x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Nicosia bids farewell to a towering figure

A giant statue pf the archbishop who led Cyprus to independence is being uprooted and moved to his gravesite in the mountians.

The old and new statues of Archbishop Makarios.
The old and new statues of Archbishop Makarios.

NICOSIA // It will be like Paris sans la Tour Eiffel or Dubai without the billowing Burj al Arab hotel: Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, will lose its most photographed tourist attraction today. The 10-metre statue of Archbishop Makarios III, which locals affectionately refer to as "Big Mac", will be moved to the charismatic cleric's final resting place in the island's cool, pine-clad Troodos mountains 80 kilometres from the Cypriot capital. The shrewd archbishop, who led the political wing of the struggle against British colonial rule, was elected first president of Cyprus in 1959, a year before the island won independence. It was a humbling time for Albion as leaders of the developing world reclaimed chunks of the once unassailable British Empire in its twilight years. Britain had been determined to hold on to Cyprus as a vital strategic base following the humiliating loss of Suez. Makarios, a shepherd's son, remained in power through often turbulent years until he died of a heart attack in 1977, three years after the island was sundered by Turkey's invasion. So revered was he that 250,000 tearful Greek Cypriots - more than one-third of their community - filed past his coffin. For 21 years his colossal bronze statue, designed and sculpted over three years in Britain by a London-based Greek Cypriot artist, has stood as a towering landmark in front of the Archbishop's Palace in central Nicosia. But people had long complained that the statue was too big and an "eyesore", according to the palace's incumbent, Archbishop Chrysostomos II. "It will be better in the open, mountainous area of the holy Kykko monastery," said Frixos Cleanthous, his office director. A new life-size statue of Makarios in dazzling white marble was installed several weeks ago in the front garden of the Archbishop's Palace, ready to usurp the bronze behemoth. When the original statue, which weighs 11 tonnes and is taller than two double-decker buses, was erected in 1987, critics complained that it was out of proportion to its surroundings and clashed with the Neo-Classical style of neighbouring buildings. "Downright hideous," the Rough Guide to Cyprus still sniffs with contempt. But the statue has grown on many Nicosians in the same way that the originally unloved Eiffel Tower is now central to the identity of Paris. "It keeps alive good memories of Cyprus's best president and it's very good for the area. It's a great pity if it goes," said Angelos Angelides, a car mechanic who works within a spanner's throw of the sculpture. Thousands of tourists have their photograph snapped in front of the statue every day, and most love it. "It's really awesome, really inspiring," said Andrew Nevin, 25, from Tennessee. "No one will see it in the mountains." The owners of nearby souvenir shops and snack bars predict its removal will affect earnings. "I never thought the statue fitted in with the surroundings, but I would like it to stay because it's good for business in the area," said Panos Patatakos, whose betting shop falls within the shadow of the statue's frown. The autocephalous (independent) Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus seems aware that the statue's relocation could be controversial, despite the public's apparent indifference to its removal. Archbishop Chrysostomos II instructed reporters and cameramen to stay away during its uprooting. "I demand respect for the archbishop's memory," he said. Camera crews from the island's intensely competitive private television stations are, however, expected to ignore the lofty dictat. The Church may be wary that the statue's removal carries unintended symbolic significance. Only in the past few years have commentators and historians begun debating Makarios's legacy. Many people acknowledge that although he was perhaps the best leader for his times, his record was not without fault. Some recall his charisma in one breath while suggesting in the next that he had an authoritarian streak. The huge statue's replacement by a life-size one "is a powerful physical image in the continuous process of the de-mythification" of Makarios, the English-language Cyprus Mail commented in a recent article under the headline: "Cutting Makarios down to size." The writer suggested that because of the island's national problem - the 34-year-old division of Cyprus - Greek Cypriots have been reluctant to probe painful areas of the past or "chip away at the reputation of leaders long hailed as heroes". Coincidentally, a book published yesterday by an outspoken journalist-historian, Makarios Drousiotis, argues that "mistakes and miscalculations" by Makarios in the early 1960s alienated the smaller Turkish Cypriot community and sowed the seeds of the island's division. However, Mr Drousiotis, who was given his uncommon first name by parents in honour of the late archbishop, advises against reading too much into the removal of his namesake's statue. "The [current] archbishop admires Makarios, but he just felt that the statue is too big." Tourism officials must hope that Nicosia's loss will be the mountains' gain: the statue will dominate the jagged skyline there from miles around, possibly serving as a magnet for day-tripping holidaymakers from the coast. Nikos Kotziamanis, the sculptor and artist who created the monumental Makarios statue, said that he was not consulted about its displacement and feared it could be damaged in the move: it has iron roots penetrating deep into concrete foundations. "Of course I'm insulted," he said. He opposed its removal but not, he insisted, because he sculpted it. "Makarios was a giant on the world stage," he said, adding that its current location is the most appropriate. "Whenever Makarios was facing difficulties, the people of Cyprus gathered at that spot to call on him to be strong and to continue the struggle for justice." mtheodoulou@thenational.ae