The Armenians of Cyprus

Written by Alexander-Michael Hadjilyra on .

Whether its been for commercial reasons, military reasons, escaping persecution or war, or having been transferred onto this island nation as prisoners, Cyprus has been home to thousands of Armenians for hundreds of years. This excerpt is a synopsis of the book entitled The Armenians of Cyprus by Alexander-Michael Hadjilyra, which delves into the past and present Armenian community of Cyprus.

Images

The Virgin Mary of Ganchvor in Turkish-occupied Famagusta
The Virgin Mary of Ganchvor in Turkish-occupied Famagusta

The old Armenian Genocide memorial in Turkish-occupied Nicosia
The old Armenian Genocide memorial in Turkish-occupied Nicosia

The Armenian Philharmonic founded by Vahan Bedelian in 1926
The Armenian Philharmonic founded by Vahan Bedelian in 1926

The Magaravank, near Turkish-occupied Halevga, before 1974
The Magaravank, near Turkish-occupied Halevga, before 1974

The Melkonian Educational Institute in Nicosia
The Melkonian Educational Institute in Nicosia

Orphaned Armenian boy-scouts in Nicosia in 1927
Orphaned Armenian boy-scouts in Nicosia in 1927

Old Sourp Asdvadzadzin (Notre Dame de Tyre) in Turkish-occupied Nicosia before 1963
Old Sourp Asdvadzadzin (Notre Dame de Tyre) in Turkish-occupied Nicosia before 1963

Sourp Stepanos (Saint Stephen) church in Larnaca
Sourp Stepanos (Saint Stephen) church in Larnaca

Sourp Kevork (Saint George) church in Limassol
Sourp Kevork (Saint George) church in Limassol

Sourp Asdvadzadzin (Virgin Mary) cathedral in Acropolis, Nicosia
Sourp Asdvadzadzin (Virgin Mary) cathedral in Acropolis, Nicosia

The Armenian Genocide memorial in Nicosia
The Armenian Genocide memorial in Nicosia

The Armenian Genocide memorial in Larnaca
The Armenian Genocide memorial in Larnaca

There is a long link between Cyprus and Armenians, possibly dating back to the 5th century BC. However, the real history of the Armenian community on the island began in 578 AD: campaigning against the Persian King Chosroes I, General Maurice the Cappadocian captured 10.090 Armenians as prisoners in Arzanene (Aghdznik), of whom 3.350 were transferred to Cyprus. Judging by the strategic position of the colonies they established (Armenokhori, Arminou, Kornokipos, Patriki, Platani, Spathariko and perhaps Mousere), it is very likely that they served Byzantium as mercenary soldiers and frontiersmen.

More Armenians arrived during the reign of Armenian-descended Emperor Heraclius (610-641) for political reasons, during the time of Catholicos Hovhannes Odznetsi (717-728) for commercial reasons, and after the liberation of Cyprus from the Arab raids by Niketas Chalkoutzes (965) for military reasons. In the mid-Byzantine period Armenian generals and governors served in Cyprus, like Alexius, Basil, Vahram and Levon (910-911), who undertook the construction of the Saint Lazarus basilica in Larnaca. In 973 Catholicos Khatchig I established the Armenian Bishopric in Nicosia. Between 1136-1138, Emperor John II Comnenus moved the entire population of the Armenian city of Tell Hamdun to Cyprus. After Isaac Comnenus' wedding to the daughter of the Armenian prince Thoros II in 1185, Armenian nobles and warriors came with him to Cyprus, many of whom defended the island against Richard the Lionheart (1191) and the Knights Templar (1192).

After the purchase of Cyprus by Guy de Lusignan in 1192, a massive immigration of Armenian and other noblemen, knights and warriors took place, to whom fiefs, manors and privileges were granted. Because of their proximity, their commercial ties, and a series of royal and nobility marriages, the Kingdoms of Cyprus and Cilicia were inextricably linked over time. Cilician Armenians sought refuge in Cyprus after the Fall of Jerusalem (1267), the Fall of Acre (1291), the attack of the Saracens (1322), the Mamluk attacks (1335 and 1346), and the Ottoman occupation (1403 and 1421). In 1441 Armenians and Syrians from Syria and Cilicia were encouraged to settle in Famagusta. to Due to the continuous decline of Lesser Armenia, its King Levon V moved to Cyprus in 1375; after he died in 1396, his title and privileges were transferred to his cousin, King James I de Lusignan, in the Ayia Sophia cathedral in Nicosia.

