Make Love, Make War: the Fate of Cyprus
For headline-readers the verdant island of Cyprus, tucked in the least-traveled corner of the Mediterranean Sea is one of those flash points of conflict periodically threatening the peace of the world, as Greeks and Turks hurl insults and threats of doomsday missiles at each other across a long thin line patrolled by a handful of United Nations troops.
For the hundreds of thousands of tourists sprawled over its beautiful beaches in the shadow of crumbling fortifications of Greeks and Crusaders, Venetians and Turks, Cyprus remains the carefree island sung by the poet Ronsard four hundred years ago, the home of "play and Graces and Love."
The modern world is used to being fascinated by this alternation of terror and pleasure on this island. But for all but a small fraction of human history, nobody, at least nobody of any importance, paid the smallest attention to Cyprus..For something like half a million years, while bands of our ancestors were slowly working their way around the Mediterranean, the only people who bothered to make the fifty-mile voyage across dangerous waters from Syria or Asia Minor were some hardy hunters of the ninth millennium BC who bedded down in the caves of the north shore long enough to exterminate the dwarf hippopotamuses which had swum over before them, Then they paddled back to wherever it was they had come from. All was quiet thereafter for another two thousand years or so, when new immigrants began to arrive, farmers and goat-herds, who for centuries thereafter lived peacefully and in relative comfort in scattered communities of well-built round stone houses. Except for a few pieces of obsidian, which is not found in the soil of the island, there is nothing to indicate that they had any contact with the outside world, where the crowded cities and expanding states of the earliest civilizations were rising in Egypt and in western Asia. They buried their dead under the floors of their houses and surrounded them with votive offerings, principally little statues of a female figure with outstretched arms - the first known crucifixes. Presumably she was the fertility goddess who appears in one form of another in all the old Mediterranean cultures, the one whom the Romans later called the Great Mother of the Gods, the one who caused the earth to bring forth crops and mothers to bring forth babies. She was Astarte in Syria, she appears in the Bible as Ishtar the Queen of Heaven, to whom the people of Jerusalem offered incense and cakes, arousing the prophet Jeremiah to an incandescent fury. She appears in many forms in graves and sanctuaries all over Cyprus, sometimes with upraised arms in the Cretan fashion, sometimes with the head of a bird, sometimes naked and sometimes covered with jewels, sometimes in childbirth..
There was one site particularly sacred to this goddess, at Paphos on the west coast of Cyprus, where she was worshiped in the form of a four-foot high cone-shaped greenish-black stone untouched by human chisel. There the Greeks found her when they invaded the island in the 12th century BC, and around that black stone they built the most famous temple of antiquity, one already famous in the time of Homer, who devoted two lines to it in the seventh book of the Odyssey. For centuries it attracted pilgrims from all over the civilized world. They gave the tutelary goddess of this sanctuary the name of Aphrodite, later identified with the Roman goddess Venus. Philologists say the name Aphrodite is of Semitic origin, but the fertile Greek imagination preferred to derive it from two Greek syllables meaning foam-born, and their poets said that the goddess, standing in a giant cockle-shell, rose in naked youthful loveliness from the foam of waves crashing against a tall jagged rock which still stands in the sea close to the port of Paphos. According to the poet Hesiod she was engendered by the testicles of Ouranos, the first Lord of the universe, fallen into the sea when he was castrated by his son Kronos [the Roman Saturn], who would later be deposed by his son Zeus [the Roman Jupiter}. This would make Aphrodite an aunt of Zeus rather than his mother, a demotion in rank which did nothing to diminish the fervor with which she was worshiped as the Goddess of Love. Her temple, in the form of a temenon, or open rectangular space surround by porticoes, was the scene of continual festivals, with dancing and games and drunken revelry, with music and poetry contests. It was the single most famous and popular pilgrimage site in the ancient world, it may be described as the first major tourist attraction in human history, the first milestone on the road that led to Disneyland. People came from distant lands in three continents to share in the rites and the festivities, paying their tribute to the goddess in the form of coins dropped at the feet of young ladies sent by their pious families to show their devotion to the Mother of the Gods by serving a term as ritual prostitutes. It was a short term for pretty girls, says Herodotus the Father of History. the others might have to wait for months or years.
