Friday, 30 November 2007

Apostolos Andreas: the occupied monastery

Apostolos Andreas monastery is located at the northeastern-most tip of the remote Karpas peninsular in Cyprus and is the pre-eminent Christian shrine on the island.

Ever since the Apostle Andrew was said to have visited the spot and performed a miracle by summoning forth a spring of fresh water able to cure the sick and heal the afflicted, Greeks on the island have performed pilgrimages to the site and regarded it as sacred.

A monastery seems to have first been built in the 12th century, but under the Franks and then the Ottomans, Greek Orthodox life was suppressed and the site declined and it was only in 1895 with the miracle granted Maria Georgiou that the monastery’s fortunes revived.

It is said that 17 years after Turkish brigands abducted her son, Maria Georgiou ‘received a dream in answer to her unceasing petitions to St Andrew, which instructed her to go from her native Cilicia [in Anatolia] to the neglected monastery of Apostolos Andreas.

‘On the voyage to Cyprus, she explained her journey to fellow passengers and particularly excited the attention of a young man. He asked Maria how she would identify her lost son, so she told him of the peculiar pair of birthmarks that he bore on his shoulder and chest. The young man then threw off his woolen cloak to expose the same marks and fell on his knees before his mother.

‘Within months of this event, the shrine received a stream of pilgrims which increased into a flood as the saint proved his power over a random tithe of supplicants.’ [1]

The monastery’s fame and prosperity continued to grow and the saint’s feast day on 30 November became one of the liveliest and most popular events in Cyprus with thousands of supplicants trekking from all over the island, often for days, to bring votive offerings to the monastery to induce the saint to bless them or intercede on their behalf.

All this changed after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and the brutal seizure of the northern third of the island. The Turkish army cleared out the clergy from Apostolos Andreas, tore the cross from the belfry, turned the pilgrims’ hostels into army barracks and declared the monastery off limits.

Still, Apostolos Andreas was spared the worst forms of looting and desecration suffered by the majority of churches and monasteries in northern Cyprus, and in the 1980s the Turkish occupation regime came up with the idea of turning the site into a tourist attraction, and ran it, according to Marc Dubin, ‘like a sort of zoo to prove [the Turkish occupation regime’s] religious tolerance’.

But despite the Turkish occupiers wanting to promote Apostolos Andreas as evidence of their civilised credentials, they couldn’t quite bring themselves to forget or overcome the spite they felt for Cyprus’ Greek and Christian heritage and the monastery fell into such a state of disrepair that fears were expressed that it was in imminent danger of collapse.

The outcry at the state of the monastery, a World Heritage Site, encouraged the UN and the USA to propose a twin restoration project to include the pre-eminent Muslim shrine on Cyprus, the mosque of Hala Sultan in Larnaca, in the free part of the island – (Hala Sultan, Mohammed’s wet nurse, was said to have fallen off her donkey and died in Cyprus during the Arab raids in the 7th century) – and Apostolos Andreas monastery in the occupied areas.

The work on the mosque was completed amid much fanfare in 2005, but the occupation regime has never fulfilled its side of the bargain and no restoration work has been done on the monastery. Indeed, last year the occupation regime said it had drawn up plans not to restore Apostolos Andreas but to transform the annexes of the monastery into a 120-room luxury hotel.

Anyway, despite 30 November being a somewhat melancholy day for Cypriots – particularly those from the Karpas villages where the saint, his monastery and feast day are held in highest esteem and where the carnival atmosphere which prevailed on the island around this time was most evident – here’s wishing all Andreas’, Andrianes, Androulles and Andrees chronia polla – there isn’t a Cypriot family that does not have someone named after the saint – I can think, off the top of my head, of five in my family – and here’s hoping that next year we can celebrate the saint’s feast day at his monastery, free from Turkish occupation.

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