During the Frankish and the Venetian Eras (1192-1489 & 1489-1570) there were Armenian churches in Nicosia, Famagusta, Spathariko and Kornokipos, and Armenian was one of the official languages of Cyprus. The Armenians of Nicosia had their Bishopric and lived in their own quarter, called Armenia or Armenoyitonia. In Famagusta, a Bishopric was established in the 12th century and Armenians lived around the Syrian quarter; historical documents suggest the presence of an important monastic and theological centre there, in which Saint Nerses Lampronatsi (1153-1198) studied. By 1425 the renowned Magaravank, originally the Coptic monastery of Saint Macarius near Halevga, was given to the Armenians, while sometime before 1504 the gothic Benedictine nunnery of Notre Dame de Tyre in Nicosia came under the Armenians.

During the occupation of the island by the Ottomans (1570-1571), about 40.000 Ottoman Armenian craftsmen were recruited. Many of the ones who survived settled mainly in Nicosia, with the Armenian Prelature recognised as an Ethnarchy. However, their number dramatically declined due to the onerous taxation and the harshness of the Ottoman administration, compelling many Armenians to become Linobambaki (Crypto-Christians) or to embrace Islam; a few became Catholics through marriage with Latins. Gifted with the acumen of industry, Armenians practised lucrative professions, and in the beginning of the 17th century Iranian Armenians settled here as silk traders. During the Tanzimat period (1839-1876), improvements were observed, resulting to the participation of the Armenian Bishop in the Administrative Council (Idare Meclis) and the employment of some Armenians in the civil service. Additionally, the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 benefited the Armenians and other merchants of Cyprus.

The arrival of the British in July 1878 and their progressive administration strengthened the small Armenian community even more. Known for their linguistic skills, several Armenians were contracted to Cyprus to work as interpreters at the consulates and for the British administration. The number of Armenians in Cyprus significantly increased following the massive deportations, the horrific massacres and the Genocide committed by the Ottomans and the Young Turks (1894-1896, 1909 & 1915-1923). Cyprus widely opened its arms to welcome over 9.000 refugees from Constantinople, Smyrna and Cilicia, who arrived from all its harbours, some by chance others by intent. About 1.300 of them decided to stay, bringing new life to the old community and quickly establishing themselves as people of letters and arts, able entrepreneurs and merchants, formidable craftsmen, pioneering professionals etc. More Armenians came here as refugees from Palestine (1947) and Egypt (1956).

The Armenian community of Cyprus prospered throughout the British Era, by establishing associations, choirs, scout groups, musical ensembles etc. Armenian churches, schools and cemeteries were founded in Nicosia, Famagusta, Limassol and Larnaca, including the Melkonian Educational Institute. In many ways unique across the whole Armenian Diaspora, the Melkonian was built just outside Nicosia between 1924-1926, after the generous and benevolent donation of the Egyptian-Armenian tobacco trading brothers Krikor and Garabed Melkonian, in order to give shelter and education to about 500 orphans of the Armenian Genocide. One of the very few Western-Armenian boarding schools in the world, it gradually became a world-renowned secondary school, with high academic standards, an exceptionally rich library, well-equipped scientific laboratories, an orchestra, a choir, a theatre group and a scouts group.

Law-abiding by nature, Armenian-Cypriots always had a high profile with the British administration, and many became civil servants and policemen, or were employed in the Cyprus Government Railway and in Cable and Wireless. Throughout the 1920s-1950s some worked at the asbestos mines at Amiandos, and the copper mines of Mavrovouni and Skouriotissa, many of whom had been trade unionists. Some Armenian-Cypriots participated in the 1897 Greco-Turkish War, the two World Wars (1914-1918 & 1939-1945) and the EOKA liberation struggle (1955-1959). Also, the Eastern Legion (later called Armenian) was formed and trained in 1917 near Boghazi village, consisting of over 4.000 Diasporan Armenian volunteers who fought against the Ottoman Empire.