Wise Greek though he was, it apparently never occurred to Herodotus that an intelligent girl might find it preferable to spend years laughing and dancing and flirting among flowers and flutes and cascades of wine and wild dances with distinguished foreign poets, playwrights, philosophers, choreographers, victorious generals and millionaire senators, rather than being rushed back home to be the child bride of some illiterate womanizing brute like Agamemnon or Achilles.
The sanctuary at Paphos was so well known that none of the many Greek and Latin poets, playwrights, philosophers and grammarians who mentioned it in their surviving works bothered to describe it, so no one today knows exactly what it looked like. When the Roman Empire became officially Christian in the 4th century AD, the dances had to stop. Domed white limestone churches blazing inside with mosaic and fresco began to rise in every village on plain or mountainside, and the world-famous sanctuary of Aphrodite was abandoned, left exposed to the ravages of time, earthquakes (there is a seismic center forty miles from Aphrodite's Rock which has over the centuries destroyed every town in Cyprus at least once), pirate raiders, souvenir-hunters and the greedy French barons, rulers of the land in the Middle Ages, who tore down three quarters of the walls to build a sugar refinery. Little is left of it today but the mighty foundation walls, some broken columns, and a few scattered objects like the clay bathtub which sentimental scholars have suggested was the one in which the priestess representing the Goddess was rubbed with precious oils when she came to renew her virginity in the spring of every year.
For all the Church and the pirates and the Byzantine emperors and the French gangster-barons could do to her shrine, the image of Aphrodite remained alive in the minds of local peasant women who to this day, it is said, leave petticoats by the old stones on certain nights of the year to ensure many painless pregnancies. And in the great world outside Paphos in the works of poets and painters, she remained ever beautiful, ever sprightly, ever young. Cyprus, her birthplace, would be remembered through the centuries, whatever sufferings might befall its inhabitants, as the Island of Love -- its name, said Edward Gibbon, "excites the ideas of elegance and pleasure." The Elizabethan playwright Thomas Dekker has one of his heroines say, ".'tis the fashion of us Cypriotes to yield at first assault."
Love in this world is rarely far removed from Strife, as the Greek mythographers hinted when they had Aphrodite start the Trojan War by easing the way for the Trojan prince Paris to run off with the giddy Queen Helen of Sparta, or when they had Aphrodite herself involved in an adulterous affair with Ares (the Latin Mars) the God of War, caught in bed by her husband Hephaestus (Vulcan) in the full glare of publicity on Mount Olympus.
If the Cypriots could keep their queen Aphrodite in more than regal splendor, in a temple glittering with gold and jewels and scented with precious perfumes, it was because they were rich. They were rich because their island contained the biggest available deposits of a yellowish ore which some shrewd neolithic craftsmsan had discovered in the fifth millennium BC could be baked and beaten into forming useful objects like knives and hooks, pots and pans, and pretty objects for personal adornment like ear-rings and necklaces. This was copper, a word derived in most languages from the word Cyprus (though some authorities say the word Cyprus is derived from a word in a primitive language meaning copper)..
Some time around the turn of the third millennium BC clever smiths in different parts of the world began to discover that if copper was mixed with small quantities of other substances like tin it could make bronze, a discovery that was to change human life as much as gunpowder or the printing press or atomic fission were to do in later ages. For bronze made possible war as we know it.
Bronze, unlike stone and timber, was rare and expensive. In primitive societies based on subsistence agriculture or herding and hunting, one man is more or less as good as another when it comes to knocking your neighbor's brains out with a stone ax or a wooden club, But in the new world of the Bronze Age you needed complex organizations, trading ships that could go to ends of the earth like Cornwall in Britain to obtain tin, panzer divisions of men in bronze armor driving bronze chariots which could mow down foot-soldiers like grass and turn tribal chieftains into emperors ruling innumerable slaves and serfs and soldiers, and scribes to record their mighty deeds. The appetite of the new Bronze-Age empires for copper was insatiable: several million tons of slag from the ancient mines lie scattered around Cyprus, and staple eighty-pound ingots used by merchants have been dug up all over the shores of the Mediterranean.
In this new age the quiet pastoral life of the primitive Cypriots was abruptly changed as the island became a vital center of a ceaseless whirl of commerce and war. Statues of bearded helmeted warrior gods begin to appear by the side of statues of Aphrodite in the shrines which the priests built alongside the shafts of the copper mines which they apparently owned and directed.
