In 1878, Cyprus was incorporated into the British Empire.
The faltering Ottoman outpost had fallen into debt and the Orthodox Cypriot church, charged to collect taxes was inefficient in its attempts to gather money from its Christian flock. This wasn’t surprising as the money was to be given as tribute to their Muslim overlords… Cyprus was then, a thorn in the side of the Ottomans. Turkey owed Britain substantial sums at this time and as part of The Great Game, agreed to write this off in exchange for control of the strategically placed island.
The British set up a fairly efficient administration all be it one that was always strapped for cash, on the Indian model. Many of the administrators were former members of the Indian Civil Service, spending their final few years of service on the island before finally returning to Britain. The qualities they brought in terms of administration were however balanced by powerful prejudices. To many of them, the local people were just another kind of “wog” who had fallen far, since the days of the venerated classical Greek period.
Another habit inherited from India was the need to move the administration of the island from the hot plain [where Nicosia is located], to the cool of the Troodos Mountains in summer time.
Every June the British administrators, their wives and families would ride or drive into the fragrant pine forests and set up shop in Platres, a pretty village high in the mountains. Even today their Victorian red brick villas, complete with tin roofs and green painted shutters can be seen in numbers around the edge of the community, lending it an odd, suburban feel.
My father was born and grew up in a village a few miles away called Pedhoulas. Another pretty village at the head of the Marathassa valley, it is built around a natural amphitheatre with views North to Morphu bay and on some days, clear across the Mediterranean to the Tarus Mountains in Turkey. It is famous for its cherries that are rated the best in the island.
British administrators would come for the weekends and in summer to walk in the mountains or drink coffee at the tourist hotels. Father would earn pennies by taking their cases up to their rooms and running errands for them. Most people were poor and my father’s family were no exception. The women worked in the cherry orchards, spun their own cloth and baked their own bread. Many of the men worked in the asbestos mine at Amiantos or sat around in the village cafes smoking cigarettes and playing backgammon.
Winters at this altitude [2,500meters] could be harsh and the snow could lie on the ground for weeks on end. Once my father’s family had to dig themselves out of a two-meter high snowdrift, piled up against door of their home.
Pedhoulas did not have electricity until the 1930’s when the village paid for the power lines to be extended from Prothromus. Everyone had to contribute, even my Grandmother struggling to bring up four children on her own. She paid for one telegraph pole.
The villages are still there today but few have sizable populations. Pedhoulas once had a population of 2,000. It had a lively school a clinic and a bus service to Nicosia on market days. Today fewer than 200 old people live there and the school had gone. One child lives in the village and she has to be bussed miles away for schooling.
Until recently, the mountain villages would come alive in the summer months when village families would return to their homes to enjoy the cool breeze but today, Cypriot families would rather spend their time on the beach. The sound of cockerels greeting the dawn and goats with bells around their necks has gone. The little old ladies leading donkeys piled high with firewood and old men with baggy trousers and big moustaches have disappeared.
Some places like Kakopedria have reinvented themselves, where village houses have been rebuilt for foreign visitors and Cypriot culture is on display in Tavernas on “Cyprus Night” but most villages are as quiet as the grave.
You can’t blame anyone in the mountains of Cyprus or the Pyrenees for that matter to abandon a way of life that involved much hard work for little money but I wish there was some way for these villages to survive in the modern age…