Turkish Delight

Travels in Turkish Cyprus

text and photos by Allan Langdale

Bellapais-Cloister.jpgI 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.

Famagusta-Walls.jpgMy 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.

4•1•1
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 langdale@filmandmedia.ucsb.edu.

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