The “Abbey de la Paix” or “Monastery of Peace” is the magnificent semi-ruin which gives its name to the pretty mountain village which bears its name. “De la Paix” became corrupted in time to “Bellapais,” the name it is known by today. A good asphalt road brings you here today, but that has not always been the case. From when the abbey was first built in the late twelfth-century up to the mid-1950s, when the British writer Lawrence Durrell lived and wrote his famous memoir, “Bitter Lemons” here, there was only the famed ‘Crusader path’ . That path remains today and it is a beautiful, if somewhat tiring way of seeing Bellapais and its abbey for the first time. So, if you’re feeling energetic, take the modern road to Ozanköy – another charming village set lower on the mountainside- and take the time-honoured ancient path, often resplendent with wild flowers, that reveals the monastery as it has done to travellers for nearly a thousand years.
The path brings you right up by the side of the abbey which is fortunately surrounded by cafés where you can obtain the refreshments you no doubt require, including the famed ‘Tree of Idleness’ café. Be warned, legend has it that you’ll spend the rest of the day lingering in its shade!
The monastery itself is very much on the right side of ‘semi-ruined’ – somewhat like the Colosseum in Rome or the Parthenon in Athens. Perhaps the damage serves to remind us what we may have lost altogether. Indeed, the abbey was almost completely lost to posterity when, in the nineteenth-century, the British administration actually considered demolishing the abbey in order to obtain building stone.
Augustinian monks, fleeing Jerusalem and the encroaching Muslim armies of Saladin, laid the first foundations of the abbey around the year 1200. This was the Lusignan period and successive Lusignan kings added to the abbey including the thirteenth-century church which today is the best preserved part of the site.
The fame of the abbey was sealed throughout Christendom when the knight, Roger the Norman, bequeathed to the monastery a supposed fragment of the true cross making the abbey a significant place of pilgrimage. Unfortunately, after a raid by the Genoese on Kyrenia in 1373, the abbey was plundered and anything of value, including the piece of the cross, was taken.
After the Ottoman invasion the abbey passed into the ownership of the Greek Orthodox church but it was allowed to descend into neglect and ruin. By the end of the nineteenth-century shepherds grazed their flocks amongst the overgrown ruins. Only since the 1960s has it received the care and attention it deserves to the point where, today, restored and functional, it is a beautiful oasis of peacefulness and charm.
After centuries of neglect and earthquakes, that which is still standing is in remarkably sturdy condition. The aforementioned church is open for visits and its candlelit interior illuminates a beautiful array of religious icons. Stairs from the cloisters lead to the roof of the abbey, allowing stunning views of the ruins and a truly breathtaking vista of the northern coastline. The crypt below the refectory is used as an art gallery but the feature the visitor really should try to enjoy is a summer concert in the acoustically perfect refectory. The Bellapais Music Festival attracts international ensembles and soloists in late spring and, if you are lucky, you might catch one of the free concerts, such as the annual ‘Türksoy Opera Days’ concerts.