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Sylvia Ioannou: Without Memory, We Have No Origins

Interview with Sylvia Ioannou in "Phileleftheros", 5 July 2020

Sylvia Ioannou belongs to a family whose business activities were combined with service to country and community. She continues to follow this family legacy in her chosen discipline of the knowledge of history: a field that may not be easy for the general public to appreciate.

No matter how much one searches the internet, one will not find any information about Sylvia Ioannou, other than particulars relating to her foundation: an institution established in 2009 with the aim of preserving historical memory and sharing knowledge with anyone interested.

It all started around the end of the 1970s, after the Turkish invasion [of Cyprus], when Sylvia Ioannou started collecting travel books, manuscripts and maps in order to preserve and save them, but also to spread the knowledge found in these cultural and historical treasures of our homeland. After 40 years, she continues her efforts, having already managed to collect more than 3000 rare books and maps concerning Cyprus and the wider region, dating as far back as the 15th century. Sylvia Ioannou’s collection is considered one of the most important of its kind in the world.

She decided to utilise this collection by making it accessible, in various ways, to scholars and other interested parties. Part of the collection has been digitised, posted and offered for research purposes through the Foundation’s website ( The programme developed in collaboration with the Department of Geography of Harokopio University of Athens is considered particularly important. It is based on the digital utilisation of the map made by Kitchener in 1885. Through this online application one can readily access information about population and other aspects of rural and urban life on the island at that time. Also, the ‘Zefyros’ programme, which is based on the indexing of books written in languages now difficult to read, allows us easily to roam the Cyprus of another era electronically and to find such information as place names and to learn about food, clothes, medicine, education and other subjects.

At the same time, the Sylvia Ioannou Foundation organises conferences, publishes books and grants scholarships to young people interested in studying the subject. At the University of Cyprus, which has awarded her an honorary doctorate from its School of Philosophy, she has established the Sylvia Ioannou Chair for Digital Humanities, introducing modern technology in the service of traditional academic knowledge, with the aim of attracting young researchers in the field of humanities.

We approached the woman behind it all, trying to get an insight into her vision.

The founder, Sylvia Ioannou
The founder, Sylvia Ioannou

You are the owner of one of the most important collections of books and maps relating to Cyprus. How did this interest come about?
I have always been interested in books. After the invasion, I tried to gather written and printed evidence about the history and culture of our country. This collection was the springboard for the creation of the Sylvia Ioannou Foundation in 2009.

– In such a cynical era, in which interest is focussed on the future, how important can knowledge of the past be?
History teaches us that if a people does not know its past, it cannot manage its present, nor have positive expectations for its future.

– In a globalised world, what is the value of maps? What can they teach us?
Maps teach geography and history, remind us of elements of mythology, preserve old place names and convey a lot of wonderful information for anyone who has the patience to lean over and study them. On this matter, I would like to say how happy we are at the Foundation with the positive reception of the digital application for the Kitchener map of Cyprus of 1885 and the many prospects it opens for new studies. It started as a research programme with Harokopio University and the team of Professor Christos Chalkias, which is constantly enriched and evolving.

– What is the content of the collection today and how is it utilised?
The Foundation’s collection contains more than 3000 rare editions, maps and manuscripts from the 15th century to the 20th about Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean. This material can be used through the digital library found on the Foundation’s website, where entire books and maps are progressively being posted. Of course, we also follow the traditional methods, such as printed copies of manuscripts and publications of reference works on the history of books and the cartography of Cyprus. Another way of utilising the collection, again through modern technology, is the use of research programmes, such as the ones prepared in collaboration with Harokopio University for cartography, as well as the Inspiral portal.

– What is the significance of such rich material concerning the history of the country for the country itself?
But your question already contains the answer: Great!

– How can people perceive and appreciate this material?
The book is a medium that I believe will not be lost in this age of technology in which we live. A book is where we turn to shelter ourselves; recent times have shown that people seek the consolation of books. However, nowadays the possibilities offered by technology are important, being able to communicate with the entire world and to access material that we would not have thought possible just 20 years ago. And this power rests in a medium that will never be surpassed, the image. See, for example, a map of 1571 by Jenichen depicting the siege of Famagusta. While the war in Cyprus was raging, this illustrated single-sheet pamphlet, containing minimal text, was circulated in Europe to serve the purpose of a newspaper at the time. The image was enough to inform people about the events. The map shows documentary ‘snapshots’ of the war, the fortification of the city (the triangular Martinengo Bastion stands out), the trenches, the camps, the cavalry charge and the blockade of the port

– Collectors usually keep their acquisitions private for their own use and enjoyment. You follow a completely different approach by making your collection available to anyone who is interested. What is your reasoning?
I have always believed that knowledge is for everyone and especially for young people. That is why the Foundation is open to academics and the younger generations. Fortunately, technology offers the opportunity to disseminate knowledge without the need of physical presence. This way, knowledge becomes accessible to all, because without knowledge a people loses its identity.

– Does this occupation of yours contain a touch of nostalgia?
Definitely, this is about my homeland!

