Born into poverty on August 13, 1913, in the village of Panagia in eastern Pafos district, Makarios (then known as Michaelis Mouskos) became a novice at Kykkos Monastery at the age of 13, before continuing his education at the Pancyprian Gymnasium in Lefkosia. After graduation, he went on to study in Greece and Turkey (hence his rather unexpected facility with the Turkish language), and finally Boston in the US.
In 1948 he became Bishop of Kition (Larnaka), and two years later Archbishop of Cyprus. It was at this time that he took the clerical name of Makarios III. He was now not only the religious leader of the Greek Cypriot community in Cyprus, but their de facto political leader. One of his first actions was to carry out a plebiscite on union with Greece (“enosis”) – 96 percent of Greek Cypriots voted in favour. It goes without saying that the Turkish Cypriot community were against enosis from the start, fearing for their position if the island became a province of Greece.
As the 1950s progressed, the so-called “Cyprus Problem” became increasingly high profile, with EOKA (the right-wing organization led by George Grivas) carrying out a guerrilla war from April 1, 1955 within Cyprus, and the Greek government pushing hard in the UN for an end to British rule and unification with Greece. Makarios, strongly identified with this opposition to British rule, was eventually exiled to the Seychelles in March 1956. After a year, he was released with the proviso that he did not return to Cyprus. He settled instead in Athens, from which base he travelled the world, drumming up support for his cause, particularly among non-aligned countries and the Soviet Union.
In 1959, amidst continued violence across the island, Makarios accepted an offer of independence from the British, but without enosis. This provoked predictable disgust and fury among EOKA, and accusations that he had sold out, even that he’d been blackmailed into acceptance by the British Secret Service. No such scenario is needed, though, to explain his actions. Faced with a choice of leading a distant province of Greece or a proudly independent country, it really was a no-brainer. Makarios was duly elected president of the new Republic of Cyprus on 14 December.
As the new decade dawned, Makarios realized he was presiding over an unenviable situation. Turkish Cypriots, supported by Turkey, would accept no move towards enosis, while the Greek Cypriot right, supported by Greece, would accept nothing less. The imposition of a virtually unworkable constitution didn’t help either. He also had little control over the hawkish General Grivas who was intent on military action against Turkish Cypriot armed enclaves, which were becoming almost a state within a state. Finally, when a right-wing junta seized power in Greece in 1967, the left-leaning Makarios came out openly against enosis, explaining that it would be beneficial to have two Greek voices at the UN rather than one. He began to try to build bridges with the Turkish Cypriots.
Between 1970 and 1974 there were numerous attempts by the junta and the CIA to assassinate Makarios (Nixon allegedly called him “Castro in a cassock”). Finally, on July 15, 1974 the National Guard and EOKA B rose up in rebellion, deposed Makarios (who fled abroad), and set up a right-wing administration. This provoked the catastrophic response of a full-scale Turkish invasion of the north, and partition. When the dust had settled, Makarios returned from abroad to resume as president of a now divided island. He died suddenly of a heart attack in August 1977.
Makarios undoubtedly made many mistakes during his period of office, though it seems unlikely anyone could have managed the ticking time bomb that he inherited. Certainly, blame for the 1974 Turkish invasion could not be laid at his door. His pragmatism, his undoubted political skills and above all his commitment to the people of Cyprus have ensured that he is held in widespread and lasting affection in the modern republic, something which cannot be said of his militaristic rival George Grivas. On the other hand, unsurprisingly, he was not popular among Turkish Cypriots. While his body was lying in state in Agios Ioannis Cathedral in Lefkosia, the capital suffered an unprecedented August downpour. Greek Cypriots quoted an old Greek saying – “God cries when a good man dies”. Turkish Cypriots came back with one of their own – “When an evil man dies, the heavens try to wash away his crimes”.