The Linobambaki of Cyprus

Samuel Baker 1879

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Home | Samuel Baker 1879 | Rupert Gunnis | Ronald Jennings | RLN Michel 1908 | Proselytism and Crypto-Christians in Cyprus by Alkan Chaglar

By Samuel W. Baker

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The monastery of Trooditissa had no architectural pretensions; it looked like a family of English barns that had been crossed with a Swiss chalet. The roofs of six separate buildings of considerable dimensions were arranged to form a quadrangle, which included the chapel, a long building at right angles with the quadrangle, which had an upper balcony beneath the roof, so as to form a covered protection to a similar arrangement below, and an indescribable building which was used by the monks as their store for winter provisions. The staircases were outside, as in Switzerland, and entered upon the open-air landings or balconies; these were obscure galleries, from which doors led to each separate apartment, occupied by the monks and fleas. The obscurity may appear strange, as the balconies were on the outside, but the eaves of the roof at an angle of about 48 degrees projected some feet as a protection from the winter's snow, and occasioned a darkness added to the gloom of blueish grey gneiss which formed the walls and the deep brownish red of the tiled roof.

The great walnut-tree overshadowed a portion of the mule stables that formed a continuation of the building, and faced the exterior courtyard, which was inclosed upon two sides of the square, in the centre of which was an arched entrance to the inner court. This doorway was beneath a covered gallery, and the ground floor formed a well-protected verandah, from which a magnificent view was commanded down the great gorge towards Phyni, overlooking the lower mountain tops to a sea horizon beyond the peninsula of Akrotiri and the salt lake of Limasol.

The covered gallery above this verandah was supported by stone pillars with exceedingly rude capitals, upon which long beams of the native pines, laid horizontally, supported the joists and floors. It was a dull and dirty abode, and at first sight I was disappointed. The angle of the mountain in which the monastery stood was formed by a ravine which intercepted the principal gorge at almost a right angle, thus a path which continued at the same level from the courtyard to the other side of the ravine, represented the letter V laid horizontally. From the walnut-tree across the broad base of the letter would be about a hundred yards, to a series of cultivated terraces upon an equal level.

This might have been made a lovely station, as no less than three springs of water issued from the mountain side in various positions: the first already mentioned; the second on the further side of the letter V, beneath another splendid walnut-tree; and the third upon the same level beyond, which fell into a trough beneath a large trellis, upon which some vines were trained to produce a shade.

The terraces formed an angular amphitheatre, the outer courtyard of the monastery being the highest level, looking down upon tree-tops of planes and pines throughout the dark gorge to Phyni. The gardens appeared much neglected; they were overcrowded with fruit-trees, including filberts, mulberry, pears, apples, figs, walnuts, plums; the only grape-vine was represented upon the trellis; the position was too high for apricots.