With the independence of Cyprus in 16/08/1960, the Constitution recognised Armenians, Maronites (Eastern Christians of Syrian origin) and Latins as "religious groups", which later opted to belong to the Greek-Cypriot community. During the intercommunal trouble that broke out in 1963-1964, extremist Turkish-Cypriots evicted the Armenian-Cypriots from their ancient quarter in the walled city of Nicosia, where the Prelature building, the church and the schools, as well as the Genocide monument were located; they were also deprived of their medieval church in the walled city of Famagusta. As a result, many left for Soviet Armenia, Great Britain and elsewhere. After the unlawful and savage Turkish invasion of 1974, Armenian-Cypriots from Famagusta, Nicosia and Kyrenia became refugees, and the Magaravank was occupied. On 24/04/1975, Cyprus became the first European country (and the second world-wide after Uruguay) to recognise the Armenian Genocide.

With the help and support of the Cyprus government, Armenian-Cypriots managed to thrive and prosper, preserving their religion, education, culture and language. Despite the fact that the majority of Armenian-Cypriots were historically middle class, numerous have excelled through their contributions to their community and to Cyprus in general, as artists, businessmen, consuls, dentists, diplomats, doctors, journalists, lawyers, municipal councillors, musicians, painters, photographers, poets, professors, religious personalities, researchers, scouts, sports personalities etc. In the last few decades, more Armenians have also settled here as political and economic immigrants due to the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990), the insurgencies in Syria (1976-1982), the Islamic revolution in Iran (1978-1979) and the fall of the USSR (1991). Represented by an elected Representative (MP), Armenians in Cyprus today number about 3.500, mostly living in Nicosia, Larnaca, Limassol and Paphos' urban areas.

In Nicosia there is the church of Sourp Asdvadzadzin (Virgin Mary), the chapels of Sourp Boghos (Saint Paul), Sourp Haroutiun (Resurrection) and Sourp Amenapergitch (Saviour of All), three cemeteries and the Kalaydjian Rest Home for the Elderly. In Larnaca there is the church of Sourp Stepanos (Saint Stephan) and one cemetery. In Limassol there is the church of Sourp Kevork (Saint George) and one cemetery. Armenian Elementary Schools operate in Nicosia, Larnaca and Limassol, and they are called "Nareg", in memory of Krikor Naregatsi (951-1003). In Nicosia, after the unjust closure of the historical Melkonian Educational Institute in 2005, Nareg Gymnasium operates. Before 1964 Armenian churches and schools operated in Turkish-occupied Nicosia and Famagusta, while until 1974 the Magaravank monastery near Turkish-occupied Halevga was the pride of the community.

With regard to associations, there is the Armenian Young Men's Association (AYMA), the AGBU, the Nor Serount Cultural Association and the "Stepan Shahoumian" progressive group. There are two Armenian newspapers, "Artsakank" and "Azad Tsayn". The Prelature publishes the "Keghart" newsletter and the Representative's Office the "Lradou"; the gibrahayer.com e-magazine is published since 1999. A one-hour radio programme is broadcasted daily from CyBC 2. Other than the official web site (www.cyprusarmenians.com), there is www.gibrahayer.com and www.hayem.org. With regards to sports, AYMA has its own football team, and there are two futsal teams, AGBU-Ararat and Homenmen. There are two Armenian Genocide Monuments, one in Nicosia and one in Larnaca (additionally, there is one in occupied Nicosia, itself a victim of the Turks, and an obelisk in front of AYMA, Nicosia), and two khachars, one in Nicosia and one in Limassol. Armenian statues/sculptures are found in the premises of the Melkonian, Sourp Asdvadzadzin church (Nicosia), and the Magaravank. As of 01/12/2002, Armenian is a minority language in Cyprus, spoken by the vast majority of Armenian-Cypriots and taught at Nareg Schools.

Alexander-Michael Hadjilyra may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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