– Residing most of the time abroad, does this cause an idealised image of Cyprus?
On the contrary. Distance makes you more objective, without this meaning that it reduces your love of your homeland.

– In addition to the collection, you have created the Inspiral platform. How can it be used by the public?
The Inspiral platform, created by the Sylvia Ioannou Foundation, is now being expanded in collaboration with the Gennadius Library in Athens, the Benaki Museum and the Aktia Nikopolis Foundation. The core of the platform is a selection of 125 rare travel books from the collection, written in 11 different languages, published between the 15th and 18th centuries. These books were indexed within the framework of a research programme undertaken by the University of Cyprus, under the scientific supervision of Professor Julia Chatzipanagioti-Sangmeister, who was also responsible for naming this the ‘Zefyros’ programme. Possessing only basic knowledge of computers, anyone can travel around the Cyprus of another time and find information from books written in languages ​​that would otherwise be difficult to read today. One may collect historical or toponymic data, seek specialised information on the topics offered, learn about food, clothing, medicine and education and generally anything that touches upon one’s interests. Our goal is gradually to add more books, but this is a time-consuming and very demanding task. A prerequisite is, as you understand, the participation of expert scientists to undertake the ‘decryption’ of the information shielded in these books. The Bank of Cyprus Cultural Foundation has already expressed interest in enriching the platform with books from their own collection.

– How do you see all this material evolving? What are the goals?
Inspired by the digital applications that highlight primary sources, we embraced the idea of establishing a Chair for Digital Humanities at the University of Cyprus. The rationale is that new applications that will utilise data from historical sources (for example, books, documents, maps, drawings, old photographs) will be produced and will thus enhance research in the humanities. The public warmly welcomes such applications, as evidenced by the positive response to another programme already materialised in collaboration with Harokopio University, ‘Representations of Cyprus’, which was voted the best programme in the 2019 Digital Humanities Awards – Best DH Public Engagement category. Younger generations, for example, are familiar with technology from an early age and can easily access data from research programmes to help them in various aspects of everyday life. This is another goal of ours that we try to accomplish through the Foundation’s research-based designs of educational programmes. Starting from the simplest and everyday things, even primary school students can learn about their grandparents’ village, the place where their parents were born, the city they live in today and how it has changed over time.

– Every year the Sylvia Ioannou Foundation grants scholarships for studies about Cyprus. Is there interest from young people?
Of course, and it is constantly growing. Every year more and more candidates with interesting topics apply. We are already in the 8th cycle of the scholarship programme, and the scholarships awarded to now (up to 3 years) are supporting young scientists in a variety of subjects related to Cyprus.

– What can the study of humanities contribute in our time?
I am certainly not being original by saying that for every human being humanities need to be the basis of their education in order for them to become complete. Perhaps the scientist will benefit more from them working towards a specialisation, using them to cultivate critical thinking, enhance the imagination and broaden one’s vision, amongst other things. In other words, the humanities contribute decisively to the acquisition of a comprehensive education.

– Studying the history of Cyprus throughout the centuries, how do you judge its course over time and especially the current situation?
I love history and books. What I learnt from reading is that our land has been a tax-subservient country, it had been part of empires, it was bought, it was sold to the Franks, it became a possession of Venice, it was conquered by the Ottomans, it was ceded to the English, it was wounded by Attila [the name of the Turkish invasion plan]. Yet this wonderful place has managed to maintain its language, religion and identity. And the books saved that story. By saving books, we preserve memory. Because without memory, we have no origins.

– Can you somehow predict its future?
I wish I could be an oracle of positive things.

– In what era would you have liked to live in and why?
In the one I live in, because I enjoy the present, thanks to learning I know the past and I hope for the future. After all, our era offers technological tools that motivate each of us to undertake our own journey in knowledge and time.

– Searching the internet, I have not found any interview with you. Why do you avoid publicity?
I do not avoid publicity. I avoid self-promotion, because I believe it is more worthwhile to promote the wealth of knowledge from books and maps that are placed in an open library.

– You come from a business family. How do business and culture combine?
To be precise, I come from a philanthropic family. I was taught by my parents that every human being should contribute to society and their homeland. Hence, I continue to contribute in my own way in the field of culture.

– During my initial contact I was informed that you are constantly on the move. What is the map of your travels? What does travel mean to you?
We are a very close-knit family. My children are citizens of the world, and travel is absolutely necessary to maintain family ties.

In closing, I would like to say something personal: the most moving moment for me was the proposal from the University of Cyprus to award me an honorary doctorate of the School of Philosophy. It was recognition of my efforts to establish a Cyprological library that includes the history and culture of my homeland. It was also recognition of my support of young people, in whom I have never stopped believing.

Φιλελεύθερα, 5 July 2020
Chrystalla Hatzidimitriou

Related links:

Browse through the Digital Library of Sylvia Ioannou Foundation for books and maps of the Collection.
Discover indexed information from books of the Collection at the Inspiral platform.
Search the publications of Sylvia Ioannou Foundation.