An Englishman's first idea is improvement, and I believe that upon entering heaven itself he would suggest some alteration. This was not heaven, but, as a monastery, it was the first step, and a very high one for this world, being 4340 feet above the sea. We began by cleaning, and I should have liked to have engaged Hercules, at the maximum of agricultural wages, to have cleaned the long line of mule stables, a dignified employment for which the hero-god was famous; the Augean were a joke to them. Piles of manure and filth of every description concealed the pavement of the capacious outer yard of the monastery. The narrow path by which we had arrived from the spring was a mere dung-heap, from which the noxious weeds called docks, of Brobdignagian proportions, issued in such dense masses that an agricultural meeting of British farmers would have been completely hidden by their great enemy. The priests or monks had filthy habits; it would have been impossible for civilised people to have existed in this accumulation of impurities, therefore we at once set to work. I had a spade and pickaxe, and we borrowed some other tools from the monks, among which were strong grubbers (which combined the hoe and the pick). There were a number of people belonging to the monastery, including some young embryo priests, that we might accept as deacons; these I set to work with the pickaxe at one shilling a day wages. The boys who were being educated for the Church I employed in removing all the loose stones which choked the surface of the ground, and subsequently in sweeping and scraping the courtyard. I gave them sixpence a day if they worked from early morning, or threepence if they came at noon after their lessons. There was a shepherd's family, upon the hill about 250 feet above the monastery, of seven handsome children, two boys of nineteen and seventeen, and five girls. These were hard at work, even to a pretty little child of four years old, who carried her stones, and swept with a little broom with all her heart (this was little Athena). Of course they were all paid in the evening with bright new threepenny pieces which they had never seen before. Even the priests worked after a few days, when the spirit of industry and new shillings moved them, and in the history of the monastery there could never have been such a stirring picture and such a dust as we made in cleansing and alterations. Nearly a month was occupied in this necessary work, by which time the place was entirely changed. I had made a good road as an approach from the spring, with a covered drain, dignified by the name of an "aqueduct," which led the water when required to a little garden that I had constructed close to the tent, where a nondescript slope had become a receptacle for filth. I had cut this down from the road, and mixed the earth with the accumulated dirt and manure, which I levelled off in successive layers, so that the stream led from the spring would irrigate my beds in succession. This garden was carefully fenced against the intrusion of goats and donkeys, to say nothing of pigs, and it was already sown with tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, barmia, and beet-root. The priests had a grand bed of onions upon a terrace, which was usually occupied by the pigs, goats, and donkeys, as they had been too lazy to arrange a fence.

The docks in the monastery gardens were at least six feet high; I had these cut and collected to thatch the sides of a peculiar shed (in which I am writing at this moment), which was a great comfort and formed a very original retreat, combining a seat in an amphitheatre with a modern summer-house. This was an oblong, of fifteen feet by twelve, erected within three feet of the tent beneath the walnut-tree upon the extreme verge of the abrupt incline. I laid a foundation of stones, which I covered with pounded earth and water, to produce a level with the tent. I then placed horizontally a beam of wood, secured from slipping with stakes driven to the heads into the bank upon the edge of the incline. Upon this a row of large stones was cemented together with mud to form a margin level with the floor, from which the abrupt inclination at once leapt to the lower terraces and the deep gorge, continuing for upwards of 4000 feet to the sea; this was visible beyond the inferior mountain tops.

There was nothing pretty in the arrangement of this "rachkooba," as it would be called in Africa; it was a simple square of upright poles, connected with canes secured across, thatched inside with ferns, and upon the outside with docks, fastened down with the peeled willow-like shoots of mulberry-trees. The mulberry-trees for silkworms are always pollarded annually, and they throw out shoots about seven or nine feet in length every season; the wood is exceedingly tough, and the bark of these wands when stripped is serviceable for tying plants or securing fences in lieu of cord. For lack of silkworms the monastery mulberry-trees had several seasons of growth, and the shoots were serviceable for our work. The ceiling of our opera-box was cloth, with a curtain of about three feet suspended along the front, which broke the morning sun as it topped the high ridge of the mountain on the other side of the gorge, about a thousand feet above us. The shed was carpeted with mats and furnished roughly with a table and chairs; hat-pegs were suspended around, made from the red-barked wood of the arbutus, simply cut so that by inverting the branch with the stem attached to a cord, the twigs, cut at proper lengths, would form convenient hooks.

From this cool hermitage we looked down upon the dense foliage of rounded mulberry-tops and the fruit-trees of the gardens within the gorge, while exactly in our front, a hundred yards across the deep ravine, was the rocky steep of the mountain side, densely clothed with ilex and arbutus, until the still higher altitudes banished all underwood, and the upper ranges of Troodos exhibited a surface of barren rocks clothed with tall pines and cypress, 2000 feet above us.

