The Anonymity of a Prominent Woman in Eighteenth Century Cyprus

Paschalis M. Kitromilides
Translated by Panayotis League
Our knowledge of the dragoman of Cyprus, Christofakis Konstantinou, was until fairly recently limited to two allusions in historical sources of the eighteenth century to his violent death on Easter 1750, and to the pictorial evidence of his sponsorship of the reconstruction and wall–painting of the chapel of Saint George on the estate of Arpera near the village Tersefanou in the borough of Larnaca. The first record of Christofakis’ death on April 15, 1750 is by the archimandrite Kyprianos, who mentions the event while telling of the beastly deeds of Hadji–Bakki, the one–eyed Ottoman tyrant of Cyprus. [1] The other, more dramatic record comes from the chronicle of the monastery of Pallouriotissa’s chancellor, Ioachim (Myrianthopoulos 1934:52):
The late Dragoman Christofakis
Was killed by the Turks on Holy Sunday
As he made his way to the holy church
In order to hear the good news;
In the middle of the road they attacked him
And he died.
The wall painting of the donors of the church of Arpera (Fig. 1) is more eloquent than the written testimonies. It presents Christofakis offering the church to Saint George with the members of his large family, eight people in all, by his side. The accompanying inscriptions reveal to us that the family was even larger, because they also mention the names of children who had died at a young age, names which are repeated in the list of their younger siblings. The wall painting, the work of the well–known Cypriot iconographer Filaretos (Hatzidakis and Drakopoulou 1997:443–444), [2] is the most impressive depiction of donors in Cypriot art of the eighteenth century. It was noticed quite early by David Talbot Rice and Tamara Rice (1937:136, Table 16) and published by Andreas and Judith Stylianou in their study on the church of Saint George of Arpera (Stylianou and Stylianou 1972:149–164; 1997:440–446; Gkioles 2003:263, 267–268). Andreas and Judith Stylianou also publish the inscriptions which accompany the wall painting of the donors. From these we learn that Christofakis “built the church himself from its foundations and decorated it at personal expense” in 1745, in order to thank Saint George, who was his “tireless helper” and “ever–ready deliverer from exile.”
Figure 1, photographs by the author.
Another inscription, which accompanies the wall painting of the dedicators, repeats the gratitude to Saint George for Christofakis’ deliverance from exile and begs him to intercede on his behalf:
At the prothesis of the church another inscription, on a scroll held by an angel, gives us the names of all these supplicants to Saint George, living and dead, clarifying that they are indeed Christofakis and his children; mentioned are sixteen living and nine deceased. The observer of the dedicators’ wall painting and reader of the inscription at the prothesis is struck by the unexplained absence of any mention of Christofakis’ wife. The builder prays on behalf of himself, his childred, living and deceased, and his parents, but mentions nothing of his wife. This silence makes an impression on Andreas and Judith Stylianou, who hypothesize that the elder woman who appears in the wall painting in between the younger girls could be identified with Christofakis’ mother or sister and suppose that, since a spouse is not mentioned, perhaps she had already died.
This was the general picture of Christofakis and his family in the bibliography of eighteenth century Cypriot history (Intianos 1938:153–155; Hill 1952:94–95; Kitromilidis 1992:19–21). The first well–known dragoman of the eighteenth century remained a somewhat distant and tragic figure; a figure, however, with whom the great era of Cypriot dragomany essentially begins, an era that was chiefly marked by the actions of Christofakis’ successors, the all–powerful Hatziyosif, “almost a monarch to the Greeks” (Kyprianos 1788:327), and the famed Hatzigeorgakis Kornesios, who also fell victim to the tyrannical violence of the authorities.
