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Cyprus: Island of Contrasts

By Akis Haralambopoulos* <>

18th August 1997

Cyprus, or more correctly, the part unoccupied by Turkish military forces, has grown in popularity as a tourist destination. An abundance of tavernas and night spots, signs in English, French, Russian and Greek as well as superb beach side hotel accommodation are clear indications of the extent to which Cyprus has become a magnet for visitors. However, behind the bliss enjoyed by the many visitors to Cyprus, the island contains immense contrasts

Eleven months of sunshine, an unspoilt environment, a rich and diverse historical heritage, a low incidence of crime and the availability of modern conveniences explains why Cyprus is so popular.

For those prepared to venture past the more conventional sites stark contrasts abound on Cyprus.

Cyprus is about one seventh the size of Tasmania and covers an area of 9250 square kilometres. Forty percent of the island is under Turkish military occupation subsequent to Turkey’s invasion of l974 and is effectively inaccessible. The unoccupied part of Cyprus on the south of the UN buffer zone is totally accessible through two international airports and three major port cities of Limassol, Larnaca and Paphos.

At the broadest level the entire island is divided by over a hundred miles of barbed wire, a UN buffer zone, and a series of military observation posts belonging to Greek and Greek Cypriot forces and on the other side corresponding Turkish and Turkish Cypriot forces. On either side of the barbed wire there is an immense economic contrast.

The unoccupied part of Cyprus has been enjoying ongoing economic growth, combined with low inflation, sound budgets and a strong currency. Cyprus meets Maastricht criteria for European Monetary Union better than the majority of European Union nations. Although Cyprus is not a member of the European Union, the island nation has been lobbying hard to become a member. The economic prosperity of the unoccupied part of the island contrasts with the rampant inflation, economic stagnation and underdevelopment of the occupied part of the island.

The topography of the island is also diverse. The centre of the island contains the Troodos mountain range which are rugged and in parts inaccessible. This contrasts with the coastal areas which are flat. During summer the Troodos mountains are cool while skiers can be found there in winter. Year round swimming can be enjoyed on the coast. Even the colour of the water differs from one side of the island to the other. On the north coast the water is green compared with the south coast of the island which is deep blue.

The contrasts on Cyprus are also evident between the thoroughly modern major cities and the remote and small villages found a short distance from the coast. In the major cities such a Paphos and Limassol the effects of contemporary economic development are pervasive. New or near new Mercedes and BMW motor vehicles are over represented, satellite TV dishes flourish and every conceivable modern convenience is available. This is a testament to the development achieved by Cyprus. Fortunately, considerable effort and expense is made by the Government to restore traditional buildings and maintain historical sites. Consequently, the historical places of interest as well as charming traditional houses and buildings not only remain but are flourishing. Conversely, within an hours drive of the major cities one can experience the way people lived over a hundred years ago.

Villages such as Lyso, Kimousa and Sarama to name just a few in the mountainous Tylleria region maintain their traditional character. Those prepared to leave "autobahn" standard roads for some long winding and at times dangerous dirt tracks can reach these villages. A four wheel drive vehicle is not necessary, just drive slow. Most of the elderly locals only have knowledge of the immediate surrounding villages so a detailed map is recommended. Upon reaching some of these villages one could be greeted with surprised elderly villagers peering through their doors and windows upon hearing the infrequent sound of a car. Most of the elderly folk dress in traditional clothes dating back to before the start of the century. The remoteness and simplicity of their lifestyles contrasts sharply with the lifestyle of those in the major cities just a short distance away.

In other remote regions, these villages and their elderly folk make a living from crocheting and weaving using ancient looms well over a hundred years old. The reputation for their work is renown. The elderly folk are keeping alive traditions that have been lost throughout Europe. As it is easy to get lost you need to ask for directions.

