Built in the 18th century, this mansion house is one of the most important monuments of urban architecture amongst those which have survived in Nicosia. It has an ensemble of outbuildings attached and is located in the Old City at the intersection between Patriarch Grigori and Hadjigeorgaki street.
Curiously, the Austrian Archduke Louis Salvador, who visited Nicosia in 1873, found it to be somewhat a mixture of Greek, Turkish and Armenian culture, whose representatives, albeit often “at odds” with one another, were united by a love for a country they all considered as their homeland.
This building is intriguing not only due to its peculiar architectural style and internal furnishing, but the role it once played in the history of Cyprus… a history so captivating that we must stop to discuss it before we venture there.
Opening a door into the past…
This was once the residence of the dragoman (a translator between Turkish, Arabic and Persian-speaking countries) Hadjigeorgakis Kornesios, who was born in Kritou Terra (a suburb of Paphos). Under the Ottoman rule, the highly ranked position of the dragoman was only awarded to well-educated individuals. Their duties weren’t limited to functioning as the sultan’s official translator, as they would also handle taxation and administrative matters, in addition to communicating with the higher clergy. According to accounts, Kornesios, on the whole, was held in high esteem by the people and clergymen: thanks to his mediation, after all, the tyrant governor general Hadji Baki was exiled from Cyprus. The Turks also valued him and in 1796, by decree of Sultan Selim II, he was awarded the title of lifelong dragoman… this, however, didn’t last long. He was executed only several years later.
According to the work of an unknown Cypriot poet on the execution of the political activist, it is evident that the dragoman during his life, being a rich man and patriot, with the support of his wife Maroudia Pavlidi (the niece of Archbishop Chrysanthos) had tried to work for the good of his people and strengthen the position of the Cypriot Church.
Naturally, the dragoman and Archbishop’s elevation in stature and popularity amongst the population began to arouse hostility and suspicion in the ranks of the Turkish authorities. Being the ones who had seized Cyprus, they began to feel all the less at ease on the island. Incidentally, a little later in 1804, a civil revolt erupted, in which the discontent of the other part of the population, who had been ranting about the weight of taxes imposed under the dragoman’s supervision, manifested in rebellion and the storming of Hadjigeorgakis’ mansion. Renoir, the Cypriot ambassador to France, “poured oil on the fire”, believing the Cypriot to be a Russophile, in those days meaning an enemy of France. One way or another, Kornesios and his family had to flee, with nowhere else to go but Constantinople (Istanbul). Meanwhile, Nikolaos Nikolaides, who the disgraced dragoman had appointed as his “deputy”, wasted no time in collaborating with the Turkish authorities. He used his new position to his heart’s content, for profit and gain, while oppressing his own people in every way possible. It was Nikloaides in particular who further played a fateful role in the death of his predecessor and former “boss”: fearing how the dragoman, who had been allowed to return to his homeland in 1807, might respond, Nikolaides, together with Hasan-Agha Donos, conspired to betray Kornesios. By decree of the Ottoman Porte (the Sultan), all of Hadjigeorgakis’ accounts for the last 20 years were subject to examination, while the dragoman himself was arrested. Having learnt about this betrayal, Kornesios once again fled to Constantinople, eager to prove his innocence. But his demarché had a tragic ending: in March 1809, despite the efforts of British and Russian ambassadors to intervene and protect him, the dragoman was executed by decree of Yusuf Ziya, the new Grand Vizier, who had a fierce hatred for Kornesios.
You might ask, what became of his family and home? After his execution, all of Kornesios’ property was confiscated, while his family was confined behind bars for many years. His mansion was bought by a Turkish woman, Hatice Hanim Magnisali, for 13,000 kurus (a Turkish monetary unit, the first of which was minted in 1697, under Sultan Suleiman II, to replace European coins).
In 1830, however, Tselepi Yiangos, the dragoman’s youngest son, returned from Constantinople to buy his paternal home, having received the necessary sum as a loan from the Archbishop. He settled there with his wife, Iouliani Vondiziano and remained there until 1874 when he died. After his death, Yiangos’ widow moved in with her niece, Ourania Zachariadou Oikonomidi, whom she had earlier adopted.
In the years that followed, the mansion and all its outbuildings were passed on to Ourania’s four daughters: after the death of Julia Piki, the last daughter, in 1979, according to her joint will with her sister, Anna Dimitriada, the part of the inheritance (along with the furniture) which had belonged to them was to go the Archbishop of Cyprus. The remaining portion of the inheritance was acquired from other heirs by the Department of Antiquities.
In 1935, while his heirs were still alive, Kornesios’ mansion obtained the title of an antique monument. Restoration works were performed on the premises from 1981-1987, after which it received the Europa Nostra award (the Federation for promoting cultural heritage and traditions). As a result, it essentially became a museum for the everyday urban life of the affluent class in Cyprus and Nicosia, amongst others.
Today, the history of both the family who owned the mansion and the country as a whole is reflected in an interesting, albeit, rather chaotic exhibition. After entering from a street faced only by stone walls with small wooden-framed windows, you will discover a genuine urban estate: with its main house, side wings and the remains of the outbuildings, as well as its fruit garden and reservoir.
