Looking north from South Nicosia, Cyprus
There have been, in recent history, many divided places. The Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Jerusalem (although not the Old City) was divided until Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War of 1967, and likely will be again divided upon the establishment of an Arab Palestinian state. North and South Korea remain almost as apart as ever. But it is Nicosia (Lefkosia, Lefkoşa), Cyprus, that has the undistinguished title of “last divided capital.”
Cyprus is something of a unique historical beast. Originally settled as one of many Greek settlements around the Mediterranean, Cyprus was eventually ruled by the Ptolemies (successors of Alexander the Great based in Alexandria, Egypt) and then the Byzantine Empire. During the latter’s decline, Cyprus was controlled for extended periods of time by Crusaders and Venetians, all essentially Western Europeans and not of the eastern Mediterranean Greek tradition. It was the Venetians who surrounded the city of Nicosia with its formidable walls–in exemplary trace italienne but still barely slowing the Ottoman conquest of the city in the 16th century. With the decline of Ottoman power in the late 19th century, Cyprus became a British colony.
The most recent troubles in Cyprus arose after the departure of the British in 1964. Under the terms of the establishment of the independent Republic of Cyprus, the majority Greek Cypriots were to share power with the minority Cypriots of Turkish origin (some 20% of the population, who arrived in Cyprus over the hundreds of years of Ottoman rule). These arrangements were supposed to be “guaranteed” by the three interested states of the United Kingdom, Greece and Turkey. In 1974, after a Greece-sponsored coup threatened to discontinue the agreed-upon power sharing arrangements and cause Cyprus to be unified with Greece, Turkey invaded the island with the stated goal of protecting the interests of the Turkish Cypriots. The Turkish invasion of Cyprus and month of fighting led to a UN-monitored truce along a boundary known as the Green Line, which cuts painfully right through the middle of the old city of Nicosia, the capital. The country remains to this day divided, the northern 30% or so controlled by the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, which is recognized as a country only by its sponsor Turkey (and uses Turkish currency), and the rest controlled by the (Greek-ethnic) Republic of Cyprus, now a member of the European Union. The Greek and Turkish Cypriots, who lived intermingled for hundreds of years, moved during the conflict either north or south to live in what are now essentially mono-ethnic states (or moved abroad altogether).
(The Cyprus story is not dissimilar from that of Sri Lanka, where the Singhalese majority tried to overplay its majority control to the detriment of the Tamil minority’s rights, leading to ethnic violence and an unstable situation that is severely detrimental to everyone. The Tamil also formed something of an independent state, in the north of the country, and, as noted by a reader to the blog (see comments to post of 3.23), has received assistance from its co-ethnic, co-religious “big brother” country, India.)
To say that the border between North and South Cyprus runs through Nicosia is something of an understatement, as the so-called Green Line runs right through the heart of the old walled city, with its most important historical monuments only a block or two off of the UN Buffer Zone, itself only one or two city blocks wide, that separates the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot/Turkish forces. The narrow streets of the old city end in blockades and fortifications on either side, sandbags and gun emplacements squeezed into the city’s medieval layout.
Channeling Berlin, in a cafe on the Green Line
It is, quite simply, a shocking sight. It is peculiar to see something that is so whole by its nature–a circular walled city with all of its Venetian bastions in place, like petals on a flower–divided in two with each narrow alley blockaded. It is depressing to see people who lived harmoniously for centuries stare each other down from bunkers laden with barbed wire and sandbags, to see a medieval city littered with so many signs of active discord. It is odd to know that you’re in the European Union, that model of reconciliation and unity, but still in a place with such a real and unresolved conflict. Adding another level of absurdity is that recent progress between North and South Cyprus has resulted in nearly free mobility between the two halves (for all but the recent Turkish immigrants into North Cyprus) and that earlier this year a border was opened right in the middle of the old city itself, effectively seamlessly connecting the urban cores of its two halves, while the rest of the Buffer Zone, one street away on either side, remains forbidden and armed.
You simply walk back and forth, with brief passports checks at both ends. The North conducts a more formal immigration process, complete with stamps, while the South just glances at passports, each trying to confirm or deny, respectively, the existence of a separate Northern entity.
Cyprus was, for us, a depressing finale to the most politically troubling portion of our trip. Israelis and Palestinians in Palestine (see post of 10.21); the Christian sects of Jerusalem, including especially the territorial disputes at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (see posts of 10.19 and 10.20); Greeks and Turks: Can’t we find a way to get along with each other?