Cyprus, the Divided Identity

Cyprus, the Divided Identity

I saw a white, grey-spotted pigeon which landed on a low white wall as I was crossing the green line on my way back from the world of Turkish Cypriots to that of Greek Cypriots. The pigeon was looking right and left, apparently looking for food, indifferent to the critical nature of the spot and surrounding guns. That s the case with peace missions.

A story is hidden behind Cyprus s warm shores and sunlight and kind people kept in UN records as the Cyprus problem , which is compared to a mouse click to access the Internet, leading to a space which rekindles memories of past Ottoman glories and Greek dreams, with Cyprus being the best place to remind the world of that.

Nearby land

Like a rapid jump between two banks, we flew Cyprus Airways from Beirut airport to Larnaca airport in just 25 minutes. Larnaca airport was not Cyprus s main airport before 1974, but has become so since then, following Turkish military intervention in northern Cyprus. The airport of the capital Nicosia has no longer been the gateway to the island, which is 9,250 km2 in area with a population of less than a million, 200,000 of whom live in northern Turkey.

The proximity of Cyprus to the Arab countries in the east Mediterranean led me to more fully investigate Cyprus s geographical position and conflicting historical facts about whether it belongs to Greece or Turkey. I found that it is parallel to the Syrian coast and Egypt, like a girl holding her mother s clothes. The Turks see that Greek presence in Cyprus is artificial, being the result of Britain s tampering with the population structure during British rule. They also believe that Cyprus is a geological extension to Anatolia. On the contrary, Greeks say Cyprus has been Greek land in terms of identity and language before the Ottoman invasion and the Turks are an immigrant people who came from central Asia and settled in present-day Turkey later. The absolute truth is that the British disturbed the world more than any other power during their domination. As far as the Arab world is concerned, suffice it to say that it is the British who planted an aggressive Zionist entity in Palestine which has been waging wars and conflicts for over fifty years. There has been bitter enmity between the Turks and the Greeks on the grounds of different religions and Ottomans occupation of Greece.

Road signs and a linguistic conflict

We arrived at Larnaca airport after nightfall, then made the one-hour journey to Limassol along an unlit road, but the taxi s headlights lit the road signs showing the remaining distance. The road signs are in both English and Greek. I noticed that cities, e.g. Nicosia and Limassol, have more than one name. This is due to the succession of invaders and colonists who used their respective style of giving names to the Cypriot cities, towns and villages under their rule.

The island of Cyprus has been inhabited since the six millennium BC and had strong commercial ties with the surrounding regions such as Syria and Egypt. Despite its small size a number of kingdoms existed in Cyprus, which made it the lure of successive invaders: Assyrians, Egyptians, Persians, Romans, Venetians, Arabs, Ottomans, and finally the British.

Nicosia... the narrow border crossing

The Greek character in the areas we visited in Cyprus had its impact on our task. Our plan was to identify Islamic antiquities in Cyprus, investigate its history and explore scenes of beauty in this sunny country. We didn t expect to be so lucky as to explore both the Greek and the Turkish parts, though we spent only a half day in the latter part.

We went on a tour in Nicosia, the only divided capital in the world. It was divided between the Turkish and Greek Cypriots after the 1974 incidents. I mixed with people in the city s narrow streets where cafés, restaurants and boutiques sell food, clothes and souvenirs for tourists.

