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The Forgotten Queens of Cyprus

Updated: Aug 31


Cypriots are very proud of their cultural heritage, which stretches back more than 9000 years. How could it be different with such a long history and multicultural civilization. An island tucked into the Mediterranean Sea at the far eastern end of Europe. On a recent visit there I became acquainted with some of these fascinating ladies.

The beautiful Goddess of Love emerging naked from the water around Cyprus had to be the first Queen. She had been created from the foam of the sea caused by Cronus castrating his father Uranus and throwing his genitals into the water. What a description? I think I prefer Botticelli’s ideal of feminine beauty rising naked on a seashell. But the myth of Aphrodite lingers strongly today as you can bath in her waterfall or swim around the enormous rock on the beach Agios Tychonas near Paphos and claim some of her beauty.

Then there was Cleopatra – yes, Egypt is not far away. Cleopatra’s name literally translates from Greek as “the Glory of her Father”. And her life certainly did not lack glory. Cleopatra was renowned not only for her divine beauty, mythical wealth and extravagant lifestyle, but also for her political wit, which she skillfully employed in maintaining her kingdom’s independence. She ruled for almost three decades! Cleopatra was the last monarch in the line of the Greek dynasty of the Ptolemies to rule Egypt. Around 40 BC, Roman General Mark Antony gifted the island of Cyprus to Queen Cleopatra of Egypt. Upon her first meeting with Antony, Cleopatra dressed like Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty to seduce the Roman General.

Did you know that Cyprus is the only foreign venue where an English Royal Wedding was hosted? On May 12, 1191, King Richard I married Berengaria of Navarre. The couple were married in the Chapel of St. George in Limassol and after, Berengaria was then crowned the Queen of England.

Queen Eleanora of Aragon was Queen of Cyprus as the wife of King Peter and Regent when her husband in 1366 went off to the Crusades against Alexandria and Levantine ports. Eleonora was dynamic, ruthless, a schemer, radiant, and fiery. She is famous for her love and passions, one of which was titular Count of Edessa John of Morf. When her husband charged her with adultery in 1369, he became somewhat of a tyrant, leading ultimately to his assassination. Eleanora sought to avenge his death and she invited the Republic of Genoa to invade Cyprus, she soon realized that the Genoese did not come to help her, but to occupy and it ended with her eventual downfall. Her son Peter II, also known as Peter the Fat, sent her back to Spain due to her poor decisions on his behalf.

Then there was the beautiful young bride of Venice, Caterina Cornaro, Caterina was born into one of the most noble and influential Venetian families and grew up in her family's palace on the Grand Canal. She and King James II were married by proxy in St Mark’s Cathedral on 30 July 1468 when Caterina was only 14 years old. She set sail for Cyprus four years later to finally meet her husband. James, however, died a mere ten months after the two met, leaving the heavily pregnant queen consort to become regent to her newborn son James III. Tragedy struck the young queen again on 26 August 1474 when her son and last legitimate heir to the Lusignan line died. The child’s passing left Caterina as queen regent, a role she would hold for 16 years.

The life of Caterina Cornaro could easily be the plot of a novel or a movie drama. One of the most significant women of Venice’s golden age, Cornaro was an important figure in Renaissance politics, diplomacy and arts. She reigned as the queen of Cyprus under immense pressure. Thrust into a position of power and prestige through the title, Caterina was immediately the center of various intrigues within the court. She survived conspiracies from within to overthrow her and without with the pressures from Naples and the Papal state. She stood against the Spanish, as well as the Venetians who wanted to force her to surrender the Isle of Cyprus. She came to Cyprus known as the Royal Pawn, but Caterina Queen of Cyprus resisted for 16 years and amazingly reigned alone. Finally, the Republic of Venice brought her to surrender the island for financial reasons, but her subjects cried as she left, for she was well loved. She left a legacy that is still flourishing today, Venetian lace making passed on to the local Cypriot women in the mountainous village of Lefkara.

Caterina Cornaro came back to Venice in exchange for the sovereignty of the town of Asolo, where she founded a literary circle attended to by the most important humanists of the time. Under Caterina, it became a flourishing court for Late Renaissance art and learning. If you want to pay homage to this extraordinary woman who, in a time when male power was absolute, was able to impose her choices and keep her privileges, pay a visit to the church of San Salvador in Venice, where you will see her grave decorated with a magnificent Renaissance monument that depicts in its central frieze, Caterina Cornaro relinquishing the isle of Cyprus to the Doge Barbarigo. I plan to do just that on my next trip to Venice.

According to locals, in the late 15th century Leonardo da Vinci visited Cyprus and was so impressed with the craftsmanship that he took a Lefkara Lace tablecloth back to Italy with him, which reputedly was used in his painting of the The Last Supper. Though that is still in the realm of possibility, it surely inspired the artist. He did donate the tablecloth to the Duomo Cathedral in Milan for the alter. On the 600-year anniversary, Lefkara residents embroidered another large lace tablecloth in 1986 and gave it to the Milan Cathedral to carry on the tradition, where it remains to this day.

Another perhaps unknown story is that of Queen Elizabeth was bestowed a similar lace tablecloth in 1953. Seven Lefkara women worked to complete the same Leonardo da Vinci design tablecloth and offered it as a gift to the Queen of England for her coronation. Appropriately, an embryoid crown was in the center. I was told that the British Crown returned the gift as the Cypriot political situation got dicey as they strived for their independence in 1960.

Perhaps not a Queen of royal title, but definitely in the sentiments of her village, Elli Chrysoulla and her family have done a noble thing - carrying on the tradition of village life. Agrotourism is at the heart of Katos Drys. Elli, her husband, and their wonderful daughter turned a 300-year-old multi-level mansion into a museum full of old real-life stories and traditions, from Bee Keeping to embroidery. Each room and level, takes you back generations. You walk through an incredible garden filled with orange, lemon, plum and olive trees, as well as flowers of every kind. Garden Kamara House was built in 1917 and has been fully renovated to include modern amenities while still respecting its original architectural style. The house offers lovely ensuite rooms for unique Agrotourism stays. This rural tourism offers visitors to really get to know the locals, experience the village life and taste authentic cuisine. Your breakfast here at Garden Kamara House is extraordinary - fit for any Queen.


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