A Divided Island

Liz Source: Jim Hughes

Source: Jim Hughes

I’ll admit that we didn’t know much about Cyprus before we got here, but one of the joys of travel is learning things about other countries you never knew before. I remembered watching the fighting in Nicosia on the news as a kid in the ’70s but that was about it. To be honest we actually thought the north was part of Turkey. Idiots.

This is not a simple tale. Neither is it a short one. If you want to understand more about the island, search the net and be inundated with material about the ‘Cyprus situation’ as viewed by all sides. I’m just going to make a few observations here.

“As a keen amateur photographer it’s always interesting to get someone else’s perspective on places and events, which is why I wanted to illustrate this page with some pics taken by Jim of ‘Dragon Song’.

Being the ill-prepared person that I am I didn’t have my SLR with me on our visit to north Lefkosia, and the battery ran out on the compact, so I’m grateful that we had someone with us who could take some decent shots of the run-down streets and dirty but cute street urchins in the Turkish quarter of this divided city.”

But first, here’s a one minute potted history of the island’s human habitation… It all started with the Hunter Gatherers in the Neolithic period. They have it their own way till the Mycenaean Greeks come along in 1600 BC, swiftly followed by more Greeks, some Phoenicians and then the Assyrians who got hold of it in 709 BC. The Egyptians had it for a while as did the Persians in 545 BC. Alexander the Great proclaimed it Greek until the Romans annexed it in 58 BC. In 395 AD it was part of the Byzantine Empire, then the Arabs stepped in till it was reclaimed as part of Byzantium. Along came Richard the Lionheart in 1191, who promptly sold it to the Knights Templar who sold it onto Guy of Lusignan of Jerusalem. Venice got hold of it in 1489 and in 1570 the Ottomans took control until WWI.

Streets on the north side in stark contrast to the prosperous south Source: Jim Hughes

Streets on the north side in stark contrast to the prosperous south Source: Jim Hughes

I might be wrong here, but couldn’t quite a few countries lay claim to Cyprus? Certainly the (ancient) Greeks had it for a while, but then so did the (Italian) Romans, (Turkish) Ottomans, and what about the Egyptians, Iranians, Arabs, English, and French? And what about the indigenous Neolithic people? Surely they were there first, and for the longest time. Perhaps it could be said that the Greeks have as much historic right to the island as the Vikings or French do in the UK?

So what happened next?

In 1878 the English stepped in as ‘administrators’ of the island ‘on behalf’ of the Ottomans, ostensibly to stop the island from falling into Russian hands. Silly old Ottomans. They hadn’t at that stage realized how slippery we English are in matters of diplomacy. As sure as eggs is eggs after WWI, when the Young Turks had foolishly backed the wrong side and lost, the Brits took total control of this strategically important piece of land, and in 1925 Britain formerly declared the island a crown colony. There was much dancing and celebrating in the street at this turn of events (yeah, right).

The movement towards ‘enosis’ (to become part of Greece), which had started in the previous century, became bloodier and bloodier. The population, at approximately two thirds Greek and one third Turkish, made for an uncomfortable mix. No love was lost between the two sides; the Greeks smarting from the treatment they had endured under the Ottomans, the Turks feeling victimized by the Greeks. Throw into the pot a British military and administrative presence and you have the makings of a broiling cauldron.

Kids of Lefkosia (Nicosia) Source: Jim Hughes

Kids of Lefkosia (Nicosia) Source: Jim Hughes

Until 1960 there were Greek factions fighting for enosis and Turkish groups fighting for ‘taksim’ (partition). The goal of self determination and independence came later, and finally in 1960 Cyprus, after terms agreed between Britain, Greece and Turkey, found its independence. Archbishop Makarios became its first leader. Oh, and those cololnial old Brits retained two sovereign base areas…of course.

This was not a happy time. The minority Turks felt further oppressed and withdrew to enclaves to escape persecution.

In 1974 enter the Greek Colonels with US backing. It had not escaped the attention of the world’s superpower that Cyprus was a very usefully positioned island. When it perceived Makarios cosying up to the Russians, Uncle Sam encouraged the new military junta in mainland Greece to force a coup in Cyprus, and declare the island Greek. Within seven days the Turkish mainland took it upon itself to ‘liberate’ its cousins in Cyprus. Turkey landed its forces and quickly had the upper hand. The battle for the island was short and bloody, with Turkey dominating. There are plenty of websites which detail the losses on both sides. Read them carefully and take from them your own kernel of truth.

Lefkosia again. Yep, someone really does live here. Source: Jim Hughes

Lefkosia again. Yep, someone really does live here. Source: Jim Hughes

It was a fierce battle which ended when international pressure led to a ceasefire. 170,000 Greek Cypriots and 50,000 Turkish Cypriots were forced out of their homes in the north and south respectively. 1,534 Greek Cypriots and 502 Turkish Cypriots are still unaccounted for at the time of writing.

The northern part of the island declared itself the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in 1983, a sovereignty recognized by no country in the world other than Turkey. In the south, the Republic of Cyprus has since joined the EU and goes from economic strength to strength. In very recent times the borders have been relaxed, with EU citizens and Cypriots from each side able to cross with ease. The two leaders are working hard to bring about unification. This is welcomed by both sides, but I just wonder how easily they will settle together. There is still a palpable feeling of unease between the two. Each side includes people with long memories. There are old scores to be settled and I sensed some of those carefully nurtured grievances seeping through during the short time we were there.

Now a UN look-out post, the bullet and motar holes tell the story. Source: Jim Hughes

Now a UN look-out post, the bullet and motar holes tell the story. Source: Jim Hughes

We based ourselves in Northern Cyprus, a wild and unspoilt place brought about in part because of its isolation from the rest of the world. It hasn’t had the investment or economic interference its southern neighbour has endured. Sure, there are the ubiquitous semi-detached ghettos of ex-pat bores dotted around, but mostly it has been left alone. Still, you can’t stand in the way of progress and that usually means development. Here come Starbucks, KFC, Toyota, M&S and all the other essentials we cannot live without. You can’t blame them, they’ll want a crack at the honeypot, like everyone else. I’m just glad Jamie and I’ve been lucky enough to visit this place while it’s still in its raw state. Whatever happens, I wish them good luck.

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