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Rare glimpse into Ottoman rule
AS THE Ottoman era drew to an end in Nicosia death was a common event, people used mules to travel, camels as work animals, and visitors to Larnaca were put up in a church because there was no inn, the newly released memoirs of a Bulgarian revolutionary exiled here in 1877 reveal.
In a rare glimpse into life in Nicosia at the time, Atanas (Tancho) Shabanov details how he was among 43 people exiled here as prisoners for their role in the revolution against Ottoman rule in Bulgaria in 1876.
“At 8am in the morning (September 8, 1877) we approached Cyprus and they told us we would disembark,” Shabanov’s opening line says.
The authorities told the exiles they would be transported to another city and told them to rent a mule, if they could afford one.
“We all had money but each one of us had a mind not to pay up, hoping the government would provide mules,” Shambanov said.
Nonetheless, four men including Shabanov did rent mules and with their feet tied underneath the mules’ bellies they made their way to Nicosia. Camels followed with their bundled clothes and the convoy got underway guarded by ten constables. He finally arrived in Nicosia on September 15.
The Bulgarian embassy and Cyprus’ foreign ministry put together a bilingual edition in Greek and Bulgarian of Shabanov’s book Description of my Life in Cyprus to highlight “the longstanding relations between the two countries,” the foreign ministry said. The book – disseminated across diplomatic missions – is not available to buy in bookshops but the Sunday Mail obtained a copy.
Shabanov described the still unnamed city of Nicosia as “surrounded by walls” and having three entrances.
At 3am, while “the moon shone beautifully” the prisoners were taken to their new home – in a prison, later taken down by the British – that was in the Sarai square area, now in the occupied part of Nicosia.
The prisoners had chains fitted around their feet but they were free to move about the city and earn a living, using the prison’s workrooms to build things. Some people “started making English penknives, others knitted bags, someone knitted socks, I put together bags from cannabis and painted boxes,” he said.
“We had a nice time in this prison because they would lock us up at night and during the day we would sit in the courtyard,” Shabanov said. “The courtyard was large. In this prison there were about 400 people. It had three nice coffee shops and two or three kitchens.” “The Greeks brought us five or six quilts, gave us some shirts and underwear, and a little money. On Christmas they gave us money again, and the same during Easter.”
Life went on, comfortably, although the occasional mention of death is a reminder that life was different then. “Someone from Sliven (in Bulgaria) got sick… and died after a week,” Shabanov said, without elaborating.
“Life was different then and conditions were harsh. It was more commonplace for people and infants to die,” the university of Cyprus’ Ioannis Theocharides said, who wrote an introduction for Shabanov’s book.
By 1878 the Bulgarian prisoners had received word from Beirut and Damascus that they were to be let go. But the now 40 prisoners (“a priest and two elderly men had died”) were forgotten. Other political prisoners were released but despite orders to release everyone, the authorities kept answering back to a number of telegrams that there were no more prisoners left to release. It transpired that the only note the authorities were given on the Bulgarian exiles said the following: “We are sending you 43 people who you should keep under strict restriction”.
Eventually the prisoners appealed to the Rhodes pasha, asking him to come and free them himself.
The Pasha did arrive and told them that the Sultan forgave them and left. The prisoners got their chains removed and the locals opened up a church, bells ringing, and a service was held.
The Bulgarians had a week left in Cyprus and roamed for a few days, “meeting many local merchants”. When time came to go, they were escorted to the city gates “by many young people”. The locals had already arranged transportation and given each man a little money they had collected for them. It is at this point that Shabanov names the city. “[It] is called Nicosia. We left it on May 27 1878,” he said.
Arriving in Larnaca, the newly freed men looked for an inn but were informed by the locals that the city did not have one. “When strangers come, they are taken to the Saint Lazarus church, and they told someone to lead us there.” Although they opened up rooms for them to stay in, the group opted to stay in the church yard.
Shabanov arrived back to Koprivshitca in June. His mother and wife did not recognise him. His mother even pointed him out to her daughter-in-law. “Shall we ask this man if our Atanas is coming too?”
“Mother, could it be him and we have failed to recognise him?” she said. Shabanov’s closing line is concise. He cried for his mother and wife. “Then my wife and mother turned, crying in their great joy, and we went home.”