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Home > Going Out > Historical Places > Kyrenia > Bellapais Monastery

Bellapais Monastery / Bellapais Abbey

Gothic Bellapais Monastery also known as Bellapais Abbey belongs undoubtedly to one of the show places of North Cyprus. Positioned on the flanks of the Five-finger (Kyrenia) Mountains in the beautiful hillside village of Bellapais, it was a home to a former home of British writer Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990).

Getting there

To get to the village of Bellapais , follow the road eastwards of Kyrenia that branches at the crossroads on the outskirts of town and at the next crossroads drive straight. Take the road signposted for Ozanköy and Beylerbeyi (Bellapais) village . You will pass through the Altinakaya holiday complex and further on, the road branches to the right with Ozanköy (The village of the poets) straight ahead. The road to Bellapais is lined with impressive villas on both sides, all grandiose in its style. You will spot modern holiday homes sharply contrasting to old Cypriot houses that were left after 1974. Before entering the village itself you come across an army camp entrance to the right and the road climbs to the mountain to the southern slopes of the Besparmak range. On the road to the village in the passage on the left there is a small white Orthodox church, now converted to the village mosque. Parking is rather difficult, but there i s a small space 70 m past the abbey building down to the left with a huge carob tree.

Bellapais Monastery, CyprusBellapais Monastery, Cyprus

Opening hours

June - mid September daily 9.00 - 19.00
Mid September - May daily 9.00 - 17.00
Admission policies flexible, app. 5 YTL

Bellapais Abbey and its name

Bellapais Abbey derives its name from French Abbaye de la Paix which means " Abbey of Peace" . The monastery is one of the most peaceful and serene places on the island indeed. The Venetians corrupted the long-standing name, Abbaye de la Pais to De la Pais , from which it was easy elision to Béllapais .

History of Bellapais Abbey

The beauty of thirteen century French Gothic abbey of Bellapais was marked by several historic periods, each leaving significant traces on it.

French monks of Premontré

The abbey was originally established by St Mary of the Mountain just after 1200 by Augustinian canons fleeing their kingdom of Holy Land . Augustinians persuaded by Thierry, Archbishop of Cyprus, and a man behind the construction of Agia Sophia Cathedral (Selimiye Mosque) in Nicosia , they adopted the rule that arose in Premontré in northern France . Bellapais Abbey was also known as White Abbey because of the white habits worn by these monks. Under Thierry's guidance the abbey went prosperous, influential and made a fair reputation. It was even necessary for Pope Gregory IX in 1232 to remind the abbot of his canonical obedience and spend less time on secular affairs of state.

Prosperity under Lusignans

Soon Lusignan King Hugh III conferred on the abbot the right to wear a mitre, sword and golden spurs, which only puffed up the abbey's pretensions towards archbishopric of Nicosia . Moreover, in 1246 the abbey benefited from a large wealth left by a knight simply known as Roger the Norman who endowed them with a gift of a supposed fragment of the True Cross. This sacred relic made the abbey the focus of some distinguished wealthy pilgrims who would spend time in retreat and leave a generous remuneration at the end of their stay. Amassed in tremendous wealth, the abbey became a venue not only for worshippers, but also for royal family and nobility members. Under the rule of Hugh IV (1324-1359) the abbey continued on developing. Hugh IV, who was a devout catholic and an art promoter, was having great affection for Bellapais and spending much of his time constructing and renovating the monastic quarters. It was during his reign that the cloisters and the large refectory were built. The building was probably completed during the reign of Peter I and there was no further construction work thereafter.

Genoese and abbey decay

While the Lusignans dwelled in abbey and served good benefactors, the Genoese struck and overran the island in 1373. The abbey subsequently fell into disgrace. The treasury was smashed open and the abbey wealth looted including the piece of precious cross. The monastery became unhappily the victim of the onslaught and both moral and physical decline. The monks of the order dropped into promiscuity and never regained their former reputation. Taking only their wives and concubines, they would accept only their own children as novices. They let the abbey fall into decay and lived a life which was far from poverty and obedience.

Ottoman invasion

After the Ottomans invaded the island in 1570, they plundered the abbey leaving it slummy. Fate of the monks and their families being unknown, they probably got dispersed into nearby settlements. Apparently the village of Bellapais that grew up around the monastery became populated by descendants of the monks. Later the abbey was given to the Orthodox Church and it continued to serve for worship until 1974. Much of the monastic buildings later fell apart and the stones were used by the villagers for building of nearby cottages. The chambers that remained roofed served for farm implements and fodder stores, and sheep grazed in the cloisters.

