TCS Daily

Across the Attila Line

By Michael Totten - March 29, 2006 12:00 AM

[This is the second installment of a series on Cyprus. Part One can be found here.]

The Ledra Palace Hotel in Cyprus is no longer a hotel. It is also no longer in Cyprus. It's a bullet-pocked dormitory for United Nations employees who live and work in the militarized buffer zone between the Republic of Cyprus, which is ethnically Greek, and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is considered a rogue state by every country in the world except Turkey.

I walked from the Republic of Cyprus in the south to the Turkish Republic in the north right past the old hotel in the center of Nicosia, the last divided capital in the world. The zone is an eerie place. It literally is a no-man's land, a bombed out and desolate urban void that marks the southern-most limit of the Turkish army's advance in its invasion of the island in 1974. In Nicosia it is called the Green Line. Elsewhere on the island the heavily guarded and barbed wired border is called the Attila Line, named by the Turks after their own invasion. For decades it was closed. But it's open now. All you need to cross is a passport.

Just outside the buffer zone above the passport control and customs gate for the north is a sign: "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus FOREVER." It's an eff-you to the Greek Cypriots who -- 31 years ago -- were the Turkish Cypriots' countrymen.

There is an irony here. While the Turks were the ones who partitioned the island and created the bloody Attila Line border, the Greek Cypriots are the ones who keep it in place. In 2004 the reunification of Cyprus was overwhelmingly approved in a Turkish Cypriot referendum. So much for the Turkish Republic lasting "forever." They voted to abolish their own unrecognized statelet. Reality hasn't yet caught up with their propaganda.

The Greek Cypriots, on the other hand, shot down reunification in their own referendum even while they routinely seethe about the Turkish invasion, the island's partition, the Green Line, the Attila Line, and the fact that those displaced from the north are not allowed to return to their homes. Every one of these problems would have been resolved had the Greek Cypriots not voted to keep them in place.

Stepping into the Turkish Republic from the Greek side was like walking off a busy street into a quiet and dusty bookshop. Everything was quiet and still. I saw very few restaurants or shops -- almost none in fact -- on the Turkish side of Old Nicosia. The traditional Ottoman buildings and houses were mostly used as an antique residential neighborhood. I had the feeling that I had stepped backward in time, that I had wandered into the late 1950s or early 60s.

There was hardly any foot or car traffic at all except on the main street that led to a retro and vaguely Soviet-looking Ataturk Square. I only saw one woman who wore a headscarf over her hair, and she was at least sixty years old. All the other women I saw were indistinguishable (to my eyes, anyway) from the Christian women on the Greek side of the island. The Turkish Republic is Muslim, but it is very far from bin Ladenist territory.

Those people I did see in the old city smiled gently and sweetly at me as I passed. There's something endearing about how the place goes about being totally normal while shunned by the entire world. It seemed they weren't used to visitors and were happy when they saw foreigners who thought their snubbed and isolated little country was worth going to see.

And it was worth going to see. The Greek side of the island is blandly globalized and has little identity of its own, at least from the point of view of a visitor. The Turkish side of old Nicosia is different. Say what you will about isolated and provincial locales, they do have their own character. I didn't see any cheap tourist gimcrack for sale. And whatever the condition of the old city's buildings -- some were fixed up, others had been deteriorating for decades -- most were unmistakably Ottoman, Turkish, and Mediterranean. All the houses in one section of town were whitewashed. Oddly enough, that made the place look more "Greek" than anywhere I saw on the Greek side. A few abandoned churches were poignant reminders, however, that Greek Cypriots once lived here too before the partition and wrenching population exchange.

When I stood on the Greek side of the island, the Turkish side seemed to me like the dark side of the moon. For so long that is exactly what it was for Greek Cypriots who had been forced from their homes and pushed to the other side of the line. Some displaced people on each side can still see their old houses and villages that they are not allowed to reclaim.

Most startling and bizarre of all is the formerly Greek city of Varosha, a suburb of Famagusta, which has been empty and wrapped with barbed wire for 31 years.

Greek Cypriots fled the city in terror ahead of the Turkish soldiers during the invasion. They expected to return to their homes within days. But that's not what happened. Instead the Turks seized the empty city and cordoned it off. Even today the Turkish military patrols the inside of the perimeter.

