging up the lane we had to press ourselves flat against a wall. The driver's moustache proclaimed him British ex-Air Force; he smartly maneuvered the car into a tiny cul de sac lined with geraniums—there weren't two inches between bonnet and blooms. "There's the house," he waved, "third one up above." And there indeed stood the "large box-like house in the Turkish Cypriot mode, with huge carved doors made for some forgotten race of giants." It still had an air of happy living and warmth about it—fuchsias in the window, the balcony they'd worked so hard on newly painted, the yard brushed. "It's been bought," the captain told us. "Too dear for us ... but we're glad to've got this little hut" ... it was smart as paint, window panes and door knocker shining ... "Only reason we could afford it, got it here early on."

"Going on up to the castle?" he asked. No, we hadn't known we were near one. "Certainly—Buffavento, just a good walk straight up here .. goat path—only six or seven miles. Ah ... Not much left—splendid view though."

(Checking later, we found that Buffavento, standing on a sharp-toothed crag, 3,121 feet high at the summit of the Kyrenia range, had indeed a splendid view: of the entire verdant coastal littoral dropping to the sea, and of the wide, dusty Massaoria plain stretching away into the haze, splotched here and there with the dark of villages and forests.)

Back down in Kyrenia, the noontime sun was in full command. We were alternately blinded by sunlight on open plazas and the gloom between high walls; it was like something seen through a Venetian blind. So into the cool dark of Clito's bar, smelling of sawdust and wine, for a lunch of good Cyprus cheese and sausages, with beakers of local wine strong enough to restore us for the fortress.

The way to the fortress took us along a quay beneath drying fishnets, past pastel houses and bright sailboats in the harbor. It is a proper Aegean harbor, a snug, landlocked port protected by natural spits and breakwaters. No wonder Lusignans and Venetians redoubled their fortifications to hold it.

Entering the massive walls, we were met by a custodian who led us through a long, dark tunnel into a huge bright court and on into the intricacies of the much rebuilt complex—oubliettes here, black holes where many a prisoner died forgotten; the Byzantine chapel, oldest relic; the square keep that was here when Richard the Lion Heart was shipwrecked on the island in 1191. He promptly stole the fortress from his Byzantine hosts, then turned it over to the Templars, who, pressed for cash and troops, sold it to Guy de Lusignan, thus launching a dynasty that would last 300 years in Cyprus: the Lusignans, great nobles of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem, driven from the mainland by Saladdin, moving their Latin militarism, their wealth and their ladies to this island. They hung on through constant bedevilment from pirates, local inhabitants, Arabs, Genoese, and unfriendly acts of God, due to the strategic fortifications they custom built to each spot.

In 1489 it became the turn of the Venetians. They took the Crusaders' pride, concentric walls, buttresses and all, doubled its defenses, built a second wall, filled the gap with earth and wound up with the highest and widest existing earthworks anywhere, 125 feet wide on the land side. On the sea side we peered over and down at waves lapping the massive horseshoe bastion ... Who could take this impregnable fortress? Answer: the Turks. But it was by treachery—the castle was betrayed to the Pasha of Cilicia, who came from those Turkish mountains. Not a shot was fired, so the walls stand today, unscarred, just as the Venetians built them.

Later, taking leave of our guide, we got a lesson in botany as we ducked under the passion-flower vine that shaded his office door, its blooms wide open in the sun. "See this flower? It has three stamens for the Trinity, fringed corolla for the Crown of Thorns, and ten petals for the Apostles."

"Ten?" we asked obediently.

"Of course. Nobody should count Judas. And then, we're Orthodox here, not Papist; you don't think we count Peter, do you?"

That night we dined at the Harbour Club, a gustatory outpost of Empire where we found the cream of the community pink-ginning it away, talking up projects for the next day, including ours: a proposed visit to the fairy castle on the peak of St. Hilarion's, the castle most Americans instantly recognize as the prototype of Snow White's castle in Disneyland.

St. Hilarion is one of what Robin Fedden calls the "romantic fortresses," three lovely castles built to comfortably contain a royal household rather than withstand heavy siege. They did have one important military function: they guarded the pass between Nicosia and Kyrenia by providing the fire-signal system which flashed messages from Kantara Castle on the eastern promontory to Buffavento above Bellepaix.to this point above the vital north-coast port.