From all directions the strangers came, at first to buy copper (and opium, another early product of the island economy ), then to seize the copper mines and the seaports, then to organize the island as a base for other conquests and as a central staging area for international commerce. Ancient legends speak of Cypriot warlords with a reputation for sharp practice, like the one who, according to Homer, promised the Greek commander-in-chief Agamemnon fifty shiploads of armed men for the Trojan War, and after long and irritating delays finally sent one ship with one armed man and clay replicas of forty-nine others on board.
An inscription of a Hittite king claims that he conquered the island, but it may have been an idle boast, since archeologists have found no trace of a Hittite presence on the island. But there are plenty of traces of well-attested later conquests, by Cretans and Assyrians, Phoenicians and Egyptians. Persians and Greeks and Romans and Byzantines and Arabs and Crusaders and Genoese and Venetians and Turks and British. There are traces everywhere of the city and harbor walls they built, and their palaces and warehouses, temples and churches and mosques and vacation villas and baths and bordellos. You can hardly dig anywhere on the island without finding an ancient bronze dagger or horse-blinker, a wine-jar or a pouch full of coins buried by some one who fled his home at the news of the latest invasion and who never came back, One of the glorious mosaic floors uncovered in recent years at Paphos has a straight black line down its middle, drawn by the farmer's plough which led to its discovery.
It was the Greek invaders who made the most lasting impression. Coming first as an invading aristocracy around the 12th century BC when their homelands were overrun by barbarian invasions, they gradually imposed their language and their culture (and since the fourth century AD their Orthodox Christian faith), and the majority of Cypriots have considered themselves Greek ever since, however many foreigners have dominated and plundered them.
But they never succeeded in establishing themselves as an independent people, their land was were always the helpless pawn of pirate chieftains or of empires jockeying for control of its mineral resources and its strategic position at the hub of what were then the most important trade routes in the world. They were fought over, they were enslaved (under the Ottomans they were legally known as rayahs, cattle), their history often reads like an endless chronicle of internecine wars. Here are some specimen episodes from the first century BC when Cyprus was a province of Ptolemaic Egypt [from H. D. Purcell, Cyprus, Praeger, New York, 1969]:
Physcon (Pot-belly), brother of Philometor, later became Euergetes II. After Philometor's death in 145, Physcon succeeded, married his brother's widow Cleopatra II (who was also his sister) and killed his brother's son, thus continuing to earn his reputation as a kakergetes (evil-doer). In 130/1 the Alexandrians revolted against him, and he took refuge in Cyprus. Fearing that the Alexandrians might incite his eldest son to replace him, he sent for him and had him killed. The Alexandrians then broke Physcon's portrait statues. His sister-wife had remained in Alexandria and, suspecting her of complicity in the destruction, he killed their fourteen-year-old son Memphites, and sent her his head, hand and feet as a birthday present. Manners had indeed degenerated since Ptolemy Soter's time. Nevertheless, the native population of Egypt rose in favor of Physcon, who returned form Cyprus in 129. He lived until the year 116.
Physcon's successor, his elder son by Cleopatra III (his niece by his brother and sister) was known as Philometor II Soter II Lathyrus (Chickpea). He was hated by his mother, who wished her younger son Alexander to succeed, As a consolation, Alexander was sent to be strategos of Cyprus. The queen-mother forced Lathyrus to divorce Cleopatra IV, a sister he was fond of, and take to wife his younger sister, Cleopatra called Selene. Cleopatra IV accordingly went to Cyprus where she raised an army, and then to Syria, where she married Antiochus IX, bringing the army with her as a dowry...
The priest-king Alexander Jannaeus succeeded to the throne of Hyrcanus in Palestine, but was resisted by the inhabitants of Ake-Ptolemais and Gaza, to whom the Jews of Cyprus sent aid, Cleopatra III meanwhile supported Jannaeus. Lathryus raised some 30,000 men in Cyprus, and defeated Jannaeus at Asaphon, near the Jordan, with great slaughter. Lathyrus was subsequently prevented from entering Egypt, and by the year 102/1 both he and his mother had returned to their respective seats of power. She died in the autumn of 101, and her younger son Alexander then married his niece, Cleopatra Berenice, daughter of Lathyrus. In 95 Lathyrus made another expedition to Syria, and in 88 returned to Egypt after the death of Alexander, who had been expelled and lost his life an a naval battle. Lathyris then ruled the reunited kingdom until 80 BC...
