Posted by: Maria Atalanti
Published on: 05/09/2021Back to Blog
(This story is the product of fiction and all the characters are fictional; the historical elements included are real)
Larnaca – Summer 1872
Antonios Philippou sat in the harbour, looking towards the sea. Deep blue. The white waves ran on its surface and burst into the sand, only to be reborn far beyond and over again. The rhythm, the coolness from the breeze and the smell of the sea, which filled his existence, brought him peace.
He had returned, at the age of 32, to his family home in Larnaca, along with his wife Eleni and his five-year-old daughter Athena. He remembered 14 years ago, when his father brought him here to talk to him, before he left for the Great School of the Nation in Constantinople.
His father, Andreas, was one of the wealthiest Greek Cypriots of Larnaca. He worked for years in the French consulate and at the same time traded salt and silk, sometimes in collaboration with the French consuls, sometimes on his own. He kept every extra penny for the studies of his only son. Furthermore, he was a very smart man. Being so many years in the consulate, he had learned French and often followed the discussions that were taking place in there, and had understood many things about the ambitions of the French and other Europeans for his country.
On the other hand, he saw his compatriots degenerate and demoted under Ottoman rule, some of them even joining Islam in order not to pay taxes and at the same time secretly performing their Christian duties. They were called Linobambakoi, (linen and cotton) because of their dual religious status. After the revolution of 1821 in Greece and the creation of the small and unstable Greek State, the Greek-speaking inhabitants of Cyprus hoped that their turn would come. Whenever they saw Greek ships arriving at the port, they admired the Greek flag, dreamed, and waited for their own redemption.
But his father knew that this was not the case at all. On the chessboard of European interests, others were moving the pawns, and no one knew who would win the game.
So, he made sure that his son would get the best possible education and since they lived in Larnaca, the most Europeanized city of the island, he sent him early on to the school. Antonios was fortunate to have Athanasios Sakellariou as his teacher, from Ayios Petros Kynourias, writer of the book “Ta Kypriaca” (Cyprus customs and dialect).
When it was time for him to go and study, his father had brought him here, away from the curious looks and ears that stretched behind closed doors. Here, in the beauty of the nature, he spoke for the first time as a man who knew much more than he seemed to know.
-My son, he told him. Our country for 300 years has been under Ottoman rule and has lost its identity. Before them were other conquerors, Lusignans, Venetians and before them others. All we have left to remember who we are is our language and religion. The Turk today is like a dragon that has aged, but it can still devour you and wipe you out to prove his strength. Do not forget what happened with archbishop Kyprianos and the other bishops in 1821. Europeans know this, and sometimes they caress him, sometimes they threaten him. But they want to slowly weaken him and grab whatever they can. Among those, which they want to grab, is our land.
-In a few years’ time, the Suez Canal will be completed, and new prospects will be opened for the international trade. All the strong countries of Europe have understood the importance of Cyprus and are competing who will convince the Sultan to give it to him. I’ve heard a lot, my son, there, in the consulate. No one knows that I understand French fluently and follow all their conversations. I know that since 1831 the French counsellor Alphose Bottu sent reports to his government and urged them to take Cyprus in one way or the other. They claim that the old rule of the island by the Lusignans, makes them the natural descenders of the island’s ownership. What Cypriots dream of, has no significance for them. That is why we should be realistic. Greece will not save us, my son. It doesn’t have the power. We will be snatched from Europe. Who will he be? No one knows. Of course, the French are better than the Ottomans, but who knows what fate has the future for us!
-And it’s not just the French who want us. I know that the English, Belgians, and Germans desire our land. I’ve heard it in the consulate. Prince Leopold II of the Belgian throne visited Cyprus in 1855, and it was told that he wanted Cyprus for his country. For them, my son, we are indigenous, we have no value.
-You must be educated, my child. To be educated better than anyone of them. Only in this way we will be able to deal with them, on their own terms. You will first go to the Great School of the Nation in Constantinople. There you will make sure to learn Turkish. Not the Turkish we are talking about here among us. Turkish spoken by their educated people, so that you can read the sultan’s orders, first-hand. Then you will go to Paris. Be that as it may, this letter from the French ambassador will open many doors for you. You will also learn German. But above all, you will learn English. Great Britain is a huge force and knows how to play the game well. They are the ones that the French are most afraid of.
