Island frozen in time as invader hangs on


NICOSIA LETTER:Turkey is showing no willingness to relinquish control over northern Cyprus, writes BRENDAN O CATHAOIR

Welcome to Nicosia, the last divided capital city in Europe. The government-controlled and Turkish-occupied sectors are separated by the “green line”, a demilitarised zone maintained by the UN. A buffer of urban decay disfigures this ancient city.

During its EU presidency, just ended, the government of the Republic of Cyprus focused on a European agenda rather than its domestic problems (which now include a recession). The Cyprus question remains a frozen conflict of the Mediterranean – long eclipsed by the latest atrocity.

Turkey shows no willingness to relinquish control over northern Cyprus, which it invaded in 1974 on the pretext of an attempted coup against President Makarios (organised by the Greek military junta and its Greek Cypriot collaborators).

Ankara imposed de facto partition and ethnic segregation, uprooted more than 170,000 Greek Cypriots living in the north and continues to flood the occupied area with settlers (who outnumber the Turkish Cypriots it ostensibly intervened to protect).

Illegal occupation

The Turkish government, with one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, wonders why it is not being welcomed into the EU. The answer lies in the recent Nobel award – the European movement is ultimately about peace, not trade. Turkey cannot expect to join the EU while it continues to occupy illegally more than one-third of a member state.

The strategic importance and beauty of the island have been valued since the ancient Greeks set sail for Cyprus in the 8th century BC and gave birth to a splendid civilisation. Its history is one of the oldest recorded in the world. Its natural wealth and position at the crossroads of three continents made it a desirable territorial acquisition.

Cyprus retained a predominantly Greek identity throughout its history. As early as AD45, when it formed part of the Roman empire, the apostles Paul and Barnabas arrived to preach the Christian faith. During the Byzantine era (330-1191), it became known as the “island of saints”.

Periods of Frankish rule and Venetian occupation were succeeded by the Ottoman conquest in 1571. Britain leased Cyprus in 1878 and granted it independence 82 years later.

Today the island is an open- air museum, where one can visit prehistoric settlements, classical Greek temples, Roman theatres and villas, early Christian basilicas, Byzantine churches and monasteries – 12 of which are Unesco world heritage monuments – Crusader castles, Gothic cathedrals, Venetian fortifications, mosques and British colonial-style buildings.

Modern pillage

Since the 1974 invasion, however, 559 churches have been pillaged in northern Cyprus and 125 were turned into mosques. Historic place names were changed as part of a policy of cultural obliteration. Stolen icons, frescoes and mosaics began to appear in international art markets.

But the repatriation of frescoes from the church of St Euphemianos offers hope that the plunder of the heritage of Cyprus can be contained. The 13th-century frescoes are exhibited in the Byzantine Museum, Nicosia, “and will return to their original church in Lysi when the occupied part of Cyprus is free again”.

The museum director, Dr Ioannis Eliades, estimates about 20,000 ecclesiastical treasures were looted; some 200 have been recovered; 169 remain in Munich, awaiting permission from the German authorities to return them.

The St Euphemianos frescoes were detached from church walls, cut into 38 pieces and exported illegally. In 1985, the Menil Foundation of Houston rescued them from the black market in Munich on behalf of the Orthodox Church of Cyprus.

A second exhibition in the Byzantine Museum commemorates another Greek tragedy: the destruction of Hellenism in Asia Minor 90 years ago.

The assembled photographs and memorabilia are poignant evidence that memory of the expulsions has not been erased. In the words of poet George Seferis: “Touch memories where you will, always there is pain.”

Stalled talks

UN-sponsored talks have been stalled since the Greek Cypriot majority rejected the flawed Annan plan in 2004. The internationally recognised government is committed to peaceful reunification in a federal state and, ultimately, the demilitarisation of the island (including British bases). Ankara maintains 43,000 troops and a puppet administration in northern Cyprus, in defiance of UN resolutions.

Some progress has been achieved, such as the easing of travel restrictions across the ceasefire line that bisects the island. Turkish Cypriots can now work in the government-controlled south and avail of benefits, including free medical care.

Furthermore, the partial lifting of restrictions on movement is bringing Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot artists together.

Another development is the inter-communal Association for Historical Dialogue and Research, formed by a group of educators who seek to promote “learning history together”.

Research topics include: “Thinking historically about missing persons” (the fate of almost 1,400 is unknown), investigating the history of Cyprus through artefacts, the Ottoman period and the Northern Ireland conflict.