One of the smallest countries of Europe is way down in the Mediterranean sea, rich in history and archaeological attraction. Cyprus is the third major island in the Mediterranean, right after Sicily and Sardinia, but particularly resemblant, historically and ethnographically, to Sicily. Both islands were much fought over by different empires that endowed them with a rich archaeological legacy. The visitor with the time and inclination to learn about history will find Cyprus as the perfect epitome of the crossroad of great civilizations of southern Europe (Italy and Greece) and the near-Eastern ancient world. Wherever the visitor goes in Cyprus, he or she will be astounded by the wealth of the remnants of that world and by the craggy and yet verdant scenery. History is suspended in time, in fabulous Roman mosaics and stunning monasteries adorned with countless Byzantine icons.
This was the land where great civilizations prospered, from Assyria to Egypt, and then Persia, Macedonia and Rome in the BC centuries. Its population had been, and remains, predominantly Greek. After the collapse of the Roman empire, Cyprus was ruled by Byzantium, the Franks, the Venetians and the Ottoman Turks. When the Turks established themselves on the island, they established a stronger presence than the preceding populaces. Worse still, Turkey intervened with military force in 1974 following a military coup by Greek nationalists favorable to “enosis,” that is reunion with Greece. The Turkish invasion seized 36% of the country, causing 180,000 Greek Cypriots to flee their homes in the north, becoming refugees in their own country. There was nothing that could be done by the British, who had annexed the island in 1925. In fact, Britain had gained effective control of Cyprus in 1878 by concluding an alliance with the Sultan. When Turkey sided with Germany in World War II, Britain made Cyprus a Crown Colony.
In 1960, the UK negotiated an independence agreement with Greece and Turkey under which the three powers guaranteed to protect the integrity of Cyprus with the specific proviso that the island would not be partitioned. Cyprus thus became independent as the Republic of Cyprus. Tragedy unfolded in the new country when intercommunal fighting broke out and the British were forced to impose order and a ceasefire line known as the Green Line. After the Turkish invasion, it became a border.
In May 2004, Cyprus became a member of the European Union. After years of intense and at times virulent negotiations, not to talk about the threat of war between Greece and Turkey, nothing has changed. Referenda on the UN reunification plan were rejected, Turkey continues to occupy the northern area with a garrison and settlers keep coming from Turkey. There are now 500,000 Turks in the northern area that comprises one third of the island while the Republic of Cyprus counts 1.17 million people.
Among the oddities of an island split in two parts, the most unsettling is finding oneself in a city that is the capital of two countries. This is Nicosia, the capital of both the Republic of Cyprus and the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a puppet state recognized only by Turkey, the occupying party. Among the five checkpoints in Cyprus, the best known is the one at Ledra Street in Nicosia that is reserved for pedestrians with passports or photo ID. The checkpoints are manned by U.N. personnel. At Ledra Street one can find a bar, sheltered by sandbags and discarded metal drums. I inspected it on a day when all checkpoints were closed.
The story that a visitor quickly learns is the extent to which the Turkish occupiers have raped their section of the island. The vast destruction and pillage of religious sites and objects committed by the Turkish troops since the invasion is an insult to humanity and to the efforts of UNESCO to protect cultural and world heritage sites. Turkish agents have removed entire mosaics from the Christian churches and sold them through Turkish merchants on the international art market. The gouged walls of monasteries and Byzantine holy places bear silent testimony to the Turkish wanton disregard not only of other religious cultures but of international law such as the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property During Armed Conflict. The Turkish authorities in Northern Cyprus did not prevent theft, pillage and misappropriation of cultural property. The European Court of Human Rights found Turkey responsible for deprivation of private property of Greek Cypriots expelled from the occupied territory.
There is also a convention in force since 1995, named UNIDROIT, that establishes rules for the restitution of stolen cultural objects and illicitly exported cultural objects. The Republic of Cyprus has ratified the convention, Turkey has not. Such despicable behavior by Turkey is just one of many reasons for the strong stand by the majority of Europeans who spurn the idea of Turkey entering the European Union. The chasm between Turkey and Europe is way too deep, politically, socially but most significant, culturally. Lamentably, it will not be bridged in Cyprus, the cradle of a civilization that goes back 9,000 years.