The called him “Tsiakataris*.” His real name was Kyriakos Mikhail. He was a giant man, perhaps at first glance physically intimidating, but when you got to know him he was a man with a gentle soul.
I first met him in 1978, one of my first friends in Kalavasos Village, where I was one of many foreign student archaeologists who came to the village year after year to participate in the excavation project at Tenta, a nearby Aceramic Neolithic site. Tsiakataris was a real fixture in Kalavasos, one of the most jovial characters in the village. You would often see him sitting at his customary spot, adjacent to the coffeeshop in the plateia (“village square”), drinking his coffee and smoking his beloved Dunhill cigarettes (which he would pronounce with a strong accent: “Du-kheel”). Then towards the evening, he would gravitate towards the only real taverna running in Kalavasos in those days, the Tenta Cafe run by the village butcher, Stavros. There he would sit with a tight circle of five or six village friends, have a glass or two of koniaki (Cyprus brandy), before retiring back home. All the archaeologists called him “Big Kyriakos” and we loved this man for his affable personality, addictive sense of humour and natural generosity. I think during the 15 years that I knew and interacted with him, I never once was allowed to pay for my own coffee!
Although he valued his social activities in the evenings, during the day Big Kyriakos was an extremely hard working individual. He owned and operated the local Gypsopeio (“The Pendeli Gypsum Factory”), the only such facility to produce this traditional building material anywhere in the area. In fact, he may well have been one of the last people in Cyprus to operate a Gypsum factory, which means he (and a handful of others) was preserving a technology that first appeared in Cyprus as far back as the 8th or 9th millenium B.C. Even during hot summer days, Tsiakataris would be seen labouring away with one or two of his many sons, stacking the circular kamini (“kiln”) with freshly cut gypsum stones, which he would burn for hours. Once the stones were completely dehydriated, they would be easily crushed and pulverised into a white-coloured powder. When combined with water, this powder could be used as a traditional building material in a similar manner to cement. Before the advent of modern cement, the use of gypsum powder mixed with water was very wide-spread throught the island.
Anybody who travels into the rural areas of Cyprus and visits traditional Cypriot stone and mud brick houses will be familiar with the use of gypsum slabs for paving floors within roofed areas. Gypsum (or “Cyprus marble” as it is sometimes called) has been the material of choice by local house builders for as long as anybody can remember. You can find gypsum used in flooring material during the island’s earliest dated architecture, and it continued as the material of choice for flagstones in structures during the Bronze Age right through to modern times. There used to be distinct and well-known quarries dedicated to the cutting of gypsum slabs. The last such quarry in Cyprus, located in the Paphos District outside Letymbou Village, ceased operations about 15-20 years ago.
Big Kyriakos, although he got married and lived in Kalavasos, actually came from the nearby village of Tokhni, just over the ridge to the east. The whole area is rich in natural gypsum deposits, as is typical across the island’s south coast at locations within the low-lying sections of the Lefkara Chalk Group. Both Kalavasos and Tokhni were villages long associated with stone quarries and it was perhaps due to this industry that the nickname “Tsiakataris” was born. “Tsiak” as in “Tsiakmakopetra” (local dialect for “chert” or “flint” stones) means to “cut” or “cleave.” It seems to be borrowed from the name “Tsiakmak,” a flint (geological name: chert) quarry in mainland Turkey. As is so characteristic of the Greek Cypriot dialect, many local words are connected to other languages like Turkish, French, Italian, even English. Such is the case with “tsiak” as we find it not only in the nickname of Big Kyriakos or in the name of certain stones, but also used widely in the local dialect.
Even though by the early 1990s, the use of gypsum generally dropped out in Cyprus and was replaced by cement, Big Kyriakos persisted and continued to run the Pendeli Gypsum Factory in the Vasilikos Valley until old age advanced on him. He eventually closed the whole operation in the mid-late 1990s. As often happens to those who led a hard physical life, he succumbed to illness in his elderly years and sadly passed away in October 2017 at a clinic in Limassol. I’ll say it again: He was my friend, one of the first true friends I had in Cyprus. I loved him and miss him, so I guess this is a form of obituary to the great Tsiakataris. “That’s all!”
*The “Tsiak” in “Tsiakataris” is pronounced: “Chiak” so the whole name sounds like the pronunciation “Chiakataris.”