When Lathyrus died, his widow Berenice, with whom he had associated himself on the throne, was left as ruler of the Ptolemaic kingdom. However Ptolemy Alexander II, a son of her husband Alexander by a former wife, intervened. He had been taken to Rome by Sulla eight years before, and now, with Roman support, came to marry Berenice and reign in Egypt. Within three weeks he had murdered her (his father's wife and his own) and been murdered in turn by the mob. The Romans claimed he had left a will bequeathing his kingdom including Cyprus, to Rome..
The Alexandrians then divided the kingdom between Lathyrus's bastards. The elder, Ptolemy Theos Philopater Philadeplus, who styled himself the new Dionysus but is better known as Auletes ("the Piper") was given Egypt; while the younger Ptolemy, for whom no nickname has survived, was awarded Cyprus. This Ptolemy was offered the priesthood of Paphian Aphrodite when Rome annexed Cyprus as a province in 58 and confiscated its treasury to finance a free distribution of corn to the Roman people; but he preferred to poison himself.
But for all the efforts of her husband Ares the God of War, Aphrodite did not relinquish all her rights to the island, she has turned up with regularity and vivacity to affect the course of history in both pagan and Christian times.
. Cleopatra VII, the last of her line, needed only a night of love on two separate occasions to have both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony hand over Cyprus and all its revenues to her; she issued coins on which she is represented holding the infant Ptolemy Caesar, her child by Julius.
Andronicus Comnenus, cousin of a Byzantine emperor in the 12th century AD, got himself appointed governor of Cyprus, collected its taxes, and when he lost the job used the tax money to help him dazzle and seduce two beautiful crusading Frenchwomen, the Princess of Antioch and the Queen of Jerusalem
Not long afterwards, when the fair Berengaria, fiancée of Richard the Lion Heart, King of England, was treated discourteously by the Byzantine governor of Cyprus, Richard took off time from the Third Crusade to land on the east coast, marry Berengaria, chase the Byzantines out of the island, loot their treasury, and sell the throne of Cyprus for 100 thousand pieces of gold to the Knights Templar. They were slow to come up with the cash, and Cyprus ended up in the hands of Guy de Lusignan, a French crusader who was also king of Jerusalem, and whose family would rule the island for the next three hundred years..
Helena Paleologa, grand-daughter of another Byzantine emperor, was a strong-willed woman who ran the island for sixteen years by pampering her Lusignan husband, John II the Fat. When she found that John's mistress Marietta had produced a son and heir, she attacked her and bit off her nose, while the King looked on from his throne with the greatest of pleasure, "flattered,." said a historian of the time, "that Greek Amazons should contend for his affections."
For all the wars and turmoil that fill the chronicles, all the massacres, pestilences, famines caused by droughts (Cyprus is chronically short of water, none of its rivers reaches the sea all year around), plagues of locusts, there were good years, even good centuries, on Cyprus too.. Under the fairly benign rule of the Roman Empire the population grew to well over half a million, a figure it would not equal again till the middle of the twentieth century. The houses recently excavated at Paphos, with their marble bath-tubs, their clay hot-water bottles in the form of hands or feet or knees, and their magnificent mosaic floors and wall paintings. testify to a high and sophisticated standard of luxury. The Emperor Titus was following an old tradition when he stopped off to have a good time in Cyprus before going on to crush the Jewish rebellion and destroy the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 AD,
There was another golden age after the crusaders were driven from Syria and Palestine, and Cyprus became the last outpost of Christendom in the Middle East as well as the principal entrepot for trade between east and west. As in classical times, there was a great flow of tourists. Princes and nobles of the west like Shakespeare's Harry Hotspur, the jet set of the middle ages, were accustomed to taking the long trip to Cyprus to shake a mailed fist across the water at the infidel in the Holy Land and to savor the high life of the Lusignan court before going back to fight their wars at home.. Medieval chroniclers never tired of exclaiming at the lavish life style of the nobles there, who kept tame leopards and lionesses for hunting the mouflon, a wild sheep found only on Cyprus and a couple of other Mediterranean islands.. Lord Hugh of Ibelin was said to have kept 500 hounds, with 250 servants to feed and bathe and rub them with oil The first wine in history to have a varietal name was the Commanderia, made by the Knights of St John of Jerusalem at their Commandery (headquarters) near Nicosia, and Cypriots like to claim that the first champagne was made from vines brought back in the baggage of Theobald IV, count of that province who had been visiting his cousin Alice, Queen of Cyprus. Sir Walter Raleigh grew rich on the monopoly on the sale of Commanderia wines in England which had been given him by Queen Elizabeth.(A learned historian notes of Cypriot wine that it was so powerful that some English knights who drank it neat without mixing it in the classical way with three parts of water, promptly died of it. Their tombs were among the sites visited by tourists in the 14th century.)
