Cyprus: Crossing the Green Line


Famagusta's cathedral, turned into a mosque

Famagusta's cathedral, turned into a mosque

Cyprus has always been a favourite destination for sun worshippers. But as well as great weather, beaches and hospitality, the country has a fascinating history, both modern and ancient. I took two day-trips away from my sun-bed to investigate…

Our crazy Austrian tour guide, Robin – think a sportswear-clad Kiefer Sutherland with a beer belly and a mullet – picked us up in his minibus at 8.30am from our hotel in Protaras for trip number one to the nearby Salamis, Famagusta and Varosha, all in North Cyprus.

The Turks have occupied the northern part of Cyprus since they invaded in 1974. Only Turkey recognises North Cyprus as a country in its own right – as a result, you need your passport and a visa to enter this “country” that is considered by everyone else to be an occupied part of the Republic of Cyprus. The north and south are separated by a buffer zone called the Green Line which runs from the east coast to the west coast, bisecting the capital, Nicosia, in the middle. It is so called because a UN official initially marked the buffer zone on a map in a green pen.

Half an hour, and about 20 jokes from Robin, into our ride we passed through the Green Line at a checkpoint where we had to get out of the minibus, show our passports to Turkish border guards, fill in visa forms and get them stamped. We drove for a further twenty minutes in North Cyprus before reaching the first of our three stop-offs:

Salamis

The ruins of the city of Salamis

The ruins of the city of Salamis

Salamis is the Cypriot version of Pompeii – the ancient Greeks settled here on the east coast of Cyprus in around 1100BC creating a huge city which was once the island’s capital. It is now in ruins following a massive earthquake, but its remains include a well-preserved Roman theatre, a colonnaded gymnasium and a series of bizarre headless statues which were decapitated by Christians out to oust Roman paganism.

Bizarre headless statues

Famagusta

6km south of Salamis is the port city of Famagusta, where we had 90 minutes to explore before rejoining our tour group. 90 minutes is just about long enough here – it’s a pretty little city with a variety of architectural styles left as a legacy of the different rulers it has had. We were enjoying a walk around the city’s Venetian walls, but when an old man dropped his trousers and defecated in plain view of bypassers, it was time to return to the main square and have a glass of Efes beer. We were interrupted by the wailing of the call to prayer from the Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque, which was once a beautiful cathedral. When the Islamic Turks came to power, they half-heartedly added a minaret and a few megaphones before proclaiming it a mosque.

It was soon time to pay up and leave. As well as having a different religion and language, North Cyprus has a different currency – the Turkish Lira (1TL = 2€), although the Euros of the Republic of Cyprus are accepted at most places.

Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque

Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque

Varosha

Varosha is on the outskirts of Famagusta and is one of the most haunting places you will ever see – in fact its nickname is the ghost town. In the 60s and 70s, it was a popular tourist resort with loads of high-rise hotels and apartments alongside one of the best beaches in Cyprus. However, after the Turks invaded northern Cyprus in 1974, this area was caught in the no mans land of the buffer zone. The shops, restaurants and hotels have now been derelict for almost 40 years and are falling to pieces. We were allowed onto the beach on the Famagusta side of Varosha, but a fence marks the area which is out of bounds. The taking of photographs of the ghost town is strictly forbidden and there are armed guards on the lookout for illegal snappers. I imagine there are some things worth being shot for, but taking photos of derelict hotels is not one of them, so I do not have a photo of my own to show you how eerie it is here – I pinched the one below, taken by someone a lot braver than me, from google.

The ghost town of Varosha beyond the fence

The ghost town of Varosha beyond the fence

Nicosia

Trip number two took me to the inland city of Nicosia, which is the capital of Cyprus, and is the island’s biggest city by far with a population of over 210,000. It is also the only divided city in the world – it’s the capital of both the Republic of Cyprus and North Cyprus, and the two areas of the city are separated by the Green Line. There’s a 24 hour checkpoint at the top of the pedestrianised shopping street called Ledra Street in the south part of the city.

