October 1, 2023

Birth and Rebirth’ mural as it was in 1968 at Nicosia International Airport

By Oz Orman….

To conclude my video project series part 4 on the defunct Nicosia International Airport. I opted to research an overlooked piece of Cypriot history in the form of a ceramic mural, which once adorned the departure lounge at the old airport. Much has been made of the abandoned Trident jet, which sits forlornly on the tarmac outside the old Cyprus Airways hangar. However, there are other points of interest in relation to the airport.

The terminal building, which is now out of bounds due to decay has become a hulking muddle of iron, cement, and wood with only the local wildlife wishing to use its facilities. I was always led to believe that everything inside the airport was meant to be protected by the United Nations. However, further research contradicts this claim. When studying the story of the old airport manager at Nicosia, Mr. Athanasios Papaioannou. He reported that airside equipment from Nicosia was transferred to the new airport at Larnaca in 1975. I wonder if such an agreement was put in place regarding Ercan airport? It is clear from media evidence that items perishable or not were removed from the duty-free and souvenir shops, which accompanied Nicosia. But where were they taken or stored?

In the hullaballoo of the airport’s evacuation in 1974, one important item was left behind until its removal and restoration over 10 years ago.

The ‘Birth and Rebirth’ mural as it was in 1968 at Nicosia International Airport

The airport’s iconic mural has a fascinating story to tell, but where to start? I initially contacted government agencies in the south, who initially were very helpful and supportive. They identified the mural’s artist for me, and luckily he was still alive and working at the wily old age of 94. His name is Valentinos Charalambous and he is currently a resident of Limassol. Luckily, I was put in contact with him, and we spoke regularly on the phone. It was very helpful and useful to actually speak to the artist or as he is specifically known, a ceramicist. There were no airs and graces about him. He spoke candidly and with great enthusiasm that someone wanted to cover his story and that of his mural.

He was well aware of my Turkish Cypriot roots and recalled as a former resident of Varosha, how he mingled and worked with Turkish Cypriots in his old hometown, whilst growing up. As he put it, the best yogurt in the settlement was from Hassan’s, and Famagusta was the home of the ceramics trade on the island. I steadily uncovered Cyprus’s past artistic heritage, which was unknown to me and Valentinos was an amicable guide. He was happy to share his stories and reminisced about a very different island.

Life in Famagusta

So how did Valentinos end up being a ceramicist and designer of the mural at Nicosia? Well, he lived in an environment where ceramics was the norm. Born in 1929 in Famagusta, his local area was awash with workshops and kilns. His father was a ceramicist and passed on his passion to his son but was reluctant for him to pursue a career in the trade. His father knew that it was hard work and tried to encourage young Valentinos to seek different avenues away from the clay and the grind. Valentinos was not perturbed by his father’s wishes and after finishing high school, he ventured to England to continue his studies in the form of ceramics.

The Cypriot artist attended the London School of Arts and Crafts in 1948 and worked under the guidance of renowned ceramicists, Dora Billington and Gilbert Harding-Green. He then ended up in St Ives, Cornwall and became a student of the father of British studio pottery, Mr Bernard Leach. Valentinos’s teachers and mentors were impressed with his dedication to his craft and were sad to see him go, but kept in contact with him when he returned to Cyprus.

Valentinos shared a story of his time during the Cyprus Emergency of the mid to late 1950’s. He was actually arrested and interned in a camp by the British. So perplexed at his plight and dilemma, he pleaded with the sentry on duty to let him return to his workshop in Famagusta and extinguish the pottery kilns. Had they been left unattended, they would’ve started a fire, which could’ve resulted in catastrophic consequences. The young British sentry reluctantly agreed under the premise that Valentinos would return the next day to the British garrison camp for further questioning. The British squaddie was amazed when Valentinos returned as promised and they became firm friends, sharing correspondence over the years. The British soldier revisited Cyprus and caught up with his old friend and they shared memories from that time.

In 1957, Valentinos again left Cyprus to take up a post in Iraq at Baghdad’s Academy of Fine Arts. On a return to Cyprus in 1966 to oversee an exhibition, he was encouraged by an old friend from Varosha to design a mural for the new terminal at Nicosia. Valentinos stipulated that the work would be his own and that he would not accept any outside interference regarding his plans and ideas, such is an artist’s prerogative.

He got to work on his mural, which was incidentally made with Iraqi clay and transported over land and sea to Cyprus.

Valentinos (far left) shows his finished piece to Archbishop Makarios and dignitaries at the terminal’s opening in 1968.

The new terminal and accompanying facilities were opened in 1968 with the mural taking pride of place.

The events of 1974 meant that the airport became a testament to the Cyprus Problem. Valentinos was able to visit the airport with a special permit to see what had happened to his work. As he reported there was some damage caused by the bombing, but it appeared that human hands had been a bigger problem with souvenir hunters removing aspects of the mural. Plans were then put in place to rehouse the ‘Birth and Rebirth’ mural, but to where?

Groups and organisations from the south took advantage of Cyprus’s EU Presidency in 2012 to get the mural restored and rehomed at Larnaca’s Glafkos Clerides International Airport.

In 2014, Valentinos attended an event to celebrate the piece of artwork at its new home. Those of you who use Larnaca may have seen it whilst transiting through the airport. Some parts of the mural are missing, and it is unclear whether they will ever be replaced. However, it is pleasing that its restoration can be enjoyed and shared by travellers young and old.

Valentinos bears no grudges and still works as a ceramicist. However, he is beleaguered at what has happened to Limassol and its skyline. He fears young people will be priced out of the area and claims that Cyprus’s second largest city, should stop trying to emulate Dubai. He saw similar things happening to Varosha in the 60’s and 70’s, when the coastal skyline was eroded with visual pollution. Looking at both sides of Cyprus, it appears that lessons have clearly not been learned regarding building development and the lack of infrastructure to support them.

The Cypriot ceramicist is currently looked after by his Filipino carer in Limassol but continues to design and create.


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