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A marriage made in Cyprus: the Israeli mecca for civil ceremonies.


Every guidebook about Cyprus rhapsodizes that Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love and beauty, was birthed from the sea lapping on its shores. Those turquoise waters came into view as my plane descended, just past dawn, heading into the Mediterranean's answer to the Las Vegas wedding scene. Would there be the Cypriot version of The Little White Chapel, with impersonators dressed up as Aphrodite rather than Elvis ? The guidebooks proclaim that couples are inspired to join their lives on the island. But none mentioned that most come more out of necessity than to bask in the myth of Eros.

Just a short flight from Middle Eastern airports, the Greek half of the divided isle of Cyprus has become a mecca of civil ceremonies in a part of the world where they are largely unavailable. Towns big and small compete for the wedding business, but Larnaca and neighboring Aradippou attract the greatest numbers, due to their proximity to the international airport.

A taxi takes me to my hotel on the Larnaca promenade, an ode to eternal summer. I quickly glean that this is not Las Vegas: There are no garish shrines to love, rather a touristy Greek beach town of sand-colored stone buildings and clubs pumping out techno music. A few hungover European tourists wander the streets, their numbers swelled, as the morning progresses, by bikini-clad beauties and flip-flop-wearing tattooed men.

When the clock strikes 10, I make my way over to 38 Athenon Avenue, where the town hall is situated not so picturesquely over a Kentucky Fried Chicken and a T.G.I. Fridays. I find my way to a pleasant waiting room, its bureaucratic air mitigated by the slow pace of Mediterranean life.

Spyros Agathou, a trim man who speaks perfect English with only the slightest accent, is Larnaca's wedding master; it is his job to make sure all the paperwork is in order. He shuffles his files, looking anxious as I approach, but seems relieved when I explain that I haven't come to be married. He already has six weddings scheduled at the town hall for the day.

Eighty percent of Cyprus's tourists come for the sun, but the rest are here for weddings, enough to keep Agathou and his counterparts in other Cypriot town halls very busy. Agathou glances down at his list. "You missed a Lebanese couple this morning," he tells me. "This afternoon, there are three Israeli couples, an English and an Irish."

Agathou introduces me to Alexis Michaelides, Larnaca's deputy mayor. An affable man in his fifties, he marries an average of 30 couples a week, twice that number when the mayor is out of town. "Forty percent of our weddings are Israelis marrying Israelis," he explains. "Twenty percent are Arab, with three-quarters of those being Lebanese and the remaining, Egyptian or Syrian. "A fifth of Cypriot civil marriages involve Western Europeans, half of them Europeans marrying Cypriots and the rest are Cypriots marrying Cypriots.

I'm invited to the next wedding, the second that Michaelides has performed this morning, and ushered into the wedding room--really, a conference room with rectangular tables and burgundy cloth-covered chairs that looks like an appropriate place to conduct county business. A bouquet of white plastic flowers sits on one of the tables. While love is in the air, it's not in the decor.

Agathou walks in with the marriage certificates and other documents. The couple's travel agent, Olga Asprou--sporting jeans and sneakers--is also present. Michaelides, donning the large heavy medal around his neck that he always wears to officiate, greets the couple.

This is not a tuxedo-and-white dress affair. The groom, Avi Mor, is a fifty-something businessman, distinguished enough in a short-sleeved button-down shirt and a silver tie. His bride-to-be, Natalie Isaeva, is a young attractive blonde in a black and white sundress. "She is from Kyrgyzstan," says Mor. "We couldn't get married in Israel as we are not from the same religion."

"The Israeli Ministry of Internal Affairs is piling up hardships for couples, before the marriage, as well as after," Mor tells me before the ceremony begins. "Israel, as a country, is doing its best to try and avoid mixed marriages. The formal excuse is that there are many fake marriages. My response is that if marriage is a business arrangement, the fake ones should be prosecuted and the rest should be treated with much more sympathy." The couple plans to have a wedding party back home.

Isaeva is fluent in Hebrew but not in English so Michaelides gives her a copy of her vows written in Hebrew so she can follow along, though the ceremony will be conducted in English. Michaelides tells them that if one or both are already married they are committing bigamy, which is punishable by law. The couple exchanges vows and rings before kissing and signing the marriage contracts.

"I am a very lucky man," Mor says after embracing his new wife. Agathou hits "play" on a stereo and Mendelssohn's "Wedding March" issues softly. Michaelides presents them with their official documents and gives them the pen they used to sign the contract. I look at my watch. Nine minutes exactly.