Brits and after

Under British rule the abbey was put to little better handling as it served for the army, but still it suffered due to a human being. After 1960 repair work gradually began and up to the present day the abbey buildings have undergone a steady programme of restoration including repairs under the first curator of the Lapidary Museum in north Nicosia , George Jeffrey. What we can see today is a mixture of completion and destruction, still with some pieces of the monastery in excellent state of preserve.

Bellapais Abbey Tour

Promenade through which you approach is lined by palm trees that give the monastery an exotic atmosphere. Its elegant exterior depicts a harmonious blending of Gothic styles throughout the stages of its development. The main skeleton of the abbey has a square shape, with the church that has a small courtyard in front of it. This is defended by a machicolated gatehouse with drawbridge and in the south side of the buildings. Apart from the church, to the most preserved parts of the abbey belong cloisters in the middle, refectory and a common room with chapter house. Much of the periphery sections including main entrance, storerooms, lodgings and also the kitchen in the north-west corner, are all gone, the stone used elsewhere.

Refectory

In the northern section of the abbey is located the great refectory with six vaulted bays, lit at the eastern end by a small rose window. There are also bay windows from which there are splendid views across to the sea and the village of Ozanköy , with the olive groves below. In the north wall one can notice a pulpit with a stone spiral staircase, and scripture readings at meal times. Beneath each window is a drain through which the rubbish from tables after meals used to be swept away. On the southern side of this impressive room which is approximately 30 m long, 10 m wide and 11 m high, survive a line of high windows which look over the roof of the cloisters. Two doors open onto the cloisters and above the door at the west end are the carved coat of arms of the Lusignan monarchs as Kings of Jerusalem, Kings of Cyprus and the quarters of Jerusalem and Cyprus together. Situated at the doorway to the refectory and used by the monks as a washbasin were the two Roman sarcophagi, most highly recycled from Salamis . It is here where monks used to stop and wash their hands before meals. The upper sarcophagus was fitted with bungs or spigots, the holes for which are still evident, and the lower one has a drain hole for the waste water. During the late 1800s, British forces barbarically used the refectory as a shooting range, the bullet holes still visible in the east wall. These days it is used as a performance chamber for gathering, events and concerts, among which popular Bellapais Music Festival.

Bellapais Music Festival

Since 1996 the committee in charge of Bellapais have been organising International Bellapais Music Festival that usually takes place every year during May and June in and around Bellapais Abbey. Including staged classical and modern concerts, recitals and brass performances it hosts national and foreign artists. Prominent posters advertising the events are on display in and around Kyrenia, and elsewhere. For more inquiries please contact 0542 854 6417 or kktcb@north-cyprus.net

Cloisters

The cloister's courtyard lined with the robust cypresses that were planted by Durrell's Mr Kollis in the 1940s, is the monastery's most characteristic section. It survives almost complete, apart from the western side where it has fallen down or been pulled apart and now looks out onto a restaurant. The cloisters were built after the main church was completed in the end of the thirteenth century. The brackets at the base of the corbels are enlivened with both human and animal heads, and also with very neat foliar carvings. You can spot the night stair which is off the south side of the cloister and was used by monks for their night-time devotions without disturbing the other inhabitants of the monastery. It was via these stairs that they could reach the cloister roof, monk dormitory and the treasury. Today there is nothing left of the dormitory except the windows in the wall overlooking the cloister beside which is a small embrasure that was used for monks' belongings, like prayer books, crucifix or rosaries. There is very little to be seen in the treasury. The evidence of it makes the three cases built into the walls and the large hinges that held the doors. Two other staircases can lead you to the cloisters. One of them passes beneath the treasury room and the other from the south-west corner of the cloister roof.

Abbey Church

The entrance to a thirteenth-century church which is joined on the south of a cloister is from the courtyard off the village square. It was used by the Greek Orthodox community until its last members were forced to leave in 1976. Today it is open for visitors. There is an imposing porch with three bays. On the walls to both sides of the doorway are the remains of plaster and frescoes made by Italian artists probably in 15 th century. They portray prophets and the life of Christ, but are badly-preserved. The church being roughly of a square shape it has a nave, two aisles and transepts. If you enter the interior, it is much as the Greeks left it, with intricately carved pulpit and bishop's throne still intact in the dim glow of five fairly restrained chandeliers. Nave in the centre leads up steps to the choir and altar, while the aisles lead into arcaded transepts. The north transept reaches sacristy and the south one may have had a small altar at the eastern end. Over the entrance, a horse-shoe-shaped wooden yinaikonítis , the rib-vaulted ceiling is supported by four massive columns that became half columns at the transepts with thickly carved capitals. The addition of a women's gallery above the main doorway is the work of the Orthodox community. Iconostasis that has been also added, today divides the choir and altar from the main body of the church. Beneath the floor pavement several Lusignan kings are buried. A stairway outside leads to a rooftop parapet which is the best vantage point for the ruined chapter house to the east of the cloister and leads also to a small treasury.

