Abruptly, the racket of the busy shopping street gave way to an ominous silence. The noisy terraces and nosy street vendors were replaced by a plywood border crossing. Its makeshift appearance did not make it any less intimidating. Apart from an oblivious cat, leisurely strolling back and forth across the border, everyone diligently lined up in front of the border official. We did the same, quickly flipping through our passports looking for stamps that might land us into trouble. When our turn came up, we nervously stepped in front of the official.
He looked up, saw Gabriel, and his face lightened up into a big smile. ‘Hey, little guy, welcome to Cyprus! How are you enjoying Nicosia?’. Noticing that both Jules and I were apprehensively holding our cameras, he dismissively pointed to the big ‘No photos’ sign behind him and added: ‘Ah, don’t worry about that. Just try not to take pictures of the UN buildings on the buffer zone, they’re a little fussy about that’.
So, much as the cat did, we crossed the border worry-free. In doing so, we left Cyprus (a member of the European Union), walked through the buffer zone (a no man’s land controlled by the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces), and entered Northern Cyprus (a country that is not officially a country, as it is only recognized by Turkey).
Nicosia stands today as the last divided capital in Europe. The crossing is certainly less thrilling than going through Checkpoint Charlie in the thick of the Cold War, but no less fascinating. On the surface, Cyprus is easily brushed off as just another sunny Mediterranean island. But you don’t have to dig deep to find evidence of a troubled past – and present. Good weather AND complicated history? Count us in.
After visiting both sides of Nicosia, we rented a car and headed to Ayia Napa, on the southeast corner of the island. Cyprus receives more than three million tourists every year (nearly three times as much as its population), and most of them probably end up in a coastal town like Ayia Napa.
But it was off-peak season, and the town looked like a nightclub seen under the harsh sunlight. The tired themed restaurants were closed, and the old limos converted to taxis wandered aimlessly, no party goers in sight.
Sandwiched between a tattoo studio and a Hard Rock Café, stood the town’s old Monastery, a spectacular medieval construction, likely built by the Venetians in the 16th century. Their rule over the island was short-lived, stuck between the several Hellenic civillizations that came before them, and the Ottoman Empire that came after. The former gave Cyprus its Greek roots, while the latter contributed to its Turkish heritage.
Britain’s rule over Cyprus was also brief, but its influence endures to this day. While driving along the coastline from Ayia Napa to Larnaca, we passed through Dhekelia, still part of the UK. In 1960, while negotiating the terms for the independence of Cyprus, the British Empire awarded itself Akrotiri and Dhekelia, each containing a RAF airbase surrounded by a sizeable chunk of land.
The birth of the independent Republic of Cyprus was a compromise etched by three powers: the British, who kept its military bases; the Turks, who avoided the union of Cyprus and Greece (enosis); and the Greeks, who avoided the ethnic partition of Cyprus into Greek and Turkish regions (takism).
The agreement would be short lived. In 1974, a coup d’état backed by enosis supporters prompted Turkey to invade the northern part of Cyprus. The coup failed, and the former president was reinstated, but there would be no turning back. The ensuing civil war led to thousands of Greek and Turkish Cypriots killed, wounded or missing.
A further 200,000 civilians (over 30% of the population at the time) were forced to reallocate to either the southern or northern part of the island, according to their ethnicity. After an agreed cease-fire, the United Nations set the buffer zone that continues to divide the island to this day.
Talks for reunification continued for years, but were made more difficult in 1983, when the northern side unilaterally declared independence. The resulting Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is only recognized by Turkey, while the remaining international community considers it to be part of Cyprus and occupied by a foreign military force.
We continued driving through the southern coastline, from Larnaca to Limassol to Pahos, before heading up the Troodos mountains on our way back to Nicosia. We would often be reminded of our good times in the Greek Islands, as the language and the food are – at least to our untrained ears and taste buds – the same.
Oddly, the Greek flag can also be seen in many places (in Northern Cyprus, the Turkish flag is also prevalent). Cyprus’ own flag – an orange contour of the island above olive branches, designed by an art teacher on a design competition – seems to be disliked by both Greeks and Turks. Former president Glafcos Clerides called it “the most innocent flag in the world”, since “no one has died for it”.
The fact that many Cypriots will rather fly the flag of another country instead of their own is perhaps a reflection of how the draw to the Turkish and Greek motherlands is much stronger than the sense of national identity. This may help to explain why successive reunification attempts over the last decades have failed, leaving Cyprus as the last divided country in Europe.