Prayers long silent: Famagusta and the complexity of Cypriot heritage

Dawn Famagusta. Photo by Dan Frodsham

Where might an international group of experts on complexity theory and medieval manuscripts, international law and virtual reality, analytical chemistry and art history, art conservation and architectural interpretation, civil engineering and pedagogical sciences, converge on a single project? As unlikely as this may seem, the answer is in a small, ruined, Armenian chapel in the historic city of Famagusta in the northern part of the divided island of Cyprus. I have led the emergency intervention to protect it and its 14th-century murals for over a decade, in collaboration with the World Monuments Fund and the Municipality of Famagusta.

Famagusta was once the coronation place of the crusader kings of Jerusalem and one of the wealthiest entrepôts in the known world. It was corrupt too and for this reason mentioned by name in Dante’s Inferno and warned of eternal damnation by Saint Birgitte of Sweden. In 1571, it was the site of one of the most infamous sieges in military history and accordingly became the epitome of martyrdom as seen in Shakespeare’s Othello as it receded into history as an abandoned ruin.

The Forty Martys of Sebaste. Photo by Michael Walsh
The Forty Martys of Sebaste. Photo by Michael Walsh

Revitalised by British administration post-1878, it experienced two world wars and was the setting for Hollywood’s Exodus (starring Paul Newman) in the final days of the Palestine Mandate. Its large suburb of Varosha/Maras¸ remains a ghost town to this day, after the events of 1974 divided the island. The historic core and its cultural heritage, the legacy of a millennium, is not benefitting from the political plight of the island. I successfully nominated the city for inclusion on the World Monuments Fund Watch List of endangered sites globally (in 2008 and 2010) and led trust building measures between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot mayors of Famagusta with the assistance of the Swedish Ambassador to Cyprus. With the support of Michael Møller (now Director General of the United Nations in Geneva), I organised international conferences in Paris, Budapest and Bern to strategise ways out of the political cul-de-sac for the imperilled cultural legacy of this historic city. From 2011 to 2015, I led the emergency intervention to protect the mural of The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste in the 14th-century Church of Saints Peter and Paul, and the stabilisation of the interior decorations of the Armenian Church and St Anne’s, both from the same century. Both projects are the subject of documentary films by Dan Frodsham and can be viewed on the WMF website.

It is a mark of the success of this interdisciplinary project, and to the importance of academic leadership in the face of political stalemate, that it was taken over by the United Nations Development Program at the request of the Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage in 2015 and supported with a large budget from the European Union. It is important to consider the role of the international community in protecting delicate and endangered cultural heritage in areas that are beyond the reach of UNESCO.

By Michael J K Walsh (1993)
Associate Professor, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

This article was originally published in the autumn 2017 issue of Front Court