By the time we had completed our permanent camp a certain degree of improvement had taken place in the people, as well as in the actual cleanliness of the locality. Everybody washed his, or her, face and hands. The customs of the monks had so far reformed that the immediate neighbourhood was no longer offensive. When strangers with mules arrived the road was immediately swept, and upon Saturday evenings a general embellishment took place in honour of the approaching Sunday. The young clergy were remarkably good and active; they worked in my little garden at a shilling a day, went on errands to Platraes and the camp at Troodos, and made themselves generally useful for a most moderate consideration. I can strongly recommend all young curates who are waiting in vain for livings to come and work upon the holy soil of Trooditissa at one shilling per diem; and should they (as curates frequently are) be poor in this world's goods, but nevertheless strong in amorous propensities, and accordingly desirous of matrimony, they will find a refuge within the walls of this monastery from all the temptations of the outer world, far from garden-parties, balls, picnics, church-decorations assisted by young ladies, and all those snares of the Evil One; and the wholesome diet of the monks, including a course of soaked broad-beans and barley bread, with repeated fastings upon innumerable saints' days, will affect them sensibly, both morally and physically; under this discipline they will come to the conclusion that a wife and large family upon an income of 500 pounds a year in England would not confer the same happiness as one shilling a day with the pickaxe, broad-beans and independence, at Trooditissa, which is true "muscular Christianity."

It was extraordinary to see the result of a life-long diet of beans and barley-bread in the persons of the monks, who very seldom indulged in flesh. The actual head of the monastery was a handsome man of seventy, perfectly erect in figure, as though fresh from military drill, and as strong and active as most men of fifty. The younger priests were all good-looking, active, healthy men, who thought nothing of a morning's walk over the fatiguing rocky paths to Troodos and back (twelve miles), to be refreshed on their return by an afternoon's work in their gardens. The head of the Church was an especial friend of ours, and was a dear old fellow of about seventy, with a handsome face, a pair of greasy brass spectacles bound with some substance to retain them that was long since past recognition, and swelled feet that prevented him from walking beyond the precincts of the monastery, which he had never quitted for twelve years. The feet looked uncommonly like the gout, but I can hardly believe in the co-existence of that complaint with dry beans and barley-bread, although the truth must be confessed, that the monks are fond of commanderia, or any other production of the vineyard. There was one exceedingly disagreeable monk with whom we held a most remote acquaintance, and whose name I willingly conceal; he has been seen upon several occasions to sit down upon an imaginary chair, the real article of furniture being eighteen inches distant, and the stunning effect of arriving suddenly in a sitting posture upon the hard stone of the courtyard disabled him from rising; and even when assisted his legs were evidently affected by the shock. His enemies declared (as they always do) that he was the victim to an over-indulgence in the raki and wine of Phyni. We generally knew him by the alias of "Roger," in memory of the Ingoldsby Legends, where

"Roger the Monk Got excessively drunk, So they put him to bed, And tucked him in."

There was no friend to bestow such care upon our Roger, he therefore lay helplessly upon the bare stone until refreshing sleep restored his eyesight and his perpendicular.

Our particular friend the head of the Church was a very different character, and was a most simple-minded and really good religious man. I employed a photographer of the Royal Engineers (kindly permitted by Major Maitland, R.E.) specially to take his picture, as he sat every morning knitting stockings, with a little boy by his side reading the Greek Testament aloud, in the archway of the monastery. This was his daily occupation, varied only when he exchanged the work of knitting either for spinning cotton, or carving wooden spoons from the arbutus: these he manufactured in great numbers as return presents to those poor people who brought little offerings from the low country. Never having mixed with the world, the old man was very original and primitive in his ideas, which were limited to the monastery duties and to the extreme trouble occasioned by the numerous goats which trespassed upon the unfenced gardens, and inflicted serious damage. The chapel, which was under his control, was of the usual kind, and at the same time rough and exceedingly gaudy, the pulpit being gilded throughout its surface, and the reredos glittering with gold and tawdry pictures of the lowest style of art, representing the various saints, including a very fat St. George and the meekest possible dragon. Our old friend had never seen a British sovereign with the St. George, and was vastly pleased when he discovered that his saint and ours were the same person, only differing in symmetry of figures and in ferocity of dragons.

