Cyprus: Pearl of The Mediterranean (2)

Ever since I visited Cyprus for the second time in early 2020 and drove around the still divided country, I have had a strong urge to document the shocking things I saw and heard along the way.

Of all our needs and desires, peace will always be the most cherished thing.

The story (in Chinese) was first published in Lonely Planet China magazine, Issue 03/2022.

This English version was translated from the Chinese original with DeepL, with the manual correction of some obvious mistranslations. I apologize for any mistakes made by this AI translation tool.

This is the second part of the article. Click here to read the first part.


The holy land where no one makes pilgrimages

History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.

Karl Marx

In January 2020, I got my latest Schengen visa and immediately bought a ticket to Cyprus. By then, the Covid-19 had broken out in China, while the Mediterranean Sea was still enjoying the last calm before the storm.

The plane landed at Larnaca airport. This small town on the south-east coast has been the main point of access to the south side of Cyprus since Nicosia airport was abandoned in the Green Line. February, a cold and wet month in the Mediterranean, is the low season for tourism in Cyprus and I was able to rent a small two car for a low price of about 6 USD per day.

The closest of the sites I planned to visit was the mausoleum of Umm Haram, right next to the airport. The owner of the tomb was the aunt of the Islamic prophet Muhammad and one of his followers. It is said that after conquering Cyprus with her husband, she died in an accidental fall from the donkey she was riding. Ironically, this place, which is isolated in a corner of the present-day Greek community, is the most important Islamic shrine in the whole island. In several texts, it is ranked as the third (or fourth) most important Islamic holy site in the world, after Mecca and Medina (and Jerusalem), which are well known to the world.

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The entrance to the Mausoleum of Umm Haram, whose simple appearance does not match its status as the 3rd (4th) holiest Islamic site in the world

The mausoleum is located on the edge of Larnaca Salt Lake. The lake’s blue waters are filled with flocks of flamingos. The mausoleum is incredibly small in comparison to its stature: within the still slightly imposing main entrance plaza is a small chamber with a draped green curtain surrounding the only coffin. Next door is a small, simple mosque, with the only minaret standing alone, and mosques of similar size and shape abound in Northern Cyprus.

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Larnaca Salt Lake, where flocks of flamingos frolic

A middle-aged man came up to me, waved me off and introduced himself to the place.

“She was a kind woman, very, very kind. Not only I say so, but once the Greeks said so too. We Turks call her ‘Aunt Sultan’. You know, ‘Sultan’ means ‘king’ and is the most revered title we can give to a person.”

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The mausoleum of Umm Haram, the Islamic saint who was a contemporary of Muhammad, was not in the company of pilgrims.

The man, Mustafa, was born in Larnaca and moved with his family to the north side after the civil war, until he returned a few years ago and became the manager of the place. Only this holy place didn’t seem to have any pilgrims coming here.

“Do people usually come here to worship?” I asked him.

“Yes, of course! But mostly foreign workers, like Pakistanis, Bengalis …… Larnaca is basically empty of Turks now.”

“Now, Turks, north; Greeks, south. It’s all separated.” He gestured “separate” with both hands. “But you must know that before the war we all lived together, even in the same village.” With that, he clasped his hands together again with a sharp “thud”.

“We were friends, all of us.” He said.

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The empty mausoleum

The phrase struck me as uncannily familiar. The British writer Lawrence Durrell had published a book, Bitter Lemon of Cyprus, which chronicled his life in Cyprus in the 1950s, before the island was divided. One of his local friends once said almost exactly the same thing: “Cyprus is small, and we are all friends, though very different from each other. That’s Cyprus.”

“Are there places like that now. I mean, are the Greeks and Turks still friends?”

“Both gone.” He shook his head ruefully, “There’s just Pile left.”


Pile, a village of contradictions

Early the next morning I drove to Pillar. The village is not far outside Larnaca and, as you can see from the map, is mostly encased in the Green Line – one of the few places within the Green Line where outsiders can enter.

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United Nations police station in the village of Pillar, with UN vehicles with blue licence plates parked in front of it

The blue flag of the U.N. hangs at the entrance of the village, the streets are deserted, and the shop signs clearly distinguish the owners’ ethnic groups: the Turks call it “Pile” while the Greeks call it “Pyla”. Even the mobile phone numbers printed on them are distinctly different: the Turks mostly use phone cards from the north side, with the same area code as in Turkey, and their base station is built not far from the top of the hill controlled by the Turkish army, right next to the post that looks down on it.

