Sometimes we Cypriots think of ourselves as being at the centre of the earth or as the well-known Greek expression goes, ‘the naval of the earth’ (ο ομφαλός της γης). However on a very recent trip to Berlin, I realised that not too long ago another European country has dealt, and was in fact still dealing with, a very painful past and the effects of reunification.
With the establishment of the GDR (German Democratic Republic) during the Cold War period and then the construction of the Berlin Wall (1961) whole families were torn apart. Different governments and even different ways of life were established, the effects of which were still felt after reunification and even today.
I was lucky enough that on my second day in this fascinating and inspirational city, a very good friend of mine had organised an actual tour of the city for us, spanning key sights such as the Reichstag, the Holocaust Memorial, the Topography of Terror, Museum Island, Brandenburg Gate and what’s left of the Berlin Wall. Traipsing around a city and its key landmarks has never been more fun, on a bus and with someone pouring out just the right amount of historical facts versus anecdotal information.
Facing up to such a tumultuous and shameful past is a process and Germany is coming to terms with this past in a variety of ways, with one of them being commemorative monuments.
Standing in Bebelplatz, my attention was brought to a particularly innovative memorial – book burning memorial – reminding onlookers of the ‘Burning of the Books’ in Nazi Germany, 1933. The books themselves – all 20,000 of them – cannot be replaced but empty shelves can help us remember what was once there. A sunken glass plate at pavement level enables a look into a room below full of empty bookshelves. This is just one very unique way of remembering this particular event in history.
An exhibition entitled ‘Iconoclastic Controversies: A visual sociology of statues and commemoration sites in the southern part of Cyprus’ by Prof. Dr. Nico Carpentier at the Home for Cooperation, almost a year ago now, has had me thinking about monuments in Cyprus ever since. In a reunified Cyprus, should we erect new monuments? Should we get rid of the old ones? And what narrative should we attach to them? How we remember is important.
There is no doubt that German and Cypriot culture are poles apart but we can learn some very valuable lessons from the way they dealt with their past, and continue to do so, perhaps starting with a promise to maintain the monuments of both sides, regardless of whether we support the narrative or ideology behind it. We might not understand the significance of that mescit (mosque without a minaret) in Nicosia’s old town in the Latin quarter, but it’s part of our history and we have a duty to maintain it.
Perhaps I find the Statue of Liberty, near Famagusta Gate an exaggerated depiction of the fight against colonialism and one-sided as it commemorates the release from prison in 1959 of EOKA fighters. It shows a Statue of Liberty overseeing two EOKA heroes tugging on chains in order to open prison gates and release Greek Cypriot prisoners, peasants and clergy, from British colonial rule (note Greek Cypriots and not Turkish Cypriots). And perhaps I have similar feelings about the Barış ve Özgürlük Anıtı in Kyrenia, a monument built in 1974 to commemorate soldiers killed in peacekeeping operations. However, all these monuments are now part of a painful history which we, the people of Cyprus, be they Turkish Cypriot, Greek Cypriot, Turkish, Maronite or Latin, decide what narrative and significance we wish to attach to them.
- Karpasia or Karpaz?