Located just five blocks from the U.N. Buffer Zone, my hotel is far from luxurious. One thing the lodgings do boast is a view; you just have to climb up the side of the building via a safety ladder to enjoy it. Stepping between the satellite dishes and solar panels (no, I’m not supposed to be up here), I look out over Europe’s last divided capital—a jumble of terra cotta tiles and off-white towers.
I’m in Nicosia, Cyprus, which for more than four decades has been split in two. In 1974, after a Greek-inspired military coup, Turkey invaded the geopolitically prized island, beginning an occupation of the northern third of Cyprus that endures to this day. About 160,000 Greek Cypriots were displaced from the north during the conflict, and up to 50,000 Turkish Cypriots from the south.
It’s a couple of minutes before I realize that the most verdant patch visible from the hotel rooftop—a kind of corridor with more trees than buildings—is actually the Buffer Zone itself. It cuts through the heart of Nicosia’s old town, stretching more than 100 miles across the island. North of the border, a mosque’s twin minarets reach heavenward, while on the southern side, a church steeple peeps out of the skyline. On the hills beyond Nicosia, a giant flag has been painted onto the very mountainside; the red-and-white emblem of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, the self-proclaimed state recognized only by Turkey. Colossal in size, the flag seems designed to taunt the Greek Cypriot side.
View from the rooftop of a hotel on southern side of old town of Nicosia. Photo by: Darren Loucaides
Something feels off about this scene. It fits too neatly into the stereotype of Cyprus as an island whose people are in perpetual conflict. Though only some of my family are Cypriot, I’m used to being asked, “Are you Greek or Turkish Cypriot?”—a common experience for those with heritage from the island. Cyprus is seen as a battleground in some eternal struggle between Greeks and Turks, east and west, Christianity and Islam. Powerful people have encouraged us to think this way. “The communal conflict between Greeks and Turks on Cyprus has proved intractable for centuries,” wrote Henry Kissinger in his memoirs (never mind that the ex–secretary of state subtly backed the invasion and partition of Cyprus to achieve strategic NATO-related goals).
On the ground, most Cypriots would disagree with the notion that their island has been in conflict for centuries. It may be hard to believe now, but Cyprus was once a beacon of Christian-Muslim communal harmony. Greek and Turkish Cypriots lived side by side in shared villages and coexisted peacefully for hundreds of years. Here was a fluid cultural border between the so-called East and West at Europe’s frontier.
By 1974, when the island was forcibly divided into two ethnic-oriented territories, that coexistence had crumbled, and today Cyprus does indeed represent one of the world’s longest-running conflicts. The latest unification talks are two years old, and although an agreement was close to being forged earlier this year, when all relevant parties flew to Geneva in anticipation of a final deal, they have since stalled.
In early April, the Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders met for dinner at Ledra Palace, inside the U.N. Buffer Zone. The aim was to get negotiations going again—and an agreement may still happen. But if they even get that far, a vital question will remain. Can Cypriots live in peace together as compatriots?
I recently took a journey, exploring both sides of Nicosia, before busing to the coastal town of Larnaca, in search of what remains of Turkish Cypriot culture in the south, and then inland to a traditional village. The aim? To figure out if Cypriots can rediscover their shared cultural past.