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Focus – Cyprus
The problem of mapping Cyprus is explored in a major exhibition at Bozar as the island country picks up the reins of the EU presidency
Cyprus takes over the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union on July 1 at a pertinent moment in the country’s history. It has Europe’s only divided capital and lies uneasily on that fault line between East and West. This is a narrative under the EU spotlight that has yet to be resolved.
Walk along Ledra Street – finally opened in 2008 – through the heart of the old town of Nicosia, crossing the wall that divides Greek Cypriots from Turkish Cypriots, and you quickly realise this is a city that continues to live with the consequences of invasion. Greek and Cypriot flags fly on one side, Turkish on the other.
The Bozar exhibition Mapping Cyprus 1191-2012: Crusaders, Traders and Explorers examines this turbulent history via works of art originating principally from the medieval period. It recounts how a small island became such an important strategic and commercial staging post, fought over and occupied. It shows how this process created a multi-layered cultural mix. For the first time, an exhibition looks at the cultural and historical links over a period of 500 years. It is curated by Loukia Loizou Hadjigavriel, president of the Cypriot National Commission for Unesco and director of the Leventis Municipal Museum of Nicosia.
Human settlement in Cyprus began as far back as 10,000 BC, in the Neolithic period, but this exhibition takes the great age of discovery, military expansionism and trade as its starting point. It begins with Richard the Lionheart and his occupation of the island from the Byzantine Empire, en route to his crusade in Jerusalem, and his subsequent selling of the island, via the Knights Templar, to Guy de Lusignan.
After that it was owned by the Venetians, taken by the Ottomans and ceded in 1878 to the British, who recognised its independence in 1960 but maintains to this day a military base on the island. Then, following the unsuccessful coup d’état in 1974 which tried to unite the island with Greece (in a movement known as Enosis, which means union), and the subsequent invasion by Turkey, there was a mass displacement of the population. Greek Cypriots moved to the south, Turkish Cypriots to the north. There was a failed attempt in 2004 to unite the island under the Annan Plan, but this is an island that is still being mapped, demographically and emotionally.
The exhibition tells the story chronologically from 1191, charting each period through icons, cartography, manuscripts and music. In a separate room there is an opportunity to listen to the music of the Lusignan court. The rare Turin manuscript known as the Franco-Cypriot Codex is an outstanding collection of medieval music, compiled in the 15th century for King Janus of Cyprus. The original manuscript is on view, accompanied by excerpts of music by Paul Van Nevel and his Huelgas Ensemble (also performed in a concert at Notre-Dame de la Chapelle on October 15).
Of particular interest are more than 50 icons, most of which have never been seen outside Cyprus, demonstrating the unique melding of Byzantine and Renaissance art. There is also a section with pieces from the collection of the last queen of medieval Cyprus, Caterina Cornaro, a Venetian sugar plantation owner who was forced to abdicate and return to her homeland, taking Cypriot customs and art with her. A fine portrait of Caterina by Tintoretto is among a number of paintings originating from European collections. This cross-fertilisation between Venice and Cyprus continues in further rooms, including a particularly fine door from the Tamassos monastery and a Titian painting of the Bishop of Paphos.
The arrival of Ottoman rule in 1571 after the sieges of Nicosia and Famagusta heralded a shift in emphasis from icon painting to cartography, as icon painters were forced to move abroad. But for visitors to Nicosia, the rich architectural influences of the Ottomans in the houses of the old town and wooden screened interiors that later so fascinated the Orientalists are of particular interest and beauty.
The final period of British occupation is represented by four photo albums depicting life on the island in the 19th century. They were taken by Queen Victoria’s official photographer, John Thomson, who was sent to the island to photograph the new acquisition. The albums include fascinating photos not only of the Byzantine architecture but of everyday scenes of village life. The show concludes with Contemporary Views, a display of present-day Cypriot art curated by Androula Michael.
The story represented is naturally incomplete and partial, but it nonetheless provides a fascinating insight into a unique interface between the empires of the East and West. It is a history still evolving today, showing that borders and boundaries are not set in stone. As Cyprus assumes the presidency it is possible to witness a country whose map is still being debated. This exhibition is a journey through some versions of that map. Even for those who enjoy Aphrodite’s isle simply for its summer sun and holiday hotels, the exhibition enriches that experience and helps explain the current situation.
For although the Republic of Cyprus is a member of the EU with a ‘de jure’ over the whole island, the Turkish-occupied north, with its increasing number of settlers from the mainland, is not. It means that while, geographically, the whole island is potentially in the EU, the occupied Turkish Republic of North Cyprus cannot be. This leaves the north isolated diplomatically and constitutionally: unrecognised as a sovereign state by the whole world, except Turkey.
As the population of the north through large numbers of Anatolian settlers becomes increasingly Turkish in origin rather than Turkish Cypriot, it is the latter who are left in no-man’s land, not sure whether to take up their rights of EU citizenship or look towards Turkey as benefactor of their future. Although Turkish accession to the EU would solve the problem, there are deep-rooted suspicions among Greek Cypriots as to whether the 40,000 or so Turkish troops from northern Cyprus would be removed and whether long-standing grievances over land rights would be settled.
Turkish accession is dependent on a solution to the ‘Cyprus Problem’. Belgian foreign minister and deputy prime minister Didier Reynders said this month that Belgium would be willing to host an international conference to help resolve the issue, but with the forthcoming presidency passing to the Republic of Cyprus, it remains to be seen whether this will help or hinder the process.
Mapping Cyprus remains as relevant now as ever. And perhaps no more so than for those Turkish Cypriots who cross the Green Line each day to work in the Republic of Cyprus wondering whether to look west or east for their future, or for those Greek Cypriots who wonder if they will ever reclaim the homes and land once owned by their families in the north. Maps with their man-made lines and imposed boundaries can be a painful testament not just to past divisions and historical conquests, but to current communities, within our EU boundaries, still living on a divided island.
Mapping Cyprus, Bozar, until September 23