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A family pilgrimage to an ancient mine
An American in search of his grandparents’ mining roots in 1920s Cyprus
“They used to be here on this very spot,” William Everett told me, as he stood just outside the tiny mediaeval church of Panagia tis Skouriotissa, visibly moved by the realisation he was quite literally following in the footsteps of his grandparents who had made the nearby mining compound their home way back in the early 1920s.
Armed with copies of precious photos of his American grandparents, his mother and uncle when they lived near the isolated copper mine of Skouriotissa between 1923 and 1925, Everett and his wife Sylvia recently made a family pilgrimage from the US to visit the mine and see what, if anything, remained.
Everett’s grandfather, Charles Jackson, was a mining engineer who played a significant role in reopening the Skouriotissa mine, considered the world’s longest producing copper mine but which had been defunct since the fall of the Roman Empire.
Jackson was hired by the Cyprus Mines Corporation (CMC), the American mining company based on the island, to supervise the rebuilding of the mine and to find the veins of copper.
In 1914, prospector Charles Gunther had excavated the mine after studying a Latin manuscript in a New York library that referred to the ancient mines in Cyprus that were rich in copper and ancient Roman slag heaps in the area. Through the Roman era Cyprus was the main supplier of copper to the world, but after the fall of the Roman Empire there was a hiatus in the nation’s copper mining activity until the 19th century. Excited by what Gunther had found, one Colonel Seeley Mudd and his son, Harvey Seeley Mudd founded CMC in 1916, appointing Jackson to Skouriotissa near Morphou Bay in 1923.
It was a challenging task. Nowadays Skouriotissa is an open pit mine, but back in the 1920s the emphasis was on shaft mining so Jackson had to oversee the building of deep tunnels underground from which ore was extracted and hoisted to the surface. It was a brutal job under harsh, dangerous conditions with miners expected to spend long periods underground.
But for the Jackson family it was a life-changing, fulfilling time.
“My mother’s memory was a happy one, but then there was always her pet dove,” laughed Everett, adding that his mother was only nine years old when they arrived on the island through Famagusta port.
“When you’re growing up it’s funny the little fragments that you remember. My sister told me that our mother kept talking about the fleas,” he said. “There were other things too like my grandmother would say that the children were not to leave the compound on payday because the miners would get drunk.”
Everett, 71, a writer and woodworker, and his wife Sylvia, have made the long-overdue journey to Cyprus for their 30th wedding anniversary to finally explore places that he heard so much about as a child. He is the first one of his family to ever come back since they left in 1925. Even though Everett’s grandfather died when he was five, he heard plenty about the years spent in Cyprus from his mother, Elizabeth, and grandmother, Ruby.
“It must have been pleasant because William’s grandmother preserved a tablecloth and rug that she gave to us,” said Sylvia, describing the tablecloth as a beautifully crafted piece of ‘Lefkaritiko’ lace, that only comes out on very special occasions.
The Jacksons’ trip to Cyprus in 1923 had not been easy. They had set sail from New York, when their ship collided with another and they had to go back to port and start again. They finally landed in Port Said, Egypt, travelled overland through Palestine to the coast and from there, on to Famagusta.
They arrived at Skouriotissa mine to find that the nearby living quarters were centred on the ancient church of Panagia tis Skouriotissa, next to which were the remains of a monastery complete with long-empty monks’ cells. During the Jacksons’ time these rooms were used to accommodate foremen and visitors. The Jacksons had their own house nearby.
After their stay in Cyprus, the Jacksons returned to the United States where they spent the rest of their days within North America with Jackson’s job taking them to Minnesota, Arizona, Montana and Canada.
Although 1920s Cyprus must have seemed totally alien to the family, the photos that Everett brought with him depict a family comfortable in their surroundings, enjoying the island with trips to Troodos and donkeys rides and determined to get the most out of an adventure that had taken them so far from home.
But how much actually remains of the original compound where the family lived? As always with Cyprus, recent politics gets in the way. What were the living quarters is now a UN barracks with an Argentinean guard at the entrance. The compound is in the buffer zone while the mine itself, just down the road, is within the Republic. The church is still used and this part of the former compound is open to visitors.
The mine is on a hill in Katydata village positioned between the Troodos range and Morphou Bay, and it was there where the offices of the mine’s current owner, Hellenic Copper Mines Ltd, are situated that we made our first stop.
When Everett pulled out his trusty photo album, the head of the company was quick to respond with tales of his own family’s long involvement in the mine.
“My grandfather used to work in the mines and on one occasion his lamp went out and in these mines you can’t see anything and you can easily fall down a mine shaft,” said 60-year-old Constantinos Xydas, adding that the experience scared his grandfather so much he decided never to go down a mine again.
A long conversation with Xydas revealed his own interest in the history of the mine. “I have literature piled this high (pointing to a cupboard),” he said, pulling out a book, The story of the Cyprus Mines Corporation by David Lavender.
He handed it to Everett who quickly found a reference to his grandfather and grandmother. “It says here that she was the only foreign woman in the area,” said Everett laughing at the fact that the family’s British governess, Mrs Buckley who schooled Everett’s mother and uncle during their time here, was not mentioned
Our next stop was the site of the old compound just down the road. After much ado with the Argentinean UN guard, we were let through and directed towards the general vicinity of the church.
There we found Achilleas who takes care of the tiny church and was quick to tell us that both his father and grandfather used to work at the mine.
During Jackson’s time the mining industry offered work to thousands of people, both Turkish and Greek Cypriots, from the surrounding villages of Linou, Flassou and Katydata and from all around the island.
Achilleas reassured us that the church, which features in many of Everett’s photos, is still in use and just five years ago he baptised his son there.
But of the house where the Jacksons once lived, we could find no trace though the hunt was complicated by so much of the area being out of bounds. Aside from the church, the only other recognisable building from the treasured photos is the once-elegant monastery with its distinct neo-classical columns. The building has been crudely fixed and is now used by the UN.
For William Everett, however, the existing evidence of his family’s life here nearly one hundred years ago, the stories he heard and the trips he took have answered many of his questions.
“Was it worth it? Many times over (and) while we are in our sunset times, we can’t rule out coming again,” said Everett, adding that there was lots still that they did not get to see and people they still want to talk to. “The trip may have even inspired a book in me.”
Read the blog of the trip at www.williameverett.com
Skouriotissa’s recent history
The Cyprus Mining Company worked the mine at Skouriotissa, along with a number of other mines until 1974, when one of their mines and their processing plant ended up in the occupied part of the island after the invasion. As a result they pulled out of Cyprus. Then in 1977 the rights of the company was given to a Greek mining company, who restarted copper production. In 1994 a sister company along with a foreign company - Oxiana - took over using new technology.
Hellenic Copper Mines was the independent company, solely consisting of Cypriot shareholders, that was born out of the Greek mining company and Oxiana. They are the only metal-producing company in Cyprus involved in copper production. Just last month they marked the production of 50,000 tonnes of copper.
They revived the mine at Skouriotissa in 1996 and implemented, for the first time in Europe, the practice of hydrometallurgy.
Copper is also mined differently now. Whereas during Everett’s grandfather’s time they needed thousands of miners, working in tough conditions, the company now consists of 20 engineers. Skouriotissa is now a surface mine as opposed to underground and furnaces are no longer used to extract the metal from its ore.