Cyprus: A country divided

Journey along the 'Green Line' — a ceasefire demarcation zone running between the Turkish north and Greek south — to discover Cyprus's scars and why this political ravine has become one of the world's most notorious shards of disharmony

By Chris Leadbeater
Published 19 Aug 2015, 09:00 BST, Updated 5 Jul 2021, 10:11 BST

The wildflowers sound the first note of disparity — a sea of poppies, marigolds, crupinas. The scrubland which frames them sounds the second. A mile back, the houses were closely clustered; here, there's an air of under-development, of buildings sprinkled randomly. The car shudders again and I lurch in my seat, the bumpy road surface making its own contribution to this game of 'Spot The Difference'. I've definitely leapt the gap.

I glance back. I can still see the first checkpoint, where my UK passport incited nothing more than a bored flick of a Greek-Cypriot hand. I can see the second checkpoint too, a more focused affair of sharp Turkish-Cypriot scrutiny: a thud as the inky entrance stamp was banged onto paper; that hint of tension that comes with borders. Cocooned in my car, my dealings with the Ayios Dhometios crossing concluded, I marvel again that I've negotiated one of the world's most notorious shards of disharmony: Cyprus's 'Green Line'.

But have I also fallen through a hole in time? It's 41 years since the island witnessed the military actions that tore it apart, and travel restrictions were only eased in 2003 to cross the border. As I drive to the upper coast, the scars are written across what Ankara declares to be the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, but the rest of the planet considers occupied territory. In the abyss of international disapproval, the region pours out its problems in potholes, piecemeal street lights and dim villages lurking in gloom. When I pull up at the Onar Village Hotel, bouncing up a rutted track to the front door, I feel certain I've toppled back into 1974.

This was the year Cyprus's wounds cracked open — although the idea of an island divided between its Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot residents had been festering for a while, not least since independence from Britain, and the birth of a new country, in August 1960. Then, there'd been the vague optimism of a constitution that would see power shared between the two communities. But enmity blossomed, with the government collapsing amid mass violence in December 1963 and the United Nations peacekeeping forces arriving in March 1964. A decade of abuses (by both sides), civil displacement and families uprooted, stirred the pot of unrest. And when Greece — then ruled by an aggressive junta — ordered a coup d'état on 15 July 1974, Cyprus exploded.

Five days later, Turkey authorised an invasion which, by the time calm was restored on 16 August, had snared the northern 40% of
the island. The ceasefire that day stopped the bleeding, but couldn't prevent scar tissue. A dark border coalesced along the southernmost line of the Turkish incursion that still cuts the soil.

I wake to the sight of Kyrenia ('Girne' to Turkish-Cypriots) sparkling on the shoreline. It seems an apt place to start, the town where Turkish forces launched their thrust in 1974. I drive into town and witness echoes of war — two UN peacekeepers buying groceries, their neutral-white 4WD parked at the kerbside, and a castle, founded in the seventh century, which was coveted and captured by waves of Arabs, French Crusaders, Venetians and Ottomans, the defunct machine-gun support on its north-west bastion, a remnant of the more recent conflict.

Below the castle, Kyrenia is joyfully photogenic, with sailboats tugging at moorings and cafes dotted around the harbour. It's wholly picturesque — and yet, not what I'm seeking; I feel drawn to the deep end, pulled towards Europe's last stretch of barbed-wire bleakness.

Ancient feud

If its full title, the 'United Nations Buffer Zone', suggests a drab bureaucratic entity, its nickname, 'The Green Line', sounds almost pleasant, like some soft, leafy cordon. In reality, the border that cuts Cyprus in half is a 112-mile laceration, chopped across its torso from the Greek-Cypriot outpost of Kato Pyrgos in the north-west to just beneath Famagusta in the east — a barrier so unflinching in purpose that it barges through the very heart of the island, the capital Nicosia ('Lefkosa' to Turkish-Cypriots), cleaving even city streets in two.

Some might argue that the discord between those of Greek and Turkish extraction is one of the planet's oldest, stretching back through the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922 and the Ottoman conquest of Greece in the 15th century to the Trojan War of 12BC. But the feud that fuels the Cyprus of 2015 is no history lesson or Homeric myth. It's very real, and it rages most controversially on the east coast, in Famagusta ('Gazimagusa').

Half a century ago, the ghost town of Varosha (Kapali Maras), a southern section of Famagusta, was Cyprus's golden playground, a seaside gem where Elizabeth Taylor and Brigitte Bardot stayed and slumbered in towering hotels. Then in July 1974, Famagusta's Greek-Cypriot residents fled ahead of the Turkish advance, and when the firing stopped, Varosha was trapped behind metal barricades and spotlights, its inhabitants denied even the briefest readmission to gather their possessions.

It remains a Turkish-Cypriot bargaining chip held hostage on the south side of town. Its hotels — once-happy institutions including the Golden Mariana Hotel, the Twiga Tower, the Aspelia, the Argo — are awfully visible above the perimeter. But they're corpses now, their concrete eaten away to reveal the rooms within; sorrowful smiles with rotting teeth.