The enigmatic figure of Christofakis should now be able to emerge from the shadows of the church of Arpera and become somewhat more discernible as an historical figure, thanks to many years of research on his activities in Cypriot society during the second half of the eighteenth century. This research, which began in 1976 (Manousakas 1976:333–334) with the opening of the archives of the Venetian consul at Larnaca (records which now reside in the State Archive of Venice), continued in the following years in archives in France and Britain and give a much more complete picture of the first great Cypriot dragoman of the eighteenth century, his economic transactions, as well as his political activities. This information, which is constantly being enriched, will hopefully in the end be compiled into a biography of Christofakis.
Among the documentation uncovered by this research is a letter dated April 20, 1750 (O’Riordan 1993:73), written in other words five days after the murder of Christofakis. This letter may be considered the tragic epilogue of the dragoman’s life. It is addressed to the consul of Ragusa in Cyprus, Giovanni Garmougliezi (Kitromilidis 1992:15–18, 24–25), and reads as follows:
Brilliant, most glorious, and most capable lord and signore Giovanis Garmougliezis, consul of Araouza and our master and benefactor,
We humbly prostrate ourselves before Your Gloriousness and greet you in awe, beseeching the Lord of All Christ our God to preserve You in health, happiness, and the highest good fortune, for many years to come, amen.
We are sure that Your Gloriousness has heard of the events, which befell us wretched ones. Today Your envoy Andreas came, bearing the records of my ill–fated husband; as it seems, they are true, and are from all of your accounts, and conform to what he always told us and occupied himself with. The amount of one of the bills is twenty thousand grosia and the other is for three thousand grosia. Minus two thousand five hundred which he told us that he received; the rest he did not receive. One way or the other we are sure that you would never want to harm his orphaned children, who have been left miserable and wretched; and I, ill–fated woman, who have been made more wretched than everyone, since I have lost my life, my light, my comfort, have nowhere to go for refuge and no way to rule my affairs, since I have lost him and all that I had. And so, I have no other hope than first, our Lord God and second, Your Gloriousness. And I am sure that the love you had for my husband you will now show in even greater measure to me and to our children. And that you will help us will all your heart and soul.
For this reason we beg of Your Gloriousness to send us this money, as much as you receive. Because for the time, all of his records and receipts are sealed and closed to us; and we do not know anything else but what he told us, but that of my brother Petrakis, who had taken it on himself, and from whom you were to take four thousand grosia; and from the holy man of Kyrenia two thousand five hundred; and from Antonis Tzohias one thousand five hundred, since he gave You a bill, if indeed this is a debt to the deceased, since he asked him to lend it to him. There is also some wheat and cotton and silk that he gave to you. For all this we beg of You to make a record of the amount that you took, so that we may know how much he is owed, that they can make a record of it in the City, to confirm it and for the reimbursement to come, as the deceased told us that he was to give you twenty one purses. If you take three more, it becomes twenty four.
[Page 2] So he told us and so we know. Now, one way or the other, Your Gloriousness knows the accounts, what he gave you. And we hope that no injustice will be done to us, since you are an extremely Christian man, and you do not want to harm us, us being so wretched that even the stones pity us in our unhappiness and misfortune. And so, we are sure that you will not ignore our tears and sighs. And we wish to be from today on your servants, and we beg of God to reward you in his heavenly kingdom. This for the present, and may Your years be plentiful and full of happiness.
April 20, 1750.
To Your Gloriousness,
The poor wife of luckless Christofakis,
And his sons Konstantinos, Nikolaos,
And the rest remain at Your service
Somewhat strangely, the letter of the “poor wife of luckless Christofakis” to the brutal moneylender and businessman who acted as Ragusa’s consul in Larnaca, offers a perspective for the interpretation of the wall painting of the donors of Arpera. First, it offers us documentation so that we may test the hypothesis that was easily arrived at by the church’s first systematic researchers, Andreas and Judith Stylianou, regarding the absence of any mention of the builder’s wife among the church’s inscriptions. The letter dated April 20, 1750 makes it clear that their hypothesis about the possible early death of Christofakis’ wife cannot stand. The woman, mother of so many children, outlived her powerful husband. And after his violent death she appears, in the midst of her despair, to take on the responsibilities of the enterprising dragoman’s many and varied businesses.
