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Cypria by Alex Christofi review – island records

Cypria by Alex Christofi review – island records

The island that gave the world halloumi cheese and George Michael’s dad is also an unsinkable aircraft carrier from which RAF jets strike Iranian drones. The geostrategic importance of Cyprus has made its history rich in such contrasts, ever since it was adopted by Zeus’s own aunt.

Cyprus was once home to dwarf elephants and tiny hippos, but its most consequential as well as beautiful notable native was probably the goddess Aphrodite, who was born from the frothing semen of her father Uranus and stepped ashore at Paphos. She later goaded Paris into kidnapping Helen, so encouraging the Trojan war, whose survivors, too, washed up on the island and began singing of their glorious victories. Homer himself might have been a Cypriot.

“Like many peoples of the Mediterranean,” Christofi warns us good-naturedly, Cypriots “believe that the basis of all good stories is exaggeration”. He thus adopts a likable rhetorical strategy of treating myths and superstitions – such as the story that a church in Cyprus contains a fragment of the True Cross on which Jesus died, or that his friend Lazarus moved to Cyprus afterwards – with the same seriousness and empathy as historical facts, for (as the unspoken argument presumably runs) a culture is not made from reality alone.

In the history of therapeutic thought, the island’s role is definitively immense, as native son Zeno, a wealthy trader of purple dye, turned to philosophy and founded the school of stoicism. Via subsequent luminaries such as the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, stoicism survived to inspire the invention of cognitive behavioural therapy and a flourishing movement of neo-stoicism today. Which is not to imply that the island produced only serene contemplators; Cypriots were also among the first to forge iron and supposedly provided Alexander the Great with his favourite sword. The fact that the island was already a nexus of the international arms trade millennia ago offers an ironic footnote to its present exploitation by Nato forces.

Not that it escaped earlier stretches of colonialism. The Knights Templar occupied Cyprus for eight months in the late 12th century before begging Richard the Lionheart, who had acquired it almost by accident on the way to do some crusading in Jerusalem, to take it back off their hands; he gave it to the French instead. In turn, Cyprus was ruled by the Venetians, who eventually could not withstand the constant offensives of the Ottoman empire. Happily, our author does not resist a certain Pythonesque appreciation of conflict’s dark humour. Of the siege of Nicosia in 1570, he writes: “Their provisions should have lasted them two full years in the hands of anyone other than a complete idiot. Unfortunately the commander of Nicosia, Niccolò Dandolo, was that idiot.”

When the British took over they displayed the same concern for Cyprus’s priceless heritage as earlier robber-nobles such as Elgin had for that of Athens, demolishing the acropolis at Kition so as to fill in the harbour with its rubble. Disraeli and others thought Cyprus an excellent place to keep a military harbour in case of trouble down in Suez, as it proved much later in 1954. The Cyprus Regiment, meanwhile, had fought with the British in the second world war, the experience of which, Christofi argues, set in motion the islanders’ subsequent demands for self-governance. His account of Cyprus’s bloody guerrilla war against the British – “that disgusting situation which was entirely engineered by us”, as Lawrence Durrell, who had worked there as a Foreign Office propaganda chief, put it – is sobering and sad; even more so that of the invasion of the north by Turkey, possibly with the collusion of Henry Kissinger and the CIA.

Despite this, the book does not end on a downer. Throughout, Christofi frames the island’s history through a travelogue of present day Cyprus, clambering up mountains and kicking back in cafes, often with his Cypriot father in tow. Its long backstory of disaster and resilience may be summed up in one beautiful observation: “Olives are a sign that life continues even when hope is unreasonable.” In this superbly composed book, Cyprus’s tastes and the smells are always intensely present, as are the island’s innumerable and majestic cats.

Source: theguardian.com