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Bridging the divide in Cyprus
Published in The Egyptian Gazette on 30 - 07 - 2012

Over the centuries, the island of Cyprus has been occupied by many foreign powers. Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Venetians, Genoese, Ottoman Turks and the British have all taken their turn at trying to control the island.
Little wonder, since Cyprus, the “island of Aphrodite," lies strategically at the eastern end of the Mediterranean and is still, to this day, a bridge between cultures and civilisations.
It is all the more tragic, then, that for nearly forty years this beautiful island has been split in two between Turkish Cypriots in the North and Greek Cypriots in the South.
Like Jerusalem, the island's capital Nicosia, is a divided city, occupied by foreign soldiers. Even the briefest visit to this island nation, though, will soon convince the visitor of the warmth and hospitality of its people.
There is, though, close to Larnaca, a place which itself is a symbol of the richness and cultural diversity for which Cypriots are so proud. In this land of ancient churches and historic mosques, the mosque of Hala Sultan has been beautifully and lovingly restored.
Even though churches in the North have been allowed to fall into disrepair or have even been deliberately desecrated, it is the policy of the Republic of Cyprus, in the South, to repair and respect the island's mosques, which they see as part of the nation's heritage. It is an image of how people of faith can learn to respect one another and live together in peace and harmony, despite their differences.
The mosque of Hala Sultan is built in praise of Allah on the spot where Umm Haram fell from her mule and died. Umm Haram (Hala Sultan in Turkish) herself is surrounded with some mystery. Some accounts describe her as the aunt of Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him). Others describe her as his wet nurse. She had been with Mohammed (pbuh) when he migrated from Makkah to Medina in September of 622.
Her closeness to the Prophet of Islam (pbuh), however, made her a person worthy of respect and she became the wife of Ubada bin al-Samit, one of the most high ranking officers of Muawiyah, the Muslim Caliph.
When that Caliph launched attacks on Cyprus in 649 and 650 AD she accompanied her husband. It was on one of these occasions that she accidentally fell and died instantly. Almost at once, people began to venerate where she was buried.
During the Ottoman period of rule in Cyprus, a mosque was built in stages around the tomb. The present mosque itself was built much later, just before 1787, along with dwellings and water-cisterns, which contributed to the shrine's fame. Its present plan was completed in 1816.
Set in a beautiful garden, Hala Sultan mosque is situated in a serene setting on the shores of a Salt Lake close to Larnaca. Built in classical Ottoman style, the whole complex consists of a mosque, mausoleum, minaret and cemetery (which was closed to burials at the end of the 19th Century). A number of past Turkish administrators are buried here.
Another important tomb here carries the date July 12, 1929 and it belongs to Adile Hüseyin Ali, the Turkish wife of Hussein bin Ali of the Hashemite House, who was himself ‡ grandson of the Ottoman Grand Vizier and ‡ descendant of Prophet Mohammed (pbuh).
In Turkish, the full name of the site is Hala Sultan Tekke, meaning that there were also living quarters for men and women, probably Sufi pilgrims who studied and prayed there.
The small domed mosque is square-shaped with ‡ balcony and it was built in yellow stone blocks, which some suggest were taken from a nearby ruined church. It is now one of the most visited mosques, by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, in the south of the island.
In moderate Sunni Islam, there is no place for the veneration of saints. Muslims believe that there is no need for mediators between God and men. For this reason, there are no popes, nor priests in Islam. There is neither strength nor power save in Allah. When a Muslim's forehead touches the ground in prayer he speaks directly to his Creator.
For this reason, visiting graves or the tombs of holy men and women has been frowned upon and discouraged since the earliest days of Islam. Praying for the soul of a dead person is quite different from praying to them.
Theory and practice, though, are sometimes at odds with one another. It is hardly surprising that uneducated men and women, unaware of the strict guidelines of Islam and looking for human embellishments to their simple faith, go to visit tombs and graves to seek the blessing of the one buried there.
Such has been the case down through the centuries with the mosque of Hala Sultan. In fact, this mosque is the most important Islamic site in the island and has attracted the devotion of pilgrims down through the ages. So important was this mosque in former times that Turkish naval vessels passing by off the coast would lower their flags and fire gun salutes in honour of Umm Haram.
Muslims read in the holy Quran:
“The mosques of Allah shall be visited and maintained
By such as believe in Allah and the Last day......" 9:18
After so many years of occupation, and after so much hurt and pain, the mosque of Hala Sultan has a lesson for modern Cyprus.
Many see a federal system, with semi-autonomy for both Greeks and Turks living together under the one flag, as the only possible solution to this modern tragedy of the island's division.
Whatever the future holds, it is surely time for Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, of all faiths and of none, to be allowed to settle their differences without the interference of foreigners.
The beautiful mosque of Hala Sultan shows us that people of faith, both Christians and Muslims, have lived together in peace for centuries in Cyprus. Inshallah, they will do so for many centuries to come.

In his work of bridge building between peoples, in April 2012 Idris Tawfiq visited Nicosia and was received in audience by His Beatitude Chrysostomos II, Archbishop of Nova Justiniana and All Cyprus. A teacher at Al-Azhar University, Idris Tawfiq is the author of nine books about Islam. You can visit his website at www.idristawfiq.com


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