Heritage

Cypriot Culture and Traditions of the Past by Ismail Veli

By Ismail Veli……..

Culture, tradition and history often shape the habits of human beings in every corner of the world. Cyprus is no exception. For the Cypriots in particular the last half century has seen a massive shift in habits and attitudes. Though some are kept, other habits have changed, and to the young almost forgotten in the mist of time. No doubt the movement of a massive percentage of  Cypriots and economic advances on the island itself have all played a part in the changing traditions. Perhaps only at birthdays, weddings and national days these are kept alive, even then the procedures are often a shadow of what the original culture was for hundreds of years. Some older people will no doubt remember the old ways with nostalgia while younger people are often amused at their grandparents old stories of tradition and culture. To give a comprehensive account of all the main ethnic traditions in Cyprus in one article is simply impossible. The Greek Orthodox, Turkish Muslim, Maronite Catholics and Armenians are the main established peoples of the island. No doubt much interaction and similar traditions are shared.

wedding 1

One of the most important event of any Cypriot, regardless of their religion was no doubt weddings. Until very recently a strict code of conduct was adhered to. Couples wedding terms and arrangements were arranged and organised by parents. The confidential and unofficial preliminary negotiations were conducted at the house of the bride, but only after a formal meeting was set up by a family friend or elder on behalf of the potential groom. This was called a broksenya or dunurcu.  If the prospective bride’s family agreed to the potential match, the terms would be discussed. The Dowry was at the centre of this agreement and this would consist of immovable property, sheep, house linens, utensils and expenses for the wedding. All cultures on the island seem to have similarities in these arrangements, though the Greeks placed much more importance to the bride’s family offering  a property, land or at minimum a large deposit for the purchase of a house.

In rural areas it was customary to invite the whole village, this was often led by the  mothers of the young couple. The Greek tradition was that the invitations were in the form of a gourd filled with wine and a roll of ‘koullouri” (made of bread dough sprinkled with sesame seeds). The recipient sipped the wine and says ”I will be there. God bless the couple and may their path be strewn with roses”.

Cyprus wedding 3

An interesting and still practiced custom by the Greek Cypriots (GCs) is New  Year’s Day. The Patron Saint of the New Year is St Basil (Ayo’s Vasilyos) of Caesarea. The preparation involves the preparation of boiled wheat ”Kollifa” on which they place a ”Vasilopitta”, St Basil’s cake. The cake is made of cream of wheat and decorated with sesame-seeds. A silver coin is placed inside the cake and who ever finds it is considered the luckiest member of the family. This cake with the Kollifa and a glass of wine used to be placed on an oil vat or a granary, so that St Basil, who was believed to visit all the houses on New Year’s Day may eat and drink and give his blessings. Another custom was to throw small olive tree branches into a mangalia/mangal through olive leaves onto the embers and make wishes. If the green leaf jumps it was considered that their wish would come true.

Many of the traditions of the GCs predate the Christian  religion. The pre-Christian customs were eventually incorporated into  the religion and became part of the traditions that continued  right up to the modern period.. This  integrating of past pre-Christian traditions is no doubt common in many countries and religions.

The 5th of January is called ‘Gallanta’ and the preparations start very early in the morning with the frying of lokmades or ‘Xero-tiana’ as they were called by the urban class. Dipped into honey makes it sweet and delicious to eat.

Cyprus Wedding 2

Lokmades is the oldest recorded dessert in the world. In Ancient Greece these were served to the winners of the Olympic games. The Greek poet Callimachus was the first to state that these dough balls were soaked in honey and served to the winners as ”Honey tokens”.

It was also served  by the Sultan’s chefs at the Ottoman palaces. It eventually became a custom for people to cook and serve their guests and neighbors. Its origins seem to have been lost in the mists of history, but has persisted as one of the most popular sweets in Turkey, Greece and Cyprus.

The 6th of January is another very popular day in Cypriot religion as its Ayo’s Epiphany. In the old days a procession from the church to the river or sea involved a silver cross dipped 3 times into the stream/river. In addition a lighted candle from the home to the church was kept burning for a few days. The soot was used by young girls to blacken their eyes so as to make them look prettier. These days ‘mascara’ has replaced this old and forgotten custom.

Cyprus wedding 4

Superstition played a big part in the lives of peasants in rural Cyprus, not least when a small child is smiling in its sleep. This was thought to be because the Panayia (Virgin Mary) the guardian of all infants was talking and playing with the child. Parents were very careful not to disturb a child during its sleep. A child’s nails were not cut for at least 6 months of its birth as cutting them was considered to be bad luck. This was a preventive measure as cutting them meant the child would grow up to be a thief. There was another common belief that a baby was given its first water to drink from the egg shell of a swallow bird (A Siliono), this was to help the baby grow up to speak fluently.

