Maria (Chapter 8)
Posted by: Maria Atalanti
Published on: 24/10/2021Back to Blog
(This story is the product of fiction, and all characters are fictional; the historical elements included are real)
Nicosia autumn 1926
Maria had been living in her new home for a while. It was a simple house compared to the luxury she was used to, but this did not cause her any problems. It also had electric installation, something that did not exist before she left Cyprus. In Nicosia, in 1913, a private electricity company had been established and so those consumers that wanted and could pay for, had a supply. She lacked nothing to live comfortably.
A lady from the neighbourhood came every day and took care of the housework and cooking. In the evening, she returned to her home and to her family. She was called Mrs. Vassilia and Maria particularly liked her. She was an excellent cook. This encouraged Maria to try to learn to cook Cypriot dishes, which she found extremely delicious, compared to the water-boiled English dishes to which she was used to.
Vassilia had two daughters, Helen, and Georgia. They were around eight to ten and often came with their mother. Maria told them stories about faraway India, about elephants and fakirs. They listened to her with their mouths open. She had even written to her daughter to send her the book The “Jungle Book: Mowgli’s Story” by Rudyard Kipling. She was planning to read it to them herself and translate it at the same time.
Although she had not yet managed to find anything about the subject she was interested in, she was very happy in Nicosia, “Chora”, as the locals called it. She had decided to act with a plan so as not to raise suspicions about what she was looking for. It was a very wise decision to pretend that she was writing a book about Cyprus. In this way she could approach people and ask them various things without getting suspicious.
The city of Nicosia had been greatly upgraded since she remembered it. It had expanded outside the walls to the areas of Agioi Omologites, Agios Dometios and Kaimakli. Maria recalled in her memory, when she was little, the first time she began to go out with her mother, that outside the walls of Nicosia, on the way to Kaimakli, there were lepers begging passers-by for something to eat. It was a very tragic sight. Now a quarantine hospital had been built outside the walls, and they had at least some care. In general, although there were beggars in the streets, there was not the same misery and the same diseases as in the past.
As soon as Maria put her life in order, she tried to sort out her priorities and see where and how she would start her research. There were two aspects to her quest. To find the house she lived in the first years of her life and see if she could learn anything from the environment and neighbours, and at the same time search for her teacher, Antonios Philippou. Because of something her mother had told her before she died, she had realized that the teacher probably would not be alive. So, she thought it was better to set as her first goal to find the house. Searching for the teacher would be more difficult.
She began searching from the Turkish-mahalades (neighbourhoods), near the Saragio (Turkish administration building) and Hagia Sophia, which had been converted into a mosque since the Ottomans occupied Cyprus. She often visited the area, talked to its Turkish Cypriot inhabitants, telling them that she was writing a book. Everyone was impressed by this English woman who spoke Turkish. The women often invited her to their home to have coffee, and as they chatted, Maria was trying to gather information.
She looked closely at the houses in the alleys and tried to recognize something, but in vain. Probably, the house in which she lived in her early miserable years, had been demolished. At the same time, she tried to find out where the Turkish Cypriots were buried, in case she might find the tomb of Mother Ayşe. She wanted to honour the memory of this woman who stood by her with love, but unfortunately she did not learn anything that could enlighten her.
Sometimes instead of going to the Turkish-mahalades she preferred to walk around the city. She found it generally very interesting with the narrow streets, the churches, one in each neighbourhood, the latticed windows, the Greek Cypriots – many of whom still wore black breeches – and the Turkish Cypriots who wore white breeches and fez. She had noticed that not all Muslim women covered their faces, in the Muslim custom, and generally circulated relatively freely. Many Greek Cypriot men and women of the city were dressed quite modern and tried to follow the European customs and move away from the misery of the past. Theatres had been built, such as the Papadopoulos Theatre, dances were held, and a certain social life had generally begun to exist.
The wife of the English Commissioner was accepting visitors once a week and Maria did not fail to give her presence once or twice, dressed and sparkling, as a real Lady. She had to keep the balance and at the same time through these gatherings she could make acquaintances and drew information about the society of the past. She had also gone to dance teas, which were organized in clubs and hotels. There she happened to see Russian refugees, who fled after the red revolution of 1917, dressed in their official tsarist uniform.
A very interesting feature of the city was the Women’s Bazaar. Maria liked to visit it and gaze at the exhibits that women were placing on the cobbled streets (side walks) and on the terraces. It was a purely female bazaar that took place at the end of Makrydromos (long street), towards the left side, in the old town. There, women, Greek Cypriots, Turkish Cypriots, but also Armenians, brought their goods, which were mainly woven, Lefkaritika embroideries, embroideries of Lapithos, cotton fabrics of Kythrea, silks of Chora, crochets of Strovolos, kouroukles (shawls) with jibes for the bath and various sweets. The women’s bazaar took place every Friday, and on this day the women occupied the whole area and stopped the circulation. In fact, she had bought silk fabrics and sent them as a gift to her daughter in London. There was a rumour circulating that the first British Commissioner had sent a silk shirt from Nicosia to Queen Victoria, which she liked so much, that she asked to be sent more.
