Gavur Imam Revolt

Gavur İmam İsyanı


This Cypriot folk song (Gavur İmam İsyanı) refers to a revolt that took place in Cyprus. In the first section of the song, the sufferings of the Cypriots under Ottoman rule are described, while the second part brings us to the outbreak of the revolt.

“The villagers were united, they resisted the pasha, as soon as Gavur Imam struck, the Ottomans lost. As soon as the revolt of the people started, the army lost.”

Few Cypriots know this part of history. The very title of “Gavur Imam” seems contradictory: on the one hand, “gavur” means non-believer, on the other hand the “imam” is a religious title. It is even more difficult for many to imagine that a revolt against the Ottomans would have a Muslim leader. However, anyone who has studied the Ottoman history of Cyprus, but also knows about the Ottoman Empire in general, is aware that this was only an exception.

The song is addressed mainly to Cypriot audience and its intent is to remind them this particular part of history, while describing the sufferings of the people who were under Ottoman rule. The people were working for the Ottomans and giving everything up to the “pasha”, the Ottoman leader. They wanted freedom and aimed at escaping the Ottoman rule. Gavur Imam united Cypriots and turned against the Ottomans, helping them towards freedom. His story seems to have remained alive in the Cypriot tradition, giving him a heroic character.

There is a lot of repetition in the song. The verse has regular meter, but no rhyme. Its aim is to entertain and touch the hearts of Cypriots about their past.


Cyprus In the Years of Ottoman Declension

In the early 19th century, Cyprus was ruled by an Ottoman ruler, who was in collaboration with the Orthodox Church and other Christian officials, such as the “Dragomans” and the local “Kodjabashis”. The Church had great power in the 18th century, and some representatives of foreign countries believe the Archbishop to be the true leader of the island. It was not surprising that the wrath of the people was often turned against this particular ecclesiastical or political Christian elite; this could also lead to shared uprisings by Cypriot communities.

The first half of the 19th century was generally a period of instability. Parts of the Ottoman or Orthodox ruling class of the island clashed with each other, while in 1821 the Ottoman ruler launched an all-out attack against the Orthodox elite of the island, including the well-known execution of Archbishop Kyprianos. For some years following, the island also suffered from uncontrolled Egyptian troops. Many Cypriots fled abroad, due to heavy taxes amongst other things, while small revolts followed one another.

1833: The Revolutionary Year

In view of this situation, it is understandable to see how we arrived in 1833, the year of the three revolts: that of Nikolaos Theseus in Larnaca, the Kalogeros (monk) Ioannikios in Karpasia and Gavur Imam in Paphos. The primary cause was the imposition of a special tax, which was thought to be unbearable for the Cypriot rural population.

Both Cypriot communities participated in all three movements. In the case of Nikolaos Theseus, there are also reports of the participation of Europeans (the “third order”, as Archbishop Panaretos called them, who of course spoke out against the rebellion). Regarding the monk Ioannikios, we know that the original body of his army consisted of Albanian soldiers who were stranded in Larnaca.

The revolt in Larnaca, the first of the three revolts, was massive and probably spontaneous – at some point, however, Nikolaos Theseus was the leader. It began with rallies in Larnaca, which spread further to Nicosia. The revolt ended without many casualties since the decision to impose the tax was annulled. Theseus, along with many of his followers, resorted to Stavrovouni, as he feared there would be retaliation. Having secured its safety, the group quietly dispersed without casualties. Theseus himself left Cyprus.

The end of the rebellion in Karpasia wasn’t so peaceful. It happened much later, in July, and brought on a more straightforward challenge for the Ottoman power. Monk Ioannikios, started out with a boat from Larnaca and disembarked along with the Albanian soldiers in Bogazi, proceeding to the village where he was born (Saint Elias) and started turning the villagers against the Ottoman administration. His headquarters were at Trikomo. Although he found several supporters among the rural population of the region, they scattered as soon as the Ottoman troops arrived. Monk Ioannikios himself and his colleagues were arrested and executed.

We know little about the reasons behind the actions of the leaders of these revolts. But the fact that Nikolaos Theseus fought in Greece against the Ottomans in 1821 and then returned to Cyprus, shows that their motivation had a lot to do with the national Greek idea (although for the people that participated, the tax issue was more important). This is likely to apply to the monk Ioannikos, who is also presumed to have participated in the Greek Revolution. But the case of Gavur Imam is only associated with the Cypriot independence and freedom.

