‘Pious Lady’ Muslim shrine reopens in southern Cyprus

LARNACA – One of the holiest Islamic sites on Cyprus reopened yesterday after six months of renovations in what the United Nations hopes will help foster understanding and dialogue on the ethnically divided island. The 18th century Hala Sultan Mosque, built in memory of Umm Haram, a close follower of the Prophet Mohammed, was reopened on the banks of a shimmering salt lake in the Greek-Cypriot south of Cyprus. «This project goes way beyond just bricks and mortar,» said Andrew Russell, Cyprus program director of UNDP, which funded the project. «This is part of our continuing efforts to foster a meaningful dialogue in Cyprus and elsewhere, as a way to bring about better understanding between cultures worldwide.» That need is profound in Cyprus, where Christian Orthodox Greek Cypriots and Sunni Muslim Turkish Cypriots have lived apart since fighting in the 1960s and a Turkish invasion in 1974. Like many religious monuments scattered on both sides of the island, Hala Sultan suffered for not representing the faith of choice for residents in that particular area. The complex, lying some 45 kilometers (28 miles) south of the Cypriot capital Nicosia, is not now regularly used as a place of worship by Cyprus’s estimated 250,000-300,000 Muslims, many of whom now live north of the line that cuts Cyprus in two. The Bicommunal Development Project (BDP) funded primarily by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), has allocated $5 million for restoration of national monuments in Cyprus, with the renovation of Hala Sultan costing $0.9 million. Variably described as the prophet’s aunt, wet-nurse, niece, or one of his closest followers, Umm Haram – known as «Pious Lady» – fell from her mule and died as she accompanied her husband on an Arab raid on Cyprus in the seventh century. Some rank the shrine as one of the most revered in Islam, after Mecca, Medina, and the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. «Certainly it is among the most important religious sites of the Muslim world,» says Tuncer Bagiskan, a Turkish-Cypriot archaeologist. Her tomb lies south of the mosque, below a large monolith and shielded by green-colored drapes, a sacred color for Muslims, which symbolizes paradise. «Women used to come here, walk around it three times and then throw a pebble in a well outside,» Bagiskan told Reuters. «If the pebble rippled in the water, their wish would come true.»