The house of the dragoman
The powerful office of the Ottoman translator in Nicosia
What happens when the governed speak another language than the governor? During the period of Ottoman rule (1571–1878) in Nicosia, Cyprus, there was one office with a concentrated deal of power: the dragoman.
The dragoman was the language interpreter and translator between the Turkish and Greek communities on Cyprus. Though he was often Greek (and it was pretty much always a “he” in those days), like the Muslim population, the dragoman was exempt from taxes. This all meant the dragoman was extremely powerful, an institutional link in a system of patronage.
In Nicosia, the house of a particular dragoman, that of Hadjigeorgakis Kornesios, is one of the best surviving examples of Ottoman architecture in the city.
Featuring a low door to prevent horsemen from sweeping into the courtyard, the house of Hadjigeorgakis Kornesios also featured the dragoman’s personal hamam (Turkish bath) as well as the traditional Turkish sitting room, where guests would sit on a low couch.
The story of the dragoman who lived there, Hadjigeorgakis Kornesios, was quite dramatic. Hailing from Paphos, and holding the office of dragoman in Nicosia from 1779-1809, Kornesios acquired a great deal of wealth, attracting the envy of other notables in Nicosia. In 1804, a Cypriot revolt caused by a grain shortage and heavy taxation led to riots in the capital, and Kornesios’s house was sacked. He fled to Istanbul and stayed there for three years, after which he returned to Nicosia.
But then, Kornesios’s enemies called his accounts into question, and Kornesios faced an audit of his accounts over the past twenty years. (Without considering his guilt or innocence, just appreciate the challenge of doing your taxes and conducting an audit in an age before Excel). Kornesios fled back to Istanbul, and though he secured a pardon from the sultan, he was executed by the grand vizier.
So ended the story of a Cypriot notable, but his house lived on. In 1960, Kornesios’s house was renovated through fundraising by popular subscription. The site became an ethnological museum, a living memory of a time when one figure formed the official link between two communities.
This is the twenty-first post in The Cyprus Files, a limited-run newsletter series from The Usonian chronicling my Fulbright experiences in Cyprus. You can read all the posts in The Cyprus Files here. Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to subscribe so you don’t miss a (free) dispatch from the island of Aphrodite!