A sign on the security fence showed the figure of a soldier holding a rifle diagonally across his chest below the words "Restricted Zone." There were places where people -- probably teenagers -- had taken the fence down. Well-worn foot paths led away from the edge and into the ghost city. You can't go inside without breaking the law, but you can walk right up to the edge and literally touch some of the ghost city's buildings with the palm of your hand.

Varosha is the only place in the world where you can see what 31 years of total neglect will do to a modern city. It is a city on a beach. At least it was when it was inhabited. Today it is a city-shaped husk. Empty buildings form a small horseshoe skyline on the coast. There they are exposed to the weather, including the winter storms known as Levanters that blow through the region with a force just short hurricanes. Supposedly, according to Lonely Planet, there is a car dealership somewhere in the city that still has 1974 models in the showroom.

Almost every building was missing its windows. Even the broken glass had long since blown away. I saw one that leaned precariously over its cracked foundation as though a wrecking ball had smashed into the side of it. The elevator shaft had broken through its outer brick wall like a hideous and protruding bone fracture. If the owner is ever allowed to reclaim that property it will surely have to come down.

A small stretch of beach in front of the skyline was still, amazingly, open. Right in front of the first derelict hotel I found an outdoor bar that served beach snacks and drinks. Reclining chairs and umbrellas were set up on the sand with the spooky ghost buildings as an apocalyptic backdrop. I couldn't tell if the beach bar was there because the owner knew Varosha was a gruesome sort of attraction or if this shattered urban catastrophe was thought of as normal in the Turkish Republic.

The Greek Cypriots certainly don't think it's normal. They built a museum to it equipped with lookout towers and telescopes just on their side of the line. A woman named Anitta turned her apartment's terrace into another lookout point that is open for visitors. A sign on her building says "The closest house to the ghost town." At the museum I trained a telescope onto the cluster of empty towers. Even from far away I could see that most of the windows were missing and that the city was lifeless. I felt like I was looking at the end of the world.

Even so, much of the Turkish Republic is lovely. The Karpasia Peninsula in the northeast corner is a depopulated wilderness of lonely roads, soft golden beaches, and dry Mediterranean forest. The jagged Pentadactylos Mountains cut a striking skyline from the port city of Kyrenia. Kyrenia, in fact, is the finest city on either side of the island. It's the one place that feels unmistakably European and Mediterranean, yet simultaneously Middle Eastern. Cyprus, after all, is a country at geographic and civilizational crossroads.

The Greek Cypriots need to understand something about geography here and the way it can affect psychology and history. Many still yearn for Kyrenia. Pictures of its lovely harbor adorn walls in their restaurants and hotels. Yet it has been a long time since most of them have seen it. They may have forgotten something that struck me at once upon my arrival: Turkey is right there. The cultural capital of Turkish Cyprus directly faces the motherland. Anatolia rises deep-blue and massive just off its coast. The Greek Cypriots are behind them on the other side of the mountains. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is so close to Turkey it might as well be one of its provinces. It already looks and feels like it is. If the Greek side of the island remains intransigent on the terms of reunification, Turkey very well may annex it formally.

That would be a real tragedy, and not just for the Cypriots on both sides of the line who had to leave their homes and live as refugees on the other.

Cyprus has something in common with Lebanon, and it has something in common with Bosnia. All three are places where communal relations between Christians and Muslims broke down and led to war. Since September 11, and now after the violent riots in the wretched suburbs of France, millions of people in both the Christian and Islamic worlds are wondering, seriously, if peaceful coexistence between worlds is possible. Though the division of Cyprus has more to do with nationalism than religion, what I saw was not encouraging.

However the Greek and Turkish Cypriots primarily define themselves, Christians and Muslims are separated by a visually and psychologically disgusting slum of a wall. It is hard to look at it and not think dark thoughts: If here, why not elsewhere?

If that wall can be torn down, as the Berlin wall was torn down, no more divided capitals will remain in this world. The final wall that comes down will be one between Christians and Muslims. Post-911, that would be something.

A lesson to the world? Perhaps not. Cyprus is mostly ignored. But Cyprus, while ignored, is still real. And if the wall does come down, the same question will have entirely new ramifications: If here, why not elsewhere?

Post script: Even though it was illegal, I took photographs of the ghost city of Varosha and posted them on my Web log. Click here to see them.