The last of the Lusignan kings, James II the Bastard, son of Marietta the Noseless, was a handsome and violently picturesque figure known for the severity with which he crushed opposition When he learned that large numbers of his nobility had formed what was called the Conspiracy of the Cuckolds to murder him for having seduced their wives, sisters, mothers and daughters, he had them all condemned to death. He was moved by the weepings and wailings of the women to commute the sentence, but arranged to have the messenger arrive with the commutation order after all but three of the conspirators had been beheaded.
Times were hard in James the Bastard's day after a disastrous plague which killed three quarters of the population, and the growing power of the Ottoman Turks was a threat not only to Lusignans but to all the western world, which looked anxiously to Cyprus to hold out. Pope Martin V's indulgences which went on sale in 1451, offering years off in purgatory for those contributing to its defense, were the first documents to be printed with the newfangled invention of moveable type. In desperate need for money, James married a rich Venetian beauty, Caterina Cornaro. He died, poisoned it was said by the Venetians, shortly afterwards, and Caterina was bullied or bribed into handing her kingdom over to the Serene Republic of Venice and returning to her birthplace where she was adopted as a daughter by St. Mark in person and went on to pass a long rich Renaissance life courted by poets and philosophers and sitting for portraits by Titian..
Thus it was the Venetians who fought the last great battle ever fought in Cyprus, one which was followed with excitement and apprehension by every one in Europe. (There is an echo of it in Shakespeare: his Othello had gained fame as a Venetian general fighting the Turks in Cyprus). The Turks won, capturing the capital city of Famagusta after an eleven-month siege in 1572, in which fewer than 10 thousand men under General Marcantonio Bragadin held out for eleven months against a Turkish army of more than 200,000. Reduced to their last four hundred men and a few handfuls of gunpowder, the defenders gave up and were massacred by the Turkish general, humiliated by having suffered 80,000 casualties. He had Bragadin tortured for two days, then flayed him alive, stuffed the skin with straw and sent it to stand as a trophy in the palace of Sultan Selim the Sot.
There were shock waves all through Europe, where it was felt one of the decisive battles of the world had been fought But neither Selim the Sot nor the Europeans were aware that times had changed, and that neither Cyprus nor the Venetian Republic, nor even the great Ottoman Empire, (which along with Spain was one of the two superpowers of the 16th century) counted for very much any more. The opening up of a global economy by Portuguese mariners followed by the English and every one else had shifted world trade to the oceans, and the eastern Mediterranean after thirty-five hundred years of frenzied activity, had become again a backwater.
For the next four hundred years, Cyprus would be as far from the world's attention as it had been before the beginning of the Bronze Age. The Ottoman Turks took so little interest in the island they had conquered with such heavy losses and such great boasting that they did not even bother to maintain an adequate garrison on the island, sending over relays of incompetent officials -"octogenarians and drunkards," said a British observer - who had nothing to do but collect the taxes and the bribes they needed to make good the enormous sums they had paid to get the job. There were a few revolts, some by Turks objecting to having to pay taxes as if they were mere rayahs, some by Greeks aspiring to Enosis, union with the newly independent kingdom of Greece. In 1878, partly to prop up the decaying Ottoman Empire as a barrier to Russian expansion and partly to protect the imperial sea-route to India, the British took over administration of the island and later made it a colony. They gave it an efficient administration, good roads and schools and they got rid of the locusts (previous rulers had been reluctant to do so because locusts were considered by Moslem fundamentalists a divine punishment which it would be sacrilegious to interrupt). but they too took very little interest in what seemed a dull and dusty corner of the Empire. It was a poor and stagnant world of lethargic villages. Occasional wealthy English or French visitors would drop by looking for exotic scenes of simple people leading an age-old agricultural and pastoral life amid moss-covered ruins and carob and olive trees under a soft eastern sky.
