MYRTOU, Cyprus — Seyfi Tunelci long watched in sorrow as the derelict Orthodox Christian monastery at Myrtou in Cyprus’ overwhelmingly Muslim north crumbled before his eyes.
Now he’s part of an island-wide team toiling to repair the medieval building and dozens of other Christian and Muslim sites that fell into ruin during decades of ethnic division.
“Every stone that fell off the church hit a nerve inside me,” Tunelci said beside the scaffolding-encased monastery of Agios Panteleimonas, where he and around 20 other Turkish Cypriot townsfolk have spent months working to shore up the chapel walls, roof and belfry, stone by stone.
Like many Turkish Cypriots, 62-year-old Tunelci fled north in 1974 when Cyprus was divided amid a Turkish invasion into a breakaway north and an ethnically Greek, internationally recognized south.
The construction worker sees today’s European Union-funded cultural reclamation efforts as important to rebuild a sense of cross-community tolerance, common heritage — perhaps even eventual reunification.
Since 2008 a committee drawn jointly from both parts of Cyprus has identified monuments of cultural significance, mostly deserted centers of worship, to be resurrected.
“It must be like this, because if they collapse, we would be angry at one another,” Tunelci said. “But if we rebuild them, we will be friends again.”
The monastery, named after an early Christian saint renowned as a faith healer, traces its foundation to the 5th Century. After its monks and parishioners joined thousands of Greek Cypriots fleeing south in 1974, a Turkish army garrison moved in, followed by legions of pigeons and snakes.
Agios Panteleimonas became one of hundreds of Christian sites, including cemeteries, abandoned to vandals in the north, while scores of abandoned mosques and other Islamic sites in the south fell into a similar state of decay.
“These monuments should not be the monuments of the other ethnic group anymore,” said Ali Tuncay, a Turkish Cypriot businessman on the Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage, as the project organizers are known. “They are our common heritage which should be protected and preserved for future generations.”
Tuncay says their crowning achievement so far has been an inter-faith agreement to restore the Apostolos Andreas Monastery on Cyprus’ northeast Karpas Peninsula.
The site honors St. Andrew, one of Jesus’ disciples, who reputedly brought forth a miraculous spring on the spot for the salvation of passing sailors.
Christians and Muslims alike made the site a popular point of pilgrimage and worship until partition 42 years ago. Year-old reconstruction efforts are being funded directly by the two primary Muslim and Orthodox Christian authorities on Cyprus, not the EU, in an effort expected ultimately to cost 6 million euros ($6.5 million).
The committee has identified 40 sites for initial repair, followed by 80 more. Among the Muslim sites on the Greek Cypriot side already restored are four mosques, an Ottoman water mill and a hammam — a heated bathhouse.
“We have managed to learn about each other better, to trust each other, to learn each other’s history,” said Takis Hadjidemetriou, a Greek Cypriot politician on the committee.
He spoke on the site of a restored mosque in the village of Deneia, which lies within the United Nations-supervised demilitarized zone.
Hadjidemetriou said he has gained greater appreciation for each side’s emotional connection both to houses of worship and secular historical sites, particularly a Venetian-era sandstone fort in Famagusta that provided the climactic setting for William Shakespeare’s Othello.
Since the 14th Century the citadel has loomed over Famagusta, Cyprus’ eastern port. It fell to the Turkish side in 1974 and experienced decades of decay. Restoration works costing 1 million euros ($1.1 million) were completed last year.
Back in Myrtou, archeologists and engineers are planning how best to reclaim a monastery hit by erosion, water damage and occupiers’ destructive whitewashing of medieval frescoes. The hidden ceiling artworks had depicted the lives of saints and other biblical scenes relevant both to Christianity and Islam.
“These buildings are the real history of the Cypriot people, Turks and Greeks, together,” said Salih Onkal, a United Nations Development Program engineer overseeing the reconstruction.
The first phase of work, supported by 725,000 euros ($800,000) in EU funds, seeks to reinforce sandstone walls in a compound that includes a church, monks’ residences and guesthouses. Onkal said he hopes to use original timbers, sandstone blocks and mud bricks to restore the monastery to its pre-partition splendor.
Tuncay, observing the effort, said U.N. officials considered Cyprus’ cultural reconstruction program a model of potential use in other religiously divided societies, including Kosovo.
“We’re a light amid darkness that provides an example to others,” Tuncay said. “We’re showing the people that culture can be a tool for building trust and cooperation.”