Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
The woman at the tourist information office in Larnaca was not encouraging.
I had asked her about crossing the “green line” or UN buffer zone in Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus. She was not amused. “If you go across,” she said, “you go at your own risk.”
“As my own risk?” I was a little taken aback. “There’s not any actual risk, is there?”
“It’s an illegal government up there,” she said sternly. “It’s occupied territory. There are no embassies, no consulates. If you have any problems, no one can help you.”
I didn’t take her words to heart, but I could understand her anger. Nicosia, or Lefkosia, the capital of Cyprus, is the the last divided capital in the world. It’s jarring to know this when you’re in this country, which is a summer playground of lovely beaches for Russians, other Europeans, and everyone else. But Cyprus today has been the product of bitter civil conflict.
After decades as a British colony, Cyprus became independent in 1960. By 1963, violence between ethnically Greek and ethnically Turkish Cypriots had erupted. By the following year, Turkey had threatened to invade Cyprus to aid the ethnic Turks, in response to which Greece sent 10,000 troops to Cyprus to counter any potential invasion. Turkey gave up on an invasion only after U.S. president Lyndon Johnson threatened Ankara in turn.
A Turkish invasion finally came in 1974, in response to a coup sponsored by Greece that aimed to united Cyprus with that country. By the time international pressure halted the fighting, the Turkish military had capture the northern third of the country, including the northern half of Nicosia. Greek Cypriots living in the north were evicted from their homes, while Turkish Cypriots living in Greek-controlled areas moved north. The “Turkish Republic of North Cyprus” remains the de facto authority of the northern third of Cyprus, even though no other country recognizes it except Turkey, and the Republic of Cyprus retains de jure authority over the entire island.
I wasn’t sure what I’d find in Nicosia. Accounts online were relatively sparse as to how difficult it was getting across the line. Was it going to be like the Berlin Wall?
The green line turned out to bisect the old city, its defining walls built in 1567 by the Venetians. There was a Checkpoint Charlie of sorts, where Nicosia’s longest street, the bustling Ledra Street, gets cut off by the green line. On both sides, the streets immediately adjacent to the green line were deserted as no-go zones.
But the checkpoint itself was not nearly as troublesome as I might have feared. A short line of older European visitors were in front of me as I reached it on the Greek side. One by one we showed our passports to the stern-faced Greek Cypriot officers, and one by one they let us pass. Just a few steps farther we did the same thing again with the Turkish Cypriot ones. Neither side stamped my passport, which is probably a good thing, because I remember seeing a sign at immigration into Greece a couple of years ago that said that entry would be denied to anyone whose passport bore a “TRNC” stamp. It was just as easy returning from the north to the south.
Traversing the two sides of Nicosia, the cost to civic life that came with the division became apparent to me. It’s like a deep slash across the heart. Much of what formerly was the most central part of the historic city is now no man’s land. In the old days, a “women’s market” used to be held every weekend at the end of Ledra Street, right about where the checkpoint is now, where women from all over Cyprus used to come to sell their wares. The women’s market has not been held since the division.
Walking around the two sides, I felt as though I could just about touch that loss, that absence — of the synergy, the much greater creative energy that the city seemed impossible not to enjoy if the two sides could only join forces.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."