Deaths and the preparation of funerals is one of the most  saddest of all human emotions therefore great importance is given in the build up, which is designed to show respect and sorrow to a deceased family member.

Up to the 1950’s as soon as a person was believed to be dying, they were taken from their bed and placed on a piece of cloth on the floor. It was done so that the person would die a humble death. The priest would be invited to pray for the person. Once the person died, their eyes would be closed and the priest would bind their mouths, so no evil spirit may enter. They would then be washed with warm water. A cloth would then be burned with a hole large enough for the head to pass through. This would serve as a symbol of purification. The hands and feet were then crossed and tied with twine, to commemorate Christ’s death. They would then be covered with a white sheet. The lamentations would carry on unabated. Every photo or mirror would be turned towards the wall and covered with a black cloth for at least 40 days. During the night, a guard would watch over the corpse in case a cat jumped on the dead person and brings a curse upon the deceased. The doors would always be left o2 candlespen, while two candles, burned nonstop. One on either side. Near the body was placed a plate full of wheat with two pieces of reed arranged cross-ways.

The funerals often took place in the mornings, and every water vessel in the house would be emptied on the ground, so that the soul may be refreshed. Many housewives of the village did the same. Eight days after the burial a large plate of ”Kollifa” and five loafs of bread would be taken to the church, and a special service performed to bless the deceased. The ”Kollifa” would then be shared among those present. The priest kept the bread as a reward for his services.

There are many funny sayings in Cypriot culture that may not always make sense, or lose the essence when translated into other languages. I would however like to share some very common ones with readers.

Bebse ton bellon je vura jesu bisodu. Send an idiot and you just end up running after him. (for those that send an irresponsible person to do an errand)

Ine san na Thtiba’s din portan tou gufo. It’s like knocking on a deaf man’s door (For those who are careless and never listen.)

Epiyen na hartohi je bandreftigen. He went to get engaged and got married instead. (For those who are sent to do a job/errand and fail to return)

Afteni to jerin ya navri tin lamban. He lights the candle to find the lamps (for those who do unnecessary things)

Erkede o fanariz tou Yenari.  Here comes the lantern in January. (for those who fancy themselves, or jack the lads)

Turkish Cypriot culture

Though very similar in many respects there were some differences in cultural heritage. This was mostly due to the differences between Muslim and Christian faiths, but also from ethnic and historically diverse backgrounds. Rather than use this as a source of friction, many ordinary people actually enjoyed the various religious and national celebrations of the rich diversity on the island. The first part of this article relates mostly to the Greek/Christian traditions of Cyprus, the Turkish/Muslim culture and tradition like others have not only certain deep rooted sayings, beliefs and locally transferred culture but also traditions going back to centuries of its Turcoman, African, Arabic, Balkan and no doubt intermarriage of different faiths, possibly even nomadic ancestors. Due to the passage of time much of these habits have not necessarily been lost, but the knowledge of their origins have.

As a child I clearly remember my grandparents telling the youngsters off if they swept the room in the evening as it was considered bad luck. Cutting your nails and throwing them into a fire was another bad omen, as this would indicate that this was burning your soul. Many elders could not really explain the origins of these ”peculiar beliefs”, fortunately a research by a respected writer Nazim Beratli shed great light on Turkish Cypriot  (TCs) beliefs going back centuries. The above beliefs were deep rooted in the Turcoman tribes for nearly one thousand years. Often before Islam became the religion of the Turkic people.

One particular tradition (Not as ancient as other traditions in TC history) at wedding celebrations was that the opening music ”the Kozan Marsi” was also the last music of the evening. This particular song derives its origins from a county near Adana in Turkey. The people in the region originally settled from the region of Armenia called ”Sis”.  After an uprising led by Kozanoglu Ahmet Bey, the song was renamed ”Kozan”. As many nomadic and Turkoman’s settled in Cyprus during the 18th and 19th centuries their relationships with their roots was at the time still strong. Therefore this wedding tradition seems to have been transferred to the wedding celebrations in Cyprus.

Death and burial seems to have captivated the human mind since time immemorial. One particular belief was that bad/evil once dead would not rest in peace as their soul would travel from village to village. Though many TC’s did not necessarily believe this, their fear of the unknown was nevertheless respected. The old timers even if not greatly religious were still ”God fearing”. The custom of washing oneself after a funeral and ensuring that cakes, food and other sweets should be taken to the deceased persons house was and still is an important custom. The tradition of distributing Helva (a sweet made from semolina) a week after a person’s death and also distributing these to poorer people was and is still practiced. This particular custom is also practiced by many Turcoman’s and Yoruks (Nomads in Anatolia). it’s true that many younger generations do not know the origins of this custom, so many people simply shrug it off as just something that has been passed down from our elders. What is no longer practiced widely is the distribution of the deceased persons clothes to the poorer members of the community. This however was still practiced widely until recently. It was considered to be good luck and ”Sebab” as they would bless the deceased person’s soul.

