“ Sygkrasis, Famagusta district. This byzantine church is from 11th or 12th century, built on the ruins of an old Christian basilica of 6th century. It has a Cross-in-square in the middle, a dome, and a bell tower. It is empty and not used. Floors: Prefabricated mosaic tiles (renovated in 1954-1955). Windows: Framed, ledged and battened and wooden sash. „
The pigeons have been left in possession of Agios Prokopios Church. When you enter, the door creaks and they rise in a panic of wingbeats to find their way out through the broken windows around the high central dome. Their droppings pattern the floor, in layers beneath their perches, in blotchy spots elsewhere. Provided you can avoid treading on the more thickly caked areas, the echo of your footfalls will replace the frantic fluttering once the birds have flown away.
The pews have been stripped out, as has the altarpiece and most of the interior decoration. Probably there were icons here, and, whilst they may simply have been destroyed, they might instead have been looted for their value on the illicit art market. Part of a high pulpit remains and holds a pigeons' nest, but the steps leading up to it have gone. Below, the two large frescos have been defaced, literally, holes gouged in the plaster being the only traces of the saints' heads previously depicted there. The place stinks.
The approach to the church has given little clue of what will be found there. Emerging from the quiet little village of Sinirüstü - or Sygkrasis as it was known to its Greek Cypriot inhabitants when it had Greek Cypriot inhabitants - you find the church in the lee of a hill, with flat fields stretching away on the far side towards the eastern coast a dozen or so miles away. Surrounded by a dry stone wall, the churchyard is full of flowers, and the church itself is built of mellow stone. Its rounded, tiled roof rises into the sunlight, above the shade of the encircling cypress trees. For a moment you could deceive yourself into imagining that it would not be possible to find a more peaceful spot.
Only when you are within the churchyard itself do you notice the disrepair: the stains on the outer walls where the gutters have lost their downpipes, the broken windows, the main doorway overgrown with weeds. Walking on round, you see that the bell-tower has been emptied of its bell.
Finally, you come to the graveyard, where the crosses have been broken and the tombstones overturned. The wretched remains lie in a jumble on the ground, partially grassed over, but still, in springtime, strewn with nature's floral tributes: golden marguerite, white allium, cornflowers of almost Grecian blue and poppies as red as the Turkish flag.
It isn't hard to guess the background to the desertion of the church, the vandalising of its interior and the desecration of its graves. Troubles between ethnic Turks and ethnic Greeks have scarred most Cypriot communities, and the enforced partition that followed the Turkish invasion in 1974 has left many Greek Orthodox churches in the north of the island in a similar state of disrepair. It is the ones that are still in use that attract attention, not those that are derelict. Agios Prokopios stands out simply because it is prettier than most, and the contrast between the tranquillity of its location and the conflict that underlies its condition seems that much more marked as a result.
Presumably, unless the divided people of the island discover some common ground on which to build a future together, this church, like the others, will continue to deteriorate and will eventually fall down. It is hard to see whom this would benefit. Not the Turkish Cypriots, whose towns and villages will be increasingly littered with such ruins; not the Greek Cypriots, a part of whose heritage will be lost; not the visitors like us, who would rather see well-preserved art and architecture than the ransacked reminders of a doubtless tragic, but to us arcane, dispute.
Indeed, there are few beneficiaries from conflicts of this kind. This is not to say there are no beneficiaries at all, of course - generally some opportunists find a way to turn pillage into profit - but few. Most people on both sides are losers. Some, who lose their lives, their family or their homes, are losers on a catastrophic scale. But even those who suffer no such catastrophes are losers to a lesser degree, from having to endure the stress, the cost and the bitterness of the struggle. Such conflicts always turn out to go on longer and cause more suffering than anyone seems to anticipate at the outset.
One only need reflect for a moment to think of Bosnia, Kosovo, Israel/Palestine, and Northern Ireland in recent years - and that's without broadening one's horizons to encompass the many vicious local and civil wars that afflict so much of Africa. All individual cases with their own idiosyncrasies, of course. All different. And all quintessentially the same, all varying symptoms of the same disease: man's apparent inability to live alongside other men.