Maria liked all these walks in the city, but she was not progressing at all with her research, and that worried her. Her visits to the Turkish-mahalades yielded nothing, and she was at ground zero. What impressed her one day, and uprooted her somehow, was a theoretically insignificant event. As she walked in the neighbourhoods, a Turkish woman invited her to treat her to ekmek Kanteif (a Turkish sweet) and at the same time offered her coffee. In that house, sitting in a corner was an old, wrinkled woman, and the hostess suggested that she could tell Maria’s fortune by reading the dregs of her coffee cup. Maria, who did not believe in such prejudices, tried to avoid it, but she did not manage.
-Let her, she knows what to do, the hostess told her.
The old lady took Maria’s cup, turned it, studied it, whispered something incomprehensible words and then said to her:
-Lady, it’s not what she seems. She is a queen, yet she grew up like an animal, and a queen became again. It is a difficult road, but a teacher holds the lamp and shines in the dark. You will find what you are looking for, my lady.
And then she went silent and turned to her corner. The hostess was embarrassed with the strange words of the old lady and tried to apologize, but Maria stopped her, saying that it is okay. She did not believe in such prejudices. However, though, she was upset.
The next day, she decided not to go by her usual route. She left her home, proceeded to the archbishop’s palace, saw the new building of the Pancyprian Gymnasium, which was renovated after the fire of 1920, passed through the church of Agios Kassianos and proceeded initially west and then turned north. There was also a Turkish- neighbourhood, but she had never come before. At one point, at a turn of the road, she saw it.
It was there. Opposite her, the house where she had spent the first years of her life. It was in a miserable state, as if abandoned, but she recognized it. She saw the Gothic arches, the gazebo on the façade, but above all she felt a punch in the stomach, which made her almost bend in pain.
She stayed stunned and looked at it, unable to move forward or back. A Turkish woman, who sat on the street next to it and peeling green beans, noticed her.
-Are you well, lady? She asked her. Come sit down, and I’ll bring you a glass of water;
Along with the water, the woman also brought coffee. She had the water and coffee and began to help the woman peeling the green beans. The woman was very talkative and at the same time flattered that an English lady sat down with her and helped her. She was more impressed that this lady could speak Turkish! With Maria’s first question about the house and its history she began to speak and without a second question from Maria, she recounted everything:
-This house was once a palace. It was built by the Franks many – many years ago. When I was little, some rich people lived here, who came from Paphos. Strange people. They didn’t talk to anyone in the neighbourhood. The man looked wild, and his wife bitter. They had no children and after years he took a second wife, but he didn’t have children with her either. I think the master was called Suleiman and his first wife Fatma.
-His mother seemed nicer, but she didn’t go out much either. As if they wanted to hide something, They had a maid, Eminé, was her name, who was my peer. Sometimes she was sent out to chores, and she would stop and play with me. But she never said what was going on at home. She was afraid.
-My annesin (grandmother) said that the master of the house had done something bad, and Allah was punishing him. That’s why he couldn’t have children. But I had heard from other children in the neighbourhood that he had stolen a child and that’s why he left Paphos. However, we never saw a child. It may have been all lies. Who knows?
-These people, died one, one by one and the house was deserted. But my annesin insisted that all this was a punishment from Allah. Who knows? They may or may not have done something bad. Does anyone know what their kismet (luck) writes for them?
The woman was talking quickly and with the repeated information she was saying, Maria got dizzy. She set up herself as she could and thanking the woman for the treat she left.
By the time she got home, her legs trembled. She was piled up in a chair, and Mrs. Vassilia hurried to bring her water and make her tea. Maria was trying to recover but it was very difficult.
She waited for so many years to learn some information about her past and now that she began to have a faint idea she could not manage it. Many hours passed before she was able to put her thoughts in order and convince Mrs. Vassilia that she was well, and she could return home.
When she was left alone, she found that she had not learned much information. Apart from what she already knew, the newest thing was that the Turkish family came from Paphos and that there was a possibility that she had been stolen from her family. This news may have put events in some order, but it did not give her any direction to follow. It was vague information, leading nowhere. Perhaps one important piece of knowledge was the maid named Eminé. If she was still alive, she probably knew something. Somewhere deep in her memory there was a faint picture of a girl, but she did not remember much.