Our extremely neutral companion only warned us not to move too close to the green line which divides the capital at the end of a main street. I expected to see soldiers, barbed wire and a state of vigilance there, but when we approached the place we saw something completely different: shops along the green line, and a bazaar at the Turkish side waiting for customers crossing the line. It seems both parties have realized that military grimness at that narrow strip separating them will only curb commercial activity; that s why security measures have been kept to a minimum. Out of curiosity, my colleague and I came closer than what the companion warned us, to a security check point which looked like a small hut where we saw British tourists crossing to the Turkish side with passports. We tried to cross, carrying our international press IDs and the Greek Cypriot officer didn t object but warned us that we would be refused entry into the Turkish side without passports. His words made me feel that we will not be allowed entry into the Greek side again, and in this case we will be in the same position as Doraid Lahham was in the film Border . Our companion waved telling us to return, and at that point we decided to end our adventure as it was time to travel to Limassol. Our companion stopped being cautious and asked us whether we wanted to cross to the Turkish side as that became possible then. Our answer was yes, of course. The second time we entered the Turkish part known as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, (TRNC) where we spent an unforgettable time in the town of Kyrenia on the northern cost of Cyprus, as detailed later.

Cyprus, an attack base

Historically, the Mediterranean islands have always been looked at from a purely military point of view, and until recently Great Britain was keen to occupy Cyprus and Malta as their strategic position served its military presence in nearby colonies, and until now it maintains such presence though its military influence has waned worldwide.

Ever since the Muslims conquered Syria and Egypt and until the Ottomans age, Cyprus has been a thorn in their side as it was the base from which enemy navies were launched. The first naval raid designed to recapture Syria and Egypt was launched by the Roman navy from Cyprus. The then wali of Syria, Muawiya Ibn Abi Sufyan requested permission from Caliph Othman Ibn Affan (May Allah be pleased with him) to mobilize a fleet to face enemy ships. Permission was granted, and Cyprus was invaded in 632. Peace was made with its people who paid a tribute, pledging not to allow the Greeks to use their territory against the Muslims any more.

Three centuries later the Byzantines recaptured the island, and during the Crusades, the king of Jerusalem Guy de Lousnien, who was dethroned by he leader Saladin after the famous Hittin Battle in 1187, and was reinstated later, was approached by the king of England Richard the Lion-Heart, the leader of the third Crusade, about buying Cyprus which the latter captured but was unable to control. Lousnien bought the island where he founded a new dynasty which continued until 1489.

The Mameluke sultan of Egypt Bersbay succeeded in annexing Cyprus after long history of Cypriot attacks on the coasts of Egypt and Syria. In 1365 King Peter I of Cyprus launched a Crusade on Alexandria in which the city was sacked, mosques defiled, women raped and many lives lost. His troops left the city after a few days but waged a similar campaign against Tripoli. That led the sultan to send a 2000- ship fleet from the town of Rosetta which occupied the whole island and captured is king Janis, who was carried shackled to the castle. He returned to Cyprus later suffering the humiliation of defeat. He acted as an agent of the sultan there in return for the payment of an annual tribute, and Cyprus fell under the control of the Mamelukes. During the Ottoman age, Sultan Selim II managed in 1571 to destroy the positions used by the Venetians for piracy in the Mediterranean and allowed the Orthodox Cypriots to practise their religion freely, something denied by the Catholic Venetians. In 1878 Britain controlled Cyprus which remained under Ottoman suzerainty in return for a certain payment and assistance against any Russian attack. However, Britain abrogated that agreement following Turkey s siding with Germany during the First World War.

Limassol: fish and chips

Limassol is a popular destination with British tourists who leave their mark on the city, especially their favourite dish, fish and chips, in addition to pubs which are similar in design and name to the ones in London, Manchester and Portsmouth. Situated on the southern coast of Cyprus, Limassol is the second largest city after Nicosia and the commercial port. There are no skyscrapers or high-rise towers in Limassol or any other city in Cyprus, and most buildings are similar in height. During our long tour of the Turkish district in old Limassol we found one mosque only, which is open just for the Friday prayer and closed the rest of the week. It seems mutual Turkish and Greek displacement has vacated the city completely of its inhabitants, as has been the case for the town of Kyrenia. A relatively short distance from the Turkish mosque is Limassol Grand Mosque which we found open before the Zuhr (noon) prayer. We met Abou Salih Majdali, a Palestinian intifada immigrant, who told us the mosque is open for all five prayers daily, with a large Friday congregation. About Salih praised the Cypriot government for not interferring in the mosque s affairs. He also praised Greek Cypriot businessmen for giving Muslim workers enough time off on Friday to attend the sermon and perform the prayer; but he was quick to say that some Cypriots have sensitivity over this matter, but the state is totally neutral.