Unlike Snow White, we reached St. Hilarion by flogging our car up a road that would frighten mountain goats—straight up, in short zigs and hairpin zags. One of the zags eventually left us at the point where, in 1228, the Lusignans built defense walls in a 500-yard circuit, enclosing royal apartments on top of the innermost peak. Each concentric area was self-supporting—with cistern, supply depots and military posts, in the best Crusader design—but after that, caution was thrown to the winds. Knowing they were safe, the Lusignans built their fairy castle—round towers and steep pitched roofs, galleries, frescoed chapels, steam baths, pierced stonework window seats and a belvedere from which to watch sunsets or the jousting in the courts below. It was the life of Riley for noble knights and ladies up there, and its view of the ruffled coast below, with Snake Island like a foam-edged jewel on the wrinkled silken sea, is among the loveliest in the Mediterranean.

Now it was off to Famagusta, another schizophrenic city, Turkish and Greek, sprawled between the open jaws of Cyprus' eastern coastline. The New Town, a bustling strand. is in the midst of a building boom; concrete, cranes and cement mixers jam the long curve of what had been clean empty beach. Now it's cheek-to-cheek sunbathers. But 300 meters away, baking like an old lizard in the sun, is the port and massive walled Turkish Old Town. We entered through the Ravelin gate, crossing a moat into ancient history ... fort, town, shops, ruins. What was once the cathedral where Lusignan rulers were crowned Kings of Jerusalem, now with pasted-on minaret is the mosque. Nearmg an entrance topped by the Lion of Venice, a dusty little square of earth scrabbled around wilting coxcombs and mangolds was labeled "Desdemona's Garden." Stepping into the gloom of Othello's tower, we found beaten earth passages, yawning prison cells, a long stone staircase and a high chamber with arrow-slot windows, fireplace and inglenook. Quite—here the bed would have stood, here terrified Desdemona looked out over acres of ruined churches to dark circling walls. We could feel her loneliness.

It was more cheerful six miles up the coast in Salamis, empty, bright, and glittering with acres of marble, white in the sun. Greek refugees from the Trojan wars had founded a city here but it was Rome that gilded the lily and made everything bigger and mightier: courts, streets, theater, the huge gymnasium where the baths must have held thousands of soakers and steamers at a time, where niches are still occupied by solid Roman citizens in stone. Columns, hundreds of white and gray columns, march and cross and fall to their knees, and everywhere dark pines and the yellow froth of acacia trees accent the marble. A classic world, and we owned it. But no—here came two figures from a Greek frieze: the young Custodian of Antiquities and, joining him, a high-breasted, swift-moving girl with a lunch pail. With a droit de seigneur gesture he put his arm about her shoulders and led her into the shade of the pines. We took to our wheels.

We had still had one more stop: Kantara Castle, the eastern-most lookout along the razorback of the Kyrenia range. It stands on a 2,068-foot peak, and was so inaccessible to war machines, or even large numbers of foot and horse soldiers, that the knights built only the traditional Crusader curtain walls and towers. Most of the fine ashlar masonry has now fallen, leaving ragged reminders standing everywhere. Up on the topmost crown of the fortress, windows gape open to the sky, turrets tumble into terraces and you stand on the edge of vertiginous drops to the sea.

But keep looking. Even in such tumbled disorder, these stones attest to the care spent in making life for the baron and his lady as comfortable as possible. Crusaders had brought a very high standard of living with them from Palestine; piles of Persian carpets, silken draperies and cushions, colored glass for their windows, ornate copper and brass braziers, silver services for food and wine, and slaves to pass them. In Famagusta at the courts of the richest nobles, the level of luxury was reported to surpass any in France; dishes made of precious stones, fabulous jewels, gifts of gold and silver and ivory for guests at Lucullan parties. While it lasted, the home life of a Crusader was as de luxe as living on top of a volcano could ever be. Then, as the East pressed in, and feudalism died everywhere, so did Cyprus; the last of the banners was struck and Frank gave way to Turk, Turk to British and British to Cypriot. Which is where it stands now—and will until that most destructive of all invaders—the tourists—have stamped out Aphrodite, Othello, Desdemona, Snow White and, yes perhaps even Durrell, who, some think, brought them here in the first place.

Isobel Fistere began writing at Smith College and continued in New York, where she placed articles in the Ladies Home Journal and McCalls. In 1955 she moved to the Middle East, where she has concentrated on public relations work and travel writing.

This article appeared on pages 3-11 of the March/April 1972 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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