Bellapais is a pretty village set high in the Five Finger Mountains of Northern Cyprus. Its most famous site is the Bellapais Monastery, sometimes called the Bellapais Abbey. The name Bellapais probably derives from the French “Abbaye de la paix” meaning ‘Monastery of Peace’.
The Bellapais Monastery was founded by Augustinian monks, who came to Cyprus from Jerusalem, and who began constructing the first buildings here in 1198. The Lusignan King Hugh III built much of what can be seen today between 1267 and 1284, whilst the courtyard pavilions and magnificent Gothic refectory were added by his success King Hugh IV by 1359.
Bellapais Monastery and the True Cross
The Monastery rose to prominence after a wealthy knight known as Roger the Norman left them a gift of an important religious relic, a supposed fragment of the True Cross. Pilgrims flocked to the Bellapais Monastery to see the relic, spend some time in retreat, and give a generous donation at the end of their stay. However, when the Genoese invaded in 1373, the monastery’s treasury was plundered and the precious relic stolen. This marked a rapid decline in the monastery’s fortunes – and the morals of the monks, who took wives and let the great building fall into decay.
Restoration of Bellapais Monastery in Northern Cyprus
When the Ottomans invaded, the monastery was given to the Greek Orthodox Church, who built the 13th century abbey church that you can still visit today. The monks disappeared, integrating into the local village life, and it is said that some families who live in Bellapais today are descended from those monks. The buildings fell into disrepair, and the ruins were used for animal grazing. However, since the 1960s, the North Nicosia Lapidary Museum has stabilised the monastery to some extent with an impressive programme of repair and restoration.
The Ruins of Bellapais Monastery
Much of the Bellapais Monastery now consists of picturesque ruins with great Gothic arches and towering stone walls. Admittedly, its ruined appearance has been aided by the locals in older times taking stone from the ruins to build their houses in Bellapais! When it comes to recycling, however, the monks got there first; two Roman sarcophagi lie in the northwest corner of the ruins, used by the monks as wash basins.
Exploring Bellapais Monastery in Northern Cyprus
You enter the complex via the original fortified gatehouse, and immediately on your right is the abbey church. It’s well worth exploring its darkened interior, where the lamplight glistens and gleams from golden icons on the walls. It’s extremely atmospheric and you can’t help but talk in hushed tones.
Beyond the gateway lies the old cellars and kitchens with the crypt below and the cloister at the side. Four enormous cypress trees dominate the ruins, towering high above the remaining arches that mark the cloisters. You can wander amongst the ruins into the refectory, a massive hall where the original vaulting is still intact. The original pulpit still remains, where a priest would read enlightening texts to his brethren as they ate. The six enormous windows offer a fabulous view down the hillside (and over the Kyrenia villas and swimming pools) to the harbour and the sea.
Top of the list for any classical music lover in North Cyprus must be the Bellapais Music Festival, which runs during May each year. Classical concerts are held in the magnificent Bellapais Abbey Refectory Hall, which has excellent acoustics and are highly atmospheric. The Bellapais Music Festival attracts international ensembles and soloists to perform in North Cyprus, and tickets sell out fast for the 9pm performances. One performer commented that: “Bellapais is different. The Abbey is alive with its architecture, illumination, acoustics, with its village and hospitable villagers, pubs and restaurants. Here, history is alive, and is a common treasure of all of us.