Hala Sultan Tekke: Thoughts on an Overlooked Cypriot Site

In the most recent fascicule of the Journal of Modern Greek Studies Nassos Papalexandrou offers a short study on the mosque of Hala Sultan Tekke outside of Larnaka (N. Papalexandrou, ” Hala Sultan Tekke, Cyprus: An Elusive Landscape of Sacredness in a Liminal Context,” JMGS 26 (2008) 251–281).  Our team at the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project visits the site every year, and I was regularly embarrassed by how little I knew of this impressive, picturesque, and curious site.  Papalexandrou’s article includes many interesting observations on the site, particularly from the perspective of early travelers, and I was vaguely heartened to learn how little people actually know.  His article sought to contextualize the monument within the dynamic religious landscape of the Larnaka area in the early modern period.  This is a valuable addition to our understanding of the religious landscape of Larnaka as well as a valuable methodological experiment as Papalexandrou sought to imagine a past for the mosque as a counterpoint to potentially simplistic observations made largely by non-local travelers or visitors with particular ideological or religious perspectives. Papalexandrou captures the ambivalence of sites like Hala Sultan Tekke by placing them within the shifting context of historical change, religious attitudes, and varying perspectives of textual sources.

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This article will definitely appear among our regular reading for PKAP, in part because it offers a nice method for reading the dynamic religious landscape of Larnaka today.  To Papalexandrou’s thorough reading, I can add five additional observations:

1) Papalexandrou rightly highlighted the various polarities that enveloped the mosque of Hala Sultan Teke.  The main polarity in the context of this mosque was the distinct Christian and Muslim religious places.  But his resistance to polarities could be extended to very notion of well defined sacred and profane places within the landscape.  It may be that the concept of “holiness” works better in a pre-modern world.  It is clear, for example, that Hala Sultan Tekke was a holy spot in a very rich sacred landscape.  The Larnaka Salt Lake itself, for example, formed part of a sacred landscape as it origins were deeply embedded in Christian miracle stories.  The nearby Stavrovouni, “Cross Mountain”, amplified the sanctity of the monastery on its peak which held the fragment of the True Cross given by St. Helena.  So, as Papalexandrou demonstrates, the mosque itself is not just a sacred place (in a profane world) but a holy place in a landscape where the profane was not only absent, but unlike to exist at all.

2) Papalexandrou brings out the liminal nature of the mosque.  One of the standard stories told at the mosque today is how Muslim ship captains would fire off their cannons when they came in sight of the mosque as a sign of respect.  Today, the mosque is situated on the main road from the Larnanka airport (the main airport in the Republic of Cyprus) to the city of Larnaka.  Thus the mosque continues to stand in a liminal place as it appears not only on the outskirts of the city of Larnaka but between the city and the airport (a site often reserved in other places for all kinds of transient and marginal activities: storage, traveler’s hotels, duty-free zones, maintenance, et c.).  The liminality of the site is further echoed by the nearby Bronze Age site of the same name which has been regarded as an important ancient harbor.  Thus, the more recent mosque is situated within a landscape of liminality that stretches from antiquity to the modern period.

3) Papalexandrou did not mention that behind the mosque and its elaborate grave is a tree bedecked with strips of cloth (these are sometimes called “Wishing Trees”).  This traditional Eastern Mediterranean practice dates to antiquity and is exactly the kind of religious practice that transcends simple polarities between Christian and Muslim, sacred and profane, formal ritual and informal practices.  In fact, the same practice occurs at the site of Throni tis Panayia in the Troodos mountains and is sometimes associated with the grave of the Archbishop Makarios (a polarizing figure).

4) In the city of Larnaka, the church of Ay. Lazaros and the nearby mosque of Büyük Cami both have interesting relationships with the kinds of polarities that Papalexandrou sought to explore in the narrative of Hala Sultan Tekke. In the case of Ay. Lazaros, the church functioned as a Catholic monastery during the Frankish rule on the island (another tradition has that it was used by the local Armenian Uniate population) before functioning perhaps only briefly as a mosque and then being returned to Orthodox population.  Even then, the Orthodox and local Catholic population had an agreement to share the building during various times of the month (this phenomenon is recorded by various travelers).  Less than 200 m toward the coast the Büyük Cami mosque preserves a tradition of similar religious ambiguity.  Several guides claim that the building was the former church of the Holy Cross.  While this is possible, there is no obvious evidence of this transformation form the architecture of the building.  A guess would be that this story developed as much from the traditions of religious ambivalence characteristic of holy sites within Larnaka as any real evidence for the building’s transformation.  Similar stories occur regularly for the location of Early Christian churches on former pagan holy sites.

5) The final, interesting aspect of the Hala Sultan Tekke site is that its restoration was funded by USAID and UNDP.  The funding of projects like the restoration of the mosque is not without political overtones.  The careful preservation and restoration of a Muslim site in the Republic of Cyprus could easily be read in contrast to the reported looting and destruction of Christian churches in the north.  It serves as a useful reminder that polarities of the type described by Papalexandrou are, indeed, politically constructed.

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