Let’s say you’re a super-rich movie star in the late 1960s who wants to party on a beach. Where do you go? Monaco? Caen? Napoli? Biloxi? Well, if you took after Elizabeth Taylor or Bridgett Bardot, your place of choice might be a little city called Famagusta on the eastern coast of the island of Cyprus.
Unlike the many resorts which smother their guests with a single monolithic attraction (the Alps, or a beach, or some nice ruins), Cyprus is a smorgasbord of touristic appeal. It has sandy beaches, majestic cliffs, craggy mountains, quaint villages, Egyptian tombs, Greek temples, Roman theatres, Byzantine churches, Mosques commemorating relatives of Muhammed, Crusader castles, Frankish cathedrals, thousand-year-old Greek mountain monasteries, Venetian fortresses, Ottoman palaces, and British military bases, all jammed into a single island the size of Connecticut. Instead of spending six months bouncing from country to country, circumnavigating the Mediterranean, you could just spend a week in Cyprus and see all the same things. If not a trip with quite the same grandeur, it would be ten times as convenient.
For a decade and a half, tens of thousands of Europe’s elite swarmed on Famagusta, transforming the city into the center of the Cypriot economy. Massive hotels sprung up, an international airport was built, and the city thrived like no other in the eastern Mediterranean.
But then something went horribly wrong. Cyprus had a civil war.
Greek vs Turk
Like so many countries on the eastern end of the Mediterranean, Cyprus isn’t ethnically homogenous. It’s divided between a Greek-speaking, largely Orthodox Christian majority that has been living there, at least to their own minds, since time immemorial and then a Turkish-speaking, largely Muslim minority that arrived during the three centuries the island spent under Ottoman rule.
For most of that time, the two populations got along half-decently. They lived in the same neighborhoods and villages, built churches and mosques beside one another, and did business with one another. Things weren’t perfect. Inevitable tensions fomented, stirred up over the favoritism showed by the Ottoman government for Turks and the British for Greeks. But, by the standards of their genocidal age, they did okay.
In the 1950s, though, things started to get messy. As British Colonial rule was finally coming to an end, the Greek population (until now heavily favored, politically and economically, by the British) got the idea to annex Cyprus to Greece. In classic nationalist style, they thought there should be one Greek nation for all Greeks.
The Turkish Cypriots, of course, hated this idea. But the Greeks, who made up three fourths of the population and controlled the vast majority of the wealth, didn’t much care. The Turks, having lived on Cyprus for mere centuries instead of millennia, were, after all, “interlopers” on their ancient land. All through the 1950s and 60s, flare-ups, violence, and murder sent Turkish Cypriots fleeing from their homes and into increasingly isolated and besieged enclaves.
(Just like Mexican drug cartel violence never seems to put a damper on Spring Break in Acapulco, these whiffs of ethnic violence never did much to hurt Cypriot tourist trade. Controlled and populated largely by Greeks, Famagusta went on being the incognito vacation destination of choice for Europe’s rich, powerful, and famous.)
Why did the Greek Cypriots restrict themselves to half-measures in these years before all-out war? Because their leader was a bit too responsible for his own good. For years the Cypriot President (and Orthodox archbishop) Makarios III had been stalling annexation. Greece itself was, at the time, ruled by a rather brutal military junta and Makarios, though sympathetic to Greek unification, couldn’t bring himself to subject his people to that sort of misery. (Nor could he conscience the outright genocide of the Turkish population that Greek ultra-nationalists seemed keen on perpetrating.) And so he deferred and avoided and maneuvered to keep Greece’s hands off Cyprus. Finally, fed up with Makarios’ deft waffling, the Greek junta backed a right-wing coup d’état in July 1974 that seized control of the island, announced that annexation was imminent, and told everyone that Makarios was dead.
This last part turned out not to be true—Makarios had successfully escaped to London where he began lobbying the international community to save his country from what he called an “invasion by Greece”—but the panic was on just the same. Only four days after the coup, soldiers from Turkey, seeing themselves as the protectors of the Turkish Cypriots, landed on the northern edge of the island. Citing fears of genocide, the Turks drove southward with soldiers and tanks. By the time the United Nations forced both sides to agree to a ceasefire, the Turks had seized control of one third of the island, evicted more than 150,000 Greek Cypriots from their homes in order to create a Turkish “refuge,” and occupied the gem of Cyprus: Famagusta.
