Cyprus has been a divided nation for over 40 years, but fresh reunification talks have offered hope of a united future. As Cyprus prepares to make history again, Darren Loucaides takes a trip through the island’s past to shed light on the present.
Stretching from the southern edge of Nicosia’s old town, Ledras Street looks like a typical commercial thoroughfare with its chain restaurants and shops. But this isn’t any old street.
As I walk along it, I suddenly come upon a military checkpoint. On showing my passport, I find myself inside the UN Buffer Zone. Sandbags and oil drums block the abandoned streets. Ruined buildings and barbed fences stare down at me.
Technically, Cyprus is still in conflict. It has been since 1974, when a Greek-linked military coup sparked a Turkish invasion. Today, the south of the island is inhabited mostly by Greek Cypriots; the north by Turkish Cypriots.
But soon the wall dividing them may come down. Unification talks resumed this month and officials say only a couple of sticking points remain. If the leaders and diplomats can pull off an agreement, Cyprus will make history.
But it would be far from the first time this East Mediterranean island has been the centre of world events. Anyone who strays from the sun-soaked beaches will find it dripping with history. A who’s who of conquerors has passed through over the millennia – Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, Brits and more all wanting their piece.
I come across evidence of this in the Buffer Zone itself. An old fortress wall, originally built by the Venetians, forms part of the UN Green Line next to Ledra Palace.
In a nearby café, an elderly man tells me that Turkish Cypriots often sat on top of this wall after 1974. “We would come and pass on messages to them, to friends on the other side,” he muses.
Sometimes they would taunt each other, he adds.
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Other sections of the old walls come into view as I walk around the edge of the old town. The Venetians built 11 bastions and three gates, the most impressive being Famagusta Gate. Its hulking archway and sloping ramparts would have been a formidable entrance into the city in the Middle Ages. At that time, the Venetian Republic ruled the seas, having won the Cypriot prize in the fifteenth century.
After my tour of Nicosia, I step much further into Cyprus’ past. Paphos lies on the southwest of the island, reached after a 2-hour bus ride across Cyprus’ heaving hills. Right next to the harbour, I enter Aphrodite’s Sacred City, walking among ruins that tell the story of early Cyprus.
Ancient Paphos was founded under the rule of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt in the fourth century, which had been started by one of Alexander the Great’s generals. Hewn from limestone, the remarkably intact amphitheatre is the most striking remnant of the Hellenic era.
Then there were the Romans, who took Cyprus in the late first century. I explore four Roman villas containing artworks of incredible detail and colour. The House of Theseus bears a startling mosaic of Theseus slaying the legendary Minotaur.
Beyond Ancient Paphos, the heart of modern-day Paphos is full of traditional markets and taverns. There are also British-style pubs and restaurants catering to the large numbers flocking over from Blighty each year.
In fact, British presence in Cyprus goes back a long way. On another bus ride from Paphos to Limassol, near the southernmost part of the island, I pass one of the two British military sovereign territories. The island became a British Protectorate in 1912 and a full-blown crown colony after World War II, which it remained until Cyprus gained independence in 1960.
“Everyone wants to be here,” a jovial man says to me, as I settle down next to him for a bottle of Keo (Cypriot beer) in a Limassol tavern; I’ve just told him that I’m on a history tour of the island. “It’s the same today. If you control Cyprus, well – it’s the ears and eyes of the region,” he adds.
Ever has it been thus, I realise later, as I climb the stone staircase inside Limassol Castle, which stands on the site of a Byzantine building. Crusader knights built the fortress, then the Genoese burned it down, and finally the Ottomans rebuilt it. By the time I reach the ramparts for a view of the ancient harbour, my head is spinning.
The next day, I take a final bus ride eastwards to Larnaka. I find yet another historic fortress, south of which is the old Turkish quarter. A few of the old workshops and stone houses remain, but most of the Turkish Cypriots are long gone.
Larnaka’s many mosques now stand empty. Except, that is, for Hala Sultan Tekke. This is thanks to Imam Shakir Alemdar and his work with other religious authorities in Cyprus.
The majestic Islamic shrine overlooking Larnaca Salt Lake now hosts prayers on Fridays and feast days, with Turkish Cypriots even crossing the UN Buffer Zone to visit. Alemdar believes that religious tolerance helps bring peace on the island.
“People are working very hard,” he says of the current talks. “There is more hope every day.” Whether fast or slow, the only path for Cyprus is to find a settlement, he adds. “Peaceful coexistence: that is the future for us.”
Header image: Bill Richards/Flickr. Images top–bottom (left-right): Orientalizing/Flickr; Whereismill/Flickr; Athena Lao/Flickr; SpirosK Photography; Flickr; Tim Rawle/Flickr; Andrew3000/Flickr; Jan Stefka/Flickr; Alan Samuel/Flickr; Amanda Slater/Flickr