It is generally accepted that the carnival, as we know it today is a product of a long evolutionary process with its roots in the distant pre-Christian past. Medieval popular feasts played a pivotal part in the making of the modern carnival. Through transgressive celebrations like the medieval ‘feast of fools’, ordinary people mocked and indirectly questioned the authority of the Church and feudal lords. Such feasts possibly influenced carnival celebrations in Cyprus, when the island was being governed by the Lusignan.
The Venetians, the next overlords of Cyprus were, of course, known for their extravagant carnival celebrations. According to Sir George Hill, the Carnival was celebrated at the time Catherine Cornaro was preparing to leave Cyprus. Hill writes that on the 26th of February 1489, Carnival Thursday, after the celebration of a solemn mass of the Holy Spirit in the palace, a standard of St Mark was presented by Catherine to the Venetian Captain-General as representative of the Signory.
The carnival is also connected to the festive season that occurs before the Lent season and is closely connected to a period of feasting that immediately precedes the period of fasting. Traditionally, dressing up had been part of such feasts. In the early days, people with humble means used whatever they could find to dress up: using charcoal to darken their faces, wrapping their heads with textiles and animal furs and wearing makeshift masks.
The emergence of a wealthy bourgeoisie of mostly Limassolians that espoused a Western European way of life was instrumental for the inception of the modern Cypriot carnival. In the end of the 19th century, Carnival balls started being held and people in costume walked in parades on the streets of the city. From 1916 Limassol had already become a centre of carnival celebration with the city becoming crowded with people parading in costume, a precedent for the modern parade.
The Limassol carnival parade gradually became more and more extravagant with the introduction of the carnival ‘chariots.’ At the heart of the Limassol carnival celebrations were the committees upholding the spirit for the carnival and sponsoring prizes for the best costumes.
In the photograph by Edmond Torikian seen below, the inscription on their chariot says: ‘the committee in hell’, which is perhaps a comment on the wild, unruly and ‘sinful’ carnival atmosphere. There were also many carnival balls in clubs and hotels around Cyprus. A very popular carnival ball in Nicosia was the one at Ledra Palace, from which most of this week’s photographs come from.