I have no view on the rights and wrongs of the Cypriot dispute. As is usual in such cases, any outsider trying to arrive at an objective opinion quickly finds their quest smothered beneath layer after layer of conflicting accounts, accusations and counter-accusations, much like pigeon droppings at Agios Prokopios. Both sides can, and do, quote any number of instances of the iniquities committed by the other. North Cyprus is littered with monuments to the Turkish "martyrs" of the struggle; equally, when you cross the Green Line at the Ledra Palace checkpoint the first thing to strike your eye is a poster depicting atrocities allegedly committed by the Turks.
Who knows the rights and wrongs of such squabbles? Perhaps not even those involved in them. Perhaps least of all those involved in them. Oh, naturally, the advocates on either side know all the history in exhaustive detail - from their side's viewpoint at least - and can out-argue the would-be neutral observer by regurgitating it in ever more assertive style. Perhaps, indeed probably, they themselves believe it all, but that doesn't make it true. Not the whole truth, anyhow.
To the outsider, there seem to have been no good reasons why the two sides couldn't live together, only bad ones, but as so often in our world, it is that bad ones that prevailed. It is easy to see, and almost possible to understand, how such things occur. One needn't assume that either side, let alone both, is intrinsically malevolent. Indeed, the mistake may be to think in terms of "sides" at all - the same mistake that is made by those caught up in the conflict.
Each "side" is only composed of individuals, with all the individual characteristics that people everywhere display. Some will be tolerant, some will be generous, some will be easy-going, some will be narrow-minded, some will be greedy, and some will be mean. Many will be a mixture of all these things, none of which make mutual co-existence impossible. A few will be fanatical, nurturing obsessive hatreds or excessive loyalties.
What makes it possible for the fanatical few to tip the balance over the co-existent many? The answer seems to be simple as it is saddening. All they need to do is to commit atrocities. This may, as they hope, provoke retaliation from fellow-fanatics on the other side. But even if it doesn't do so straight away, it will arouse fear and suspicion, and harden attitudes, deepening the divide between communities. Fear and suspicion in turn feed fanaticism. Sooner or later the retaliation will come, misjudged and ill-directed, provoking further outrage and distrust. "Do you know what those Greeks/Turks/Serbs/Croats/Catholics/Protestants/Shias/Sunnis/Hutus/Tutsis have done now?" Of course, a moment's thought would tell us the
Greeks/Turks/Serbs/Croats/Catholics/Protestants/Shias/Sunnis/Hutus/Tutsis haven't done it at all. It has been individuals among them who have done it, and it is at our peril, as well as theirs, that we blame the group. But how often is that moment taken for thought? The exigencies of conflict leave people with little patience for such fine distinctions, though it is on such fine distinctions that our humanity depends.
There is a far greater divide than that between races or religions: that between peaceable, accommodating people on the one hand, and bellicose, uncompromising people on the other. The tragedy is that the latter find it easy to enlist the former to their cause.
Meanwhile, Agios Prokopios church stands mouldering amid its meadow flowers.
The bell removed from the bell-tower you can understand, if not condone; church-bells were reputedly used by Greek Cypriot extremists for coded signals to each other. The absent icons, assuming them to have been looted, you can also understand, if not condone; mercenary motives are not malicious in themselves. The broken graves, though. Mere casual vandalism? Hardly; too much effort has been expended on the task for that. There was fury at work here, a passionate fury, a fury driven to vent its spleen on the already dead.
Against such fury, once unleashed, pleas for restraint and mutual understanding have no power. How to prevent it from being unleashed though, I have no idea, except to the small personal extent that we can do so by redoubling our own resolve never to be caught up in anything similar.
© Also published under the name torr on Ciao UK 2007
Note: routine information about travel to and around North Cyprus, currency and prices, cuisine, language, etc. may be found in my general North Cyprus review, entitled "Going, going...." For the sake of brevity and the avoidance of repetition, I have not duplicated it here.
Sygkrasis, Famagusta district. This byzantine church is from 11th or 12th century, built on the ruins of an old Christian basilica of 6th century. It has a Cross-in-square in the middle, a dome, and a bell tower. It is empty and not used. Floors: Prefabricated mosaic tiles (renovated in 1954-1955). Windows: Framed, ledged and battened and wooden sash.