One superstition which many feared was that if a person was bitten by  a dog it was bad luck. If they shared this dream with anyone, this misfortune could only be beaten if the individual did not sleep for 40 nights. In order not to sleep they would try to entertain themselves. if they slept on any night, on the 41st night  they would become rabid. This is called ”Kuduz Gecesi”(rabies night). Apparently this particular superstition is common in all Turcoman people.

An important tradition in the old days was the hanging of a Ram’s, Goat’s, Deer, mountain goat’s horns on the doors of their homes and businesses. This was meant for good luck and kept the evil eye away. Strangely this particular custom has been traced to the Celestial Turks (Central Asia), who used to lay a horn on a deceased persons grave. It was also widely common among the Kirghiz and Altay people who migrated west and also settled around the Caspian Sea. This tradition was also very strong and widely used by the  Karakoyunlu (black sheep) and Akkoyunlu (white sheep) tribes in Anatolia.

A well known custom of using Lakabs (nicknames) was until recently practically the only way of finding a particular family in the villages. There may have been many Ali’s, Osman’s,  Ismail’s and so forth but the family nickname would make it so much easier to identify the individuals. This was normally given as a result of a particular trade, habit or an eventful occurrence in the family history.  In Lurucina one particular family was named Gato/The cats. The story of how the lakab ‘Gato’ (Cat) came about is very interesting, as the family were originally known as ‘Buttari’. Apparently a Mr Osman Yusuf was hiding in the bushes while the police were looking for him. It may have been at dusk, as there was still some light, but one of the police noticed something shining through the bushes, it turned out that Yusuf Osman ‘Buttari’s’  eyes were glittering in the dark. There-after the talk was that , ”his eyes were shining like a cat’s”. The name stuck, there-after the whole family were known as Gato’s. Though Gato is a Latin/Greek word, the people of Lurucina spoke Greek extensively and many nicknames were in Greek, Latin and Turkish. As mentioned above culture has been transferred between different ethnic and religious groups. A person named ”Sari” or ”Aspri”  (literally yellow in Turkish but white in Greek) would indicate the family to be of fair complexion.

Cyprus Hospitality Traditions and Crafts

On my first return to Cyprus after migrating to the UK in 1972 at the age of sixteen, I was astonished that people literally ran out of their homes to greet me and ask who I was. On telling them my name was Ismail, the response was ”Okay but who are your parents”. My response had to be Daughter of Yusuf ”Phsillo” and Mehmet son of Veli ‘Kirlapo”. Amazingly everyone than hugged me and shouted out ”O little Ismail coming back after so many years as  a grown up”.  The villagers simply knew every person that lived or left the village. This was how people maintained their identity. Oral history and memories passed on from generations. Sadly with the advance of technology this particular custom has meant that people no longer identify or understand the history of their cultural inheritance. We maintain certain habits and traditions without necessarily knowing or even caring about their origins. No doubt human culture is and has always changed or evolved. Despite the passage of centuries  however certain habits remain entrenched in our lives.  These can sometimes reveal our origins, transfer of cultures and traditions that may not even belong to our ancestors but may have been incorporated due to their appeal, practicalities or simply elders used to say ”this is the way of our grandparents”.

Though sayings are often lost in translations some commonly used Turkish Cypriot phrases.

Yapma bulma dünyasıdır  (Don’t do and you won’t get. A bit like ”what goes around, comes around”).

Sakla samanı gelir Zamanı (save the straw for a time will come when you will need it). A bit like saving for a rainy day.

Keçi güldü koyuna (the goat laughed at the sheep) This is said of people who often  gossip and tease at other people ways. The background is that the goat laughs at the sheep’s tail bum shaking, but can’t see that its own back side is on view to everyone.

Acele işe şeytan garışır. (The Devil interferes with a hurried work) Its a bit like, if you rush into a job you may end up burning your bridges.

Anlayana sivri sinek saz, anlamayana davul zurna az (to one who understands, a mosquito is a lute, to one who doesn’t understand a drum and Zurna are little) In other words one who is a good listener and understands, needs only half a word. The drum and Zurna are of course very loud, so if they cannot hear that, they will listen to nothing else.

A final look back at Cyprus past

2 replies »

  1. Another great article with research and documentation of life of Cyprus. Enjoyed reading this recount and origins of customs and traditions of people of Cyprus Ismail Veli. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  2. I loved reading this & it will thrill my American friends. Sharing. Thanx again Ismail.