Weddings in Cyprus are a multi-million dollar industry. For this the Cypriots can thank the caliphs of the Ottoman Empire, who managed to rule their vast, polyethnic empire by letting separate religious groups conduct their own affairs. The millet system--a term derived from the Arabic word millah, meaning "type of religion"--lasted from the 15th century to the 20th. With origins in Persian, Byzantine, Abassid and Umayyad states, the system allowed religious groups to maintain control over laws of personal status, including marriage.

When the Ottoman Empire was partitioned after World War I, much of the Near East, including Palestine, came under the British, who continued to allow religious authorities to decide who could be married and how. When Israel became a state in 1948, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, to win Orthodox support for the new state, agreed to continue the millet system, ceding control of marriage to the Orthodox rabbinate--the supreme Jewish religious governing body in Israel. When the nation formalized its personal status laws in 1953, Israel's Orthodox rabbinate retained its exclusive jurisdiction over marriages among Israel's Jews, precluding the development of civil marriage laws and preventing other Jewish denominations from officiating marriages.


In the Orthodox form, Jewish marriage laws are strict. Only those officially recognized as Jewish can marry and then only to other Jews. Ancient statutes like the prohibition of a Cohen--a direct male descendant of the Biblical Aaron--from marrying a divorcee also apply. And no Jew can marry a Christian or a Muslim, each of whom can only be married under their own laws.

For the increasing number of couples unable to marry in Israel, there is only one option: marry abroad. When they return home, sometimes the very same day, they will not be recognized as married by the rabbinate, but will be husband and wife in the eyes of the state, which does not require that marriages outside Israel be in accordance with Orthodox law.

Cyprus, under British rule until 1960, has offered civil weddings since 1923. Only in the last two decades, however, has the island become a popular wedding destination. Talking on three phones simultaneously, Vassos Ioannou, the vivacious, chain-smoking owner of Travel4Less, (and employer of Olga Asprou, the travel agent I met at Larnaca's town hall), explains that Israeli couples began flooding the island in 1987. "It had a lot to do with the ex-Soviet Jews going to Israel," he says between puffs. "Before '87 there were a few civil weddings from the United Kingdom and Ireland but after '87 the industry took off. We are successful," Ioannou adds proudly, "because we solved the intermarriage problem in the early 20th century. The Israelis and the Arabs have yet to do this."


Civil marriages in Cyprus comply with international law, making the contract valid worldwide. In Larnaca, a non-expedited marriage costs 75 Cypriot pounds ($190) and can take place 15 days after the day of application but within three months. An expedited wedding costs 165 [pounds sterling] ($418). For this sum a couple can be married on the day they apply but must be married within 15 days. Many couples also pay an additional fee for a wedding agent to make all the arrangements and drive to the capital, Nicosia, to certify the marriage license.

As a result, there is heavy competition between Cypriot communities for this lucrative wedding business. The small town of Aradippou is Larnaca's main competitor for fly-in fly-out marriages. "More weddings take place in Aradippou than in Larnaca because they will accept certain documents to help a fast marriage," says Michaelides, adding that unlike Aradippou, Larnaca requires a letter from an embassy certifying that an applicant is single. "Aradippou is doing this to get more money in their treasury," he says frankly. "We make $600,000 from this a year and they make $900,000."

I mention the rather unromantic conference room where Larnaca's weddings are held. "That will change soon," he assures me. "We are renovating a hundred-year-old house next to the town hall to serve as the wedding center." It is part of what he calls Larnaca's "counterattack" on Aradippou. "Aradippou is also providing a limousine service to and from the airport, so we are going to do this, too, starting in October."

We are winding through the dusty towns among the seaside and the capital in travel agent Olga Asprou's dusty Toyota. Asprou, who has offered to take me with her to Nicosia, the capital located in the middle of the island, spends her days driving between various town halls and the Ministry of Justice in Nicosia to obtain the appostilles that certify marriage certificates.

While most civil weddings occur near or in Larnaca, Ayia Napa, a coastal town an hour away and Cyprus's version of Ibiza, is another popular destination. "That is the most beautiful place to get married," says Asprou, referring not to the town but its town hall.

We make a stop there to see its admired town hall. Not surprisingly a wedding is about to take place. As in Larnaca, it has an administrative feel to it but the flower-filled wedding room is tinged with romance. Nicola Harwood and Richard McKee, both Irish, are getting married with their families seated in white cloth-covered chairs behind them. There are handkerchiefs and tears, ring bearers and white dresses. This ceremony runs well over the ten-minute mark, though the text recited by the young woman officiating is the same as in Larnaca.