Then in the middle of the twentieth century, Cyprus suddenly came back into the headlines, with one of those intractable ethnic rivalries which periodically have shocked the world and threatened it with another great war..Ever since the Greek mainland won independence from the Turkish Empire in 1828, all the surrounding islands had dreamed of joining it, and by the end of the Second World War they had all achieved their goal, all but Cyprus. There were recurring calls for Enosis, then there were strikes and demonstrations, with schoolgirls throwing bottles at British troops, and in the 1950's, with arms smuggled in from the mainland, a guerrilla war. It was a holy cause, supported and often led by the hierarchy of the Greek Orthodox Church, which through centuries of foreign rule had been the one organized force proclaiming their Hellenic identity of the island and its people. At the immensely venerable and immensely rich monastery of Kykko built in a steep and almost inaccessible mountain gorge, the two things of which they are most proud are an icon of the Virgin Mary, painted it is said by the evangelist Saint Luke, perpetually hidden from mortal eyes by a gilded silver screen, and the nearby ravine where under the protective eye of the monks the underground fighters in the cause of Enosis stored munitions and hid out from British search parties.
Enosis might actually have achieved painlessly in 1915 when the British government offered to cede Cyprus to Greece if Greece would enter what was then called the World War on the allied side. But the Greek government, expecting a German victory, did nothing about it, and when another government did declare war two years later, the offer had expired.
As in ancient times, Cyprus was too important a strategic point to be left to the Cypriots. The British saw it as a vital link in their chain of empire, even as the empire was falling to pieces. The Turks saw it as a potential enemy base anchored right off their southern shore; they were also concerned about the sizeable Turkish minority (eighteen percent of the population) on the island who would be a very small minority of second-class citizens if they were absorbed into an expanded Greece.
. Though separated by language and religion and historical traditions, Greeks and Turks had been living on reasonably good terms, working side by side, eating and drinking together though almost never intermarrying. There were Turkish quarters in all the cities, Turkish villages checkerboarded throughout the countryside. Each side blamed the other for the start of the sporadic violence which began to turn deadly in the 1950's. The Greek community, led by Archbishop Makarios, swore to fight for Enosis and only Enosis, but after long and painful negotiations between London, Athens and Ankara, finally accepted in 1960 a painful compromise which allowed an independent republic of Cyprus, the first in 9000 years of history, to come into being, with Makarios as its first president and with a constitution providing elaborate protections for minority rights.
Fighting broke out again in 1963 which resulted in most of the Turkish population being holed up in about thirty enclaves scattered around the country, and despite much distrust and suspicion and verbal abuse and occasional murders and lootings, an uneasy peace between the communities was maintained. But the air remained explosive and in August 1974 a match was lit to it when the harebrained military officers who had overthrown the elected government in Greece, feeling that Makarios had betrayed his lifelong commitment to Enosis, decided to murder him and replace him with someone who would take a pure hard line with the Turks. The plot was thoroughly botched, Makarios escaped with his life, and shortly was back in office while the plotters went to jail and democracy was restored in Greece. But not before the Turkish government had seized the opportunity to launch its army on what it called a Peace Operation to save its compatriots form massacre. Before it was over it had occupied thirty-eight percent of the country's territory, stopping at a line which to this day divides Cyprus into two parts sealed off from each other by a narrow strip, the Green Line, a nomansland a couple of hundred yards wide, patrolled by United Nations forces. In the following months there was an exchange of populations, something like a quarter of a million people (more than a third of the population) being expelled from their homes with whatever they could carry. The Turkish zone has since proclaimed itself the independent Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, recognized by no nation in the world but Turkey. Twenty-four years later, the Green line stills cuts all the way across the island, running through the middle of the capital city of Nicosia the way the Wall used to run through Berlin. It has put an end to the overt violence between the communities. It has also cut them off completely from each other.
Greeks and Turks who used to live and work side by side all over the island are now in rigidly defined zones, each one missing no chance to proclaim its ethnic identity. In the south, Greek flags flutter everywhere, only rarely do you see one of the Republic of Cyprus. In the north the face of Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, is everywhere, including a mountainside. You cannot make a phone call or send a letter between the two zones. "In my youth," says a Greek lawyer, "I shared an apartment with a Turk. He now lives a few blocks from me in Nicosia. In the last twenty-four years I have bumped into him a couple of times, in London."
