The Latins of Cyprus

Alexander-Michael Hadjilyra
here is a long link between the Latins and Cyprus, dating back to 1126, when privileged merchants from Venice and Genoa settled in our island. However, the real history of the Latin community in Cyprus began in 1192, when the titular Frankish King of Jerusalem, Guy de Lusignan, purchased the island from the crusader King of England, Richard I the Lionheart, who had seized it in 1191. In his attempt to establish a western-type feudal kingdom, the new Lord of Cyprus sent emissaries to Western Europe, Cilicia and the Levant, inviting bourgeois, noblemen, knights and warriors; consequently, a massive migration of Roman Catholic Christians took place, to whom fiefs, manors and privileges were bounteously granted.


Following the seizure of Cyprus by the Ottomans between 1570-1571, thousands of Latin nobles and clergy were either slaughtered or exiled and many Latin temples were turned into mosques. At the same time, the Latin Church was essentially dissolved and the new rulers restored the Greek Orthodox Church, which had been suppressed by the Latin Church throughout the Latin Era. Due to the anti-Catholic policy across the Ottoman Empire, the few Latins who survived the massacres and chose remain in Cyprus had two options: either to become Greek Orthodox or to embrace Islam. Being devout Catholics, many of them chose a third path: they became Linobambaki (Crypto-Christians), appearing as Muslims, outwardly practising circumcision and other Mohammedan customs, however covertly they held church services, venerated icons and carried two names, a Christian and a Muslim one. Legends also speak of Lusignans and Venetians who hid on the mountains of Troödos and Pentadhaktylos and the Carpass peninsula, some of whom returned to Catholicism during the British Era. Although most of the Latin population perished, the Franciscans did manage to return and establish the Holy Cross monastery in Nicosia (1596) and the Virgin Mary of Graces monastery in Larnaca (1596). These establishments were used for accommodation by European merchants, seafarers and travellers. The monastery in Nicosia was re-built in 1642 and, again, between 1900-1902, while the monastery in Larnaca was re-built in 1724 and again in 1843. In 1629 a Latin Bishopric was founded in Paphos, it was however abolished in 1684, when the Bishop passed away and the number of Latins had declined to just 250 souls. In the 17th century, there was also a small number of Capuchins, Armenian Catholics and Uniates (Greek Catholics). The Terra Santa college, the oldest school still operating in Cyprus, was established by the Franciscans in 1646 in Nicosia. The school moved to its current location, in Acropolis, Strovolos, in 1955 and it encompasses Saint Barnabas’ chapel. From the 18th century onwards, the Latin population of Cyprus increased with the arrival of European bankers, diplomats, doctors, hoteliers and merchants, most of whom resided in the Frankish quarter of Larnaca, where the European consulates were based (representing, amongst others, Austria-Hungary, England, France, Italy, Naples, Ragusa, Sardinia, Sicily, Spain, Tuscany and Venice). Small Frankish quarters were also present in Nicosia and Limassol. In the 18th and 19th centuries, many Catholics came to Cyprus from France, Italy and Dalmatia. Some of them became prominent landowners, such as Duke Antonio Roretti from Ragusa, who in 1795 purchased 2.000 donums (about 267 hectares) of land to the south of Kyrenia, forming the renowned Phounji chiftlik. In 1844, the sisters of Saint Joseph the Apparition built a convent in Larnaca, where the first hospital of Cyprus was housed (they moved to the current location in 1848; the hospital operated until the 1920s and the school until in 1990). At about the same time, the Lapierre family established a family cemetery in Kondea. The church of Saint Catherine in Limassol was built between 1872-1879. Based on various estimates, the Latin community of the 19th century numbered between 400-600 persons, the vast majority of which lived in Larnaca, with only smaller numbers living in Nicosia and Limassol.

