By Heidi Trautmann
One day in the future, my presence here in Cyprus may form a tiny part in the history of the country just like all the other foreign nationals who have left their marks here; perhaps I will end up as a file in the National Archive and people of the future will come and read about my works or about you. Nothing written and published is lost. Newspapers and magazines are kept and catalogued from the moment they are published and people can come and do research on me or you. We have not lived in vain, we have added something. A great feeling.
For many years, I have passed this beautiful old house embedded in a great park-like garden, where since 1975 the National Archive and Research Centre is housed. A house with a history of its own, built in a modern architectural style which was new at its time of construction by the Michaelides brothers. The house belonged to an uncle of Rita Severis’ husband; Rita is a writer, journalist, art historian and philosopher, known for her excellent book “Travelling artists in Cyprus 1700-1960”. Niki Marangou, a friend of hers, a well known poet herself, tells me of her memories in this house… “Christodoulous Severis, the owner, was a friend of my father and I remember the lovely summer lunches we often had in the garden…”. That must have been in the 1950s, 60s. When you look carefully, you can still discover the beauty of the construction under the enormous heaps of documents laid out on tables and shelves for cataloguing.
A friend, Nazif Bozatlı, who knows everybody in Cyprus it seems to me, and who himself has one of the biggest private photo archives on Cyprus, came with me to help with the interpreting, when I followed the invitation of Gökhan Sengör, the director of the National Archive for ten years now. He is a librarian and did his Master’s degree on Ottoman paleographics and archiving and the pride he takes in this institution is quite obvious. During the hours of our visit as I watched him pulling out precious books and files with an expression of love in his eyes, the impression dawned on me that he knows literally every single document there. When he took over in 2000, there were but five co-workers, now they have 12 plus 2 watchmen and two watch dogs.
“The National Archive and Research Centre was established in 1971 – and at that time was housed in the old Presidential offices in Lefkosa, the barracks along the walls of the old city right next to the Kyrenia Gate. I tell you, it was high time that we started preserving our own past in a proper document centre, and in 1975 we moved to the current house in Kyrenia. Old rare books and documents were brought together from other libraries in order to start centralizing, and slowly the flood of documents was put into order.” I learn that other normal books are kept in the National Library in Lefkosa; only rare books are housed here in the National Archive.
Niki Marangou had told me of her uncle Mitsos (Demetrios) Marangos’ famous private library in Famagusta. He had spent all his money on rare books, mainly the itineraries of pilgrims to the Holy Land and when in 1974 he had to leave everything behind, he never found out what had happened to his books until his death. Niki had come to Kyrenia after the opening of the checkpoints in 2003 to try her luck to find some of them in the National Archive and she did, which made her happy to know that they were well preserved. Many others she bought back from people, often torn and damaged.
Gökhan Sengör took us through the whole house, up to the rooms under the roof. Most of the rooms in the main house still don’t have air and humidity control – only some of the rooms where the most precious documents and books are kept. And what books!
Gökhan explains the periods of which documents are archived. 1570-1878 Ottoman Period; 1878-1960 English Colonial Period; 1960 – 1963 Republic of Cyprus Period; 1964 – 1983 Turkish Administration Period and from 1983 onward TRNC Period.
It was only in 2009 that old Ottoman documents inscribed in beautiful calligraphy were discovered, of which I was made aware by an artist friend. They are originals from the period 1820 to 1840, the period of Sultan Mahmud II.
“There is a continuous flow of documents coming in, people who die and leave their documents to us, or relatives come who have inherited them and want to donate or sell them. We are not free to spend money on these, but we can apply for it from the Government.”
In the centre of the main house are the director’s office, the reception and the research centre. In the reading room, I find visitors sitting with newspapers, files and books in front of them and we greet Tuncer Bagiskan, an archaeologist who has recently published a voluminous book on Ottoman, Islamic and Islamized Monuments in Cyprus. He is a regular guest here. Other regulars are researchers from universities, writers and journalists, students; in an annexed house they have hosted scientists from Turkey who are going through the archives there. You only have to show your ID card and give a key word or the number of a file and the archive’s employees will find them for you. There are rules and regulations to abide by, but you may study there and have copies made for your own research work.
To give an idea of the wide field of archives, Gökhan counted up for us a list of archived documents: Official laws and orders, official press releases, Müfti orders, Kyrenia municipality documents up to 1974, transport and harbour matters, land registration and documents, court cases 1879 - 1990, building files; old Cyprus maps – 1881 from Lord Kitchener, all kept in a heavy drawer cabinet-safe, donated by the Anglo Turkish Association I read from the label affixed to it. Most of it is already catalogued. The documents of all the periods mentioned above are kept in different rooms with shelves up to the ceiling. There are collections of rare books and manuscripts, books by Graziani, the archaeologist, for example; the complete collection of works by Lord Byron; beautiful hand painted books and folio volumes from the Ottoman period. Unbelievable! As I already mentioned there are magazines and newspapers, also Greek Cypriot ones; there are posters and photos, and still more arrive by the day.
Gökhan Sengör takes us to the annexed buildings which have air and humidity control. In one we find the court cases – criminal cases 1879 -1988 – and we find the “Queen” of this building, as all call her, reigning over the many shelves and for years working, sorting and archiving the files. She speaks Greek and knows all about the court cases, and she finds the most extraordinary curiosities in them. But her mouth is shut, she says.
In the other building, a pavilion of old days, are all the precious books and manuscripts where we spend a lot of time and where I am not allowed to use flash, so my photos of that place are a little shaky.
Methods of archiving are being modernized. There is a huge scanner with a capacity of 35 megabytes; there are digitally processed archives in 8 boxes of 24 terabytes. In the cellar, I find workshops for bookbinding, huge cutting machines, microfilm processors and so on.
But the highlight, I can see in Gökhan’s eyes, is the big hole at the back of the property: the construction site for the new building which is planned to provide 1650 sq m and 10 km of shelves. At the moment they have 3 km of shelves in the present buildings. It is an absolute necessity, Gökhan says, our buildings cannot hold any more. This project is the peak of his career and his long awaited dream.
When we closed the doors behind us, I cast a last glance back on the National Archive building, and realize for certain that this experience will open quite a few new doors of insight for me.