The 16th century Chapel of St George in the centre of Kormakitis. Photo: Jonathan Gorvett
The 16th century Chapel of St George in the centre of Kormakitis. Photo: Jonathan Gorvett

In a village coffee house in the shadow of the sandstone towers of Saint George’s Maronite church, a group of elderly residents play cards and argue, away from the late afternoon sun.

Photos of Lebanese President Michel Aoun and a succession of Catholic Popes and archbishops adorn the walls, looking down on the group, along with Lebanese flags and a calendar of forthcoming holy days.

Outside the cafe, as the church bell strikes, the priest hurries past while a local matriarch shuffles into confession.

This may look like a typical Lebanese village scene, but this small Maronite settlement lies far from the cedars of Mount Lebanon.

Maronite residents of Kormakitis in the local coffee house. Photo: Jonathan Gorvett

Indeed, it is far from anywhere, isolated in the northwestern corner of the Mediterranean island of Cyprus.

The card players are joking and arguing largely in Greek, sprinkled with a mix of their own distinct Arabic dialect. On the hill behind them flies the crescent-and-star flag of a Turkish army post.

This is Kormakitis, or Korucam in Turkish, the largest of four Maronite villages on the Turkish-occupied half of the eastern Mediterranean island.

The Maronites are followers of a self-governing and ancient church, based in Lebanon, and in full understanding – or communion – with the Pope and Catholic Church.

The ancient rite, followers of Saint Maron, arrived to the eastern Mediterranean island centuries ago, though the exact timing is often debated.

“It is difficult to evaluate the Maronite presence on Cyprus because some Maronites submitted to Rome even before 1191 and afterwards their orientation in Cyprus was rural,”  reads an excerpt from ‘Cyprus: Society and Culture 1191-1374’.

“It is probable that they only became numerous on Cyprus in the late thirteenth century, with the decline of the Crusader States.”

Cypriot government authorities also point to the Crusader period as a key time of migration for the community.

The Maronites, having found refuge on the small island nation centuries ago, now face an uncertain future.

‘We need a solution’

Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974, following an Athens-backed coup that aimed to join Cyprus to Greece.

With the Turks landing not far from Kormakitis, most Maronites joined thousands of fellow Christian Greek Cypriots and fled south ahead of the advancing tanks.

Many have never returned. Instead, along with their children and grandchildren, they live across the United Nations-patrolled buffer zone in the largely Greek Cypriot – and Greek Orthodox – south of the island, or have left Cyprus altogether.

In these northern villages, the Maronite community has since dwindled to around 100 permanent residents, out of 2,700 who once lived here.

Mainly elderly, these are among the last survivors of an ancient community – and some of the last native speakers of an ancient language.

A comparative glossary of Cypriot Maronite Arabic describes it as “an unwritten language and mother tongue of several hundred bilingual Maronites from Kormakiti, evolved from a medieval Arabic colloquial brought to the island by Christian Arab migrants.”

Incomprehensible to many other Arabic speakers after centuries of Greek and Turkish influence, CMA is descended from Syriac Aramaic – said to be the language of Jesus – and has Mesopotamian roots.

But as the elderly fade, CMA is now close to extinction as a mother tongue.

“We have been here for nine and a half centuries,” Yiannis Bakitas, a Maronite community leader in Kormakitis, told Asia Times.

“But now, we have no young people, no school and even our language is dying out.”

An inscription, possibly Arabic written in Syriac script, on the door of the 16th century Chapel of St. George in the center of Kormakitis. Photo: Jonathan Gorvett

For Bakitas, there will be no hope for the community without a diplomatic breakthrough on the island.

“We need a solution to the Cyprus problem, or we don’t know what will happen to us in the future,” the community leader said.

Glimmers of hope

In addition to Kormakitis, there are three other Maronite villages in this part of Cyprus, which has been the heartland of their community on the island since at least the 11th century.

The others are Karpasia (Karpasa in Turkish), Asomatos (Ozhan), and Agia Marina (Gurpinar).

Since 1974, these villages have been almost entirely closed to their original inhabitants and occupied by the Turkish army.

Recent years have seen some hopeful signs. Maronites have begun returning to Kormakitis, and a handful have been allowed back to long-sealed parts of Karpasia in parallel with a UNDP restoration of the church.

Yet Asomatos and Agia Marina remain cut off behind Turkish army barbed wire.

Last year, however, came another hopeful sign. The Turkish Cypriot authorities, who rule this region as the breakaway ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ (TRNC), promised these Maronites a new deal.

“The TRNC Presidency has decided to allow for the return of all Maronites to their villages in North Cyprus,” the Turkish Cypriot government press office declared in July 2017.

This was welcome news for the Maronite community, as re-opening the villages might be the spark needed to revive this ancient community, while also rescuing its ancient language.

Yet, more than a year later, there is little sign of movement. Why this is so is the subject of some dispute.

“The technical planning and preparations have been completed,” Baris Burcu, spokesperson for the Turkish Cypriot Presidency, told Asia Times.

“In addition, certain measures which will open more civilian living spaces for those Maronites who will return to their villages have also been taken,” he said.

The official blamed the overall economic situation for the lack of progress.

“Unfortunately … the current economic crisis in the TRNC has led to difficulties in terms of financing the said works.”

With its economy tied very much to Turkey’s, the crash in the Turkish lira earlier this year had a major detrimental impact on Turkish-occupied parts of Cyprus, as prices soared and belts were tightened.

Waiting for the day

Costas M. Constantinou, who has long studied the Maronites of Cyprus, says the tiny Christian community that remained under Turkish occupation is caught between both sides.

“The fact is, while Maronites try to make the most of it, their allegiance is being questioned in more nationalist quarters in Cyprus – both north and south of the buffer zone,” he said.

Maronites have no vote in the northern TRNC, living only as permanent residents, rather than citizens.

In the Republic of Cyprus to the south, where Maronites are citizens of the recognized state, they have voting rights, but their sole Maronite parliamentary representative does not.

“There has been, therefore, a certain denial of identity and collective rights from the very beginning of the Republic of Cyprus,” Constantinou said.

In Kormakitis where the community has been concentrated since the war, residents continue to hope for a return to their ancestral villages.

“We are waiting for the day we can go back. We are ready, everyone is ready,” said Father Antoine Roukos, the priest at St George’s, referring to the villages that remain sealed.

“If the villages can revive, if young people return, we can pull ourselves back from the brink,” he told Asia Times.

“It is fine to have a church, to have a priest. But what is any of this without people?”

The restored Church of the Holy Cross in Karpasia. Photo: Jonathan Gorvett