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The outer edge of the village is marked as a closed area, and the hill behind it is the area controlled by Northern Cyprus

There are two cafes in the village, one belonging to the Greek community and the other to the Turkish community. In fact, historically, the Greek coffee drinking habit also originated from the Turks during the Ottoman rule. Yet today in the village of Pile, the customers of each of the two cafes are completely separate.

“So what’s your relationship with the Turks, like …… friends?” I asked an old man playing backgammon in the Greek cafe, trying to confirm what Mustafa had said to me the day before.

“Friends?” He let out a contemptuous laugh, “No no, I don’t think of them as friends. The Turks are too cunning and they are all born businessmen.” His emotions grew and he subconsciously reached out and gestured hard in the direction of the Turkish teahouse, “And they’re running a casino in the village! And the government doesn’t care, is this like, really treating this place like the north?”

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Bilingual road signs in Greek and Turkish

Probably realizing his outburst, he paused briefly, then slowly added: “But you should know that we do live together all the time. The Turks are the invaders, our enemies, but the Turkish Cypriots are not. When we were kids, we used to play football together, but sometimes we would fight. Now, though, I won’t let my kids play with Turkish kids anymore, it’s too dangerous. Their school, the teachers from Turkey, teach the kids to hate us. It’s too bad, they’re too bad.”

The Turkish school he was talking about was in the middle of the village. The layout of every school I saw in Turkey: the national flag fluttering in the wind in front of the school building, next to a statue of Kemal, the “father of Turkey”, the man who built the strong national identity of contemporary Turks. Turkey does not have diplomatic relations with the Republic of Cyprus, so this Turkish flag is probably the only official presence on the southern side of the island.

Turkish primary school in the village of Pile where the Turkish flag flies at all times

It was a weekend and the school was empty, so I couldn’t find out whether the teachers here teach their students to “hate the Greeks” or not. But after walking through the whole village, I was sure of one thing: there is no clear Greek or Turkish district in the village, and the two communities are completely intermingled here. I even saw a Turkish clothing store directly across the street from the Greek Orthodox Church, which reminded me of the scene of Lao Tzu, an ancient Chinese pilosopher: “The sound of chickens and dogs is heard, and the people do not interact with each other until they are old and dead.”

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Opposite the Orthodox Church, the Turkish-run clothing store, with signs in Turkish and English, and no Greek

If what the old man said is true, then the fact that the two communities still live intermingled might suggest that not so long ago they were much closer than they are now.

Before leaving Pile, I climbed to the roof of the Venetian tower at the entrance of the village, which was restored at the expense of the European Union, and was able to see both the minaret of the mosque in front of me and the bell tower of the Orthodox Church in the distance. “Not a friend” and yet “not an enemy” – a contradictory narrative that continues to confuse me: what are they now, who have lived here together for generations?

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The juxtaposition of the minaret of the mosque in the village of Pillar (near on the right) and the dome of the Orthodox Church (far on the left) is currently unique in the whole of Cyprus

A party of the locals

There are two things that spread the fastest, besides hill fires, and that is gossip.

Cyprus proverb

I wanted to hear more from ordinary Cypriots, so when I returned to Nicosia after a three-year hiatus, I opened the Couchsurfing website again. This time, I signed up for a regular gathering of local couch-surfers. For the convenience of immigrants and international students who can’t cross the border to the south side, the venue is always north of the Green Line, and this was no exception.

In addition to the “convenience of north-side immigrants”, there may be another reason for always meeting on the north side: the low price of alcohol. The low tax on alcohol, set up to attract tourists, has made this traditionally Islamic region one of the cheapest places to buy alcohol around the Mediterranean. Even pure Absinthe, which is banned in the EU and has an alcohol content of 90 degrees or more, is readily available here.

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The craziest thing in Northern Cyprus, apart from the casino, is Absinthe

The tavern where the meeting took place was located next to the Ledra Palace checkpoint, which crossed the Green Line. “Ledra Palace” was once the name of a hotel. The Jewish-style building outside the western wall of the old town was one of the largest and most luxurious hotels in Nicosia from its inauguration in 1949 until the outbreak of the civil war in 1974. However, during the civil war, being right in the centre of Nicosia, the area around the hotel became the scene of the most intense fighting, and the Ledra Palace became Nicosia’s version of Sunrise Hotel.

