In north Nicosia, behind St Sophia Cathedral, is the Sultan’s library. Built in honour of Mahmut II by the Vali of Cyprus Ali Ruhi Efendi in about 1829, the interior of the cupola is decorated with a poem by Hasan Hilmi Efendi from Piroi village. It is written in gold leaf calligraphy. So impressed was the Sultan that he made Hilmi Effendi the Court poet in Istanbul and endowed the library with one of the most important Islamic manuscript collections. Unfortunately, the library is rarely open and the collection has been moved to the National Archives in Kyrenia. The surrounding square is attractive and calm. Opposite is the “Kuchuk” house, in Lusignan times the Archbishop’s Palace. Here, between the Archbishop’s Palace and the cathedral, an incident took place which changed the course of Cyprus’s history.
We are in the reign of King John II of Cyprus, around 1442 to 1458. This king had a thing for Greek women. His first wife was Amadea Palaiologina and his second wife Helena Palaiologina, daughter of the despot of Morea. But he also had a Greek mistress, Marietta of Patras. With Helena, King John had a daughter Charlotte who married Louis of Savoy and with his mistress he had a son James. The two women were at each other’s throat as to the inheritance of the throne. Charlotte was the legitimate heir but a daughter. James was illegitimate but a son. During one of their fights, Helena bit off Marietta’s nose, who hence remained in history as Marietta the noseless. Eventually Helena won. James became Archbishop of Cyprus instead.
It was during Charlotte’s coronation when James was walking towards the cathedral to perform the ceremony. Here, at this square, Charlotte’s supporters and guards stopped him and told him he was not welcomed in the church. So furious was James that he called his men, got on ships and went to Egypt and asked help from the Mamelukes to take the throne of Cyprus. He returned with an army and chased Charlotte around the island for two and a half years eventually forcing her to leave. He became King, James the Bastard, or James the Usurper and married Caterina Cornaro from Venice. The Venetians, through Caterina, inherited Cyprus in 1489. Had Charlotte remained queen, Cyprus could have remained a Lusignan kingdom.
The ‘Did You Know’ series is made possible with the support of OPAP (Cyprus).