In Fatima’s North Cyprus, Turkish history meets natural beauty amid a peaceful divide
‘The last divided capital in the world’. That is the weighty identity borne by the sepia-toned wondrous capital Cyprus, an island state lying pretty in the seas of the eastern Mediterranean. The island is puzzlingly both an independent entity as well as politically, socially and militarily supported by Greece and Turkey in separated parts. The northern third is controlled by Ankara and billed as ‘free Northern Cyprus’, in the fashion of ‘Azad Kashmir’, but recognised only by Turkey (and in evasive diplomatic-speak by Pakistan), while the substantial southern part is recognised by the European Union, and most of the rest of the world, as the independent ‘Republic of Cyprus.’
As I flew into the Lanarca Airport, I was eager to see how a capital city could be both divided and united to represent one whole tribe of Cypriots with a split ethnic heritage. The sun blazed away as my cab snaked through a hilly terrain, but its bite was blunted by a fragrant coastal breeze throughout the 40-minute drive to the city. The FM radio in the car played ABBA. The cabbie was a chatty sort.
I planned to explore both parts of Cyprus and Nicosia. Visitors landing in Cyprus in the north are not allowed into the south but those entering the Greek side are let into the Turkish side of the island, and back, which is why I was in the south on my helpful Schengen visa.
I had three nights and two days in Cyprus. I decided to divide my time equally between the two sides, as recommended by my friends Salman Asif and Dr Arif Azad, both of whom are veterans of the experience themselves. Early in the morning I started with the Turkish north first. My tour guide, Fatima, arrived on time, in her spunky sports car. She had arrived all the way from Kyrenia. Ethnically, she was of Turkish Cypriot origin although she grew up on the Greek side of Cyprus.
A zesty sort, Fatima was a political science masters from UK. She decided against continuing a teaching career to instead pursue the exploding tourism economy of the island. We had a long and interesting conversation, drawing parallels and noting departures from the political and geographic divisions of Kashmir and Cyprus, and how differently they are administered by the duos of Greece and Turkey, and Pakistan and India.
What started the discussion on politics of ‘lines of control’ was crossing the border between both Nicosia and Cyprus. Barely 10 minutes from my hotel was the nearest crossing point. An immensely long line of cars waited patiently to be waved through the border. I asked who these people were and Fatima, who in a fashion rather reminiscent of Pakistani drivers managed to jump the queue close to the border amid angry honking by the aggrieved, and explained that these were Greek residents driving to shop for groceries on the Turkish side because of a strengthened Euro currency. They could apparently get more for their money on the Turkish side of Nicosia than on their side. The reverse, she said, happens when the Turkish Lira ascends, and Turk shoppers crowd Greek Nicosia!
The checkpoint was like the Islamabad-Lahore motorway toll plaza. I did not even have to get off the car. The official in the cabin reached out his hand to take my passport and Fatima’s ID card and returned them after a quick look, smiled and waved us through. Imagine that at the forbidding, militarised Line of Control in Kashmir! I was both envious and angry.
A brief drive into the hilly Turkish Cypriot side and business and residential colonies sprang into view. But they were dwarfed by massive red Turkish flags and Ataturk and Erdogan portraits everywhere. The invading Greek shoppers swarming close-by supermarkets didn’t seem to be paying attention to the Turkish political emblems.
I learnt that when the split of Cyprus was effected in the late 1970s, the Muslim Cypriots, mostly of Turk heritage, moved to the north while the mostly Christian Cypriots tracing their lineage to Greece, migrated to the south. The UN came to erect a physical barbed-wire line of control through the island, as well as through Nicosia to establish first an unsettling buffer zone to prevent a military conflict which over the decades has metamorphosed into merely a relaxed administrative ‘line of control’ that no longer prohibits free travel on both sides between Cypriot birth residents and their parents. Or tourists coming from the south. Migrants who abandoned their houses in the 1970s are still allowed ownership although many have since sold their properties. Often those who have retained their family properties ‘in the other country on the island’ maintain their houses and go to them for family picnics over the weekends to reminisce about their elders! How Kashmiris must yearn for such a privilege…
The border business settlements soon gave way to open, green rolling hills. Fatima first drove me about an hour to our first destination of Saint Hilarion Castle, which looks like it fell straight off the pages of a storybook. With its ramparts climbing up the jagged hilltop, this is the epitome of a fairytale castle -- indeed locals claim the castle in Disney’s Snow White is based on Saint Hilarion. Built in the 10th century by the Byzantines, the castle sits in a lofty position. Its imposing tower gives amazing views across the countryside.
Before we left, Fatima encouraged me to try "the world’s best lemonade" made by Suleman, a beefy, boisterous sort who ran the canteen. The initially oddly bitter-sweet lemonade, mixed with lemon peel oil, lived up to its billing -- I ended up having three large glasses!
From there we were off to one of the island’s best and most famous tourist attractions -thanks to English writer Lawrence Durrell. Bellapais is a wonderfully old-fashioned and incredibly picturesque village of humble whitewashed cottages that sprawl down the hillside ending at the evocative ruins of Bellapais Abbey below. Durrell wrote the celebrated book Bitter Lemons of Cyprus while living here, immortalising Cypriot village life at the end of the British colonial period. The main sight is Bellapais Abbey, an old Augustinian monastery full of intricately carved arches and cypress trees surrounding its cloister. The fragrance of bitter oranges filled the air. There are panoramic views across North Cyprus’ coastline from the refectory roof.
Next stop was Fatima’s atmospheric harbour town of Kyrenia, a vibrant seaside hub. The small harbour is overlooked by a grand Byzantine era castle and backed by an old town district of tangled alleyways and Ottoman period houses that are fun to explore, including visiting the Shipwreck Museum, strolling the harbour-side with its many restaurants where you get served mostly by Pakistani and Indian waiters eager to converse in Urdu, and the rustic Folk Art Museum in a restored warehouse. We then drove off to Famagusta, a beautifully evocative town on the eastern flank of North Cyprus, riddled with crumbling Gothic buildings. It is ringed by a mighty border of Venetian fortifications and its charming old town is stuffed full of golden-stone ruins of basilicas and remnants of palaces that sit incongruously between rows of dilapidated houses. Main attractions included the glorious Mustafa Pasha Mosque and the nearby roofless ruins of Saint George of the Greek Church.
Fatima then capped off the day by driving me to the northern part of Nicosia where a bustling front of colourful and intricate bazaars like Anarkali in Lahore and Raja Bazaar in Rawalpindi hide a line of abandoned houses adorned by rusting barbed wire and broken windows. This hidden from view, but accessible, lane serves as parking for shop-owners’ cars. The walls in several places bear often startling graffiti art with messages of anger about the partition of the city. Highlights in this part of the capital were Buyuk Han, a bustling bazaar set up in the island’s oldest caravanserai selling handicrafts, antiques and old stamps and coins, Buyuk Hamam, one of the oldest traditional community bathing and socialising places in Cyprus and the beautiful Selimiye Mosque with its melancholic air.
Before she drove me back to the southern part of the city at my hotel, Fatima, seeing me puzzle over a strange looking fruit, insisted on buying me a pound of it. They were fresh, ripe figs. I had never seen them in this shape -- only the flattened dry version we get in Pakistan. I could swear they were the sweetest fruit I ever tasted. My appetite to explore south Cyprus the next day heightened.
To be continued.