The spectacle is made all the more stark by its context. Directly adjacent to it, a smart Turkish-Cypriot-run resort, the Arkin Palm Beach, makes hay as the sun shines: its blue-and-white facade is neatly painted for the season; there's a veranda where guests sip cocktails at tables overlooking the waves; plus, a volleyball net pitched on the sand, bronzed tourists competing.

The contrast is so ridiculous — upmarket hospitality taunting the pitiful decay 20 metres away — I find it impossible to take the situation seriously. Not least because I know that just eight miles south, over the border, Varosha's 21st-century successor Ayia Napa is saluting the summer with gusto.

There are warnings along the fence, screaming that 'To Take Photos and Movie Are Forbidden'. But it all seems very silly by the time I reach the rickety railing and flapping tarpaulin which delineate the limit of the accessible shoreline. The Mediterranean is showing blatant disregard for these orders, rolling up the empty beach beyond regardless — and I do the same, picking up my camera and removing the lens cap.

I fail to manage a single image before the whistle goes. I spin around. Up on one of the fractured buildings, a soldier is pointing at me with his left hand while gesticulating with the automatic rifle in his right. The pointed hand becomes a beckoning finger, and a series of questions. What do I think I'm doing? I shrug. Did I not see the signs? I did not. He knows I'm lying, but when he asks where I'm from and I mention the UK, a frown slides across his brow. I can see the cogs whirr. It's a woozy Sunday afternoon; he could report me, but that means phone conversations and paperwork, and his shift is nearing its close. I examine his face. He's in his twenties, 27 at most. He wasn't born when this prime real estate was taken. It's his father's battle, not his. He glowers at me, tells me to leave, gesturing back along the beach and returns to his post, dreaming of his 6pm beer.

If Varosha is the partitioned Cyprus as farce, Famagusta presents it as glorious relic. Time has done nothing for the walls constructed by the French Lusignan dynasty in the 13th century: the sandstone bricks at the south-east gate crumble to the touch. They wouldn't stop an army now, though they did much to prolong the Ottoman siege of the city in 1570. This attack left its mark, reducing St George of the Latins church to a shell which throws out weary shadows at sunset, and ultimately transforming another Christian landmark, St Nicholas's Cathedral, into the Lala Mustafa Pasha mosque.

Sitting outside this Gothic cousin of Notre Dame de Paris, staring at the elegant minaret which now supplements the structure's north tower, I'm struck by the tranquility of the setting, so far in spirit from Varosha; it's a neat vision of two opposed societies as an elegant hybrid.

Into Nicosia

The Green Line calls again and the next day, I aim for Cyprus's rural core, with the assumption that an island-wide obstacle will be unavoidable. All I'll have to do is continue south. And yet, after turning off the Nicosia-Famagusta highway at Angastina (Aslankoy), I'm swallowed up in an agricultural maze. The purr of tractors in fields drifts through the window, wildflowers nod under olive trees, and there are no indications that I'm approaching the Line. In the garrison town of Agia (Dilekkaya), soldiers smoking cigarettes on the main square stare suspiciously as I approach. At Melouseia (Kirikkale), a five-choice junction offers no directions, except a signpost, unearthed, upended against a wall. None of the suggested options is Athienou, a Greek-Cypriot town I know is just two miles away, dislocated over the Green Line.

Finally, I pick an unmarked fork, tracing it past citrus groves as the thoroughfare narrows to barely a vehicle's breadth. And there it is, lost amid undergrowth, this political ravine: I see a simple lever barrier, a vaguely camouflaged hut, and not a soul in sight. The road flows on, undriveable because of the thick weeds that have pushed through the tarmac. Here, it seems, is acrimony faded to foliage and fragrance. Nobody has come this way in a while.

It would be easy to see this as the healing of a flesh wound. But when I regain the highway, then dip into the cluttered lanes of Nicosia, the Green Line reappears as a chasm. It yawns on the west side of the centre, wide enough to engulf the Taksim Sahasi stadium, the former home of professional football club Cetinkaya Turk. Today, though, the only players on the pitch are northern Cyprus's ubiquitous poppies. Ghostly goals skulk unused, the terraces are deserted, the referee a vast unmanned UN watchtower peering left and right. Behind the rear terrace, the Ledra Palace was once one of the most luxurious hotels in the capital. It's now a venue for (as yet fruitless) UN-led inter-community peace discussions.

The adjacent district of Arabahmet has suffered by proximity. What was a prestigious portion of Ottoman Nicosia is now ramshackle. The southbound street of Salahi Sevket Sokak wears its poverty openly, all desiccated homes and shabby doorways. Midway along, the 14th-century monastery of Notre Dame de Tyre is imprisoned behind a board which bellows that it's 'forbidden and dangerous to enter the site'. At the bottom, a boy is kicking a plastic ball against the Green Line's unsmiling wall, each youthful shot landing just below razor wire that would otherwise burst it.