Since, then, Christofakis’ wife was living when the wall painting was made in 1745, she must appear as one of the three women who are represented there. But which one could she be? It would be reasonable to identify her with the eldest woman wearing the dark colored head covering, who Andreas and Judith Stylianou considered to be possibly Christofakis’ mother or older sister. She could, however, be one of the younger women who are depicted in the wall painting with a much more well–groomed appearance, wearing brightly colored clothes, jewelry, and head coverings that differ from those of traditional Cypriot clothing. While the elderly woman’s figure in Fig. 1 presents clothing within the traditional realm of Cypriot fashion, the two young women are probably displaying the characteristics of fashionable urban dress of the period (Rizopoulou–Igoumenidou 1996:67–69.
Could the anonymous wife of Christofakis, then, be the woman’s figure directly by his side in the wall painting or the other woman who stands at the other end of the painting among the children? The question cannot be answered. The wife remains unidentified and anonymous, as the couple’s daughters remain unidentified, even if we know their names, at least, from the inscription in the prosthesis (Stylianou and Stylianou 1972:153). On the contrary, the two eldest sons, Konstantinos and Nikolaos, who sign the letter of April 20, 1750 together with their mother, can be identified in the wall painting with exactitude.
Thus, in the end, the wall painting of the donors of St. George of Arpera reveals to us much more about Cypriot society in the mid–eighteenth century than what the builder intended. It chiefly reveals to us the structures of inequality that were deeply ingrained in the mentality of the time and demanded, with powerfully symbolic anonymity, the submission and disappearance of the woman’s personality and her transformation, even in terms of annomination, into merely a component of the man. This manifold leveling of the woman appears in an almost classic form in the case of Christofakis’ wife. We have her portrait, without being able to identify her with precision in her large family; we have her letter, without knowing her name; she makes a fleeting appearance on the stage of Cypriot social history, remaining insistently silent about herself in the midst of her distress. And yet, from what the reader of the letter can tell, this matron of Lefkosia society, in a way the first lady of the Greeks of Cyprus until April 15, 1750, quite possibly came from one of the most distinguished families of the educated urban class of the island, if her brother Petrakis, mentioned in the letter, can be identified with the well known personality of Lefkosia Mr. Petros Karidis (Kitromilidis 2002:164; Papacharalampous 1965:183–209) [3] .
The letter also allows the appearance of a personality marked by decisiveness and initiative, that does not seem disposed, five days after the tragedy that befell her, to give herself up to fatalism and to accept stultification: she asserts her and her children’s rights from her husband’s debtors, among whom is included an archpriest of the Church of Cyprus, “the holy man of Kyrenia”, who may be identifiable with Metropolitan Nikiforos of Kyrenia (Hakkett–Papaioannou 1927:100). [4] However, within the proscriptive climate of the mentality of the time, this lady of eminent Cypriot society of the mid–eighteenth century, under the additional weight placed upon women by unbending and ideologically inescapable hierarchical structures, as happened everywhere in early modern European society (Davis 1995:203), and, despite the attempt that shows in her letter to rearrange in a moment of tragic tribulation the margin to which the form of reality violently held her (Davis 1995:209–212), remains anonymous and arrives at us, through the chiaroscuros of time and records, simply as “the poor wife of luckless Christofakis.”


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[ back ] 1. Archimandrite Kyprianos Kouriokourenios, Istoria chronologiki tis nisou Kyprou (1788:327): “The bloodthirsty tyrant had his men seize Dragoman Christofakis and murder him at dawn on Easter Sunday, 1750.”
[ back ] 2. The two mentioned as Filaretos are probably the same person.
[ back ] 3. “The most educated Mr. Petrakis Karidis” also appears among the sponsors of Kyprianos (1788:404).
[ back ] 4. This is apparently Metropolitan Nikiforos III of Kyrenia, about whom are given references for the years 1741–1743, 1753, 1754, 1759, 1764.