She decided, the next day, to revisit the lady to thank her, and at the same time to inform her about the book she was writing and to ask if Eminé was alive and where she could find her.
By the next morning, Maria had found her usual composure. She got ready and started for her visit. She took with her a small gift, from those she had brought from London, and knocked on the door of the lady she had met the day before. The lady, hospitable, like all women from Nicosia, Greek Cypriots, and Turkish Cypriots, cheerfully accepted her and invited her inside.
She gave the gift to Mrs. Aydan, as she learned that was her name, and apologized for her behaviour the day before, by saying that she had a pain in her stomach. She then informed her about the book she would write about Nicosia and its citizens and how much she would like to include this ancient mansion in her story.
Aidan was impressed and flattered that the English lady was asking for her help in writing a book. But she had no idea where Eminé was, she did not even know if she was alive. She had probably returned to Paphos since she most likely came from there. But she would ask and when the lady passed again, she would inform her about.
Mrs. Aydan did not stop talking, and Maria found it difficult to leave. But such people, she thought, are useful for her research. You ask them little, and they tell you a lot, but you do not know how reliable they are.
As she was leaving, she promised Mrs. Aydan that she would return. She continued walking through the streets of Nicosia and stopped in front of the church of Chrysaliniotissa. In every neighbourhood of Nicosia there was a church. All were very beautiful, but Maria found the church of Chrysaliniotissa particularly interesting. It had a strange Γ shape, from the various additions that had been made to it, but its façade was adorned with arches that gave it an imperial appearance, although as a church, it was very small. The priest was sitting outside, and Maria asked him when this beautiful church was built.
-It is the most ancient church of “Chora”, he replied. It was built by Eleni Palaiologina in the 15th century so that the Orthodox would have a place to worship God. Back then, Cyprus was owned by the Franks and all the churches we had in the city were Frankish. Eleni Palaiologina was the wife of the Frankish king of Cyprus, John II, and she did a lot of good for us Orthodox. She came from the Byzantine house of Palaiologos, and she was a great woman.
-But aren’t you an Englishwoman? He asked her.
-Yes, I’m an Englishwoman, she replied, but I grew up in Cyprus and I can speak Greek fluently. Can I go inside?
-Certainly, my daughter. Go and pray if you want.
Maria entered the church and even though she was not religious, she could not help noticing that the atmosphere was very devout. Some candles were lit on the candelabrum and gave a dull lighting to the interior. There were no frescoes on the walls, but the icons, with their Byzantine rigour, seemed to stand guards and supporters, for every believer who wanted to place their pain and hopes on them. She noticed, among the Byzantine icons and some in western style, and remembered the words of the priest about the Frankish Kings of Cyprus.
Without thinking about it, a prayer came out of her lips:
-Please help me to see how I shall continue this quest!
She was surprised by her words and came out of the church. She greeted the priest and started for her house, lighter than before.
There, a pleasant surprise awaited her. Two letters, one from her daughter and one from the Swedish archaeologist Kristian Hubertus.
She flew with joy and barely heard Mrs. Vassilia complaining that the British were receiving their correspondence immediately, but the locals would wait for months to receive a letter.
She first opened the letter from her daughter. She was telling her that she was pregnant and in three months she would give birth. As soon as the baby could travel, they would come to Cyprus to see her. That was not just joy. It was jubilation! She felt as happy as ever.
She held the second letter for a while in her hands. What would he, her so special friend, say?
She waited to be left alone to open it. He wrote to her about the research he had made in archaeological sites in Cyprus and that in a month’s time he would leave for the University of Oxford. He had informed the king of his country about it in a report he delivered through the Swedish consulate. Before he left, he would pass by Nicosia to see her. He asked her to suggest a good hotel for him to stay.
A different feeling of joy filled her. She immediately sat down to write to him.
It is with great pleasure that I have received your letter, and I have been more pleased to be informed of your upcoming visit to Nicosia. I look forward to hearing about the results of your research!
In Nicosia there are some hotels where you could stay. Personally, I would recommend the hotel Cleopatra located in Makrydromos. In it there are also social activities. Dances are organized in the afternoon “tea parties” and it will be an opportunity to get to know how the people of Nicosia,” Choraites” according to the locals, are entertained, “.
So, I will wait for your visit to hear your news.
With kind regards
Lady Mary William Moore
When she lay down on her bed and brought to her memory the mixed feelings that she had experienced, this contradicted day, which had begun with disappointments and ended with joy, she smiled. Life is a strange journey, she thought. You never know what is behind the shift. You just must be patient and wait for the mystery to reveal itself…
Agnes Michaelides: “Chora”, the old Nicosia
Great Cyprus Encyclopedia
Photo: The back side of the house of Agnes de Luginian (towards the garden) as it looks today