Maria ( Chapter 3)
Posted by: Maria Atalanti
Published on: 19/09/2021Back to Blog
(This story is the product of fiction, and all characters are fictional; the historical elements included are real)
Nicosia Summer 1877
The winds of fate blew loudly and swept through the life of Antonios Philippou, two years after his family had arrived in Cyprus. His wife Eleni, his daughter Athena and then his parents, perished from the disease that plagued the place. The malaria. He himself had ended up like a walking and suffering corpse. He could not see any future in his life. And at that moment, when the power of his fate took away everything and everybody would think that everything would be over for him, another wind blew and nested in his soul.
Suddenly he began to feel a power filling him up, and he saw in front of him a purpose that he had to fulfil. A strong man as he was, he knew that sorrow and self-pity lead nowhere. He evaluated the life and the blessing it was given to him, to have such a wonderful wife as Helen, such a cherished daughter as Athena and two wonderful and pioneering parents, that he decided to keep the beauty of their memory, not the sadness. He remembered again the words of his father, there on the seashore of Larnaca:
… I will be waiting for you to come back. Because you must come back. Only the educated can save our country!
He had been so much educated! He had to offer to his homeland, which was fraying under Ottoman rule, everything he could. The years he was in Europe, but also from some books sent to him by his friends from Paris, with sailors, gave him the opportunity to confirm his father’s words about the desire of many European countries to acquire Cyprus.
When he was in London he read the book by the British military and diplomat John Macdonald Kinneir, who visited Cyprus in 1814 and in which he advised his country to occupy Cyprus. Such a conquest would give it “hegemonic influence” in the Mediterranean and “tremendously crucial position” to control the tactics of the Sublime Gate and the “exceedances” of Russia, as he wrote.
From his father he knew that the French consul in Larnaca, Adolphe Laffon, in 1871, had proposed to his government a possible settlement of French refugees in Cyprus, after the Prussians occupied Alsace and Arch. Laffon’s proposals were repeated in 1874 by his successor, Pierre Dubreuil.
Recently, he had been informed by a book, sent to him from Paris by a friend of his, that the Belgian industrialist Edmond Paridant van der Cammen, had proposed to Sultan Abdul Aziz the colonization of Cyprus by Belgian immigrants, with the agreement of the Sublime Gate and at the same time ensuring Ottoman sovereignty on the island.
All this worried him greatly. He knew, of course, that whichever European country came to Cyprus would bring something better than the absolute quagmire of Ottoman rule. But at the same time, he knew that it would be another foreign occupation, very different from the vision of his compatriots who were expecting liberation and union with the Greek state.
He tried many times to convey these messages, at least to those who could understand them, but the response was lukewarm.
He decided to leave Larnaca and the bitter memories that were chasing him. He chose Nicosia because it was the capital of the island and had some schools in which he could work.
The city of Nicosia was very different from Larnaca. It was in the centre of the island, away from the sea, in the plain of Mesaoria. It was fortified with walls built in 1567 by the Venetians to protect it from a possible Ottoman attack. Unfortunately, they did not manage to save it and in 1570/1 it fell into the hands of the Turks. The walls were built of stone and had eleven bastions. Around the walls there was a moat, that when Antonios saw it, flocks of sheep grazed it. Nicosia’s former glory, with the palaces of the Lusignans that adorned it, was lost, and ended up in a poor and dirty city. All its inhabitants, most of whom were Muslims, lived within the walls.
People entered the city from the three gates that opened only during the day. After sunset, the gates were closed and a special permission from the Turkish commander was needed to pass. The three gates were called, Gate of Famagusta (which was the largest and most imposing), Gate of Pafos and Gate of Kyrenia. The gates got their name, depending on where the roads that started from them, led.
Apart from the Muslims, Greek Orthodox, some Catholics, the remains of the Lusignans and Venetians, and Armenians lived in the city. Armenians were engaged in trade and some of them had a prominent place in society. In addition to the poor houses, there were many orchards, with palm trees, citrus trees, pomegranate trees and many vegetables, such as carrots, onions, and cabbages. There were also handicrafts that dealt with the processing of cotton and the manufacture of cotton and silk fabrics. In Nicosia, people also possessed the art of dyeing leather with sumac, (a kind of plant), as well as cotton fabrics of very high quality.
Antonios had no difficulty in finding a position as a teacher at the Pancyprian Gymnasium. Near the children, he found a target and a purpose that gave him strength to continue. At the same time, whenever he found fertile ground and an inclination for knowledge, he taught any child or adult he met. His time was filled with offer and creativity. The best antidote to grief.
He found a small house, next to a Turkish mansion on Yeni Mosque Street. This mansion was an old palace of the Lusignans and specifically the residence of Princess Agnes de Lusignan*. The courtyard of his house was adjacent to the garden of the mansion. They were simply separated by the wall of the fence. He could see the trees of the garden and feel their coolness on the hot days of summer. In the evening, when a cool breeze was always blowing in Nicosia, he would sit outside and think of his life and of the fate of his homeland.