There was one very extraordinary effigy in bas-relief upon silver-gilt about two feet six inches high, of the Virgin Mary, to which peculiar miraculous properties were attributed. The possession of this relic formed the principal attraction of the monastery. About a quarter of a mile above the present establishment there is a small cave concealed among the ragged masses of rock that crust the mountain side; this has been formed by one rock which, leans across another, and each end has been walled up artificially, so as to form a stone chamber of about twelve feet in length by seven in width, with a small entrance. According to the account given by the old monk, this cave was the origin of the present monastery through the following accident. Among these wild mountains, where no dwelling of any kind exists, it has always been the custom after the melting of the snows in early spring to pasture the numerous flocks of goats, which are at that season driven up from the parched herbage of the low country to the fresh herbs of the cooler altitudes. Three or four hundred years ago a shepherd, having lost his goat at night, was surprised at the appearance of a light among the rocks high up on the mountain, and with superstitious awe he related his discovery to his fellows. For some time the mysterious light was observed nightly, and various conjectures were on foot as to its origin, but no one dared to venture upon an examination.

At length, the authorities of the Church having been consulted, it was resolved that a priest should accompany the party of investigation and the matter should be thoroughly cleared up.

It was a difficult climb to the pathless crags at night, but the light was glimmering like "the star that the wise men saw in the east," and though occasionally lost at intervals, it guided the party on their way. Upon arrival at the cave, there was no inhabitant. A lamp burnt before a small effigy of the Virgin Mary suspended against the wall of rock, but no trace of human foot or hand could be discovered.

Such is the legend; and the inexplicable mystery caused much excitement and agitation in the minds of the Church authorities. At length it was determined that, as the apparition of the light was miraculous, it was incumbent upon the people to erect a monastery upon the site of the appearance, contiguous to the now sacred cave.

This was an extreme difficulty, as the inclination formed an angle of about 60 degrees; and the mountain was hard gneiss that could only have been scarped by expensive blasting. However, it was hoped that a blessing would attend the good work; therefore, in spite of all obstacles, it was commenced, and masons were engaged from the village of Phyni to arrange a foundation.

There was no water nearer than the torrent in the deep hollow half a mile below, therefore extreme labour was required in mixing the mortar for the walls; the jars in which the necessary water was conveyed upon men's shoulders up the precipitous rocks appeared to be influenced by some adverse, but unseen, agency, as they constantly slipped from their hold and broke. During the night the work which the masons had accomplished in the day fell down, and was discovered every morning as a heap of ruin; the building could not proceed. In this perplexity the Church was relieved by a supernatural interposition. Early one morning a jar of pure water was discovered in the sharp angle of the hollow between the hills, exactly below the rachkooba, where I am now writing. It was evident to the priestly mind that an angel had placed this jar of water to denote the spot where some hidden spring might be developed, which would be a favourable site for the new monastery. They dug, and shortly discovered the expected source.

It was therefore resolved that instead of erecting the monastery close to the effigy in the cave, where bad luck had hitherto attended their efforts, it would be more advisable to commence the building upon a favourable spot, where a level already existed, in the angle between two mountain slopes within a few yards of the spring; it would be easier to convey the small effigy to the new building than to erect the monastery close to the effigy. Accordingly the work was commenced: the walls no longer fell during the night, and the unseen agency was evidently propitious.

Upon completion of the monastery the original effigy was enshrined, and Trooditissa became famous as a holy site. Years passed away, and the reputation of the establishment was enhanced by the arrival of a lady of high position from Beyrout, together with her husband, as pilgrims to the now celebrated mountain cave. The lady was childless, and having presented a handsome offering, and kissed the rock entrance of the cave, in addition to the effigy within the monastery, she waited in the neighbourhood for a certain number of months, at the expiration of which she gave birth to a son. The monks claimed this boy as their lawful prize, and he was brought up as a priest; but there is some discrepancy in the accounts which I could not well understand, as it appears that his parents insisted upon his restoration, and that an angelic interposition at length prevented litigation. It may be well imagined that the result of the lady's pilgrimage spread far and wide; the reputation of the monastery reached its zenith, and all the unfruitful women flocked to the shrine to kiss the cave and the picture of the Virgin within the church; at the same time offering a certain sum for the benefit of the establishment. The friction of constant and oft-repeated kissing at length began to tell upon the sacred effigy, and it became almost worn out; it was therefore determined that a beautiful silver-gilt Virgin and Child should be supplied by a first-rate artist which should cover the original relic within. This was remarkably well executed by Cornaro, and a small aperture like a keyhole of a door has been left, which is covered by a slide; this is moved upon one side when required, and enables the pilgrim to kiss through the hole a piece of rather brown-looking wood, which is the present exhausted surface of the effigy.