Crossing the Green Line in Nicosia

Crossing the Green Line in Nicosia

Frustratingly, our coach tour of Cyprus’ highlights only gave us 45 minutes in Nicosia. This just about meant we could leg it up the clean-looking Ledra Street with its high street shops, cross the Green Line, show our passports and get our visas stamped by the Turkish border guards and enter what was almost a different world. Within a few steps, we could feel the difference between South and North Nicosia. This area is a lot more ramshackle with old men sitting outside cafés sipping Turkish coffees, mosque minarets poking above crumbling buildings housing market stalls and drivers impatiently beeping their horns.

The only photo we had time to take in the Turkish part of Nicosia

The only photo we had time to take in the Turkish part of Nicosia

Our time was soon up – I didn’t even get chance to try a proper Turkish kebab – and we ran back across the border stopping only to have our visas re-stamped into the Republic of Cyprus (or paradise, as our tour guide referred to it).

I’ve not got a lot of interest in history to be honest – I found history at school shockingly boring and dropped out of studying it at 13. But the history in Cyprus is so interesting I enjoyed my two trips to North Cyprus, and would like to do them both again if I ever return to the country.

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Categories: Greece and CyprusTags: , , , , , ,

16 comments

  1. Good post – I went to Cyprus once but missed the opportunity to see these interesting things. I like the paragraph on Varoshsa!

  2. Thanks Andrew – it’s a lovely country so if you go again, a trip to the north would be worth your while!

  3. I’ll never travel to the north unless the problem is resolved. I don’t really understand why anyone would go if they were aware of the situation to be honest.

    • Thanks for the comment Chris. I can understand why Greek Cypriots may feel that way – one we spoke to said when he goes north he refuses to spend any money there. But for outsiders like me, it’s interesting to see and experience such differences. Two for the price of one, if you like.

      • I can understand that, I often dream of seeing my grandfather’s village and the ruins of Salamis, and St Hilarion however I completely disagree with how they have tried to eradicate culture by ruining such beautiful churches and tearing down villages when on the south side most of the turkish cypriot properties have been left untouched

  4. Why any religious structure needs to be defaced to assert power and authority is beyond my comprehension! Thank you for a very enjoyable post!

  5. An interesting post Richard – my Dad did his national service in Cyprus in the late 50s early 60s. I’m heading out there with work next month but doubt I’ll get much further than the hotel!

    • I can think of worse places to do national service – enjoy your stay, and I hope you manage to get out a bit!

      • My uncle spent the last part of his national servic in Cyprus. This was in the late ’50s.He told us how much he liked the place despite the internecine strife on the island
        He is buried in the military cemetery “Wayne’s Keep” which,ironically, is now within the very wide green line zone in the centre or the island. Ledra Street was not known as Murder Mile for nothing ! He got on well with Turkish Cypriots and I now have several Greek Cyprus friends here in Nottingham despite Uncle having been shot by one. I wish them both well and by the grace of God/Allah, peace

  6. Fascinating stuff. I love your description of the tour guide, it really brings the character to life. I remember going to Cyprus as a teenager with my parents and we went to some roof top viewpoint to look at Varosha. I thought it was so sad that this once busy place where people went to enoy themselves was now a ghost town. It is a pitty that you cannot have a look around the abandoned buildings.
    It is a shame that Cyprus is divided and I think a lot of people who go there are totally unaware of this. I think this was one of the issues that stalled potential EU membership for Turkey.

  7. Thanks for the comment, Colin. We fell in love with Cyprus a bit – great weather form lazing around, but loads of interesting things to see too and such a turbulent history.

  8. Chris, please investigate the recent history of Cyprus. The President of the independent Republic of Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios, was overthrown in a coup supported by fascists in Athens in summer of 1974. It had nothing to do with Turkey or Turkish Cypriots. Nicos Samson came to power during the coup and vowed to rid the Island of Turks. Turkey ‘invaded’ to prevent ethnic cleansing, which had already begun (appalling incidents of genocide against Turkish Cypriot civilians, well documented by the UN). The Greeks, who started the whole thing are still proudly hanging their flags in the south. The Turks asked the UN to ensure that Greek military officers left the Island. If they had the Turks would not have come to Cyprus. The Greeks didn’t go and so Turkish troops came and they stayed also. Sad but true.

  9. Wow that was strange. I just wrote an really long comment but after Iclicked submit my comment didn’t show up.
    Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Regardless,
    just wahted to say excellent blog!

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