Travels in Turkish Cyprus
text and photos by Allan Langdale
I spent last year teaching at a university in Cyprus, which gave me many opportunities to explore that culturally rich yet divided island. Until recently, it was difficult to tour the whole region because the border that partitions Greek from Turkish Cyprus was hard to cross. However, nowadays travelers can move more freely between the two zones. Before I arrived I imagined a pastoral, serene Greek island but my fantasy quickly dissipated. A colleague, dour from a lengthy stint as an expatriate, set me straight: “This isn’t the Mediterranean; it’s the Middle East.” And it was true, especially in the north, which is fewer than 100 miles from Syria and Lebanon, after all.
My daily bicycle trip to the university confirmed this even more. For the first half of my journey I had an immense Turkish Army training compound on my right, for the second half a UN military base on my left. There’s nothing like a few AK-47 practice rounds detonating nearby to get you pedaling more briskly during the morning commute. However, despite the challenges of living in Cyprus, the adventurer in me won out over my initial impulse to cut and run.
Cyprus is particularly resplendent in the springtime when, fleetingly, it’s as verdant as Ireland. When Cypriots first told me of this I didn’t believe them; in the still searing heat of autumn it was difficult to envisage that a landscape so thoroughly scorched could rebound in a season. But their forecast was spectacularly correct. At first the asphodel blooms amid the emerald expanses, then fields of wild cyclamen, then carpets of narcissus, and then, shyly, the tiny and elusive wild orchids emerged, flourishing briefly amid the pine forests of the Kyrenia range.
My love of architecture made Cyprus a real paradise for me. North Cyprus is especially compelling to a certain extent because so few Westerners have been there and partially because it’s a fascinating hybrid of cultures both occidental and oriental. There are vast and spectacular ruins of ancient Greco-Roman cities like Salamis, and several early Christian basilicas with intricate mosaic flooring still in place. While hiking between Turkish mountain villages, you encounter picturesque ruins of ancient monasteries and churches. Fairytale castles such as Kantara, St. Hilarion, and Buffavento dot the mountaintops, their ramparts dangling from the most dizzying, precarious crags imaginable. During the Middle Ages, French crusaders ruled the island, so everywhere there are the surprising apparitions of Gothic churches in a Middle Eastern landscape. Some of these churches were converted to mosques centuries ago and have soaring Ottoman-style minarets added to their bell towers.
Cyprus was controlled during the Renaissance era by the Venetians, who also left their mark, most impressively in the two-mile city walls of Famagusta. These ramparts are in remarkable condition with their bastions looming gravely over a deep moat, which is carved into the living rock. These fortifications held during one of the most heroic battles in the history of warfare, when in 1571 fewer than 10,000 Venetians held off 200,000 Ottoman Turkish attackers for almost a year.
Where gardeners in most parts of the world curse the stones in their gardens, the clink of the spade in Famagusta more often denotes the discovery of a 435-year-old iron cannonball under the geraniums. The Ottomans were said to have fired 100,000 of those hefty missiles into the city. Today, one can still see them embedded in the walls of the half-ruined churches, doves calmly roosting in the gaping fissures beside the rusting, now tranquil projectiles.
One of the loveliest places is the 13th- century gothic monastery of Bellapais, whose village was made famous as the location of Lawrence Durrell’s 1957 novel Bitter Lemons. Unhappily, too many have followed his example in recent years and the place is becoming overrun with retired Britons. Still, from the monastery’s graceful remnants there is a stunning view of the Mediterranean, and the cloister, church, and refectory are in superb condition.
In Famagusta, once the world’s richest city, you can sit outside a 17th-century Ottoman Turkish bathhouse, now a café/bar, and feel like you’re in Paris as the medieval gothic façade of the cathedral of St. Nicholas, now a mosque, towers overhead. This Gallic reverie is pretty much shattered when the Muslim call to prayer blasts over the loudspeakers, but this just adds to the wonderful strangeness of it all. The real jewel of Cyprus is the Karpas peninsula. I first saw that long, sweeping jetty from the heights of Kantara castle, looking east to the Syrian coast, with the spine of the Kyrenia Mountains petering out magnificently along its majestic arc. There, lost cities, never excavated, are scattered along the coast while inland antique churches and rock-cut tombs can be found in abundance.
Cyprus’s most beautiful seaside is there, too: Golden Beach, where the silky white sand comes not from the sea but from the erosion of the land’s fine sandstone. It’s a mile long and the water is warm and crystalline; Cyprus’s shoals cradle ancient shipwrecks dating back 2,500 years. Even though the marine life is not as varied as it is in tropical waters, the possibility of glimpsing bronze-age anchors or amphorae makes up for it.
Greek Cyprus is much more developed, modern, and populated, while the Turkish part is more rural and picturesque, though probably not for long. But if you cross the sad divide between the two — itself an adventure — there are wonders to be seen on both sides.
Allan Langdale will be giving a public lecture on the historical architecture of North Cyprus at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art on Sunday, November 5 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. He is also making a documentary film on the historical architecture of North Cyprus and will be leading a tour of the region in May 2007. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.