The Abandonment of Famagusta
To deal with the de facto division of the island between Turkish military forces in the north and Greek Cypriots in the south, the United Nations came up with a bold plan: Do nothing.
The UN set up a buffer zone along the ceasefire line, let all the Greeks still north of the line move south and all the Turks south of the line move north, and then just let things sit there. No formal peace treaty. No formal independence for the north. No annexation to Greece for the south. No rules as to what happens to all the houses, land, and stuff people left behind when they fled. Just de facto division and irresolution unto perpetuity.
The greatest victim of that inability – or unwillingness – to settle the Cyprus questions was Famagusta. By the time Turkish troops arrived at the city, it was empty; the entirety of the Greek population having evacuated. Breakfasts were famously left served but uneaten, beach umbrellas mounted in the sand but without bathers, lights still glowing in the windows of the hotels that hadn’t been hit by bombs or artillery shells.
According to International Law, war may change borders but it can’t change property ownership. If you’re driven from your house by a conquering army, you still own that house. After the war is over, the conquerors are supposed to give it back. Hardly anyone, of course, ever respects this particular rule of war, but the one group of people who actually believe in International law—the United Nations—happened to be the people in charge of brokering a peace agreement between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots. This meant that whatever terms the two sides might come to, whether it for was for the partitioning of the island or reunification, were guaranteed to involve returning all the Greek property in the north to its “rightful” owners.
In practical terms, however, this would be impossible. As in the south, Greek Cypriots owned the vast majority—some estimates put it as high as 80 or 90%–of the houses, land, and businesses, and ever since tens of thousands of Turkish Cypriot refugees began arriving, the Turkish Cypriot authorities had been turning over that Greek property to Turks to live-in, farm, and operate. If peace came, there was no way they could return all that property or buy all that property without completely uprooting or bankrupting their fledgling nation.
So the Turkish Cypriot authorities seized—almost immediately after the ceasefire—on an idea.
Most of the big hotels, luxurious restaurants, and luminous beaches in Famagusta were all located in this one neighborhood on the south side of the city called Varosha. In all of Cyprus, there was no more valuable hunk of land, no more profitable businesses, no greater symbol of Greek Cypriot wealth and influence. And yet to the Turks, the land wasn’t very valuable. The war had scared away all the tourists and the Turkish Cypriot authorities weren’t naïve enough to think Elizabeth Taylor was going to come back now that they had fired an artillery barrage through her favorite suite. And so in the middle of the night, a group of Turkish soldiers slipped into the neighborhood and erected a fence around the entirety of the neighborhood, from beachfront to beachfront. Not a high fence, not an electrified fence, not even a barbed wire fence. Just a fence, about five feet tall, with a few signs to ward off trespassers.
The theory was that they could swap Varosha in any peace deal with the Greek Cypriots for the land they had “repossessed” for their own people to live on, farm on, and build their nation on. That deal would, of course, screw over all the peasants and villagers that had lived all across the island’s northern third, but it would be wonderful for all the wealthy and well-connected Greek Cypriots (and foreign investors) who had reaped enormous profits from Famagusta’s tourism industry in the decades before the war. They would get back all the hotels, restaurants, and seafront villas they had spent millions to build. If they got what they wanted then maybe the Greek Cypriot government would force everyone else to give up their claims on northern property.
But the peace agreement everyone expected to follow the ceasefire in 1974 didn’t happen. And it didn’t happen. And it didn’t happen. And it still hasn’t happened forty-years later. The Greek Cypriots refused to accept any partition of the island. The Turkish Cypriots refused to live under what they feared would be Greek tyranny. Varosha remained locked away behind a chain-link fence.
The Ruination of a Very Nice Place
In the years since the war, Famagusta hasn’t exactly flourished, but it’s done okay. It’s become a choice destination for beachgoers from Turkey and the occasional British pensioner. New hotels have been built. Universities have sprung up that educate students from all over the Middle East. It’s not the glimmering gem of the eastern Mediterranean that it was in in 1970, but it’s a city teaming with life, with young people, with ambitious people, with growth.
And yet in the middle of that vibrancy are the massive, smoldering ruins of Varosha.
Since the moment the fence went up, no one but Turkish Cypriot officials, soldiers, and United Nations personal have entered into the neighborhood. No buildings have been repaired. No maintenance done. It has sat a ghost city, rotting away in the salty Mediterranean air.