Asprou and I then attend the wedding of Moshe and Tamara Fogel, an Israeli man and a German woman, both middle-aged, taking place in the lush bougainvillea-filled garden of the expensive Alion Hotel outside Ayia Napa. A picturesque wedding canopy set up in a remote corner of the garden overlooks the sea. Family and friends sit in straight rows wearing linen suits and summer dresses. They ready their cameras as Tamara is escorted by her mother down a path of rose petals. It's a civil wedding with a twist--the twist being that it feels like a wedding.

The legal state of marriage in Israel was slightly shaken up last July when Israel's Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar reached an agreement to permit civil marriage in cases where both the bride and groom are not considered to have a religion under Orthodox law. The agreement's most immediate impact will be on approximately 300,000 former Soviet Republic immigrants. Though Jewish enough for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, they lack sufficient documentation to convince the Orthodox that they are Jews, and have not, until now, been permitted to marry in Israel.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv of the Reform Movement's Israel Religious Action Center was quoted in a July 18th Jerusalem Post article stating that the agreement was "a lifesaver full of holes." "It offers a solution for a tiny portion of the Israeli populace. It is absurd that hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens cannot get married in their own country.The thousands of Israeli couples currently traveling to Cyprus to marry will continue to fight for their basic right to marry."

According to Steven V. Mazie, author of Israel's Higher Law: Religion and Liberal Democracy in the Jewish State, the Orthodox rabbinate has two serious concerns about relaxing marriage laws. The first is that intermarriage will pull Jews away from the faith. The second, related yet greater, concern is a fear of illegitimacy. "Children of marriages forbidden by halacha are considered mamzerim. They and their offspring, stigmatized with an irrevocable brand of illegitimacy, may marry only other mamzerim. This is the root of the concern about civil marriage."

There is another, more political concern, as well, says Mazie. If Orthodox marriages in Israel were no longer de rigueur, the nation would lose its purpose. "Do it outside of Israel," one of Mazie's interviewees suggests. "The state must be identified with Jewish markers ... What will be left of the religious institutions? What will be left of the Jewish flavor of the state? It would be sad."

Not all Orthodox believe that the current system is best. Rabbi Seth Farber, a member of Israel's Orthodox rabbinate, helps couples find halachic loopholes so they can have a wedding at home, instead of flying to Cyprus. As the founder and director of ITIM: The Jewish Life Information Center--its mission is to expand Jewish life and create avenues of access for all--Farber believes Jews from Soviet Union have been treated unfairly by the rabbinate. "This is a travesty because not one Rabbinical court judge speaks Russian," he says. The methods of proving one's Jewishness are so obscure and distant that hundreds of people are getting sidelined each year and losing their Jewish identity.

In some cases the rabbinate is finishing the job that Stalin didn't."

If the Israeli situation is complicated, imagine that of Lebanon, home to 18 religious communities--among them Sunni, Druze, Maronite, Armenian Catholic--each recognized by the government, with no intermarriage between religious groups permitted. Says Marie Rose Zalzal, a prominent Lebanese lawyer who has been heavily involved in Lebanon's secular movement: "If you want to get a civil marriage you go abroad. The larger problem is that we do not have a national civil law and I don't think this is going to happen soon."

The last wedding I attend in Cyprus is between two more Israelis--Shmuel Livar, a Cohen, and Zipora Ozana. They stand in the Larnaca conference room, he in a short-sleeved business shirt, she in a patterned dress. Livar gestures toward his blonde soon-to-be wife.

"She is a divorcee and we cannot get married in Israel," he says. "We have to come here to get married but when we go back to Israel, we are married like everyone else."

Their wedding ceremony is identical to the previous ones except that deputy mayor Michaelides's cell phone goes off accidentally in the middle and Livar and Ozana both put on small reading glasses to recite their vows. After the groom kisses the bride and Agathou plays the music on cue, I ask Livar if he thinks the laws in Israel will change to someday permit civil marriage.

"No," he says immediately. "I come from a religious family. I know that the laws don't change. No one is so big or strong that they can make changes. It comes from the Bible, it cannot change."

For now, the flight from Tel Aviv to Larnaca takes just 55 minutes.
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Author:Tanabe, Karin
Geographic Code:4EXCY
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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