Saturday, 19 April 2008

Mosques and cathedrals - by a guest blogger

Walking up a small street in Famagusta in Cyprus you come to what can only be a gothic cathedral, in this case, St Ncholas' Cathedral, except that (apart from the damaged twin towers), it has a completely unexpected feature - a minaret next to the left tower - an almost perfect example of Gothic architecture that is now a mosque.

Said to be based on Rheims Cathedral in France, building started in 1298 when the island was under the control of the Lusingnan kings (who were also crowned kings of Jerusalem in the cathedral). After the 16th century conquest of the island by the Ottomans in which the cathedral was badly damaged, Latin Christians were expelled from the island and the cathedral was transformed into a mosque with the addition of a mihrab and minaret and the complete destruction of all art depicting human figures. The frescoes were whitewashed and the altars were demolished.

(A colleague from Geneva remarked that he felt at home here because the Calvinist reformers had done something similar to St Pierre's cathedral during the Reformation in Geneva.)

Still, the building exists in a time warp because (apart from the damage to the towers) the architecture was preserved and it was spared from any baroque additions.

A time warp of a rather different kind is just a couple of kilometres to the south. During the Turkish invasion of Cyprus Famagusta was occupied by the Turkish armed forces (the centre of the old town was said to be predominantly Turkish Cypriot), while the suburb town (and beach resort) of Varosha was predominantly Greek Cypriot. Its residents fled the Turkish invasion (thinking they would soon be back once the fighting was over) but the suburb has been sealed off as a prohibited area for the last 34 years - the hotels are still there, but still marked by the fighting, as are the cafes and the churches.