We’ve come “to visit” the dragoman and his family members, so let’s quietly pass through their house and territory, trying to imagine the lifestyle of its former owners while not disturbing its old walls, now in a deep slumber.
Carved above the main entrance, you can see a monogram of Hadjigeorgakis and the number “1793” — the completion date of construction on the mansion. The estate was erected in a U-shape from hewn limestone, on the spot of the previous building, which was smaller in size.
There truly is a lot to see here and the ongoing restoration works and exhibitions allow us to presume that the exhibit and the museum itself will be perfected. In addition, aside from taking a curious and absorbing stroll through this old townhouse, visitors will independently be able to enhance their knowledge of the island’s culture and its historical past.
You immediately ascend a wooden staircase into the exhibition halls, now occupying the mansion’s living quarters, on the top floor.
FYI: Like in many cultures, the lower floors of mansions here were traditionally occupied by household utility rooms and storage rooms, as well as being stables, servants’ quarters and so on.
The upper floor hall is staggering in size: it was essentially the main entrance room for receiving guests. Nowadays, it displays an old furniture suite, consisting of a marble tabletop (an oriental silver tea set lies atop it), armchairs, étagères and cabinets.
The oriel behind the arrow-arched ceiling (remaining from the old building) bears the imprint of oriental influence: an imitation of the palace sofa. The furnishing of the rooms in the left wing primarily relates to the era of British rule, from the late 19th – mid 20th century. Evidently, it was decided that everything should be preserved and presented nearing how it was when the mansion was presented to the state as a gift, representing the last scions of dragoman Hadjigeorgakis’ dynasty. Meanwhile, the applied art pieces, on open display to the public, belong to earlier eras: from the early 16th into the 17th century.
And so, there is a long corridor to either side of the entrance, both leading to wooden doors decorated in blue, a traditional colour for Cyprus. Behind these doors lie the chambers of the former owners, in addition to an internal staircase leading to a courtyard at the back of the estate.
Each room has its own colour. Let’s go inside and examine more closely what is in them. The left-hand section, representing the women’s section (if following the antique view of planning), is composed of bedrooms and boudoirs, for this reason being a place where inhabitants strived to keep a homely atmosphere. As you can see, the right-hand side — traditionally the men’s side — was for receiving important guests from the ranks of Turkish governors and officials (it was known in ancient times as an “andron”. Because of this, it usually housed a study and other rooms for the house owner or heads of the family. Nowadays, an exhibit on the history of Cyprus has been constructed (while also under further development) especially in the right-hand section, displaying the island’s material culture from the late 16th-17th century and the Ottoman reign as a whole.
Immediately to the left of the stairs, you will notice a “red” bedroom with two bronze canopy beds, a chest of drawers and wardrobes from the 1900s-1930s. As is noted on the sign, the furniture in this room was a gift from the Friends of the Museum of Cyprus. One of the cupboards is open and inside you can see samples of handiwork or dowries from bygone years: embroidered and hand-laced shirts, bed linens etc. The windows are protected by a carved wooden cage arranged into two panels.
The next room is a buffet-dining area, painted in blue and rather compact in size, featuring a display of green table glass — an original set from Damascus: the pieces were popular in the late 19th to early 20th century and have been blown into a “rope-like shape”, similar to a piece of pottery. An antique vase with elements of Persian painting (the influence of Iranian miniature art) also grabs your attention, as well as the hanging portraits of both sisters, Julia Piki and Anna Dimitriada — the last owners of this historical “estate”.
We continue on to the “green room” and now the museum hall, featuring pendants which were common in that era and a stylised cross with insertions of coloured glass to imitate precious stones, as well as huge brooches (clasps and belt buckles: silver, chased work with gilding and enamel). The most distinctive piece is a buckle with an image of St. George, carved from mother of pearl — a rather rare and fine work. In the horizontal display cases, you can see bracelets, triptychs and crosses. It’s worth remembering that the 17th-18th century witnessed the heyday of jewellery art in Cyprus, with Nicosia being the centre for jewellers.
Based on an idea unbeknown to us, the organisers placed samples of utensils fashioned from bronze in the hall, which have been “patched over” in places with lead riveting. These consist of heavily worn dishes and jugs with significant losses. There is also a collection of smoking pipes, as well as samples of decorative art from the 18th-19th century, which were either influenced by Islamic art or created in Turkey itself.
In addition, we can see a numismatics exhibit (gold and silver coins with the image of Sultan Abdul Mezhid, 1839-1861) and urban women’s dress with a head shawl (it was traditionally worn as a “hood”, with the corners, turned inwards), as well as a velvet jacket with flared sleeves. A silk belt with a buckle is being worn over a skirt embroidered with flowers.
We next end up in the “white hall”, which features samples of religious art (the Holy gate with the Ascension scene and Saint Vasilios, Chrysostomos, Gregorios and Spyridon, from the second half of the 19th century) and gifts to young newly-weds: silver cups, a necklace (formerly owned by Julia PIki), an Italian coffee set and a magnificent, chased silver table with gold plating. There is also a collapsible, oriental tea table on display with inlays and carvings.