Kyrenia completes Cyprus s picture

Our neutral companion showed us how to enter north Cyprus through travel agencies. I found a suitable travel agency which arranges such (tourist) trips because I wanted to stay in north Cyprus as long as possible. Fortunately, the travel agency was near Limassol Grand Mosque. The agency assistant who arranged our trip was frustrated when I told her I didn t carry my passport. She asked whether we left the passports in the hotel room or reception. Fortunately, we left them in reception, and immediately the assistant phoned reception asking them to send two copies of our passports by fax. The copies were forwarded to another place where a list of passengers names and nationalities is made, along with the bus location and departure time and trip duration, from the early morning to late afternoon.

The moment I got on the bus I was sked whether I carried my passport. My answer was yes, holding it. As my colleague the photographer was getting his passport ready, the tour conductor said she didn t want to see it, she only wanted to ensure he carried it. The bus was full of British tourists, most of whom, apparently, fought the Battle of El-Alamein.

This atmosphere made me feel some concern about possible surprises. We headed towards the capital Nicosia, our gateway to the Turkish part on our way to Kyrenia, thus crossing Cyprus from south to north. All questions about passports and the faxes sent and received soon became unimportant the moment a female passport officer got on the bus and with a bright smile said, Welcome everybody. All I want to do is have a quick look at your passports. Instead of checking all passports, she checked those of the passengers in the first row only and got off the bus carrying the passenger list. There are five border crossings between the Turkish and Greek sides, one of which was too narrow to pass through; another wide one allows buses and cars to pass through but is different from the former in that it is a border post between two countries which live in tension. The UN has its international observation force, the Turkish army protects TRNC and the Greek army does the same job for the Republic of Cyprus.

The flag of TRNC is an exact copy of the Turkish one, except for the white colour, two thick dark lines and a crescent in the middle. In the distance we saw a large board with the words I am a Turk and I am proved of this , then the white flag displayed prominently on a big mountain.

Greek and Turkish Cypriots have one thing in common: They drive on the right side of the road. Apart from this, they are different in everything: The Turkish lira is the currency used in Kyrenia and road signs are in Turkish and English, and mosques are everywhere. Northern Turkey is rather similar to Turkey. This applies especially to the port of Kyrenia, which is filled with small fishing boats and the voice of Ibrahim Tatlis who stops at a Turkish kebab and shawarma restaurant for lunch, then a cup of hot tea and a hookah; backgammon is also available.

The Turkish Republic of Northern Republic

Proclaimed in 1983, this republic has only been recognized by Turkey and has been internationally isolated because of Security Council Resolution 54, which deems the independence of this republic illegitimate and calls for withdrawal of the Turkish forces from Cyprus. Upon an Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) recommendation in 2004 for opening up to this republic, representative offices have been opened in six Arab countries: Kuwait, Oman, Syria, Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE, in addition to Pakistan and Britain. These offices serve as economic and cultural channels with these countries. The OIC recommendation came in response to a UN referendum on the Cyprus problem proposed by the former Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2004 the results of which showed 65% of Turkish Cypriots in favour of reunification; 75% of Greek Cypriots against.

From agreement to division

The Cyprus problem is a chronic one. The unity of a people with a common land and history which succeeded in establishing a unitary homeland in 1960 soon weakened to such an extent that sitting at the negotiating table is not an easy matter as the Greek party received an international recognition of the Republic of Cyprus representing all Cypriots, including the Turks, as well as strong support from the European Union. Turkish Cypriots, on the other hand, are only addressed as Cypriots of Turkish origin. That s just the surface of the matter, but the real conflict arises from Turkish-Greek dispute over Cyprus as a sphere of influence.

