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a checkered past

Because of its strategic location in the Mediterranean Sea, Cyprus has changed hands about as often as the balance of power has shifted in Europe. Settled by the Greeks; occupied by nearly everyone, from the Assyrians, Egyptians, and Persians to the French and Venetians; ruled by Arab caliphates and the Ottoman Empire; administered by the British; and for the last 40 years divided in two, Cyprus is a microcosm of European history. It would have been a shame not to explore at least some of it.

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After two days of swimming and reading on the beach, D joined a tour which promised, in the words of the tour agent, “something very different.” The agency offered half a dozen excursions to various historic sites around the island, but only two or three were available on a particular day. D chose to go to Salamis and Famagusta, which would take him into occupied northern Cyprus.

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A wave of nationalist violence led Great Britain to grant the island independence in 1960. The unified Cypriot government only lasted a handful of years before sectarian violence between Greek and Turkish Cypriots engulfed the fledgling nation. A 1974 coup by nationalists seeking to incorporate Cyprus into Greece led to a Turkish military invasion. Not only has the Turkish army remained, but Turkey also sent settlers to replace the 180,000 Greek Cypriots who fled or were evicted from their homes in the northern part of the island. 

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Despite its opposition to continued Turkish occupation, the international community plays a key role in administering the island. A UN buffer zone cuts across Cyprus, and Great Britain has retained two “sovereign areas.” While relations between the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and the rest of the country remain strained, several checkpoints were established in 2003 to help ease travel between the two sides.

D’s tour bus crossed the British base at Dhekelia, undergoing both passport control and a customs check. Because the bus was full of tourists with EU passports, the customs check was cursory, though D’s American passport did elicit several additional questions. However, D saw several local cars at the checkpoint that were subjected to a thorough examination by British guards. Because EU regulations are suspended in occupied Cyprus, strict customs rules apply. One can only bring back two packets of cigarettes and one bottle of liquor from occupied Cyprus, and it is forbidden to spend more than 260 euros on merchandise and souvenirs there.

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Salamis, the first stop on D’s tour, was a cultural center in both Greek and Roman times, and the surviving ruins are fairly extensive. There is a Greek theater, which has been restored and is sometimes used for performances of Greek tragedies. There are also remnants of colonnaded streets, a gymnasium, and Roman baths. Several headless statues stand guard over the columns that speak to the grandeur of these lost civilizations. 

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Not far away is the unassuming monastery of St. Barnabas, who features prominently in the New Testament. Born in Cyprus, he is considered to be the founder of the Cypriot Orthodox Church. He traveled and preached with both Peter and Paul and is credited with bringing Christianity to the island. He was stoned to death in Salamis for his troubles, and his bones are believed to be located in the monastery D visited.

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While the relics of ancient times were interesting, D found the visual reminders of Cyprus’s recent history far more emotionally evocative. Entering Famagusta, the tour bus circled the neighborhood of Varosha — once a flowering suburb that has been reduced to a ghost town. The Turkish military sealed off the neighborhood after occupying Famagusta in 1974 and it has remained off limits since then. While life in the rest of the city goes on, Varosha remains cordoned off, its houses looted and destroyed, the pavement of its streets cracked and forgotten, barbed wire and Turkish military guards preventing anyone from entering this forbidden zone that borders one of Famagusta’s main streets.

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D had a few hours to explore Famagusta, which bears excellent witness to the vicissitudes of history. Like the capital Nicosia, the city is enclosed by thick defensive walls built by the Venetians to ward off Ottoman attacks. Churches built by the French stand in ruins, while the cathedral, partially destroyed during the Ottoman invasion, has been converted to a mosque. A few Greek and Roman columns survive to the present day, as do the walls of what was once a Venetian Palace and is now a parking lot. There are also the remains of the once proud Othello Castle, which is featured in a Shakespearean play.

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After lunch, the tour ended at the so-called Golden Beach. Famagusta was once the jewel of Cyprus’s tourism industry. Its beaches were lined with luxury resorts and the city boasted more than half of all hotel rooms on the island. All but one of the hotels on the Golden Beach were destroyed during the 1974 invasion and, like Varosha, now stand gutted, abandoned, and encircled by barbed wire. A sliver of beach remains open, but one gets the eeriest of feelings bathing in the warm ocean while the ghosts of Famagusta’s past cast their long shadows over the beach.

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