The mountain village of Lefkara (photo: Gerald Ring)
The mountain village of Lefkara has been renowned for its lacemakers for hundreds of years. (photo: Gerald Ring)
The men of Lefkara craft exquisite metalwork. (photo: Gerald Ring)
The ageless artistry of Lefkara’s lacemakers is only one aspect of the village’s traditions. (photo: Gerald Ring)
In 1481, during a visit to Cyprus, Leonardo da Vinci found an embroidered lace tablecloth in the village of Lefkara that he thought beautiful enough to grace the main altar of Milans Duomo Cathedral. On the cathedrals 600th anniversary, the women of Lefkara made a gift of another tablecloth, identical in its intricate design to the original. They did not need to check with Milan or see a picture of the first cloth to match the original motif. Their craft had continued uninterrupted for centuries. Although they produce several different designs of lace and embroidery, the pattern used for the altar cloth has been known as Leonardo da Vinci ever since the artists visit.
Today, as in centuries gone by, lacemakers can be seen everywhere in Lefkara. They sit in the sun or in the shade of an arbor while they delicately convert each piece of linen into a work of art. These women and their lace have kept the village alive.
Midway between Larnaca and Nicosia, the village of Lefkara is about ten miles off the main road and high in the hills. It still retains the special atmosphere and appearance of a typical Cypriot mountain village. Yet, its prosperity is immediately discernible, especially when contrasted with other villages in the area.
In the dry, mountainous terrain of eastern Cyprus, its natural spring was essential for the establishment and maintenance of this community. Its sloping, often stepped cobbled streets are narrow. Originally, they only had to accommodate a donkey bearing two sacks of carobs on either side! Balconies overhang the streets, and open doorways reveal immaculate courtyards decorated with canopies of vines; lemon, almond, and fig trees; and earthenware pots with all manner of plants and herbs.
With its quaint old-world charm, Lefkara thrives not only proud of its past and present but confident of its future. Until recently, though, it was in danger of dying like other rural communities, whose young people had left for better economic opportunities.
In Lefkara, agriculture was the economic mainstay. Carobs, grapes, and olives are the local crops. Lacemaking had been a pastime to be enjoyed in the lazy afternoon siesta hours or in the quiet of evening. The lace was solely for local use. The unmarried women would keep pieces for their dowry. Only occasionally would a piece be sold to a passing visitor.
Village life had been precarious because Lefkaras agriculture was unreliable. With rainfall uncertain, droughts could leave peasants without enough to feed their families. The lure of prosperity in America, England, and Australia could not compare with the hardships offered by tilling and toiling in their arid, rocky soil. Many young people and families began to leave.
Faced with economic decline, the village found unexpected hope in its craftswomen. In 1896, a woman named Theophilia Hadji Antoni first attempted to market Lefkaran lace. She brought some choice pieces from the village women to Alexandria, Egypt. Although she had little success on this trip, she was not deterred. She tried again with her husbands help in 1902. This time, not only did she sell some lace; she actually came home with orders for more.
With these encouraging results in Egypt, other women followed her example. They carried suitcases full of lace tablecloths, napkins, runners, chair covers, and doilies not only to Egypt but throughout Europe and Turkey. Wherever they went, they found assistance in the Cypriots and Greeks who lived in these places. Eventually, Lefkara lace or Lefkaritika, as it is properly known became a byword among connoisseurs. Over many years, then, the womens pastime became an important industry and kept the village intact.
Though a tablecloth may take up to nine months to complete, the number of skillful women of Lefkara ensure a steady supply. The villages girls are happy to follow their mothers and grandmothers in their craft. Traditionally attired older women sit in groups with young women and girls in modern dress, all deeply and contentedly engrossed in their delicate labor.
As the womenfolk became primary breadwinners through their handicrafts, the men of Lefkara sought to regain their traditional role by following them into the marketing of local craftsmanship. Over the last decade, they have revived the local gold and silver handicraft industry. Small workshops line the streets, and the sounds of their tools against metal ring clearly in the fresh mountain air. The few master craftsmen left in the village devote themselves to training a new generation of artisans. These younger men now proudly display their hand-worked silver spoons, golden goblets, and decorated plates alongside the lace creations of their wives.
Lefkara plays host to thousands of visitors every year. With competition among the women, they do their best to persuade each passerby to come into their homes to see their work. In their genuine hospitality, they share something personal in their craftswork and in their friendliness. Usually they offer guests hot tea and some Turkish Delight, a local specialty treat.
Visitors who come to the village mainly for the lace find that Lefkara also has an interesting history and a famous church, the fourteenth century Church of the Holy Cross. Archaeological remains date the town to some thousands of years before Christ, but the earliest written mention of it occurs in the writings of the Cypriot saint Neophytos, who was born here in 1134.
Between 1191 and 1570, Lefkara was under Frankish domination. In 1308 the town became the involuntary home of the Order of the Knights Templar for three years. The Order had tried to escape from the island after causing trouble for the authorities, and were exiled to Lefkara as a result.
In 1507 the Turks who overran Cyprus killed most of Lefkaras population. A mosque was erected not far from the church, and it still stands. Fortunately, the church, which dates from 1341, survived the conquest.
Tradition says Saint Helena, mother of Constantine, brought the Holy Cross to the Cypriot village of Toghni in 306. After it was stolen in the early fourteenth century, a monk named Gabriel found it many years later, and he built the church in Lefkara. Renovations have been made to the building over the centuries.
As is the custom in Orthodox villages, the church is the hub of community activity and the chief meeting place for social and devotional events. Most of the funds for its restoration and upkeep come from loyal Lefkarans now living in many different countries. Now that emigration has virtually ceased, a new school has been built for the growing number of children in the village, and families are now building new homes rather than thinking of leaving.
In a world where the artistry of peasant handicrafts is being lost with the passing of older generations, one Cypriot village has revived a delicate handicraft industry. Combined with traditional community spirit, it reinforces the villagers heritage. Their old-world values in workmanship go hand-in-hand with old-world values of family living. Perhaps the lacemakers of Lefkara have succeeded not only in preserving their village. They have also managed to preserve a quality of community life rarely found today.
Gerald Ring, a frequent contributor to Catholic Near East, is a writer and photographer living in Jerusalem.