When talking with locals here in Cyprus, I am often asked, why an American would want to visit this tiny island? True, it is small; when flying into Larnaca a little over a week ago, our plane crossed the entire country, from coast to coast, in less than fifteen minutes. Descending into the airport, I saw deep blue sea water, clear enough to make out fishermen’s nets cascading through the undercurrent. I saw the bright green landscape sprawling for miles. On the airport shuttle to Nicosia, lavender and yellow wildflowers gave me the first indications that Cyprus experiences a bright and early spring.
There are palm trees, citrus trees, pines, olive trees, and big bushy plants that crave the intensity of a dry climate and the sun’s unrestricted touch. Speaking of which, I did not know how much I was missing sunlight after becoming familiar with the sultry gloom of Budapest. But the sapphire blue skies here awaken in me a familiar adoration for color. The red-orange rocks, the vibrant green hills, the blue sky–all of these cause me to wonder who turned up the saturation on this fascinating landscape.
The most fascinating thing about Cyprus, however, is not its landscape. As I sit on the rooftop of our building in Nicosia, for example, I can see clearly the mountain range that lines the Northern coast of the island. On one of the mountains is a giant Turkish Cypriot flag made of painted rocks. It beams red and white in the day, and at night hundreds of lights outline the flag. No matter the hour, one looking out over Nicosia is reminded of the Turkish presence on this Island which has remained here since 1974.
Across the skyline of the city, when looking toward the de facto border, I see mosque towers, Greek Orthodox church towers, and flags everywhere. People proudly cast into the wind the Turkish, Turkish-Cypriot, and Greek flags. Interestingly, I do not see the national flag of Cyprus often. From the rooftop of this building, there is not one in sight.
Cyprus has a dynamic and multicultural history. First settled by the Mycenaean Greeks four thousand years ago, the island has been occupied and developed by a host of powers, including the Assyrians, Egyptians, Persians, Alexander the Great of Macedon, Ptolemaic Egypt, the Classical and Eastern Roman Empire, Arab caliphates, the French Lusignan dynasty, the Ottoman Empire, the Venetians, and finally the United Kingdom before being granted independence in 1960. British rule in Cyprus from 1914 to 1960 is largely considered to have been a form of colonialism, and some people argue that it contributed to a master-slave dynamic between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots on the island.
After independence from the UK, inter-communal violence broke out between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots. This conflict eventually led to the emergence of two radical political movements: one to incorporate Cyprus into Greece, the other to incorporate Cyprus into Turkey. Turkish troops invaded Cyprus in 1974 shortly after a Greek military backed coup d’état took over the Cypriot government with the initiative to unite the island with Greece. Greek Cypriots were backed by the newly established Greek military dictatorship, Turkish Cypriots backed by the Turkish military. But when the Greek dictatorship fell within the same year, in 1974, the Greek Cypriots were abandoned to defend the southern part of the island. The northern territory captured and occupied by Turkey was established as a separate Turkish state in northern Cyprus in 1983. This territory is referred to as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. However, the Turkish declaration was largely condemned by the international community and Turkey is the only country in the world that recognizes northern Cyprus as an independent state.
So, on many maps the island is labeled as the Republic of Cyprus and has two dotted lines that run across the country and through its capital, Nicosia. Such dotted lines demarcate disputed territory. A similar line, I might add, runs between Ukraine and Crimea, which is currently annexed by Russia. Between Cyprus’s dotted lines is the United Nations Buffer Zone, which is a demilitarized zone that occupies 4% of the island and has been in place since 1964 as the UN’s longest-standing peacekeeping operation.
Tensions are high on this little island. Crossing to the northern part of the island, one instantly sees the contrast in culture. There are more mosques, the signs are written in Turkish, the currency is the Turkish lira. On the southern side, people speak Cypriot Greek, serve Greek food. If you ask for hummus in a Greek restaurant, the waiter might roll his eyes at you. Mosques have been re-purposed as churches. On Sunday mornings the church bells on the southern side call out loudly; throughout the day several calls to prayer bellow out from the other side of the passport checkpoint. My friends joke that the mosques turn their speakers toward the south as a political statement.
Despite this, Cyprus is an extremely safe country. I am often stared at on the street as I am clearly of European descent (blonde hair, blue eyes). But I feel it is more out of curiosity than suspicion or hatred.
Many people claim that the northern side of the island is slightly more dangerous, but not because of the Turkish Cypriots, but the immigrants from mainland Turkey. I think this is an important distinction. At a dinner party with a Cypriot school teacher and her family, it was pointed out to me that Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots have genetic makeup that is more similar to each other than any other area of the world. While people may identify for political and cultural reasons with Greece or Turkey, they are, at their core, Cypriot.
Daniella, the school teacher, and her husband asked me what I am interested in doing in Cyprus before I leave. I explained that I am interested in working with refugees, if possible. Daniella placed her hand on mine and said, “Did you know that I am a refugee.”
When she was a girl, during the conflict between Turkish and Greek Cypriots, she and her family were forced to leave their village in northern Cyprus because they were Christians. While Cyprus has one of the largest populations per capita of international refugees in Europe, it is often overlooked that many Cypriots consider themselves to be refugees within their own country. Roughly 180,000 Greek Cypriots were displaced from their homes in the north as a result of the war. Around 50,000 Turkish Cypriots were also forced to resettle in the north. The displacement that occurred as a result of this conflict has left deep scars in the memories of many of the people living here, on both sides of the “border”.
In April 2004 a referendum took place, which asked both communities whether they are in favor of joining the European Union as a reunited island. 65% of Turkish Cypriots were in favor, while 76% of Greek Cypriots rejected the referendum. In May 2004, the Republic of Cyprus became a part of the European Union, without reunifying the north with the south. Instead, the EU recognizes the entire island as the Republic of Cyprus, where the northern side of the island is illegally occupied by Turkey.
Many people view the decisions made during the 2004 referendums as one of the largest failures of the European Union, as they think the EU could have used its economic leverage to pressure Cyprus into reunification. Others might argue that reunification could have reintroduced armed conflict into the region.
On a weekend trip to the northern side of the island, we hiked to two different castles along the Kyrenia mountain range. The Buffavento and Saint Hilarion Castles were built during the Byzantine period along the mountains to fortify the northern coastline of the island from Arab pirates. From the top of the mountain, we looked out of the bright white city of Kyrenia. Across the Mediterranean Sea I could see the Turkish coastline. I was surprised at how high the mountains rose above the water, surprised that I could see it at all.
On Tuesday we went to Limassol. While sitting in a seafood restaurant, huge oil rigs sat in view out the window. We know now that natural gas reserves surround the island, and this alone is one more economic incentive for Turkey and the European Union to seek dominion over the island.
There is anger here, there is nationalist pride. There are people who have lived through displacement, racial and religious segregation. Adding to these tensions are the influx of immigrants and international refugees into the region. But what I find most inspiring are the hopeful voices in the crowd…