Bellapais Abbey is an attractive ruined monastery dating from the early 13th century, near Kyrenia in Northern Cyprus. It is the main attraction of the picturesque village of Bellapais, which is also known for being the home of Lawrence Durrell (from 1953 to 1955), author of Bitter Lemons.
History of Bellapais Abbey
The site of Bellapais may have been the early residence of the Bishops of Kyrenia, as well as their refuge during the Arab raids of the 7th and 8th centuries.
In 1187, Jerusalem fell to the Saracens and the Augustinian canons who had custody of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre came to Cyprus. Bellapais Abbey was founded for them around 1200 by Aimery de Lusignan. It was consecrated as the Abbey of St. Mary of the Mountain.
The Augustians were soon followed by the White Canons or the Norbertines (also known as Premonstratensians), and this was the rule that was adopted from 1206 onwards. Their white habits gave Bellapais one of its names— it is referred to as the "White Abbey" in 15th and 16th century documents.
In 1246, Sir Roger the Norman gave Bellapais Abbey a fragment of the True Cross and the sum of 600 besants, in exchange for the canons saying masses in perpetuity for his soul and that of his wife, Lady Alix.
The abbey also benefited from the generosity of Hugh III, who died in Tyre in 1284 and is believed to have been buried here. Hugh III gave the abbots of Bellapais the privilege of wearing a mitre, bearing a gilded sword and wearing golden spurs.
Thanks to its pious benefactors, Bellapais Abbey grew in size, importance and wealth. The powerful abbots were frequently in dispute with the Archbishop of Nicosia, and the pope had to intervene in disagreements on several occasions.
King Hugh IV lived in the abbey between 1354 and 1358 and added apartments for himself, but in 1373, Bellapais' glittering treasure attracted the attention of the Genoese, who robbed the abbey of everything light enough to carry. After this, the abbey spun into physical and moral decline. By the mid-16th century, the strict Norbertine rule had been virtually abandoned at Bellapais, with many of the canons taking a wife (or two) and accepting only their own children as novices.
The Venetians shortened the long-standing name, Abbaye de la Paix (Abbey of Peace), to De la Paix, which eventually became Bellapais.
After the Turkish conquest in 1570, the abbey was given to the Orthodox Church. The buildings were neglected and fell into disrepair, but the abbey church was used as the parish church for the village that grew up around the monastery (presumably populated by descendents of the monks).
The grand old abbey impressed foreign visitors: in 1738, English traveller Richard Pococke remarked that he had seen at Bellapais "a most magnificent uninhabited convent... almost entire." When Captain Kinneir of the East India Company passed by in 1814, he saw cows grazing in the outer court.
The abbey fell further into disrepair over the years, its stone being used to build houses in the village. In 1878, the British Army cemented the floor of the great hall and used it for a military hospital. The ruins were repaired in 1912 by George Jeffery, Curator of the Ancient Monuments of Cyprus.
What to See at Bellapais Abbey
The palatial Bellapais Abbey is built on a rock escarpment with a cliff on the north that drops more than 30m straight down. It is illuminated at night. The main entrance is on the south side, through a fortified gateway that replaces a former drawbridge. You approach the abbey through a promenade of palm trees that lend an exotic touch to the European-style ruins.
The Gothic abbey church has a flat roof and a quaint belfry above the entrance. Just one bell remains in place. The remains of a 15th-century Italian mural can be seen in the porch.
Inside, the church has a wide nave with two aisles, a square choir and a sacristy. Several Lusignan kings are thought to be entombed beneath the floor. Remaining decorations include an intricately carved pulpit, the bishop's throne, and five restrained chandeliers. The dark, musty interior, with open service books and half-melted candles, seems in mourning. It was used by the Greek Orthodox community until its last members were forced out in 1976.
Arches on three sides of the cloisters remain standing, and cyprus trees have been planted in the center. On the north side is a notable lavabo, where the monks performed ablutions. It is made of two Roman sarcophagi, the upper one of which is decorated with swages, lion heads and putti. Water would flow from the upper sarcophagus into the undecorated lower one, then through a channel to the cloister garden. Three stairs from the cloisters provide access to the roof, which provides a nice vantage point. The Treasury was over the north aisle of the church.
Southeast of the cloisters is the square Chapter House, with a single marble column re-erected in 1912. The meaning of the carved corbels is not known; perhaps they represent long-forgotten proverbs. They include a man carrying a double ladder, a man between two maidens, and a man holding a shield under a pear tree. To the north is the roofless Common Room, where the monks worked and studied.
The best preserved of the abbey buildings is the refectory, on the north side of the cloisters. A magnificent room 30m long and 10m wide, the roof is supported by seven columns that look like they're growing out of the side walls. It has six windows on the north wall that provide breathtaking views across the countryside to the sea, and a fine rose window high in the east wall. On the north wall is a projecting pulpit, from which a lector read from the scriptures or the lives of saints during mealtimes.
In the late 1800s, the British Army barbarically used the refectory as a shooting range, leaving bullet holes in the east wall. This impressive room is now used for concerts and lectures and hosts the local music festival in late May to early June.
Below the refectory is the undercroft, with decorative ceiling bosses. The cellarium and kitchens were to the west of the refectory, just a stone's throw from the modern tables of the Kybele Restaurant.
If you're interested in the travel writer Lawrence Durrell, his house is in the center of the village and bears a plaque that says, "Bitter Lemons: Lawrence Durrell lived here 1953-56."
Unfortunately, there is no bus or dolmus service to Bellapais. You can hire a taxi in Kyrenia for a day or half day (agree on the price before you leave).
Quick Facts on Bellapais Abbey
|Visitor and Contact Information|
- Bernard McDonagh and Ian Robertson, Blue Guide Cyprus, 4th ed. (1998), 188-91.
- Marc Dubin, The Rough Guide to Cyprus, 5th ed. (2005), 368-70.