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How the Swedes viewed us down the centuries.

Byline: Zoe Christodoulides

THE adventures of Swedish travellers dating all the way back to the Vikings have now been brought to life in a new book written by local art historian, Rita Severis.

Examining the texts of some 30 travellers to the country over a thousand years, The Swedes in Cyprus sheds light on Nordic attitudes to the island right from when Viking ships first docked on our shores. These intriguing tales are only now available, simply because Swedish texts on Cyprus had hardly ever been translated.

"The Cyprus Research Centre commissioned me to write a book on travellers to Cyprus and Swedish ambassador, Ingemar Lindahl, expressed an interest in learning more about Swedes coming over to Cyprus through the ages. I put the two together and came up with this book," says Severis.

With a large number of travelogues now translated into English for the very first time, the whole endeavour was only possible with the help of Swedish friends. Other information came from local archives and various international sources.

As early as the 10th century, the first Swedish travellers often stopped off on the island on their way to the Holy Land, undertaking journeys on foot, horse or ship. The Vikings made their way over to the east because of trade stations they had on the Caspian and Black Seas.

"The Vikings in the 10th and 11th century set up a naval base in Paphos. From there they used to trade with the near east and would also help the pilgrims going over there," says Severis.

Perhaps the most high profile Swedish pilgrims who visited was St Birgitta who had harsh words to say on the excesses she saw in Famagusta, believing the town to be too rich and the people too greedy.

"Famagusta is the new Gomorrah and will soon perish if the people do not repent," she said. The revelation turned out to be prophetic as the Prince of Antioch was murdered for killing his own brother in 1374, affecting the condition of the town.

Swedish travellers in the 18th century were particularly vitriolic about the Ottoman administration, painting a picture of a local population in decline.

"They were scornful towards the Turks to the point of exhibiting a sense of Islamophobia; it was almost an expression of insecurity and inability to engage in situations which were too alien to their way of thinking and conducting business," says Severis in her work.

One Reverend Jacob Berggren was on his way to the Holy Land when he stopped on the island unexpectedly. It was 1821 and he wrote with utter shock of how he witnessed the local consequences of the Greek War of Liberation as Turkish authorities executed hundreds of Christians for conspiring with the rebellious Greeks. "The Panayia was everywhere covered in black, many houses lay empty and splashed in blood...almost everyday was marked with executions and murders and wherever I went I saw executioners with hands covered in blood," he wrote.

The 20th century brought Swedish consuls, doctors, archaeologists, nature lovers, tourists, the UN contingent and journalists to the island.

Some of the most interesting, evocative narratives on Cyprus appear in the writings of Einar Gjerstad and Alfred Westholm as they delved into the core of native life and culture. Arriving as part of the Swedish Archaeological Expedition that worked on the island between 1927 and 1931, their achievements are admired to this day.

"In no other text of any visitor to the island can one find such a wealth of information, such a lyrical narrative and appreciation of a foreign culture as in the texts of these two Swedish archaeologists," says Severis.

Bringing to life the character of the Cypriots, they touched on everyday life in a way you won't easily come across in any history book. There are personal comments, humour and plenty of anecdotes in each snippet of writing.

As 23-year-old Westholm wrote regular letters back home to his parents he poured out his thoughts without inhibition. His first impressions of Galini village are particularly entertaining. "It is a rather big village 24 miles high up in the mountains, filled with utterly wild and untamed people, who never open up their mouth except for shouting...who get drunk, on some occasions in a totally extraordinary way, whereby they roar and beat each other up with whatever they can get hold of. They don't have a policeman in their the beginning it was very difficult but gradually we got used to each others' oddities."

We're also given a glimpse into gender roles at the start of the 20th century, as visiting Swedish women such as Rosa Lindros tried to understand women's lives. A teacher and painter with a vivid interest in classical art and archaeology, Lindros arrived on the island with her husband in 1927 who served as architect and photographer of the Swedish expedition. The few years spent on the island had a deep effect on Rosa whose experiences she documented in a series of articles that she sent back to her native Sweden. She also painted a number of watercolours of her favourite spots.

Her writings expressed a genuine sympathy towards the women as she describes their traditions, the way they lived their lives, the topics they gossiped about and the hardships they endured.

"The working woman ages rapidly. Some of them perform the heaviest farming work from the early age of 12 or 13," she wrote. "The back gets bent, their steps become tired and shuffling; at 25-30 they are old...All women constantly wear a head cloth. They wear it all day long, and - I think - also at night. I cannot imagine them without this attire, which on festive occasions can be red and green and accompanied by paillettes at the edge."

From the second half of the 20th century onwards, the book makes clear that the difference in mentality between the Swedes and Cypriots moved from the social to the political. While Swedish attitudes were centred on international peace-keeping and humanitarian issues, the Cypriot stand was firmly based on staunch nationalism.

"The book gives a more objective view of our island's history and people than many other works," says Severis. "I chose to write it all up in English so our island's history becomes known abroad. To be honest, I couldn't believe how many connections Nordic people have with Cyprus."

The Swedes in Cyprus is available from all major bookshops.

Copyright [c] Cyprus Mail 2009

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Publication:Cyprus Mail (Cyprus)
Date:Feb 1, 2009
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