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H - 123 : Gothic Cathedrals in Cyprus

Bellapaīs Abbey in Kyrenia (Girne) built under the rule of King Hugh III (1267 - 1284)

When you hear the name Cyprus, many things come to your mind: Sun, beaches, holiday, olive oil, wine, Greeks, Turks, Venetian castles, copper. Gothic cathedrals is an association almost nobody mentions. Nonetheless, there are quite a few in Cyprus. How did they get there? Why would anybody build churches in the French style on an island that is firmly Greek Orthodox. The answer is closer than you think: Cyprus was a French Kingdom from 1192 to 1489. For 300 years it was ruled by the House of  Lusignan. Cyprus was a typical crusader state except that it population were not Muslims but Greek Orthodox Christians.

The River Vienne with the Chateau de Touffou - the Chateau de Lusignan was demolished

The House of Lusignan originated from Poitou in Western France, halfway between the Loire Valley and Bordeaux and dates back to the 10th century. Over the following two centuries, the Lusignans became the dominant noble family in the Poitou region. A painting of their castle made it into the book “Très riches heures”, commissioned by Duc de Berry, the French King’s brother. It is a book of prayers. Its illustrations show daily life – month by month - in France in the 15th century.

Chateau de Lusignian in the "Très Riches Heures"

Like so many French nobles, the House of Lusignan followed the Pope’s call to arms and joined the Crusades to “liberate” the Holy Land from infidels. That Christians, Jews and Muslims lived in peace did not matter. The Byzantine Emperor asked the Pope for help against the Seljuk Turks. The Pope converted this call into a campaign to conquer Palestine and the underemployed European knights were happy to send their unruly sons east to conquer new fiefdoms. The small crusader army would not have gotten far were the Seljuks not in a war of succession killing each other. The crusaders could defeat them piecemeal.

Marriage of Sybille of Jerusalem and Guy de Lusignan

Guy de Lusignan was one of these unruly knights who went east – following his father, Hugues VIII. He was the sixth child with no chance of inheriting the family castle or becoming the local bishop. His military record was mixed. Somehow, he managed to get married to Sybille de Jerusalem, the widowed and pregnant sister of King Baldwin. Guy made himself quickly known as an arrogant man with big claims but little courage on the battle field. King Baldwin despised him. Guy had to keep a low profile.

Saladin annihilated Guy's Army in Hattin in 1187

In 1186, upon the king’s death, Sybille was crowned Queen. Guy de Lusignan became Queen consort. Of course, he had to lead the Christian Army against Saladin in 1187. He led a very inept campaign. Saladin destroyed his army at the Battle of Hattin. The True Cross of Jesus was lost on the battlefield – so was Jerusalem. Guy was thrown into prison in Damascus. Saladin released him half a year later hoping the big mouth would create frictions amongst the remaining Christians – of course he did.

The Lula Mustafa Pasha Mosque in Famagustaa was the Cathedral of Saint Nicholas. It was built between 1298 and 1400. The Turks converted into a Mosque ion 1571

When the English King Richard Lionheart arrived in the Holy Land in 1191 with 189 ships and 39 galleys, he quickly realized that he had to get rid of the trouble maker. He sold him Cyprus, which he had conquered from a renegade Byzantine governor and sold it to Guy – Richard Lionheart probably never got the money. Guy de Lusignan did not have any. But getting rid of him was worth the price .

The Selimiye Mosque in Nicosia was built as the Cathedral of Saint Sophia 1248 - 1326

Thus Guy de Lusignan became the first French King of Cyprus. He founded a dynasty that lasted for 300 years. Guy himself could only enjoy his new kingdom for 2 years before he expired. Under his successors, Cyprus became a classic crusader state with a Frank ruling elite living in the towns, Genovese and Venetian merchants in the ports and the vast Greek Orthodox majority working the fields.

The Haydar Pasha Mosque was built as Saint Catherine's Church in the 14th Century

Not as tolerant as the Arabs who let Christians keeping their faith, the Lusignans embarked on a campaign to convert the orthodox majority to Roman Catholicism. Part of that program was the replacement of Greek style churches with gothic cathedrals. Reminds me of the Borg “Resistance is futile – you will be assimilated”. Like the Borg Cube, the Cathedrals would not go away. Of course, coercive conversion never works. Eventually, the French Kings gave up. The Cathedrals remained. They are so solid they survived all earthquakes.

Nicosia's Armenian Church is the only Gothic Church that was not converted into a Mosque

Then Lusignan Kingdom of Cyprus survived the other crusader states by almost 200 years. But it the end it petered out. In 1426 it lost a major battle against the Mamluks and became a tributary state. Venice became so concerned about its weakness, that it took control of the island by deposing the last Queen – only to lose it to the Ottoman Sultan in 1571. The new Turkish rulers did not change much on the island. They loved the solid fortifications the Venetians left behind and the Gothic Cathedrals which they converted to mosques. The only gothic mosques in the world! We visited them in 2018 and will do so this summer again. They are well preserved and worth going inside!

The Venetian Catherine Cornaro married the last King

of Cyprus, James II and reigned as Queen from 1474 -

1489 when the Serenissima Republic deposed her

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