The present day name is the corrupt form of the Abbaye de la Paix' or the Abbey of Peace. The building is regarded as a masterpiece of Gothic art, and the most beautiful Gothic building in the Near East.
The first monks who were known to have settled here were Augustinians who had to flee from Jerusalem when the city fell to Selahaddin Eyyubi in 1187. It is known that the original construction was built between 1198-1205, and a large part of the present day complex was constructed during the rule of French King Hugh III (1267-1284). The cloisters and the refectory were built during the reign of Hugh IV (1324-1359). Following the Ottoman conquest the monks were turned out and the building was given to the Greek Orthodox Church. The monastery begins with a gate, whose tower is a kater addition, and a forecourt. The church which is situated on one side of the courtyard is the best preserved part of the monument and dates from the 13th century. The murals which have survived above its facade are thought to be from the 15th century. The forecourt leads to cloisters of 18 arches. Under one of the northern arches there are two Roman sarcophagi which once served as lavabo. The door being the sarcophagus leads to the refectory of the monks. The marble lintel above the door contains the set of coats of armas of the royal quarterings of Cyprus, Jerusalem and the Lusignans. This is an exquisite sample of Gothic architecture and the finest room in the monastery. The room contains a pulpit for addressing the monks during their meals. Six windows in the north wall which illuminate the room are reinforced by a rose window in the eastern wall. A door in the western wall leads to the kitchen and cellar built under the refectory. The rooms between the refectory and kitchen are thought to have once served as lavatories. The east side of the inner courtyard was occupied by the chapter house and work rooms (undercroft). The first of these functioned as the administration office of the abbey and retains its interesting Gothic stone carving: a man with a double ladder on his back, another man represented between two sirens, a woman reading, two beasts attacking a man, a woman with a rosary, a monkey and a cat in the foliage of a pear tree under which a man holding a shield is seen, and a monk wearing a cloak. The column standing at its centre is thought to have come from an early Byzantine church. The rooms of the monks occupied the second floor above this section. A pair of stairs on the south of the inner courtyard lead to the treasury room in the North-west corner of the monastery.
The beauty of Bellapais is legendary. When Lawrence Durrell bought a house here, he felt “guilty of an act of fearful temerity in trying to settle in so fantastic a place”. Set in the mountains just ten minutes above Girne, this magnificent 14th-century Crusader abbey with its fabulous location and pervasive atmosphere of calm is a must-see.
Those who knew Bellapais before the 1950s speak disparagingly of the encroaching commercialisation of the abbey. There are indeed several cafes and souvenir shops beside the abbey, and even a restaurant inside it, but they can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and the narrow streets of the village will scarcely permit more than this. Parking can sometimes be a little tricky as a result, though there is also a large open parking area just beyond the abbey. Beware of sitting under the famous Tree of Idleness, an ancient mulberry by the abbey entrance, lest you are struck down with the indolence for which the villagers are famed. Bellapais, Durrell was told, was synonymous with laziness and the villagers lived for so long that even the gravedigger was out of a job.
At least two hours should be allowed for the visit, starting from Girne, and the most special time is sunset, when the place is alive with the glowing silhouettes of arches. “The dawns and the sunsets in Cyprus,” wrote Durrell, “are unforgettable – better even than those of Rhodes which I always believed were unique in their slow Tiberian magnificance.” Durrell himself would frequently see the dawn, for when he ran out of money for renovating his house, he took a job teaching English in a Lefko?a school which meant he had to get up at 04.30.
Any time from mid-morning to late afternoon should be avoided if at all possible, as the abbey is swamped with tour parties and the seductive atmosphere of calm is lost amidst a frenzy of clicking camera shutters. If, however, you have no other means of transport such a tour may be your only option of reaching the village. In this instance, it should be noted that most buses eject passengers near the army camp, leaving a long uphill trek of about ten to 15 minutes to reach the abbey itself.
Entry to the abbey is by ticket and the kiosk is open 09.00-19.00. If you are especially fortunate, your visit may coincide with one of the concerts occasionally held in the abbey refectory: a more picturesque musical backdrop is hard to imagine. Later, after a stroll, you could stay on for dinner at one of the nearby restaurants, and soak up the abbey, illuminated in its own surrealistic halo. Sipping wine on the terrace, you may wonder if you are hallucinating as a tractor trundles by towing a grand piano.
The annual Bellapais Music Festival is held in May and June and continues to gather momentum, attracting a diverse range of classical performers from as far afield as Taiwan, Korea and Macedonia. Tickets are generally available in the village at Hotel Bellapais Gardens as well as the abbey ticket office, and in Girne at the Green Jacket Bookshop, Dome Hotel and Deniz Plaza. If the concert isn't sold out, tickets can also be bought on the door. If you can get in to a recital, the atmosphere and location are likely to rival anything you may have experienced elsewhere.