Then he took out a pug with gold coins and gave it to him.
-I have been gathering these for years. No one knows that I have them. Neither your mother. You will use them, my son, to educate yourself. If you can make it, go to England. I will be waiting for you to come back. Because you must come back. Only the educated can save our country!
-I promise you father that I will come back, Antonios replied.
-In the years that followed, Antonios finished the Great School of the Nation in Constantinople where he was taught not only Greek studies, but also psychology, anthropology and the French and Ottoman languages.
He then travelled to Paris and using the letter given to him by his father he was admitted to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Everything had been thought of and planned correctly by his father. All except that his son would fall in love. When he met Eleni in Paris, at a gathering of Greeks of the diaspora, he forgot everything. He hardly remembered Cyprus or his parents. He was enchanted by her beauty. For some time, he also stopped his studies – the main object of his life. He lived in a magic, a cloud enveloped him, and he certainly did not step on the earth. With difficulty, he persuaded her father, an influential Greek of Paris, to allow him to marry her. He also gave him a vague promise that they would live the rest of their lives in Paris. But deep down he knew…
Immediately after their marriage, they went to London for a few years and Antonios continued his studies in English law, while also learning the English language. But they returned to Paris, having already had their daughter, Athena.
He could have been perfectly happy. He had a wonderful family and worked in the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as a translator. With the flat that his father-in-law had given them and his quite satisfactory salary, he had everything. But deep down he was depressed, and he always looked melancholic. Eleni noticed it and asked him constantly, until he was forced to talk to her about his homeland and the promise he had made to his father.
It was not easy for Eleni to encourage him to leave for Cyprus. But she did. Perhaps, the defeat of the French in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, also helped. The upheaval it had brought to the country, created a sense of escape.
On the one hand, he thanked Eleni for this, but on the other hand, he believed that her decision emanated from ignorance of what she would face. She had never seen the streets of Cyprus, which were without any substrate, muddy in the winter and dusty in the summer. His Parisian wife could not imagine a place where for 300 years no public work had been done! The only project that was done – and this on private initiative – was the aqueduct that was built in the years 1746-47 and which was paid entirely by the Turkish Bekir Pasha, himself. It cost 50,000 piastres and allowed the economically more comfortable residents of Larnaca and Nicosia to install water in their homes. Eleni did not know about the diseases that afflicted the population, especially malaria from mosquitoes that abounded in the swampy waters that existed everywhere, and no authority was ever interested in drying them out! She did not know about the lack of elementary justice and of a health system.
A sweet voice pulled him out of his thoughts.
-Daddy, daddy, where are you?
Little Athena ran and hugged his knee as he was sitting on the rock and hovered her head in his arms. Further, back Eleni came smiley and happy.
Oh my God, he thought, what a wonderful picture! What perfection! Athena in my arms and Eleni emitting light and serenity.
-You had told me a thousand evils about your country, she cried out to him. But you never told me about the beauty of the sea and the bright light that bathes everything. You didn’t tell me about the jasmine that smells in the courtyards and the many Europeans who circulate in the city. These are worth all the hardships! Don’t torture yourself any more. I’ll be happy here.
Antonios tried to hide the tears that filled his eyes. What a wonderful woman! He would do anything to keep her happy. Her and their daughter. And then to fulfil the great task assigned to him by his father: the education of the children of Cyprus.
At that moment a wind blew, and the sea moaned. Eleni’s dress rocked in the wind and her hair got loose. Athena perched in his arms.
He felt that fate was sending him a message. He had learned so much. But he had not learned to read the signs of fate. He squeezed Athena in his arms and wished that fate had no other plans for him.
Together, held hand in hand, all three of them set off for the house.
The Great Cyprus Encyclopedia
Picture taken from: larnacainhistory.worldpress.com It is a painting representing Larnaca in the 19th century