Chapter house

From the eastern side of cloister the doors lead to chapter house and also common room. Above them was once the dormitory. Today both rooms have no roof. From the chapter house, which was sort of administration office were functioned the orders of the day. The shape of the room is square and contains seating round the sides and richly carved brackets which in by gone times supported the ribs for the roof. A central column that disappeared long time ago was in 1990s replaced by a hybridization of a marble column with mismatched capital that merely detracts from the Gothic carvings round the walls.

Common room

Next to the chapter house there is the common room where the monks would be warming up. No trace of fireplace but presumably it was against the wall between this room and the chapter house.

Undercroft or storehouse

The undercroft of the abbey which is actually the large storehouse underneath the refectory, takes the length of the north wall. Separated in two rooms, it is supported by a row of massive columns. You can access undercroft through the kitchen area down a staircase. It is here where the abbey community used to store the food. Since the temperature of undercroft was the same throughout the year, the victuals were preserved in good condition. Today visitors can find exhibitions there.

Kitchen court

Less well-preserved, on the west side of the abbey is situated the kitchen court. All the remains here are a few walls and a bit precarious section of wall onto which the more daring can climb for a better view.

Where to eat

After having a tour round the Gothic Bellapais monastery, you can enjoy delicious meal at the restaurants that are located within the precincts of the building. While relaxing in the restaurant and drinking a cool beer under the famous Tree of Idleness, you have best views on abbey and a chance to buy a souvenir.

Kybele restaurant

Tel.: + 90 392 815 7531

Huzur Agaç (Tree of Idleness) restaurant

Tel.: + 90 392 815 3380

Bellapais and Lawrence Durrell

Bellapais village apart from the monastery that was built within its boundaries is also well-known for a writer and novelist, Lawrence Durrell ( 1912-1990), who lived here between 1953 and 1956. It was in Bellapais where he finished Justine , the first volume of the Alexandria Quartet and enjoyed the life of a travel writer marked by the east Mediterranean . His now-popular book Bitter Lemons of Cyprus describes life in Cyprus . Besides village life he also portrays renovation of a house as well as village gossiping and intrigues. On a more sombre note he sounded the alarm bell for the troubles that were to ultimately cast over Cyprus not too many years ahead.

Tree of Idleness

So-called "Tree of Idleness" did not get its name by accident. It is said that villagers liked to spend hours and hours sitting under "Tree of Idleness" and idle the days away. However, throughout the whole book Bitter Lemons of Cyprus there is no mention about what kind of a tree it was. Today there are two trees that compete for this title. One is a leafy ancient, now-sickly mulberry tree overshadowing the coffee shop next to the Bellapais Abbey ticket booth and the other contender is a Japanese pagoda tree that casts its shadow over the eponymous Huzur Agaç (Tree of Idleness) restaurant. Fairly, both trees could qualify for the role pretty well as each of them attracts a crowd of onlookers. Still it is usually the mulberry under which the men of the village sit on their rustic chairs clutching a cold beer and play a game of backgammon. The picture is very much alike to Durrell's story in which villagers would just relax and enjoy the perfect weather. Whichever tree it is does not really matter since the story brings many visitors and remains a constant source of debate.

Durrell's House

To reach his house, which is still a private residence, head inland along the street to the right of the Huzur Agaç restaurant. Walk about 200 m straight and upwards the steep village street to get to it. The house will be on your left. This kind of road is not suitable for vehicular access. Buying and conversion of Durrell's house is basically a subject matter of his Bitter Lemons . The house is an evident conversion of a village cottage, showing an ornamental glazed ceramic plaque over the door saying: "Bitter Lemons: Lawrence Durrell lived here 1953-1956." But the plate can be easily missed. The track at the rear of the house makes a pleasant return route passing on the way a small complex of studios incorporating small bistro offering refreshment and snacks. Following the path downwards you will pass many old cottages abandoned or restored, each making unique atmosphere of a mountain village.

Shipwreck Museum

Bellapais Monastery

St. Hilarion Castle

Sourpmagar Monastery

Lambousa

Lapta

Kyrenia castle

Folk Arts Museum

Icon Museum

Kirsokava

Karmi Necropolis

Vrysi

Anthipanitis Church

Buffavento Castle

Hz. Omer Tomb

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