Tourists are permitted to cross from south to north at a single check-point by the old Ledra luxury hotel in the heart of Nicosia,.provided you promise not to buy anything on your excursion, and you must be back by five pm or you will have to take a six-hour flight via Frankfurt or Rome to come back. On both sides of the check-point you are are faced by an array of giant posters demanding justice and revenge, showing photographs of atrocities committed by the other party: mass graves of murdered Turks found near Famagusta in the north, lists of the 1671 Greek civilians still missing after the Turkish invasion of 1974.
The atrocities may be arithmetically few, in thirty-odd years of endemic violence there are no more than a few thousand dead in the most exaggerated figures put out by both sides, hardly a week's average in the slaughters that attended the partitions of India or Bosnia. They are no less deeply felt for all that, the Green Line remains an open wound in the heart of all Cypriots. For a whole immemorial pattern of life was disrupted in a few days. The Cyprus of a generation ago was not very different from the Cyprus which Byzantine emperors and Ottoman sultans had ruled. It was a network of hundreds of little villages, huddled around their domed Byzantine churches or the minarets of their mosques, communities of peasants bound economically and emotionally to the little plots of land which had belonged to their forebears since time immemorial, the place where thy were born and where they would die.
The bitter memories will not go away.
"I was chased from my village with all my family and friends and neighbors by the tanks and planes of the Turkish army in 1974," says a man in his comfortable office in Greek Nicosia. "Every chance I get, I go to what used to be our international airport and is now an abandoned nomans land, and I get out a spy glass and stand for hours looking on what used to be my house in my village and my trees and my flowers, with immigrants from mainland Turkey now bustling about them in strange costumes, on a street to which they have now given a Turkish name"
""I was in school in London," says a man in his comfortable office in Turkish Nicosia, "when the Greeks started killing our people in 1963 and my family was chased out of our village into one of the enclaves occupying three percent of the land of Cyprus, not one of them on the sea, and where they were kept isolated by road blocks and subjected to constant threats and indignities. When I came back to Cyprus on vacation, I could only climb as a tourist up all the hundreds of steps to the highest level of the medieval castle of St. Hilarion on its mountain top to get a chance to look down on our vineyards and our fruit trees and the house where I was born."
The world on which these refugees were unloaded in 1974 seemed totally broken. The Republic of Cyprus found itself overnight deprived of its only international airport, its two chief seaports, its best farmland and best scenery and it had almost 200,000 homeless people on its hands. The Turkish zone had its own refugees, some forty thousand of them, and in some ways it was worse off than its neighbor. Under both the Ottomans and the British, the Greeks had provided what middle class Cyprus had, running the lower levels of government and almost all the businesses and trades. The Turks were almost entirely poor peasants, with no commercial or entrepreneurial traditions. The island as a whole seemed ripe for one of the descents into misery which had so often punctuated its existence.
A quarter of a century later no progress at all has been made in bringing the two sides to an understanding that could end or at least lessen the conflict. The Greeks do not recognize that there is any government at all north of the Green Line, it is an area occupied by the Turkish army which is trying to wipe out every trace of its Greek heritage. The Turks say that the Republic of Cyprus is only a pretext for giving Greece two votes in international assemblies like the United Nations. They trade insults, they trade threats. The radios talk all the time of jet bombers, Russian missiles, piracy at sea.
On the ground, however, the noise you hear most persistently on both sides of the Green Line is that of bulldozers. A building boom has been going on at an increasing pace for years. Four-lane highways run where once there were mule-paths, giant department stores and luxury hotels and banks, discos and fast-food restaurants, suburban villas with two-car garages, rise where once there were carob trees and banana groves.
The change in the physical landscape reflects the changes which have turned Cypriot society upside down. In barely a generation Cyprus has gone through a process of mutation which in western Europe has taken two hundred years. It has changed from a traditional backward agricultural society into a modern European service-economy one, with its mobility, electricity, lively political debate, widespread material comfort, traffic jams, gang-wars, money-laundering, financial scandals. Grand-mothers may wear traditional long black dresses, grand-daughters wear jeans..
Life is urbanized, motorized, computerized. "Villages?" says a taxi-driver impatiently. "Nobody in villages any more. Only old people in villages." And indeed you can see in any newspaper endless ads for charming picturesque old village houses, now done up with refrigerators and VCR's, for expatriates from western Europe or Cypriots who have come back after making fortunes abroad and are hungering for the simplicities and languid ways of the good old times.
