A Gothic cathedral converted into a mosque whose minbar is draped with the national flags of Turkey (left) and Northern Cyprus (right).
Cyprus is interesting and worth visiting on at least three levels. First, it has spectacular natural beauty. Need I describe brightly-colored flowers flourishing against a scintillating turquoise sea? Palm trees, mountains, and sandal weather through November? A misty vision of the Taurus range from across the water?
The facade of a cathedral converted into a mosque.. the towers were lopped off and replaced with a minaret, and the interior is completely whitewashed.
Second, it is profoundly historical, home to evidence of bronze-age settlements, Roman cities, Gothic cathedrals, Crusade-era fortifications, Ottoman-style residences, Byzantine churches, saint’s tombs, castles, mosques, caravansarays, hamams… Every Mediterranean civilization stuck their hand in this island. We spent a lovely couple of hours at St. Barnabas monastery, where there was a beautiful icon museum and a grotto tomb. It was a memorable Halloween Day in Famagusta, where we explored Gothic cathedrals (that were either in ruins or awkwardly converted into mosques) and watched the sun set over the Green Zone from the old city walls. We hiked through Salamis, a huge and well-preserved Roman city right on the seashore.
Third, it is a complicated political case study. In a huge snafu of international mediation, the island has been divided since 1974. The entire geographic extent of Cyprus is legally part of the Republic of Cyprus, which is a European Union member state. However, the inhabitants of a northern region comprising 36 percent of the island’s territory refuse to participate in the Republic’s government and instead operate their own government, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
After reading up on this conflict through the rarified lens of news articles, textbooks, and policy papers, it was shocking to see concrete, lived, daily manifestations of the conflict–signage in Turkish, museumified religious places, nationalistic flags and imagery, military bases, the use of Turkish currency, Turkish soldiers meandering in the street, demilitarized zone cutting cities in half, depopulation.
The emptiness of northern Cyprus was also striking. Famagusta (aka Magosa, a coastal city) and Lefkoşa (the name for the northern side of Nicosia) were visibly depopulated and economically depressed, a testament to the mass migrations of Greek Cypriots into the north (fleeing war), and Turkish Cypriots to the UK and abroad (fleeing economic stagnation).
Hotels in Maras. The first rule on the sign says “taking photographs is prohibited.” There was a lone Turkish soldier enforcing the rule in a nearby section of the town, so we could only sneak shots of individual buildings…
On the way to Famagusta we stopped at Maraş, a “ghost town” which was once a thriving vacation mecca until it became a locus of fighting in 1974. Now it is part of the UN-administered demilitarized “Green Zone.” Some of the abandoned multi-story hotels and resorts were gutted by bombs and gunshots, some simply decaying, one famously left half-finished. The empty ghost city and its abandoned high-rises stretched for kilometers of coastline.
Due to politics we had to spend all of our time in northern Cyprus, but had a free afternoon to cross into the southern side of Nicosia (the Green Line bisects Cyprus’ capital) and were met with a modern European city–signage in English and Greek, British and American chain stores, use of the Euro (lira prohibited), wide boulevards with a normal amount of tourists, people, cars, taxis–that starkly contrasted to the relative drear and emptiness of the northern side.
I don’t mean to make it all sound gloomy. Girne (Kyrenia), a coastal city located directly across from Turkey, had a busy tourist industry and local population. Unfortunately, it distinctly felt as though inertia had set in and that political change was far from sight. However, I recommend that you come and see for yourself.