Although decayed by time and use, the miraculous property remains unchanged. This was exhibited a few years ago in a remarkable manner, where a childless lady had become old in barren expectation; but a visit to Trooditissa produced the desired result, and conferred much happiness upon the once despairing wife, who now became a mother. In addition to a monetary offering, this lady had presented the Virgin with a handsome belt with massive silver-gilt buckles, which she had worn during pregnancy. This offering is now suspended around the present effigy, and for a small consideration any lady applicant is allowed to fasten it round her waist. The effect is infallible, and quite equals that of the rock and silver Virgin. This remarkable inductive power may perhaps be some day explained by philosophers, but it is now exceedingly dangerous, and unfortunate results have occurred, when in a sudden impulse of devotion young maidens have kissed the rock entrance to the cave, or imprudently pressed their lips upon the sacred effigy.

During my sojourn at Trooditissa no arrivals of despairing wives occurred, but in the exhausted conditions of the finance throughout the island, it would have been the height of folly to have desired an increase of family, and thereby multiply expenses; possibly the uncertainty respecting the permanence of the English occupation may deter the ladies, who may postpone their pilgrimage to the monastery until their offspring should be born with the rights of British subjects.

I have described the origin of the ecclesiastical retreat at Trooditissa as nearly as possible according to the viva-voce history related by the monks. It is impossible to gauge the opinions of the world, as individuals differ as much in nervous structure and in theological creeds as they do in personal appearance; some may accept the monks' belief implicitly, while others may suggest that the original occupant of the cave was some unknown hermit secluded from the world, whose solitary lamp burning before the Virgin had attracted the attention of the shepherds from the mountain opposite. The old man may have fallen down a precipice and died, leaving his lamp still alight; but it would be unfair to interfere with the original legend, which must remain with the usual clouds and uncertainties that obscure the tales of centuries.

About 250 feet above the monastery the ridge of a spur afforded a level space beneath some tall pines which threw a welcome shade, and would have been a convenient camping-ground. This spot was occupied by the roughest of log-huts, which had been erected by a shepherd as his summer residence when the goats should be driven from the low ground to the mountain pasture. This man was originally a Turk, and formed one of a peculiar sect known in Cyprus as Linobambaki (linen and cotton). These people are said to be converts to Christianity, but in reality they have never been troubled with any religious scruples, and accordingly never accommodate their principles to the society of their neighbourhood. In a Turkish village the Linobambaki would call himself by a Turkish name, as Mahomet, or Hassan, &c., while in a Christian community he would pass as Michael or Georgy, or by other Greek appellations. The name "linen and cotton" applied to them is expressive of their lukewarmness and time-serving, their religious professions fluctuating according to the dictates not of conscience, but personal interest. It is supposed that about 1500 of these people exist in various parts of Cyprus; they are baptised in the Greek Church, and can thus escape conscription for military service according to Turkish law. The goatherd upon our mountain had been a Turkish servant (shepherd) in a Greek family, and had succeeded in gaining the heart of his master's daughter, whom he was permitted to marry after many difficulties. This woman must have been very beautiful when young, as, in spite of hard work and exposure, she was handsome at forty, with a pair of eyes that in youth might have been more attractive than the mysterious light in the hermit's cave. It is one of the blessings of fine eyes that they are almost certain to descend to the children. Property may vanish, litigation may destroy the substance of an inheritance; but the eyes, large, soft, and gentle, which can occasionally startle you by their power and subdue you by a tear, are the children's entail that nothing can disestablish. Even when time has trampled upon complexion, the eyes of beauty last till death.