In the right-wing corridor, there are portraits of Konstantinos Zahariadis (the work of E. Ioannidis), the brother of Ourania Zahariadou — the last person to live here.
Next to it, you will find a room with a small exhibit dedicated to urban architecture from the past: samples of wood-carved interior furnishings, originating both from the Mansion itself and other well-off Cypriot estates (a ceiling panel, some very well-decorated load-bearing beams and fragments of gate panels: their decor combines an inclusion of red garnets into the complex geometric composition of the main pattern). As is stated on the legend: such carved works were additionally decorated in high relief with gold plate and imagery. This suggests that the Byzantine tradition continued in applied arts.
The Museum’s Centre and the nucleus of the exhibition features a truly dazzling piece — an oriental sofa, located in the right wing. This living room, which was used to receive high ranking guests from the Turkish authorities on the island, has been finished with saturated tones of dark green, ocher and red. The walls and ceiling are decorated with wooden panels finished with imagery and gilding, on the floor — a huge oriental rug. On the wall opposite the ottomans, you can see built-in wardrobes with curved Rococo doors.
One of the walls features two portraits of the dragoman in his official attire. The two others display portraits painted in later years of his son, Yangos and daughter in law, Iuliana (the work of Konstantin Takadzhis, 1851-52). This place — the only decorated living room in Cyprus — boggles the mind with its, as they say, “former grandeur”.
An interesting point: the given interior was reproduced based on the surviving inventory list of the “upper hall”. One of the built-in wardrobes has a secret staircase inside, leading to the roof of the house. As it should do!
Please note: at the end of the corridor in the right-hand wing, there is a tall, 18th-century “grandfather” clock, manufactured in England (by the master craftsmen Isaac Rodgers), which was either decorated by local craftsmen or beforehand, to the client’s wishes, with a floral pattern and the insertion of an oriental-style portrait depicting a lady of the nobility. Its history is rather interesting: the clock initially belonged to Michael de Vezin, a British consul in Aleppo (Syria) and Cyprus. It was later acquired by Zinon Peridis, who in 1961 presented it to the Cypriot Museum as a gift. A clock of a similar type is situated at the Church of Saint Antonia, which neighbours the dragoman’s mansion.
Next we have a small, yellow hall filled with samples of calligraphy and manuscripts — official documents from the age of the Ottoman Empire. The oriental tables (at which clerks from the reign of Sultan Mehmed VI evidently worked) also occupy a significant spot in the exhibit. On one of the walls here, you can also see a graphic of the dragoman’s family tree, right up to his last offspring.
Aside from the supervisor’s room and the Department of Archaeology, the lower floor — the large hall in particular — is nowadays used for holding exhibits, concerts and lectures.
After exiting into the inner courtyard, you will, no doubt, see some sights which are no less appealing: things which have been preserved rather well, as well as some that haven’t made it to our time. With regards to the latter, you can judge from the remaining traces: the residential building, for instance, in the back courtyard (the dragoman resided here when he inhabited the mansion) — only the entrance remains from it, the rest has been knocked down.
At the centre of the inner courtyard, surrounded by the colonnade of the house’s first floor, there is a stone-built spring containing a small rectangular reservoir, where former owners used to gather water… even earlier, it served as someone’s sarcophagus.
While passing into the owner’s section of the household, to the left of the entrance, you can encounter two stone buildings which earlier served as a kitchen containing a chimney flue, as well as hearths for preparing food and bread baking. Continuing onwards, the artefacts displayed along the walls have all been converted to museum status (assigned numbers and tied with red string). They represent work from even earlier ages: the remains of stone columns with various messages, as well as images of human arms and legs, carved onto them; you can also encounter millstone and different fragments of early sculpture work. An antique frieze in full relief is also on display: judging by the remaining fragments, this was the image of a chariot (quadriga) race. Nearby you can also encounter works of stone, as well as Muslim art.
Further south there is another building, a small family hammam (an oriental, in this case, Turkish bathhouse, the name of which derives from the Arabic word “kham” — hot). These were sufficiently dry inside and consisted of three rooms: a changing room, relaxation area and steam room containing a marble bowl filled with running water to pour over oneself.
In the depths of the courtyard, you can see what was once a large fountain with irrigation canals extending along with the entire territory of the mansion and garden.
And so, not only have we visited the next in a large number of Cypriot museums, which of course housed a unique and vibrant exhibit… Today we have finished a far more important journey — into the past, the everyday life and tradition which surrounded the people who once resided here, who loved their family and homeland, who suffered under the weight of their circumstances. The great is in the small, while the history of the state is in the fate of its people.
Address: Patriarch Grigori 20, Old city (Nicosia)
Opening Hours: Tuesday-Friday 8:30-15:30; Saturdays 9:30-15:30; Closed on Sundays and Mondays.
Closed to the public on 25th-26th and 31st December, 1st January and Easter Sundays.
Entry: 2.5 Euro
Until Next Time!