Cyprus has the world’s only divided capital city, because in Nicosia, smack in the middle of Ledra Street is a makeshift barrier with immigration authorities. They mark the line between the Republic of Cyprus and the entity called Turkish Cyprus, which is sometimes referred to as Northern Cyprus.
Peeking through a peephole in the cement barrier, one sees overgrown grass and shuttered, abandoned buildings in the narrow strip of no man’s land that rests between the two entities. Visiting Turkish Cyprus from the Republic of Cyprus is as easy as presenting your passport on the Cyprus side, and walking across the aforementioned strip of land to the Turkish side, where you present your passport again for formality. A small slip of paper is stamped as the only evidence of your visit, so your passport doesn’t bear any permanent mark.
Turkish Cyprus is recognised by only one country in the world, namely Turkey. Its occupation of the northern part of the small island nation is a continual thorn in its application to become part of the EU, and something of a political liability.
Visiting Turkish Cyprus is like stepping into another part of the world, because the currency used here is the Turkish lira, not the Euro. The Turkish alphabet is far more prominent, and the goods on sale – such as Turkish delight – are reminiscent of Turkey. There are imitation goods on sale, which will be seized if they were brought back to the Cyprus side. The shops here are small businesses, as opposed to larger, glitzier, international chain stores that sit on the Cyprus side.
Even the grand monuments here reflect its Turkish roots — the Büyük Han or Great Inn, once part of a caravanserai, has been restored and has small shops and restaurants with Turkish handicraft and food, while the nearby Selimiye Mosque, an imposing brownstone building, has architectural clues revealing that it was originally built as a church and not a mosque.
The cultural contrast between the two sides of what is the same street is marked, and yet, the people are Cypriots — although they call themselves Turkish Cypriots or Greek Cypriots. One country, one land, is divided by political beliefs. In 1974, Turkey invaded Cyprus to foil an attempted coup that would have aligned the Mediterranean island country with Greece. Strife between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities followed, but after a cessation of hostilities, the Turkish forces did not withdraw and continued to occupy parts of the island to the present day, with 37 per cent of the land area under Turkish rule.
It is something of a conundrum and a political stalemate that has lasted four decades. The military checkpoints extend across the line of separation, with a series of outposts that physically divides the land. Besides Turkey, Britain maintains two military here that were established in 1960 during the independence of Cyprus as a sovereign base area.
Further along the road, to the south-western edge of the island, is the town of Paphos, a UNESCO World Heritage site for its historical and cultural importance. The cult of Aphrodite, which attracted pilgrims in an annual fertility rite, was centred on Paphos – also the ancient capital of Cyprus for a long time. Archaeological finds indicate a thriving and vibrant community from pre-Hellenistic times.
Among the treasures of Paphos are the astonishing stone mosaics that were accidentally unearthed by a farmer in 1962. Now housed in a low roofed building, elevated walkways allow visitors to marvel at the beauty of these mosaics, which date from the second to the fifth century. Despite being well over one-and-a-half-thousand years old, they display a remarkable level of refinement, depicting everyday scenes as well as mythical ones, in what is believed to be the residences of wealthy occupants of the day. These mosaics are regarded as amongst the finest in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Today, Paphos is better known as a retirement village, and rightly so, given its balmy Mediterranean climate, proximity to the sea, and the relaxed pace of life. However, it was once strategically important, as proven by a thick-walled medieval castle dating to the Byzantine era that stands guard over the harbour.
Besides Paphos, one of the most important archaeological sites in Cyprus is Kourion, which was once an important city kingdom. Besides the exceptional mosaics found here, there is the breath-taking amphitheatre that overlooks the coast. With its striking acoustic properties, it has been restored in modern times, and is a magnificent venue for musical and theatrical performances even today.
Traditions and Culture
Archaeological ruins are not the only reminders of the island’s long history, for some of its traditions still live on. Cyprus produces one of the world’s oldest wines — a sweet wine first named in the 14th century. Called the Commandaria, it is still produced and can be purchased today. The wine is associated with the Knights Templar, who took up residence in the Kolossi Castle, a traditional castle with a moat and crenellated towers that still attracts visitors. Shortly after it was built, gunpowder began to be widely used in warfare, heralding new assault and defence tactics, and effectively rendering the castle — with its traditional defences against soldiers wielding swords, spears, bows and arrows — obsolete.
A throwback tradition in Cyprus is the cultivation of carob, a natural sweetener. It was a major export and continues to be widely used on the island as a healthier alternative to refined sugars and chocolate as it has a distinctive, thick flavour.
Other traditions continue to thrive in remote villages on the island, where the pace of life has changed little for centuries. Medieval churches and traditional winemaking are just some of the discoveries that continue to attract visitors to this Mediterranean island.
This article was written by Lee Yu Kit.