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The Ledra Palace Hotel

“When the rescue operation finally arrived, 380 men, women and children had been trapped at the Ledra Palace Hotel in Nicosia for 30 hours. Fighting raged outside and they had no water, electricity or food.” So documented the news back then.

After the war, the Ledra Palace Hotel, which was included in the Green Line, was taken over by the United Nations and became the office and residence of the garrison, and the site of many meetings between the two sides. Today, the two sides of the building are the respective entrances to the north and south of the crossing of the same name.

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I crossed the border from the south side to the north side. At the entrance to the checkpoint there were several huge panels complaining about “Turkish aggression against Cyprus”, while the opposite exit read “Long live the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” in English.

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The tavern was crowded, and the party was attended mostly by local acquaintances. Pendrith, a middle-aged Greek man, was the organizer of the party, and as a university teacher, he wore a pair of gold-rimmed glasses with a touch of scholarly elegance. I sought an opportunity to ask him for advice: would there be differences in habits between Greek Cypriots and Greeks?

“That’s a lot.” He responded, “From the accent of speech, the usage of some words, to their respective diets and habits, they are all very different.”

Cantu, an ethnic Turkish boy on the side, also interjected into the conversation, “We’re actually quite different from the Turks too …… To say how different we are from the Turks, I’d say …… it’s better to say we’re a bit more like the Cypriot Greek race a little more like!”

Hearing this exaggerated analogy, everyone laughed joyfully and nodded their heads to indicate that this was indeed the case.

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“And what about your respective religions?” I asked in follow-up. While traveling in both Turkey and Greece, I had felt deeply the local people’s devotion to their respective religions.

“To be honest, I don’t think we’re very religious.” Cantu asked me rhetorically, “Do you think I count as a Muslim?”

“I do go to the mosque with my family during festivals. But ……” he held up the glass in front of him in gesture, “You see I drink and sometimes eat pork, I don’t think I count as a Muslim. The Greeks seem to be a little more religious, though.”

“We aren’t very religious either.” Pendrith picked up on his words, “Pretty much, actually, and I only go to church occasionally, but definitely not the weekly worship kind.” Then, turning to me, he said, “The difference between the Greek and Turkish communities in Cyprus is really not as big as you might think. It’s common for us to fall in love and even get married between the two communities.”

“Have you ever been in love with one of our Greek girls, young man?” He asked Cantu.

“Well, indeed I did have one once ……” Jantu bowed his head in embarrassment.

I told them about what I had seen and heard somewhat differently in the village of Pile. “Of course there will be conflicts.” Pendrith responded, “Anyone can have conflicts, my wife and I still fight sometimes. But those politicians, whether Greek or Turkish, want us to hate each other.”

“Unfortunately, it’s very easy to let these sublime hatreds spread. We have a saying in Cyprus: ‘There are two things that spread the fastest, except mountain fires and gossip.’ This is the reality we are facing.”


Akıncılar village: “I am a Cypriot”

The village of Akıncılar is located in the central hinterland of the island, yet it is also the most remote village in Northern Cyprus. The village is surrounded by the Green Line on almost all sides, with the only road on the northeast side connecting it to the outside world. At one time this road also passed through the Turkish military base next to Erjan airport, so it was only a few years ago that a tunnel bypassing the military base was opened, allowing foreigners to travel freely to the area.

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An abandoned Orthodox church from the civil war on the way to Akıncılar village

I drove down the road leading to the village, flanked by lush greenery from the rain, with fresh air and an open view. The map showed that the edge of the Green Line should be 100 meters to my left and right. However, the Green Line seems to have disappeared here, with nothing to mark the line, and I can even clearly see the village a kilometre away, which is under the jurisdiction of the south side.

I wondered what would happen if I turned off the road at this moment and drove along the countless dirt roads on both sides that still had traces of the road on the other side. Would I be arrested or even chased by soldiers who appeared out of nowhere, or would nothing happen and I would just drive straight into the south side territory?

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A colorful windmill spinning breathlessly at the entrance of the village of Akıncılar

The village in front of him, Akıncılar, was just a settlement that looked like it had been nearly abandoned. Crumbling dwellings were sparsely lined up in the clearing in front of the hill, interspersed with the remains of various crumbling houses. Painted iron windmills swayed breathlessly at the entrance of the village, forming the most colorful splash of the village.

