Letter from Cyprus: The view beyond the Green Line

March 11 2001 / The Independent

Perhaps only Trieste, the cosmopolitan port on the shadowy, disputed borderlands between Italy and the former Yugoslavia, and Lisbon, with its brooding sense of an empire lost, have quite the same atmosphere as Cyprus: the same sense of vivid ghostliness. With its geographic position between three continents and as the troubled juncture between clashing civilisations, Cyprus is a country not of one dividing line, but many.

Drive north for a couple of miles out of boisterous Agia Napa and you soon arrive on the edges of the ghost town of Famagusta, once the most vibrant tourist centre in Cyprus but now a site of monumental dereliction. Soon you can drive no further because you have reached the heavily fortified “Green Line” that runs like a scar across the island, separating Greek from Turk, a scar of war and ethnic hatred.

Tourism on the island had yet another record-breaking year in 2000. The popularity of Agia Napa has contributed to the boom. A former fishing village, Agia Napa suddenly, last summer, supplanted Ibiza as the hedonistic capital of the Mediterranean - a place where the bullet-headed British young come to dance and drink and, they hope, have sex in a kind of frenzy. Mindless b******s, the locals call it.

Today it is eerily quiet in Famagusta. It always is. No one seems to be stirring in the late afternoon sunshine. Peering through binoculars across a nowhere zone of barren scrubland, razor wire, barricades and ruined white-washed cottages, I am startled to see a Turkish soldier looking back at me through his own binoculars. Mounted high on a sentry post, he is the only moving object in a landscape of stillness and desolation. To visit Famagusta is like finding yourself adrift on a film set of a JG Ballard novel: there are empty houses, abandoned shops and hotels, and even a garage, replete with a showroom full of big, gas-guzzling Fords - all largely untouched since the Turkish invasion and de facto partition of the island in 1974.

The young soldier probably wasn’t even born when the ethnic Greek villagers of Famagusta fled their homes after the invasion, never to return. As a car pulls up, I watch an old woman get out, approach the UN-patrolled “Green Line”, and begin gesturing forlornly. She used to live in Famagusta, her son, the driver, tells me. Every weekend they drive out from Larnaca to one of the watchtowers that are strung out along these borderlands, from where she looks through a telescope at her old house, which she can neither visit nor reclaim.

Her story is a familiar one: wherever I travelled on the island, on both sides of the line, I met people for whom the events of 1974 had given their lives an ineradicable undertone of mourning. More than 200,000 people were, in the contemporary argot, ethnically cleansed from their homes in 1974, as the Turkish army responded to a coup in mainland Greece by occupying the fertile, more affluent northern part of the island, including the treasured port of Kyrenia. As the terrified Greeks, who constituted more than four-fifths of the population of the occupied areas, fled south, Turkish Cypriots made the journey in reverse, abandoning their homes. The two communities have remained divided ever since. It is hard to believe that only a couple of miles down the road from Famagusta, the bars and nightclubs of Agia Napa will soon be opening for yet another night of licentious abandon.

But that’s the appeal of Cyprus - too often it is caricatured as being no more than a bucket-and-spade destination for the cheap sun and booze crowd, but, in fact, it is one of the most appealing resort locations in Europe, certainly if you like to combine sun and sea with history and a little bit of politics.

I spent virtually all my time on the island line-hopping, as it were, moving between the town and the country, the ancient and the modern, the past and the present - and between sites of Islam and Orthodox Christianity. “Different invasions [have] weathered and eroded Cyprus, piling monument upon monument,” wrote Lawrence Durrell in Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, his travelogue of 1957, in which he obliquely monitored the mounting tensions between Greeks and Turks, and the Greek campaign for enosis, unity with the homeland.

It is still the same: for everywhere you visit there are traces of what has been before, often in the most incongruous locations. In popular Paphos, for instance, which since 1974 has been transformed into a teeming tourist town, you can step out of your bright, shining, air-conditioned, high- rise hotel and within minutes find yourself wandering among Greek and Roman architectural sites of extraordinary richness and variety.

A sense of the proximity of the past is all around you, especially in the small hill villages surrounding the main towns, where you may find abandoned mosques, Roman mosaics or ruined castles. The effect of all this is the same as when you stumble on a pillbox in the English countryside or a trench line in a field in northern France - the past, you realise, is never actually past: it always reverberates strangely in the present. As Durrell wrote, in Cyprus you “never stop stumbling upon many echoes from forgotten moments of history with which to illuminate the present”.

Cyprus has been predominantly Christian since its conversion by Saints Paul and Barnabas in 45AD, but the occupation of the island by Ottoman Turks, in 1571, means that there has been a long Islamic influence and presence, too. Mosques are part of the cultural patrimony of the island and they survive even in the Greek Cypriot enclaves, a reminder of a time when Greek and Turk lived together, if not in harmony then at least in uneasy alliance.

Across the Green Line, however, in the rogue Turkish sector of Nicosia (the last divided capital in Europe) there is very little religious tolerance. All the old Greek Orthodox churches I visited had long since been converted into mosques. It was the same in Kyrenia. (There is a community of elderly Greeks living in the remote Turkish-controlled Karpasia peninsula, the north-east tip of the island, but their numbers are dwindling fast.)

The history of Cyprus is so curious and complex, so much of its growth haphazard and serendipitous, that the streets of its ever- changing towns are like a palimpsest with successive generations failing quite to erase the influence of those who have gone before. A sense of the past is what impresses itself most; and it is this perhaps, as much as the long hot summers and Mediterranean languor, that is the source of the island’s fascination.

On my last day I decided to visit Kyrenia, a privilege denied to anyone with a Cypriot passport or, indeed, with a Greek name. You cannot take your hired car across the border, nor can you stay later than 5pm, unless, of course, you go direct to North Cyprus in the first instance, which, as it happens, is anything but direct as the “North” is not internationally recognised and hence no airline will fly there.

Fortunately, once you cross the line, there are any number of Turkish taxi drivers touting for business at the border checkpoint. Business is swiftly done and you are on your way to Kyrenia, which is certainly worth paying black market rates to visit. With its intimate harbour of small fishing boats and bars, crumbling castle, labyrinthine streets and surrounding mountains, the town is surely the loveliest in all Cyprus. Greek Cypriots have never stopped mourning their exclusion from Kyrenia. I lost count of the times I spent in waterfront bars listening to songs (which had the melancholy appeal of Portuguese fado music) about the loss of Kyrenia.

On this side of the Green Line - despite the settlement of more than 100,000 mainland Turks here since 1974 - it isn’t hard finding someone who remembers a time before partition. My taxi driver, for instance, who was born and grew up in Paphos. His questions were the same as those of the Greek Cypriots I had met. What is it like on the other side? How has it changed?

The sadness of contemporary Cyprus, with its actual and metaphorical lines of division, is that today only a fortunate traveller can attempt to answer such questions.