In his own small courtyard, there was only one fig tree. Its branches had grown and descended to the ground, creating a kind of natural hut. One afternoon when he went to cut figs, he dropped a juicy fig on the ground and bent down to pick it up. He then noticed, for the first time, a hole in the fence wall of the next house from which projected the face of a girl. She smiled shyly at him, and he asked her in Turkish:
-What is your name?
-My name is Maria replied, also in Turkish
-Maria, do you speak Greek? He asked her again in Greek, this time.
The little girl did not seem to have understood and repeated?
-Are you a Christian? He asked her again in Turkish.
-I do not know what Christian is, she replied in Turkish again.
The whole situation aroused his curiosity, and he told the little girl.
-Do you want to come here? I ‘ll give you a fig. They are very sweet.
-If they see me, I will be punished, replied Maria
-No one will see you. We will hide under the branches of the tree. See how dense they are! No one will see us.
Maria passed through the hole of the fence and was found under the fig tree. Anthony was amazed by her beauty. He had never seen a more beautiful girl before. Despite the dirty clothes she wore, her face shone. She had curly pitch-black hair, black eyes with huge eyelashes, red fleshy lips, and white skin. All the features of her face were harmonious, but what stood out was the strength of her gaze. She is so brilliant, he thought.
That day was the beginning of a relationship that would change Maria’s life forever. Slowly – slowly, Anthony learned various information about Maria. She was about six years old – about as much as his daughter would be – he often thought. She did not know how she found herself in this house, she did not remember anything about her past life. They always had her in the garden to take care of their hens, rabbits, goats, and the cow. She was not often allowed to enter the house, and she was never allowed out of the house.
Her Master was called Suleiman and his wife Fatma. She was very afraid of both. Fatma hated her and as soon as she saw her, for no apparent reason, she could beat her. She did not see her master very often, and generally he used to talk to her well, but his gaze frightened her. One time he tried to caress her and began to pass his fingers over her body. She started trembling and crying, and then came the big mother, his mother, Ayşe, and drove him away angrily. The master was very much afraid of his mother, not to curse him. Ayşe was the only one defending Maria. After the incident with her master, Ayşe would have her sleep in her room, on the floor, so as not to be in danger from her son. When she was ill-treated, Mother Ayşe used to take her in her arms and comforted her. Maria loved her very much.
The whole situation raised many questions to him. More questions were raised by the discovery that Maria was wearing a golden cross, under her rags. It was obvious that she was a Christian. But wherever they found her and picked her up, why they did not change her name to Turkish and why they did not take away her cross? It was certain, they wanted to hide her and did not want anyone to see her, but why did they keep the evidence that she was a Christian?
All this intrigued him, and he began to watch his neighbours, in secret, looking through the hole in the wall, near the fig tree. Suleiman was a typical Turk, around 35, a brunette with Mongolian characteristics, a moustache, and a large stomach. When he was at home, he was ordering everyone. Only in front of his mother did he seem to be completely subjugated. Whenever he saw her, he bowed his head and kissed her hand.
His wife, Fatma, was a dark-skinned Turkish woman, with strong Mongolian features, slender, with small slit eyes and thin lips. You could call her ugly. She was around 30 and had not been able to have children. This was perhaps what caused the crises of hysteria that gripped her, and she often became violent. She was afraid that her husband would take another wife, and so she was jealous of all women. Maria, even though she was a child, was a candidate opponent for her. Muslims could marry a girl of 12 or 13 years, and Maria would not be long in reaching this age.
But mother Ayşe had a different appearance. She was clearly separate. She was relatively tall, with whiter skin and normal features. Everyone respected her at home, even her daughter-in-law. Deep down, she knew that one of the reasons her husband had not yet brought another wife home, was the influence of his mother.
The meetings of Antonios and Maria, under the fig tree, took place on a daily basis. On the side of the garden, Maria closed the hole with dry branches and from Antonios’ yard they were fully covered by the branches of the fig tree. From the very first days Anthony began to teach her Greek, reading and writing. At first, he used to write the alphabet with his finger on the soil, and later he brought her books. The speed with which Maria learned had impressed him. Despite all his experience with children, he had never seen anything like this before. In a year she was fluent in Greek, reading and writing. The little girl was a phenomenon!
Her presence in that house tormented him in the evenings. He wanted to get her away and raise her like the daughter he had lost. But he was afraid. If they were discovered, the fate of both would be tragic.
On the other hand, his information was showing that the time was approaching for Cyprus to change hands and master. Although he himself would prefer a French dominance, everything seemed to show that the British would win the game. The defeat of the French by the Prussians in the recent war and the purchase by Great Britain, in 1875, of a large part of the shares of the company that had undertaken the work of the Suez Canal, weakened French influence.
Anthony smelled the wind that began to blow and did not hesitate for a moment. He began to teach English and French to Maria, with an emphasis on English. The little girl should be ready when things would change in Cyprus. Ready, like no other child, all over the island.
*This mansion exists until today. It is in occupied Nicosia, and it has been renovated. I express my thanks to the Architect, Mrs. Agni Petridou for the relevant information.
The Great Cyprus Encyclopedia
Lefkosia – Luding Salvator of Austria
Photo: Through Cyprus with a Camera in the Autumn of 1878 (Nicosia, from the city wall) Jonh Thomson