"Tourist, tourist!" he shouts as he spots me, my presence rare enough to induce excitement. In the next window, his sisters giggle.

I meander east, past an unmistakable pepper spray of machine-gun excretia on the side of apartments on Sehit Mehmet Huseyin Sokak, then along Baf Caddesi, the Green Line keeping its grim resolve on each cross-street. Yesil Gazino Sokak could be a metaphor for the whole island in its two-tone sadness: a busy clothing store at number 52 and abandoned homes flaunting their rusty balconies where the boundary severs the artery at number 28.

And there's life, too, such as the oddly seamless cocktail of the 13th-century St Sophia Cathedral and the 16th-century Ottoman alterations which turned it into the Selimiye Camii Mosque, as well as the colossal Bandabulya market hall with its fruit and vegetables, antiques and jewellery.

Then there's the opening. Siret Bahceli Sokak is host to Nicosia's main pedestrian border crossing. I deal with the formalities and emerge on the same lane, albeit with a different name — the Greek-Cypriot Lidras Street. And into 2015. The contrast is near-palpable: big-brand fast-food outlets, international coffee chains, a blur of tourists in summer attire.

But if southern Nicosia is desperate to function as a modern city in the European Union, it's also furious. Next to the checkpoint, a sculpture is unequivocal in its anger, the letters of the Greek alphabet smashed by the tips of 10 metal spears. The message needs no translation: 'Here,' it says, 'is civilisation. There, barbarianism.' A placard on the wall above it reads: 'The last divided capital'. An adjacent mosaic says, simply, 'Peace'. Yet, there's laughter, too. Lefkonos Street fringes the Green Line with a slight grin — such as in the gallows humour of Berlin Wall No 2 Kebab House and the arched eyebrow of No Border Underwear, which touts its gaudy lingerie within shooting range of an armed guard post.

Still, it's impossible to ignore the realisation that Greek-Cypriot Nicosia has also been ravaged by division. The last house on Asklipiou Street — wedged against the blockade, a stray cat padding up the curled staircase ascending from its shattered hallway — must once have been lovely. Dionysos Street 'salutes' the Greek god of wine in its dilapidated despair.

It's only as I go further east that hope lifts its face in the form of the renovated properties on Pentadaktylou Street, where EU investment has had an impact; the cultural injection of Nicosia Municipal Arts Centre, a showcase for island artists, on Apostolou Varnava; and the Stelios Philanthropic Association on Eptanisou Street, where Greek-Cypriot entrepreneur Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou has extended a bi-communal olive branch via a new drop-in cafe where anyone looking to forge relations with 'somebody from the other community' can talk business.

Is this the future? Maybe. In 2004, a UN plan to reunite the island was put to referendum. The North voted yes, the South no. Would the same result happen now? As I reapproach the checkpoint on Lidras Street, a Greek-Cypriot man is kicking a football with his son. The boy is about four. So is the child playing identically with his father 100 metres and 41 years away on Siret Bahceli Sokak. It occurs to me, as I stroll past this second family scene, that this big island's narcissism of minor differences can never have looked smaller.


Getting there
The simplest way to reach central and Northern Cyprus is to fly to Larnaca and drive across. British Airways, EasyJet, Aegean, Monarch, Norwegian, Thomson, Thomas Cook and Jet2 fly to this international airport on the southern coast from a wide range of UK cities. Ercan International is the key hub in the North, receiving Atlas Global and Pegasus flights from Britain, with a brief stop in Turkey — no flights are presently allowed to fly directly to Ercan. Please note: the status of Northern Cyprus as a separate entity is recognised only by Turkey.
You can also fly into west-coast Paphos with airlines that include Ryanair, British Airways, Jet2 and EasyJet.
Average flight time: 4h.

Getting around
Public transport north of the Green Line is extremely limited, and a hire car is the only real option if you want to explore. You can rent vehicles in the North, but are not then permitted to drive into the South. Cars rented in the South (maybe from Larnaca airport) can be taken across the border, though extra insurance is required. 

When to go
Cyprus enjoys a hot Mediterranean climate. The shoulder seasons — April-June and September-October — are usually 24C-34C. Temperatures typically exceed 30C in July and August.

Need to know
Visas: No visas required.
Currency: South: euro (EUR). £1 = €1.40; North: Turkish lira (TRY). £1 = TRY4.25.
International dial code: 00 357.
Time difference: GMT +3.

More info
The Rough Guide to Cyprus, by Marc Dubin. RRP: £13.99

How to do it
Cox & Kings offer fly-drive holidays at the Onar Village Hotel, near Kyrenia. A three-night, half-board stay — including British Airways flights to Larnaca, airport transfers and hire car — starts at £595 per person (based on two sharing). Four-night stays cost from £675 per person. 

Published in the September 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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