BANDIT LANDS 10 – The Hassanpoulia of Cyprus

(NB: Most diacriticals omitted)

The Hasan Bullis

In the 1880s mountainous Paphos was one of the poorer regions of Cyprus. Greek and Turkish Cypriots lived side-by-side under the control of a British administration that had perpetuated the Ottoman system of considering the Turks and Greeks on the island as members of their own ‘nations’, with their own religious, legal and educational institutions. Cyprus had a history of occupation and domination reaching back to the ancient Egyptians so the British, who assumed control in 1878, were just the latest in a long line of colonisers. The actions of the Hassanpoulia (poulia means ‘birds’) as the family confederacy and the other members of its gang were known, came to be seen by both Turkish and Greek Cypriots as a form of revolt against British authority. The British administration certainly perceived the activities of the gang and the considerable sympathy and support they commanded among the dispossessed and disgruntled peasantry, as a potential source of political trouble.

But within a decade of the deaths of the Bullis two distinctly different traditions developed. The Turkish Cypriot tradition continued to present the Bullis as heroic outlaws but in Greek Cypriot epics they are treated much more negatively. The disjunctions between the two traditions reveal both the ambivalence of outlaw heroism and the potency of the tradition itself, as seen in the extent to which the composers and singers of the Greek epics needed to demonise the Bullis.[i]

The events that generated these traditions began in May 1887 when the 19 or-so years old Turkish Hasan Bulli was accused of theft. The accusation was denied and Hasan took to the hills. According to one version of the story he became involved in a feud with another outlaw over Hasan’s uncle’s young wife and was eventually framed and arrested. He soon escaped and continued his lawless existence, still trying to kill his rival. He survived the next eighteen months of attempted betrayals and traps by robbing the local herds and apparently polarising opinion for and against him. Eventually he contracted malaria and, in a weakened state, gave himself up to the police. Convicted and sentenced to death, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, which he served in an untroubled manner for six years, even being allowed the privileges of a trusty.

But in 1894 he heard that his two brothers Kaymakam and Hüseyin had been betrayed and arrested. They had been involved in a Greek-Turkish dispute over a woman and were accused of murder. Hüseyin attempted to escape and join them but was killed by prison guards. His brothers gathered a band of outlaws and survived until their killing or capture and execution in 1896. Large rewards were offered in vain by the British for the capture of the outlaws. 

In 1895 the Outlaw’s Proclamation Act was also passed in an attempt to limit the influence of their activities which, whatever their intent, were widely interpreted by both Greek and Turkish Cypriots at the time as being directed against the British. This act was another descendant of the medieval notion of outlawry and effectively subverted the usual legal processes ‘extraordinary powers being given to the Executive to remove from the disturbed districts, persons suspected of assisting and harbouring the outlaws’.[ii] Application of the Act in the districts of Limassol and Paphos involved the arrest and gaoling of the main holders of flocks. The success of the outlaws in eluding capture for so long is a clear testament to their support from the larger populace, as was the necessity to hold their trial elsewhere and to bury their executed remains within the prison walls.

From early in the twentieth century there arose two oral epics about these events and their protagonists – a Greek work of 318 verses and a near-400-verse Turkish work. The Greek poem acknowledges the bravery, escaping and disguising abilities (including dressing as women) of the Hassanpoulia, common features of outlaw hero traditions:

They used to fly like birds

And they used to try a different costume everyday

They used to be dressed like a Turk one day

And like a Greek the next day…

But they are also savage rapists and promiscuous murders rather than revolutionaries and the Muslim Hassanpoulia’s end is attributed to the curse of a Christian priest.

The same events are interpreted quite differently in the Turkish-Cypriot epic. The kidnappings and rapes made much of in the Greek story are rapidly passed over as everyday events. The various murders are portrayed as justified retribution against informers and the Hassanpoulia swear to die fighting rather than surrender to the British overlords:

I died but I did not surrender to the British

and:

Let the British hang me, pity on me

Death is much better for me than this outrage.

The Turkish version is much what might be expected of an outlaw hero tradition from almost anywhere in the world. The hero is wronged, is a great escaper, a brave hero, a friend of his own people and an avenger of their injustice against their oppressors. To fail, he – in this case, ‘they’ – must be betrayed. The importance of female and male honour, while often encountered in other outlaw hero traditions, is especially intense in this culture and forms not only the rationale for most of the criminal activities of all the brothers but is also the pivotal difference between the Turkish and Greek traditions. So important is the moral code of the outlaw hero tradition forbidding the misuse of women, that the events, real or not, are graphically highlighted in the Greek version of the abduction of the Turkish women:

She was sleeping with her husband, when

She was forcefully taken away, and

Almost her poor husband was killed.

They have their turns over her, one by one

Who is going to ask about her, who is she going to complain to

Blood is gushing from her like a fountain…

And also in the Greek version:

Three insatiable monsters suddenly entered the house

They took her away and spent the night somewhere else

At an isolated sheep fold, at a remote cottage

They almost killed her, and tore her breasts.

The Hassanpoulia have continued to play an important cultural role in the fractured politics of Cyprus. While both Greeks and Turks, in Paphos at least, may have seen the outlaws as an expression of their dislike of British rule and supported them accordingly, the increasingly polarised politics of the succeeding century have solidified the opposing interpretations. In the now Greek southern Cyprus the Hassanpoulia are common bandits, while in the northern Turkish sector of the island they are symbols of the popular struggle against colonial oppression.[iii] [iv]  [v]


[i] Ismail Bozkurt, ‘Ethnic Perspective in Epics: The Case of Hasan Bulliler, Folklore Vol. 16,http://haldjas.folklore.ee/folklore/vol16/bulliler.pdf, Presented to the ISFNR 2000 Conference, Kenyatta University, July 17th–22nd, 2000.

[ii] Bryant, R., ‘Bandits and ‘Bad Characters’: Law as Anthropological Practice in Cyprus, c. 1900’, Law and History Review vol 21, no 2, Summer 2003, par 55 (online).

[iii] Though see Paul Sant Cassa’s ‘Banditry, Myth and Terror in Cyprus and Other Mediterranean Societies’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol 35, No. 4, Oct. 1993, which argues that ‘the Hassanpoulia were never incorporated in a Cypriot national rhetoric and subsequent Cypriot agonistes modelled themselves on the equally dubious Greek klephts rather than their own home-grown variety’. p. 794.

[iv] At http://www.cypnet.co.uk/ncyprus/culture/hasanbullis/, accessed October 2004. The article is based on the following cited sources: N. Gelen, “Bir Devrin Efsane Kahramanlari: Hasan Bulliler”, Halkin Sesi Matbaasi, Nicosia, 1973, B. Lyssarides, “Hassan Poulis, the Jesse James of Old Cyprus”, Cyprus Weekly, No.815, p.11, G. Serdar, 1571’den 1964’e Kibris Turk Edebiyatinda Gazavetname, Destan, Efsane, Kahramanlik Siiri: Arastirma-Inceleme, Ulus Ofset, Nicosia, 1986, O.Yorgancioglu, Kibris Turk Folkloru, Famagusta, 1980; pp. 91-107.

[v] Lyssarides, B. 1995. ‘Hassan Poullis, The Jesse James of Old Cyprus’,

The Cyprus Weekly, July 14–20. 

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