The children of this Linobambaki and his handsome wife were seven--two boys of about nineteen and seventeen, and five girls from fourteen to one and a half--all of whom had the eyes of the mother developed most favourably. I cannot well describe every individual of a family: there were the two handsome shepherd youths who would have made level ground of mountain steeps, through their power and activity.

"Right up Ben Lomond could he press, And not a sob his toil confess."

These young fellows matched the goats in clambering up the rocks and following their wayward flocks throughout the summits of the Troodos range; and their sisters the little shepherdesses were in their way equally surprising, in hunting runaway goats from the deepest chasm to the sharpest mountain-peak.

I hardly know who was our greatest favourite. There was "Katterina" (about fourteen) too old to make a pet of, but a gentle-charactered girl, always willing to please and never out of temper, and even in the big, hateful, beauty-destroying, high hob-nailed boots she could run up the mountain soil and clamber like a monkey. Then came, I believe, our best favourite, the bright, large-eyed, sparkling child "Vathoo," who was the real beauty of the family, about ten years old; she was full of life and vigour, a perfect goat upon the mountains, with a most lovely face that would have charmed Murillo as a subject, with an extreme perfection of features, a bronzed complexion, but hardly the soft expression required for a sacred picture; in fact Vathoo was a perfect little gipsy beauty, with perhaps more devil than angel in her impulsive character.

Then came the real gentle little face with gazelle-like eyes, "Baraksu," about eight years old: followed by a minimum shepherdess, "Athena," of nearly five years old, who climbed the rocks, shouted, and threw stones at her refractory flock, as though an experienced goatherd of forty. The youngest was just able to stand; with a pair of the biggest black eyes, and a natural instinct for gorging itself with unripe fruits and hard nuts, which, added to its maternal sustenance that it was still enjoying, proved the mill-like character of its infantine digestion. For two months we thought this young Hercules was a promising boy, until by an accident we discovered it was a "young lady" Linobambaki! When we arrived at Trooditissa these children were in rags and filth, but under the tutelage of my wife they quickly changed, and the never-failing fountain, assisted by a cake of soap supplied occasionally, effected a marked improvement in all complexions.

They were remarkably well-mannered after the first natural shyness had worn away, and formed a contrast to children of a low class in England in never misbehaving when intimate. All these little creatures were employed in cleaning and improving the place; even the minute Athena might be seen carrying a great stone upon her small shoulder, adding her mite to the work, and rubbing the galled spot as she threw down her load. The bright threepenny pieces were in great favour, and the children invariably hastened to their mother with their earnings at the close of the afternoon. When the camp and monastery surroundings were in perfect order there was no longer any remunerative employment for the family, except the uncertain and occasional work of collecting wild flowers for the tent and table. The myrtles bloomed in early July, and in the deep ravine by the waterfall the oleanders were then still in blossom. Several plants which were strange to me were added to the collection; the days were generally passed by the children in minding the numerous goats until the evening, when each child brought some simple offering of flowers. We bought sheep from the low country at about six or seven shillings each, and Vathoo was the special shepherdess of our small flock, for which she was responsible; they were invariably driven out at 4 A.M. and brought home at 8 to avoid the sun, and again taken out from 4 P.M. till 7.

In this simple manner we passed our time at Trooditissa; my amusements were my small garden, writing an account of Cyprus, and strolling over the mountains: the latter occupation being most unprofitable, as I destroyed all my boots upon the horrible surface of loose stones, in which there was little geological interest, as they were all gneiss and syenite, cracked and starred during a process of subaquean cooling. The deplorable aspect of the otherwise beautiful mountains was occasioned by the wholesale and wilful destruction of pine-trees, which is the Cypriote's baneful characteristic, and as this is one of the most important subjects in the modern history of the island, I shall devote the following special chapter entirely to the question of "Woods and Forests."

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