In 1196 the Latin Archbishopric was established in Nicosia, together with three Suffragan Bishops (Famagusta, Limassol and Paphos). As a result, throughout the Frankish and the Venetian Eras (11921489 and 1489-1570, respectively), a number of Latin religious orders arrived in Cyprus: chronologically, the Carmelites, the Benedictines, the Cistercians, the Carthusians, the Franciscans, the Augustinians, the Dominicans and the Premonstratensians (founders of the renowned Bellapais monastery), as well as the religio-military Hospitallers and Templars; the two latter were in charge of the internal security and were based in Kolossi, where their Grande Commandery was. The famous ‘Commandaria’ wine was named thus because it was produced by the vineyards around Kolossi castle. The secular Latin population came from Aragon, Catalonia, Florence, Genoa, Marseilles, Naples, Pisa, Provence, Syro-Palestine, Venice etc.; there were also a few affluent Armenian Catholics from the Kingdom of Cilicia. After the Fall of Acre in 1291, Cyprus became the easternmost bulwark of Christianity, the most important commercial centre in the Levant and probably the richest kingdom of all Europe; not surprisingly, writers of the time remark: “the languages of all the nations under the sky are spoken in Cyprus”. The nearly 4 centuries of mingling between the Franks and the locals gave rise to a Franco-Byzantine architectural style, it influenced Byzantine iconography and dozens of words/toponyms of French or Italian origin entered the Cypriot dialect, many surviving until today. Surviving from the Latin Era are churches, administrative buildings and defensive works, the most prominent of which are: the Bellapais Abbey, a unique example of gothic architecture, the Saint Hilarion, Buffavento and Kantara castles in Pentadhaktylos, the Saint Sophia and Saint Catherine cathedrals, the Augustinian monastery of Saint Mary and the palaces in Nicosia - whose circular walls with 11 heart-shaped bastions and 3 gates are considered a model of Renaissance fortification -, the Saint Nicholas and Saints Peter & Paul cathedrals, the palaces and the trapezoid walls of Famagusta, the Gastria, Kolossi, Kyrenia, Larnaca, Limassol and Paphos castles, the towers in Alaminos, Khirokitia, Kiti, Pyla and Xylophaghou, the royal mansions in Kouklia and Potamia, and the royal chapel in Pyrga.

With the arrival of the British in July 1878 came religious tolerance, which particularly strengthened the already prosperous yet small Latin community of the island. Between 1879-1882, landowner Riccardo Matthei participated in the first Legislative Council, together with a Greek Orthodox and two Muslims; in 1867-1868, he had devised a novel method for the extermination of the locust pest and his method was implemented across Cyprus and the rest of the Ottoman Empire. In the first decades of the British Era, the Latin community of Cyprus grew in number with Catholics from Malta, Spain and Britain, Spanish Franciscans, a few Armenian Catholic refugees from Cilicia, as well as by some Maronites who, for various reasons, became integrated with the Latin community as they moved from their villages to Nicosia and Larnaca. During the British Era (1878-1960), many Latins became civil servants, entrepreneurs, bankers, merchants etc. Throughout the British Era, Latin establishments were founded around Cyprus: in Nicosia, the Saint Joseph convent and school (1884) and a cemetery in Ayios Dhometios (1957), which since 1974 is adjacent to the Green Line and visits there are allowed once a year; in Larnaca, a small chapel in the local cemetery (1930); in Limassol, the Saint Joseph school (1880-1921), the cemetery (1905) and Saint Mary’s school and convent (1923; in 1965 they moved to their current location); in Kormakitis, the nuns’ school (1936); in Famagusta, the Terra Santa school and convent (1952); in Kyrenia, the Saint Elisabeth chapel (1907); in Troödos, the chapel of Saint Mary (1932); in Prodhromos, the chapel of Saint Joseph (1936); Saint Anthony’s chapel in Kondea (1910) and St. Barnabas chapel in Xeros (1930s). Examining the population censuses of the British Era (1878-1960), we observe that the number of Latins in Cyprus remained fairly stable: about 1.000 in 1881, about 830 in 1901, about 950 in 1921 and about 1.020 in 1946. Yet, the 1960 population census recorded 4.505 Roman Catholics, 2.796 of Mediterranean extraction (including many Maltese) and 1.709 British Catholics. With the Independence of Cyprus, on 16 August 1960, under Article 2 § 3 of the Constitution, the Armenians, the Latins and the Maronites were recognised as “religious groups”. In the referendum held on 13 November 1960, all three religious groups opted to belong to the Greek-Cypriot community (as it was expected), which consequently defined their political options in the game of the inter-communal controversy and somewhat affected their relations with the Turkish-Cypriots, who in turn viewed them as an extension of the Greek-Cypriot political choices. This is why the religious groups were treated similarly or even worse during the inter-communal troubles (19631964), following the Turkish-Cypriot mutiny, and the brutal and unlawful Turkish invasion (1974). In accordance with the provisions of Article 109 of our Constitution, Latin-Cypriots were given representation on a political level: as a result of their choice to belong to the Greek-Cypriot community, a Latin participated in the Nicosia members of the Greek Communal Chamber, which acted as a lower Parliament, with jurisdiction over religious, educational and cultural affairs. After the secession of the Turkish-Cypriots from the common state in 1963 and the transfer of the legislative powers of the Greek Communal Chamber to the House of Representatives in 1965, it was decided that the Representatives of the religious groups would continue to represent their communities in