A couple years ago when I visited Detroit for the first time and saw the rows upon rows of ruined buildings, the ruined skyscrapers, the ruined train station with all the windows smashed out and the concrete crumbling, I said to a friend that I had only ever seen one place on earth like it—Varosha.
Turkish Cypriot authorities try to hide how terrible things have gotten in Varosha. Soldiers patrol the edge of the fence so you can’t slip inside, and they yell at you if you try to take photographs. (This is why, if you look for photographs of Varosha, you’ll see the same buildings again and again.) But the neighborhood is so massive and so centrally located that it’s impossible to hide from anyone. There’s a luxury hotel built right up against the fence. You can walk along its beachfront right up to the edge of Varosha and look out over the fence and see the devastation that time and neglect and a couple bombs can unleash on human civilization.
But more than just a lump of urban ruination, which isn’t wholly uncommon in our world of urban blight and perpetual civil wars, Varosha stands as the ruination of an entire nation—as a relic of erasure. On both sides of the United Nations demarcation line, Turks and Greeks try very hard to forget there was ever a time when they lived together in something like harmony. In the north, they litter their country with monuments to the war: airplanes and soldiers and museums that show off the bullet-riddled bathtub where a Turkish Cypriot politician’s wife and child were murdered. On a hill overlooking the divided capital, they emblazon the Turkish flag and the Turkish Cypriot flag with the words, The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus Forever!
And in the south, they try to pretend that the Turks never lived there at all. They talk only of Turkish interlopers and invaders, about how there can be no peace treaty until all the Turkish “settlers” are removed.
All of this, though, rings impossibly hollow when you stand in their country, when you look out from their new resorts and see their old resorts rotting away in a massive pile, or spot a crumbling minaret poking above the rooftops of a mountain village. As much as Turks and Greeks try to pretend otherwise, their fates are permanently bound together. Cyprus is a small island. There is not enough land for them to escape each other. There is too much history for them to escape each other. Wherever they run, they live in each other’s dilapidated shadows.
But Maybe the Ghost Town Won’t Stay Ghosted Forever?
On May 1st 2004, (Greek) Cyprus joined the European Union. The EU has very strict rules about not letting its member nations prevent their citizens from travelling freely in their own country, a rule that—because the EU doesn’t acknowledge Northern Cyprus as existing—forced Cyprus to open its border with Northern Cyprus for the first time in 30 years. For the first time, Greeks and Turks could, after passing through a series of checkpoints, meet each other in the street, talk to each other, and do business with each other.
This opening has proved a huge economic boon to the north, which had lagged (mostly for diplomatic reasons) far, far behind the Greek south. With far easier access to European tourists, European markets, and European investment, the north has seen flurry of growth with new highways being constructed, housing developments opening, and hotels springing up along its beaches.
It’s also led to a surprising warming in relations between Cyprus and the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. They still dislike each other, the Greeks still want their houses, farms, and hotels back, the Turks still feel like no one acknowledges that the Greeks tried to genocide them, but the animosity on a personal level is diminishing. Cross-border communication, friendships, even the occasional soccer game now figure in their lives. The generation of Greeks who witnessed the invasion of their country by Turkey is old or dead. The generation of Turks who built their entire country around enmity with Greeks has given way to their newer, less fearful children .
Last week, Northern Cyprus elected a new president, a man named Mustafa Akıncı. The popular mayor of Northern Nicosia (the Turkish half of Cyprus’ divided capital) Akıncı had been at the center of Turkish-Greek interaction, helping to orchestrate a number of joint projects between the Turkish and Greek halves of the capital. And it was this spirit of cooperation with the south that Akıncı built his campaign for the presidency on before—to much international surprise—winning. It’s too soon to know how much reconciliation he will be able to achieve (especially with Northern Cyprus’ finances totally dependent on Turkey’s largesse) but he’s made a formal announcement that one of his first goals as president is to achieve the reopening of Varosha, an idea that Greek Cypriot leaders have embraced with excitement.
And this, perhaps, is what deviates Varosha from perhaps every other ghost town on earth–from Detroit and Pithole and all those misguided Chinese real estate schemes–people actually want to live there. People have always wanted to live there. People dream of returning there. All they need is the chance, for the fence to come down, and they’ll trample each other for the chance to make Varosha magnificent again.
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