Cyprus has had more twists and turns than a TV soap…… if only it were a TV soap!
It was the end of winter and I had stopped off in Larnaca for a few days respite before my return to a freezing London. On a warm day, filled with plenty of sun shine, I thought I would make the 80 minute journey to see Nicosia and cross the ‘Green line,’ which marks the last divided capital in Europe.
It was with sadness that I crossed over from the Republic to the occupied part of the island where Greek and Cypriot flags vie with their Turkish equivalent for a cool breeze and local attention. A 50 metre walk between a Greek speaking zone to one of Turkish, from the developed to the emerging. It made me wonder about Cyprus. Why is it so coveted by regional powers, not just in modern times but throughout its history; why is the island of ‘love,’ the birthplace of Aphrodite, such a trophy for foreign powers?
Cyprus is a place that sits at the gateway of 3 continents; Europe, Asia and Africa. Each continent over time having had an enormous influence on the island, which has a history of more than 3000 years. The Mycenaean Greeks settled on the island from around 1400 BC, the first of many Greek speaking rulers of Aphrodite’s island. Over the next 1600 years a series of powers gained control, namely the Assyrians from the 8th Century BC, followed by a brief period of independence, then subjugation from their Egyptian neighbours and the Persians. Direct Greek rule returned to Cyprus under Alexander the Great and his general Ptolemy and his successors which lasted until 30 BC when it became a Roman province.
During the late 4th Century AD, the Byzantine Empire became the masters of Cyprus, once again seeing the return of Greek speaking rule over the island. Despite a spell of Arab control in the 7th century, followed by semi independence for approximately 200 years, the island essentially remained a Greek speaking Byzantine outpost for 8 centuries. An interesting point about the Byzantine epoch is that halloumi was first made during this period!
Byzantine rule over the island is significant, and more than any other sets the tone for the cultural influences which are felt on the island today. As an observer and a writer of Byzantine history, Cyprus strikes me as one of the few places in the world where the language, religion, the character and customs readily lends itself to the Byzantine years. You can see it with the old churches, monasteries, and the grammar and pronunciation of Cypriot Greek which has a canny similarity to the medieval style of spoken
The Byzantine rule lasted until 1192 when it was captured by Richard the Lion Heart from rogue Byzantine governor Isaac Comnenus. It was eventually bought by Guy Lusignan (a novel way to capture territory) whose descendents held the island until 1489. They in turn sold the island to the Venetians, ensuring yet again that the local population was spared from the horrors of battle that usually proceeds the changing of overlords.
Despite being masters of the sea, the Venetians were defeated by the Ottoman Turks in 1571. The following year Cypriots began the first of countless uprisings against the Ottomans, typical of their Byzantine heritage and similar to their near neighbours in Crete. Interestingly, the Cretans were also a
Venetian colony and had a similar amount of uprisings against the Ottomans. In fact, it can be argued that Crete and Cyprus have many similar Byzantine traits, both speak an older Greek dialect for example and icon painting has always been a strong tradition amongst both populations.
The Struggle for Independence
In 1821, after years of mostly tolerant rule punctuated by the occasional ferocious period under the Ottomans, the Cypriots sided with the rest of the Greek world in trying to gain independence. In Cyprus, the heroic deeds unfortunately ended in failure as the international community were reluctant to intervene to help the local population. Some may argue that the ‘Great Powers’ were merely waiting for an opportunity to gain Cyprus as their own territory. Russia, Great Britain, France and Germany were always seeking new territory. In 1869 the Suez Canal was opened by the British and it was only a matter of time before they took control of the island in order to protect their interests in Egypt and the east. That opportunity came in 1878 when they took administrative control over Cyprus, formally annexing the island in 1911. Cyprus proved to be a good citizen of the Commonwealth, fighting for Britain in World War II with the expectation that they would be allowed to join the modern Greek nation at the end of hostilities.