In the good old times, ambitious young people, if they wanted to break the ancestral pattern of ploughing and goat-herding, or sewing and clothes-washing, had to go to London to get a job in a restaurant or to Oxford to get a higher education. They now can find opportunity waiting for them at every corner in all the sleepy old towns turned into bustling cities.. For the first time in her history, Cyprus has a labor shortage, and immigrants are coming from distant lands like India not for plunder but for jobs. The villages have been emptied to provide workers for the banks, the light industry, the construction industry, the department stores, but above all for the tourist trade which is now the mainstay of the Cypriot economy.
In the year after the Turkish Peace Operation, some 60 thousand foreigners were bold enough to visit the storm-tossed land. Last year there were over two million.
And there is every reason for them to keep coming. In its small space of 3500 square miles where you can reach any point from any other in two or three hours, Cyprus packs an almost incredible amount of things worth seeing and doing. Where else in the world can you swim at dawn in the waves where Aphrodite annually renewed her virginity, play golf at noon, drive up through hillsides aflame with anemone and cyclamen and on up winding forested mountain roads to schuss down two brand-new ski slopes in the evening? Where else can you be bounced through the centuries so giddily, where some three hundred villages each has its domed Byzantine church, alight within with the fervent colors of mosaics, frescoes, icons dating from the sixth century to the present day, where the next turn in the road may show the tomb of the Prophet Mohammed's aunt or a Roman bath-house or a prehistoric burial site or a Venetian fort, or the great medieval cathedrals of Nicosia and Famagusta (both turned to mosques at the time of the Turkish conquest) or the crusader castles towering above towering cliffs, or the empty abbey of Bellapa´s (Belle Paix, beautiful Peace, as it was called by the Frenchmen who built it) as pure a jewel of Gothic architecture as was ever created, or the British Governor-General's summer house in a mountain glen built by a work-gang headed by Arthur Rimbaud the first of the modern poets?
Little fishing villages have turned into lines of luxury beach resorts, old bazaars have been crowded out by laundromats, fast-food restaurants, casinos. As the great new highway from Turkish Nicosia turns right towards Famagusta, a minaret on one side faces the Crazy Girl Nightclub on the other. In Famagusta itself, in the old town within the Venetian walls, in the shadow of Othello's Tower you will find a Calvin Klein outlet, a supermarket, a sports center, and Cindy's Massage Salon.
There is much shaking of heads among some of the older folk, just as there was two thousand years ago when moralistic Greek and Roman poets denounced the Cyprian enthusiasm for what we would today call conspicuous consumption. Sitting in air-conditioned offices with a MacDonalds going up across the street, or in what used to be an isolated fisherman's house now surrounded by saunas and discos, they lament the passing of the old time-honored ways.
The Cypriots themselves take all this good fortune with the same good-natured laid-back ease as they took the picturesque poverty of their past. They are after all the same people as those who once danced and frolicked the year round in honor of the light-hearted fun-loving goddess of love Aphrodite. And she herself would be pleased to see all those thousands of her modern-day devotees sprawled out next to naked on her beaches or plunging into the very foam that gave her birth.
Cypriot conviviality and hospitality have long impressed and enthralled travelers. Lawrence Durrell, in his classic account of life in the mountain village of Bellapa´s, Bitter Lemons, remarks that the first thing a Cypriot says on meeting you is Kopiaste, which he freely translates as, Sit down with us and share, .(He would not be pleased to know that the café under what the locals called the Tree of Idleness, where he and the locals used to get drowsily drunk through long summer afternoons, is now an upscale Turkish restaurant crowded with European tourists.)
An easy-going openness is among the oldest of Cypriot traditions. Almost two thousand years ago a rich man building his home which covered a whole city block in the rich Roman city of Neo-Paphos, set a standard for Cypriot hospitality which is still observed, at least when international politics is kept out of the conversation. He inscribed in mosaic on the floor just inside the entrance to his grand reception room one Greek word Xaire [pronounced "hairy"] meaning "Welcome." But there was another door to the room, presumably a less important one, and he did not want any one coming through this door to feel left out, so he had another mosaic message put there with two Greek words Kai sou [Ky see] meaning, "You too."
The day when the leaders of the two embattled communities will be able to say You Too across the Green Line at the Ledra Palace will the day when the Cyprus problem which now threatens the peace of the Middle East and of the world will start to be solved.
© 1999 Robert Wernick
Smithsonian Magazine June 1999