Michael J. Totten is based in Beirut, Lebanon. He is a TCS columnist whose work has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the LA Weekly, and Beirut's Daily Star. Please visit his daily Web log and Middle East Journal at



Why did Turkey attack?

Great pictures
nice photo essay! Too bad it's not a bit longer though. Love your work, especially your photo essays. The one you did of Libya is outstanding! Keep up the good work.

Good question! As I remember it, the President of Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios had as his political policy something called enosis, meaning unification with Greece. And this utterly terrified Turkish Cypriots, who believed that it would lead to their becoming a persecuted minority in what they regarded as their homeland too.

Continuing or adding to the above, the Turkish Cypriots began an armed resistance and appealed to their brethren on the Turkish mainland for military help. They got it and Greece didn't have the sea or air power to effectively interfere. And there was great pressure at the time to discourage Greece from engaging in a war that would have fractured NATO at the height of the Cold War.

Turks invaded ten years after partion.
The Cyprus Dispute
The final period of British rule in Cyprus saw a bitter struggle against British colonialism and intercommunal rivalries between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots. In 1960 the Republic of Cyprus became independent under a power sharing arrangement between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots. Britain, Greece and Turkey became the guarantors of Cyprus' independence and territorial integrity. Friction between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots intensified in 1963 after President Makarios, claiming Turkish Cypriot obstructionism, sought to amend the Constitution. This was viewed by the Turkish Cypriots as an attempt to destroy their guaranteed minority rights. Intercommunal fighting broke out and the Turkish Cypriots withdrew to segregated enclaves. An uneasy truce was maintained by the establishment in 1964 of a UN peacekeeping force (UNFICYP).

The succeeding years saw little decrease in tensions. A coup against Makarios on 15 July 1974 organised by the Greek military junta, aimed at uniting Cyprus with Greece, was the trigger for a Turkish invasion and subsequent occupation of 37 per cent of the island. In 1975 Turkish Cypriot authorities unilaterally declared the so-called "Turkish Federated State of Cyprus". This was renamed in November 1983 the "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC)", which is recognised as an independent country only by Turkey.

From Aussie Gov site,

I wonder how much religion has to do with the animosity considering Greeks and Turks have been fighting long before Mohammed and Jesus walked the earth.

Cyprus may never have been part of Greece but from time immemorial it has been populated by Greeks prior to the invasion and occupation of the Ottomans which brought Turkic Muslims to the island.

Prior to the 2 invasions by the Turkish Army in the 1970s Greeks represented some 80 % of the population, Turks about 17% and the rest Armenians, Maronites, etc. After the invasions and ethnic cleanisng of Greeks and others by the Turkish Army, settlers were brought from Anatolia ironically as Turkish-Cypriots were emigrating.

Why should 80% of the population not have the right to join Greece if they so choose? As long as the minorities are respected.

Curiously the author does not explain why Greek-Cypriots voted overwhelmingly against the proposed agreement. Perhaps in a third article.

For those who want to have a better idea of what happened Christopher Hitchens wrote an excellent book on the subject Hostage to History: Cyprus from the Ottomans to Kissinger.

nowhere near the real story
Sickeningly biased & half assed journalism by Mr Totten.
One example of his biased drivel is his assertion that the "Invasion" (which it never was, Turkey had every right to intervene(intervention) under the 1960 Treaty of guarantee)led to the the 2 communities being divided. When in fact,separation began in 1963 when Turkish Cypriots had to abandon 103 villages and take refuge in enclaves, because of attacks by EOKA terrorist's.
Next time Mr Totten visit's Cyprus, perhaps he can take a look at some of those abandoned villages where the graveyards have been destroyed & used for cattle storage, or perhaps near Famagusta, where the whole villages of Turkish Cypriots in Santilaris & Maratha were slaughtered by their neighbors & then bulldozed into an pit.
Mr Totten should check some real facts before he gives his opinion as if it is fact.
Start here

As for Cristopher Hitchens book, its already been shot down in flames as white wash for his kissinger/pinochet Witch hunt.

I'm not out to judge the accuracy of the article, but for one person to see everything and report on it is nearly impossible. Humans infer and deduce based on what they are able to interpret. The article is well written and history is just that, even if it was biased, it can't change what factually happened.

Big Mike
CEO of West Valley Detention Center Bail Bonds

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