Gavur Imam Movement

Gavur Imam, according to the Ottoman sources, lived in the village of Trimithousa (the province of Paphos today). This village, like many other Turkish-speaking Cypriot villages, was probably inhabited by “Linobambaki”, meaning people that were secretly Christian. It is very likely that he belonged to them himself, which in combination with his collaboration with the Christians of the region may have given him the nickname “Gavur Imam”, with which he eventually passed into History.

Gavur Imam seems to have been preparing for his the revolt already in 1832, turning his place of residence into a camp, but initially, the Ottoman authorities did not pay attention to him. A tradition says that there was an episode with an Ottoman official (about the supply of nuts for the army), but certainly, the real reasons behind the movement are deeper. Armed Turkish-speaking Cypriots from Trimithousa and surrounding villagers soon joined the team.

When the tax was imposed in March 1833, there was popular dissatisfaction and Gavur Imam was able to find enough Turkish-speaking Cypriot and Greek-speaking Cypriot villagers ready to follow him (then the Archbishop Panaretos claims in his letter that it was exclusively a Turkish-speaking Cypriot insurrection). Declare that his purpose was to benefit all Cypriot villagers, whom he wanted to exempt from heavy taxation. The fact that his speech was addressed and that it found a response to all Cypriot communities shows that, at least for the people, the dividing lines were not so clear at that time.

From Trimithousa, he descended to Yiolos and then to Ktima, finding constantly in his path new followers. Soon the entire province of Paphos was under his control. At the risk of moving to Limassol, some Christian officials such as Kojabasis Pilavakis have sought help to suppress the rebellion. But the Ottoman governor of the island knew that he could not wait for reinforcements at that moment, as the Sultan was busy in the struggle against Mehmet Ali of Egypt (whereby Gavur Imam is alleged to have acted, – after the crackdown on the rebellion, he fled to Egypt). He was forced to negotiate with Gavur Imam and actually had to tolerate him for some months – an element that may indicate how weak the Ottoman administration was at that time in Cyprus.

There are reports that Gavur Imam was cooperating with monk Ioannikos and their plan was to gradually expand to Nicosia, putting the island under their control. Although there is no evidence to confirm this, the repression of the rebellion in Karpasia, along with the compromise between the Sultan and Mehmet Ali of Egypt, gave the Ottoman administration the opportunity to focus on Gavur Imam. Aid to troops arrived from Karamania, while a significant number of people were recruited in Nicosia alone. The Ottomans were now ready to campaign.

Faced with the risk of suppressing his rebellion and arrest, Gavur Imams fled to Alexandria, and his movement broke up. There are many versions of Gavur Imam’s fate, but it is certain that he was eventually finally back to Cyprus where he was executed.

Some Thoughts About the Forgotten Uprising

Although the excuse for the revolutionary climate was the tax, at least in the cases of Gavur Imam and monk Ioannikos we see a more general questioning of Ottoman power. Interestingly, the leadership of these movements was from both Cypriot communities. And their followers were mixed with both communities as well. On the other hand, their opponents who defended Ottoman rule, coming mainly from the higher classes of both communities, were also mixed.

As for Gavur Imam, it is also interesting that his story seems to have remained alive in the Cypriot tradition, giving him a heroic character. In the neighborhood of Paphos, a road remains to this day dedicated to his memory, even with the name “Gavur Imam”.

This may indicate that the dissatisfaction with the Ottoman administration was something that generally concerned the population, especially the rural one, irrespective of religion. The escalation seen from the rebellion in Larnaca to those in Paphos and Karpasia is also significant: the latter two seem to directly threaten the Ottoman domination on the island, aiming at the capture of the capital Nicosia. Obviously, such ideas became possible, since the decadent Ottoman power seemed now so incompetent and vulnerable. Poor preparation and lack of coordination may eventually lead to the end of the movements, but the local ruling class seems to have been aware of this weakness and was anxious about it.

This brings us to another important element, the position of the Church. The first gatherings of insurgents led by Nikolaos Theseus were held in front of the Diocese of Kition and the Archbishopric in Nicosia. Obviously, there were those who were responsible or those who could change the situation. It is also interesting that Gavur Imam chose the headquarters of the Episkopi building in Paphos (Orthodox Church), probably because it was the local symbol of power. Nevertheless, the fact that Archbishop Panaretos condemned all three uprisings, is no surprise.

This was the last great revolt on the island, in which both Turkish-speaking Cypriots and Greek-speaking Cypriots participated. It seems to inspire musicians to this day. Cypriot folk musicians Hamza Irkad and Oz Karahan covered this forgotten traditional song. The peasants of that era perceived things in class terms without having a trace of Marxist or internationalist education; it was simply the natural consequence of their way of life.