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Village center, campaign ads for ethnic Turkish politicians

I drove straight to the end of the road, where a low stone wall half a man’s height blocked the road ahead, with an unmanned post and a crooked row of old oil drums used as a roadblock. On the map, this is less than 100 metres from the village of Lympia, which is supposed to be adjacent to the south. Through the sparse undergrowth I could even see the electricity pole across the road.

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Turning back, a short distance away is an activity center with a new Greek-style colonnaded building that stands in stark contrast to the other dilapidated buildings in the village. Several middle-aged women are learning to craft here, with their completed cross-stitch work on the side.

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Their teacher, also a middle-aged lady, spoke fluent English to my surprise. “You should come and see this.” She opened the small door to the next room, which was densely stacked with moving panels with black and white photographs on them. The display boards were dusty and seemed like they should be remnants of some exhibition from long ago.

“I was born here. When I was a child, there were over 5,000 people in the village …… This is the village school; this is the market that was held every weekend, and this is the village football team.” She painstakingly plucked away at the display board, describing each photo to me as if it were a family story. “But after the war, everyone left, and now there are less than 300 people remaining.”

“I went to university in Nicosia and worked out there for a long time. But I still miss it here, so I came back. The students you just saw, they are the ones who stayed in the village. They’re old, and it would be too hard for them to go out and work like the young people. I want them to learn some skills so that they can earn money in the village too.”

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Old photos of the village of Akıncılar with all the prosperity and bustle in them

“That’s a great job.” I sighed, “You said you were born here, so you’re Turkish, right?”

“No.”

“You’re Greek?” Her denial surprised me.

“I’m Cypriot.” She replied, “I speak Turkish. But I am not Turkish, nor am I Greek. I was born on this island, so I am a Cypriot.”

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The lady who refer to herself as Cypriot

The epilogue

At the end of my trip, I returned to Nicosia to meet up with a friend at Burger King in downtown Northside. This is currently the only international chain restaurant in North Nicosia and it’s interesting to note that on my first visit in 2016, the same location was called Burger City – a cottage industry name that is actually also run by Burger King was running it. It was only because of international sanctions that their international trademark could not be legally used in Northern Cyprus.

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“Burger City” and “Burger King”, the same restaurant with two different names because of the unique geopolitics

As the santion from the southern side, the northern side has been blockaded on all fronts and no country in the world has been allowed to trade or navigate directly with the northern side, not even to use the trademark on the northern side. To this day, all movement of people and trade of goods from Northern Cyprus to the outside world can only be transited through Turkey.

“So you finally get your rights this time?” I asked my friend, pointing to the Burger King logo on my plate and laughing.

“Don’t you know? It hasn’t been long, but I heard they can’t stand the pressure from the south and they’re going back.” He shook his head helplessly, “All they do is change things around all the time, globalization has nothing to do with us, I don’t see a future for this little place! In a while, I’m going to work in Germany. You know, there are a lot of Turks over there.”

As a resident of the north side, he is also a passport holder of the south side. This allows him, who was born in the “least global” place, to enjoy the “most global” EU citizenship rights at the same time.

The year 2004, when Cyprus joined the EU, was actually the closest to ending the division of the island. The “Annan formula”, led by the then UN secretary-general, sought to bring all Cypriots from the north and south under one “federal state of two political entities” and to join the EU at the same time. In the referendum, however, while the Turkish community in the north mostly opted for it, the Greek community in the south rejected it – at a time when the Greek community still expected the whole island to be brought back under their domination, as agreed at independence in 1960.

The consequence of the failed referendum was that the southern side joined the EU alone, drifting away from the still internationally isolated northern side. And that flimsy EU passport became the only benefit available to residents of the north side.

Only a few days after I left Cyprus, the Covid-19 pandemic swept across the Mediterranean and the world, and the Green Line was closed for the first time since it was reopened in 2003. During these special years of isolation, the island experienced another extreme right turn: the former president of the northern side, who advocated bicommunal reconciliation, lost his re-election and was supported by Turkey, chanting The successor to the partitioned state took office.

I don’t know what the friends I met in Cyprus have chosen in this vote. But it doesn’t look as if this is the future they were hoping for.