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Chambers at Large in Famagusta, Cyprus

The Mediterranean island of Cyprus has been invaded many times over the centuries but in 1960 it gained its independence becoming a country where people of several religions and ethnicities lived in harmony.  That all changed fifty years ago when, in 1974, neighbouring Turkey invaded the island.  I was fourteen at the time, my guide Eva was only six, and our lives couldn’t have been more different. I was studying for my ‘O’ levels, whilst Eva was fleeing her homeland for her life.  Eva’s story almost reduced me to tears and it certainly had a profound effect on my fellow travellers.  Her story is not mine to tell, but I’ve asked her permission and she has allowed me to narrate a couple of incidents which happened as a result of the occupation.  Thank you Eva, it is much appreciated.

My journey to Famagusta began early on Good Friday.  The coach, driven by Mario, was half full of interested travellers and as we neared the British military base near the Turkish border we were instructed not to take photographs, nor to take photos when crossing  the border, especially of uniformed personnel.   We crossed without incident and the coach party was joined by a Turkish escort, a prerequisite of the Turkish authorities.

I immediately noticed the billboards, advertising and signage were all in familiar English lettering, whereas Greek lettering is used elsewhere in Cyprus.  Minarets and mosques are dotted on the landscape and the sun beat down on the grassland as we made our way to the Roman ruins of Salamis City, which was once the capital of Cyprus.

An earthquake destroyed the city at the end of the 4th century AD and excavation work was undertaken by Dr Vasos Karageorgis.  Once a busy trading port the city boasts a theatre and a colonnaded forum, now overrun with wild flowers, but a semi-mosaicked walkway still survives where statues stand, albeit some headless.  Heads were removed from statues for many reasons, but I recall being told they were beheaded by the Christians.

Much of the city lies under the Mediterranean Sea and is unlikely to be excavated anytime soon, but the site is impressive with an excellent example of underground heating and a rooftop mosaic which gives a good idea of how the Romans decorated the interiors of their buildings.

Greek inscriptions on tiles on the ground is a reminder that the Romans spoke Greek, Latin being the language they used for military and legal matters. However the Romans were conquered by the Greek spirit, thus using in Cyprus the Greek language.

Leaving the ancient city of Salamis we travelled into the centre of Famagusta where, to my surprise a bust of Shakespeare is perched next to Othello Castle.  Although the play Othello is one of my favourites, I had forgotten one of its major settings is Cyprus.  Famagusta is not mentioned by The Bard, but the castle has taken the Moor’s name.

Of course I had to explore and I left the group who went off for lunch.  I had no Turkish lira with me and the man in the ticket office insisted I pay the entrance fee by that currency and not euro, sterling or dollars.  A nearby shopkeeper was only too happy to practice his English, asking me where I was from and telling me his daughter studied in Dublin, whilst he exchanged a couple of euros for the necessary lira.

Othello Castle is not very big but typical of a medieval castle overlooking the sea and the port, forming part of the city walls.  It was built in the 13th century, then renovated by the Venetians  It is located next to Desdemona Park, where children were playing on the swings beside a sign informing me that all the flora within is indigenous to the island.

In the town square is St Nicholas Cathedral, once a Christian place of worship, but is now a mosque for Muslim worshippers.  Notice a minaret  has been added to replace the spire on the left.  

My final stop in Famagusta is one that has left an indelible memory in my mind’s eye.  The coastal area of Varosha was, prior to 1974, a flourishing seaside resort, visited by the rich and famous, including Elizabeth Taylor who, my guide, Eva met in a café when she was six.  Warned once again not to take photographs when crossing the entrance gate, and especially of people in uniform, we walked a roadway built specifically for tourists traversing an apocalyptic landscape.

The ruined buildings, once busy hotels and family residences, are now derelict. Grubby curtains in glassless windows float softly in the breeze and aging shutters hang loosely from decaying walls. 

Signs warn tourists it’s dangerous to enter due to the threat of falling debris and a crane rises up into the sky, heading for the Guinness Book of Records as the longest standing crane, abandoned and unused for fifty years.

The side roads are littered with thick green scrub, home to rodents and reptiles.  The area of Varosha is a stark reminder of how people hurriedly packed a few belongings and fled when Turkish soldiers stormed the streets, surprised by the retaliation of the Cypriots who took up arms, Eva’s own father included.  He grabbed his hunting rifle, said good-bye to his family and left his farm.  Eva never saw him again.

Prior to 1960 Cyprus was a British colony and a post-box stands on a corner which has not been emptied since 1974.  What does it contain?  Postcards from happy families spending a few days in the coastal hotels?  Letters to loved ones?  It would be a mine of historic information before the advent of emails, texts and social media, but it remains untouched, just like the buildings along the coast, falling even further into disrepair.  A wasteland of disintegrating concrete. 

The Turks have allowed previous residents to enter this ghost town which has caused severe psychological and physical torment to many.  A relative of Eva’s returned to see his house in ruins. A statue of the Virgin Mary, which he had made, was gone from the niche in the wall in which he placed it.  Falling to his knees sobbing, the elderly man had a heart attack.  He died on the way to the hospital.

It was the poet laureate, WB Yeats who coined the term, “a terrible beauty” in his poem Easter, 1916 and this came to my mind when leaving Famagusta.  Cyprus is a beautiful island where ruins recall the beauty of architecture alongside the violence.  In Famagusta’s town square one can see the tomb of Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, next to a cannon and a pyramid of cannonballs.   Ruins are intermingled with blossoming tourist shops, churches, mosques and new modern buildings, but the terror remains in Varosha, the ghost town, which makes up 20% of the city.  The terror of the Cypriot people being invaded by the Turks, the invasion being solely for “military purposes”.

My being in Famagusta on Good Friday seemed symbolic, as it was the Good Friday Agreement which brought a lasting peace to my home country, Ireland, which is still divided between north and south, but since that Accord both have flourished.  I travel between the two at least twice a week crossing an invisible border no longer patrolled by armed guards, no need for passports.  I am grateful for the privilege.  My wish for the island of Cyprus is that, in the future, something similar can happen there too.


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I fell in love with Cyprus, finding its history fascinating and I’m soon to return.  To learn more about this beautiful Mediterranean island please click on, and enjoy, the following blogs:

 

 



 

 

   


 

 

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