Touring Bellapais Abbey
“Bellapais” is actually a corruption of “Abbaye de la Paix”, or Abbey of Peace. Climbing the 5km drive from Girne through olive and carob groves and ever-increasing development, few are prepared for the vista that hits them as they round the last corner before Bellapais village. There, rising up from the mountain on its natural terrace, like a mirage, is the Gothic masterpiece of the island, and indeed of all the Levant. Rarely has a place so lived up to its name, for this remarkable 14th-century abbey is imbued with a sense of tranquillity and peace so powerful it is almost tangible. The road winds through the narrow streets of Bellapais village to reach the tiny square in front of the abbey. From here the path leads in from the ticket kiosk past the main entrance of the church to the abbey enclosure through a pretty and colourful garden, to what was once the abbey kitchen, and is now a restaurant and cafe, tastefully tucked into the side and with excellent views of the abbey and down over the coastline. In the abbey courtyard, the fine pencilled cypress trees, “emblems of grief and eternity” as eminent travel writer Colin Thubron called them, were planted only in 1940, but now they are home to hundreds of sparrows whose incessant chirping is usually the only sound to greet you as you enter.
Thoughtfully placed at the refectory door, by the lovely tracery windows of the cloister, lies a fine white marble sarcophagus of the 2nd century AD, carved with dainty figures and foliage. Here, the fastidious monks would wash their hands before meals. The first monks here were Augustinians, displaced from their custody of the Hold Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem by the arrival of Saladin in 1187. Fleeing with them were some canons of the Order of St Norbert, whose white habits lent Bellapais its other name of the White Abbey. Initially, the strictness of the abbey was exemplary, and converts were drawn from far afield.
Gradually, however, worldly values began to infiltrate. The mellow beauty of the abbey was not the natural bedfellow of asceticism, as Thubron wryly observed on his first visit: “The spirit here feels more like a ripe fruit than a soldier of God”. Stories of the monks' misdeeds gathered momentum, as they took not just one, but two and three wives, and would accept only their own sons as novices. By the time the Genoese arrived in 1373, the abbey was ripe for pillaging, and much of its treasure was abducted. The Ottoman invasion of the 16th century destroyed more of the abbey, but the Turks allowed the Greeks to use the church after the monks were driven out. The abbey church in fact continued to be used as the village church until 1974.
Prior to the Ottoman takeover, the village of Bellapais had scarcely existed, but its numbers were swelled by the sudden influx of Greeks fleeing Kyrenia. The daughters of the monks also played their role in the growing population.
Though the church was still used, the abbey itself was a ruin from the 16th century onwards, for what the Turks did not destroy, the arriving Greeks plundered as a most convenient quarry for building their new houses. Early travellers observed cows grazing in the cloisters. The British army made its contribution by using the place as a military hospital after 1878, cementing over the refectory floor.
This refectory, with its lovely fan-vaulted ceiling and perfect proportions, must have been one of the finest dining halls in the East. Carved into the thickness of the wall is a pulpit from which the monks were addressed throughout meals. High on the end wall, a rose window casts an attractive patterned light. On the marble lintel above the entrance, are three well-carved sets of coats of arms – the prancing lions of the Lusignans on the right, Jerusalem in the centre, and the royal quarterings of Cyprus on the left. The abbey church, which runs the length of the cloister on the opposite side of the refectory, is still used now for occasional services, and has been opened to the public again, revealing the lovely iconostasis (wooden partition separating the nave from the altar area) and wooden carving on the pulpits. Pre-1974 accounts describe it as remarkably unchanged from its original 13th-century structure, apart from the iconostasis which was added by the Greek Orthodox Church in the 16th century.
There are three stairways up to the abbey roof: one is near the church entrance on the garden side, and the other two are long straight vaulted staircases running up on the church side of the cloister. One of these latter was the nightstair, used by the monks to come down from their dormitories at midnight for prayers. Today the roof forms an excellent viewing and vantage point from which to look down on the cloister with its melancholy cypresses and colourful garden, and across to the sea beyond.
From the car park behind the abbey to the east, you have the best view of the heavily ruined undercroft with its simple vaulting and damaged rose window to the north. Beside it in the southeast corner, is the chapter house, used like an administration office for the abbey, which merits closer inspection because of its eccentric Gothic stone carving, featuring wriggling sirens, monsters embracing or fighting, and a monkey and cat in the foliage of a pear tree.
The village of Bellapais still boasts a fair number of foreigners among its residents, especially in the newer villas that have grown up on the outskirts. Its closeness to Girne and natural beauty and tranquillity make it an obvious choice, and its image and popularity were certainly enhanced by Lawrence Durrell's purchase of a house here in 1953, and his subsequent book about the island and its troubles, Bitter Lemons, published in 1957. Durrell's house still stands at the top of the steep road that runs up from the Tree of Idleness, opposite the 1953 water trough, and is now the poshest house in the village, lovingly restored and superbly maintained by the current owner. The well-designed Ambelia village self-catering complex was built nearby in 1973, and more recently the sprawling village of Ozanköy beneath Bellapais has also become fashionable for foreigners purchasing and converting traditional homes. However, even Bellapais is not immune to the growing spread of modern construction and even on an otherwise tranquil morning you're likely to hear a jackhammer somewhere close by.
Those with accommodation in Bellapais may be interested to know that the village has two car-rental agencies, together with a couple of smaller bars and the Tatlisulu grocery shop. A gentle stroll through the backstreets will reveal these and other places of interest. Keep an eye out for Nirvana Bar, a simple place offering toasted sandwiches and salads, a local hotbed of campaigning to counter the Greek Cypriot propaganda on the never-ending land rights issue.