Due to pressure from the Turkish minority and the need to protect their trade interests in the region, Britain continued to rule over Cyprus instead of allowing her to join (enosis) Greece. In 1950, Archbishop Makarios came to power in Cyprus and the momentum for enosis and independence increased. Guerilla warfare took place under General Grivas with his select group of 300, perhaps a nod to the Spartans, taking on the might of the British military. In an effort to calm the revolt, Archbishop Mekarios was deported, however this led to intercommunal violence and the pretext for Turkey to demand a partition of the island. In 1960, Cyprus gained its independence, with Britain, Greece and Turkey acting as guarantors of an independent Cyprus. This folly was designed to appease Turkey and Greece, but in reality like many similar agreements in history, it was simply an invitation to meddle in Cyprus’ affairs.
Britain was allowed to maintain 2 military bases on the island. So whilst Cyprus was ‘independent’ it provided 2 large areas for the British military and 3 nations were allowed to cast a shadow over the island. Not exactly a fair deal for a sovereign state. It should be noted that British influence has been tremendous in helping modernise Cyprus, however, there should be no need to maintain bases. They should be returned to the people of Cyprus. Perhaps these areas can be made into a communal area that is administered by both Greek and Turkish speaking citizens.
Makarios became the first president, with Turkish Cypriot Dr. Kutchuk the vice president. Turkish Cypriots, who comprised over 17% of the population, were guaranteed the vice-presidency, three out of ten ministerial posts and 30% of public service jobs in the government sector. The military was also to have a 40% representation of Turkish men.
From 1963, Greek Cypriots began to feel aggrieved at a constitution which seemed to have rewarded the Turkish minority. Instead of working towards allowing the new constitution enough time to function, it led to tension and unfortunately more intercommunal violence. In 1964, the US intervened to prevent Turkey from sending in troops to support the Turkish Cypriots.
In 1974, in one of the most disgraceful acts in modern Greek history, the ruling Junta in Athens organised a coup against the democratically elected Makarios (who had returned to Cyprus). The Junta which was an unpopular military dictatorship, had deluded themselves into believing that they could control Cypriot
Makarios immediately addressed the UN, telling them, “the coup of the Greek Junta is an invasion, and from its consequences the whole people of Cyprus suffers, both Greeks and Turks.” Unfortunately, Turkey used this as an opportunity to invade Cyprus from the north. The Cypriots, re-enforced by troops from Greece, fought valiantly against the invasion. The UN condemned the invasion and issued a toothless ultimatum for Turkey to withdraw.
Within a month, 37% of the island was occupied by Turkish forces, remaining in place to this day. It is not for me to neither condemn nor be critical of the Turkish invasion, for there is some argument they were genuinely seeking to ‘protect’ their minority. It is not for me to discuss the amount of dead, missing, displaced persons and refugees from both sides (180,000 Greek, 50,000 Turkish were displaced). War is never the answer and should never be an option. Cyprus had the potential to show the world that minority people could live in harmony with a benevolent majority. Forces outside the control of most Cypriots shattered that dream. If the UN and the US, along with the EU and Britain have any clout, rather than pander to regional politics, they would help bring about a viable solution to the Republic. All citizens of Cyprus deserve to live in peace on such a beautiful island, in fact one of the most amazing places I have ever been to.
My visit to Cyprus in 2010 was my first. I hope to return, perhaps in 10 years time. It would be nice to see a unified island, drawing on the strength of its Greek and Turkish people. A divided island does nothing for the Turkish minority in the north who do not share the same prosperity as those living on the rest of the island.
The key to understanding why Cyprus is so important is that it really is a strategic entrance into the Mediterranean, Europe, Asia, Africa. When the Ottomans were conquering the Middle East, they needed to take Cyprus in order to halt Latin resistance. The same logic can be seen for example during the rule of the Greek Ptolemies in Egypt. They had to hold Cyprus in order to prevent the Seleucids or Romans from using it as a base to launch an attack against them.
To the EU Cyprus provides a natural end line to its borders, absorbing a small but strong economy into its vast area. It also has an estimated population of 900,000 people.
As a visitor I was taken in by Cyprus’ Byzantine charm meets modern British infrastructure, the good climate and the warmth of the people. I recall a day when my car stopped on the national highway. I walked to the nearest village, which was dominated by a Byzantine style church. At the local coffee house, a group of men were preparing to watch the soccer derby. When I explained my predicament there was no shortage of excited people who wanted to help me. It turned out I was merely out of petrol.
Let’s hope that the international powers have themselves a full tank to bring about lasting peace and justice to all of Cyprus. This beautiful island deserves that, it has been through so much.