Cypriots gained advantage from great Britain s major shift in policy as it was no longer able to administer its colonies. In 1959 British and Turkish and Greek representatives held meetings in Zurich which ultimately led to the declaration of the independence of Cyprus on 16 August 1960 with Archbishop Makarios the president. Under the country s constitution. Turkish Cypriots are given 30% of the number of government positions and parliamentary seas, in addition to the post of vice-president with real powers. There is a nominal Turkish and Greek military presence as peacekeeping forces. It was only three years later that the agreement collapsed when Makarios wanted to amend the constitution claiming it gave the Turks disproportionate representation. A period of violence and charges and countercharges followed, in spite of UN intervention with a peacekeeping force. In 1974 the Turkish army occupied the northern part of the country (40% of Cyprus s total area) to protect Turkish Cypriots from genocide, following which a large displacement process took place, ending the state of historical peaceful coexistence between the two parts of Cyprus, which have been marked with all forms of linguistic, religious, cultural and social differences since 1974.

The feasible solution

Turkish Cypriots are in favour of a solution under UN auspices provided a nominal recognition of TRNC is obtained, thus getting Greek Cypriots in a corner and exposing them in the eyes of the international community as beneficiaries of the current situation. TRNC will also be free to move on the world arena without embarrassing the countries which don t want to anger the European Union.

UN support gets Turkish Cypriots into a sate of political relaxation regarding the future of the island and continued reluctance to enter into direct negotiations. As for the people of TRNC, they say a federal sate is the final solution to the problem, with all citizens having equal rights and duties.


Ibrahim Al-Mulaifi


Larnaca’s beautiful beaches: Cyprus’s beaches are among the most popular with European tourists who want to enjoy the warm sunshine and get a tan

A Turkish soldier watches the Turkish Cyprus – Greek Cyprus border carefully

The white flag of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus placed on a mountain next to the Turkish flag so as to be visible to all upon entering Turkish Cyprus

The port of Kyrenia: The costal area overlooking the port of Kyrenia next to the castle is very popular with visitors to Turkish Cyprus because it is the most beautiful and famous

A breathtaking view of the port and harbour of Kyrenia from a mountaintop in Turkish Cyprus

Tourists on safari among mountains and valleys stopped by this rift to see a small waterfall which made the ground muddy

Bilabi Abbey, or Peace Abbey, in Turkish Cyprus, built in the 13th century during the reign of Hiwa IV (1267-1284) and is still in good condition and open to worshippers and visitors

A deserted Turkish mosque in Limassol, open only for the Friday prayer

A group of Muslims performing the Zuhr (noon) prayer in Limassol Grand Mosque

Entrance to Limassol Grand Mosque, open for all five prayers without interference in its affairs from the Cypriot government

A restaurant offers Arabic food items, such as shawarma and falafel, which are very popular with Greek Cypriots

An elderly man selling sweets across the streets in Larnaka gives a lesson: Any job, however modest it may be, is good so long as it is morally acceptable

Despite his old age and bent back, this elderly man still does his job as a tailor in his shop near the green line in Nicosia

A busy street in Limassol where all kinds of gifts, clothes and souvenirs are sold

A woman wearing headscarves in the Greek port of Nicosia walks near the green line which divides the capital

Lovers of reading and sunning enjoy the quiet of Cyprus for long hours

Two faces from the village of Amodos, which is famous for its local industries and food products, like honey and jam

Two faces from the village of Amodos, which is famous for its local industries and food products, like honey and jam

Central Cyprus is mountainous with difficult roads, particularly on going to Troodos Mountains, the highest in Cyprus

A white pigeon (the symbol of peace) is still carrying its eternal message of rapprochement between factions. The pigeon alighted this time in Nicosia in the hope of uniting the divided island

A Cypriot face with purely European features and a hopeful outlook for a better future

The dividing line between the two parts of Cyprus in the Cypriot capital area. Tourists holding passports can move freely across both sides

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