the Parliament, on issues pertaining to the jurisdiction of their Chamber and the House was to request their opinion before legislating on pertinent matters (Law 12/1965). So far, there have been three Latin Representatives: Anthony Pietroni from Nicosia (1960-1976), Felix Cirilli de Nores from Nicosia (1976-1991) and Benito Mantovani from Limassol (1991). The religious leader of the community is a Patriarchal Vicar General (since 2010 Franciscan Father Evencio Herrera Diaz), accountable to the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and ex officio representative of the Holy See’s pro-Nuncio in Jerusalem. As a result of the 1974 Turkish invasion, the Latin-Cypriot community suffered substantial losses: about 2-3 families living in Xeros, about 7-8 families in Nicosia, about 10 families in Famagusta and about 10 families in Kyrenia became refugees; lost, amongst others, were the renowned Bellapais Abbey in Pentadhaktylos, Saint Elisabeth’s church in Kyrenia, the Terra Santa school and convent in Famagusta, Saint Barnabas’ chapel in Xeros and Saint Anthony’s chapel in Kondea. Despite its losses, the small yet affluent Latin community of Cyprus continued to prosper in the remaining urban areas, contributing culturally and socioeconomically to our homeland. Moreover, the Latin schools provide excellent secular education to all schoolchildren, regardless of nationality or religion. As the Latin community grew stronger, its establishments increased: since 1972 there is the “Villa Regina Pacis” Rest Home in Larnaca; in 1987 the Greek Orthodox church of Chrysopolitissa in Kato Paphos was kindly allotted to the community by the then Bishop of Paphos Chrysostomos; the same Bishop also allotted the church of Saint Nicholas in Polis in 1992 (as it is being restored, the chapel of Saint Demetrius is currently being used); in 1994, 1995 and 1999, respectively, the small Catholic community of Mesa Khorio built a cemetery, the Saints Cosmas and Damian chapel and the “La Souris Verte” kindergarten; as of 1996 masses are also held at Columbia Hotel in Pissouri; in 2007 a new cemetery was built outside Nisou, Nicosia; finally, Saint Michael’s Hospice in Mesa Khorio is expected to be ready in the near future. The community has also a Youth Association, a weekly radio programme, an official web page, two shelters for foreign workers (Saint Joseph in Nicosia & Saint Francis the Migrant in Limassol) and organises various cultural and charity events. Over the past decades, the dynamics of the Latin-Cypriot community have changed with the increased number of marriages with Greek-Cypriots; moreover, the last 25-30 years have seen the arrival of thousands of Roman Catholics from countries of the ex-Soviet bloc, Western Europe, southeast Asia and Latin America, some of whom have settled permanently in Cyprus. Today it is estimated that traditional Latins number about 1.000 persons, of whom 50% reside in Nicosia, 35% in Limassol, 10% in Larnaca and 5% in Paphos and some villages. Additionally, there are about 1.000 Roman Catholics who have acquired Cypriot citizenship, about 5.000 Roman Catholic permanent residents who are not Cypriot citizens (mostly British), over 6.000 Roman Catholics temporarily inhabiting in Cyprus (mainly from Central Europe, south-east Asia and Latin America), about 800 Roman Catholics serving in the two Sovereign British Bases’ garrison and about 550 Roman Catholics serving in the UNFICYP contingent (mainly from Canada, South America, Central Europe and the United Kingdom).

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