The richness and absence of history and culture is also striking. For example, on the south east coast of Cyprus is the township of Agia Napa. From the perspective of a sun worshipping visitor, Agia Napa is ideal. Appealing beaches, a variety of restaurants (offering Mexican, Indian, Italian, English breakfasts and, if you look hard, Greek-Cypriot cuisine), a carnival with bungee jumping, luxurious hotels and lively night life. Most of the locals have moved out under the strain of a consistent seven day a week party atmosphere which lasts well past midnight. Those interested in culture would be disappointed. There is a surreal feeling about Agia Napa given that it is less than ten kilometres to the UN Buffer Zone and eleven kilometres to Turkish occupation troops.

The historical and cultural heritage of the island is immense. Within easy reach of the major cities are a variety of classical archaeological sites. Less than twenty kilometres west of Limassol is a spectacular Greco-Roman ancient amphitheatre built in the second century BC by the Greeks and enlarged by the Romans four centuries later. The amphitheatre is still used today. Well, why not? No microphones are needed and the atmosphere and views of the ocean are spectacular. The nearby Temple of Apollo at is also impressive as are several other archaeological sites through the island. Excavations are ongoing throughout the island, some of which are being undertaken by Sydney University. In addition, several museums preserve the islands diverse history.

Cyprus’ Byzantine and Medieval heritage also abounds. There are numerous monasteries dating back hundreds upon hundreds of years. One of the more spectacular is Stavrovouni which is perched 750 metres above sea level on top of mountain range only 40 kilometres from Limassol. From there commanding views of virtually the entire island can be enjoyed. Cyprus’ medieval past is evident with a number of castles protruding through the landscape. The Limassol Castle, in the old part of city itself, is well preserved and lays claim to being the place where Richard The Lion Heart was married in 1191. The most interesting is the seven hundred year old Kolossi Castle near Limassol. The castle was the headquarters for the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem for many years.

There is even a contrast in the apparent peace which is enjoyed on the island and the threat of war. The sense of peace and tranquillity apparent on the island contrasts with the fact that Cyprus is the most heavily militarised part of the world.

Most visitors to Cyprus are generally oblivious to the political turmoil the island has experienced in its recent history. The residents of the unoccupied part of Cyprus live with the presence of over 30,000 Turkish occupation troops in the occupied part of the island. This is a highly sensitive issue. In the unoccupied part of the island there are some 250,000 refugees from the occupied part of the island. These refugees are effectively refugees in their own country.

The determination of Cyprus to wipe the scars of the Turkish invasion and 23 years occupation is best seen near the UN buffer zone in the capital city of Nicosia. The buffer zone is between twenty to fifty metres wide. The government has a programme of restoring and leasing traditional buildings to original condition even if the buildings concerned have backyard fences which in form the border of the UN Buffer Zone. It takes considerable courage to live in restored houses whose back fence forms the UN Buffer Zone.

Looking into the UN Buffer Zone you are confronted with an eerie silence, bullet holes pock mark buildings and an array of UN, Greek and Turkish guard posts along with their respective flags are prolific. Having jumped over the fences which form the buffer zone and we walked through parts of the UN buffer zone. This needs to be done stealthily. Taking photos is not recommended as this would give your position away. The locals call the UN buffer zone "The Dead Zone" for good reason. Entering the UN buffer zone is exceedingly hazardous as Turkish sniper posts honeycomb various walls. Several people have been shot dead for entering the Buffer Zone in the last year. Fortunately, the Turkish troops manning their respective posts were either absent or not conscious of our movements. Only on one occasion did any Turkish soldier show any interest when a popular Greek tune was whistled in our direction. Presumably in the hope that we would expose our position in the belief it was a Greek whistling the tune.

"Dead Zone" captures what this place is like. This part of Nicosia is a lifeless limbo almost totally devoid of all life. Homes have been left exactly as they were twenty three years ago. Cooking utensils with the decayed remnants of some unknown cuisine, clothes left on chairs and beds, cupboards and chairs are covered in a dusty form of suspended animation. Pictures of unknown individuals and families are buried behind dusty glass picture frames on discoloured walls. Buildings in which Greek forces fought from have patriotic slogans on their walls. The author and his colleague ventured as far as the Turkish side of the UN buffer zone. Peering through various holes in fences (which are used as sniper posts), cracks between concrete filled 44 gallon drums and over short walls the Turkish occupied side seemed dilapidated and dormant except for the sound of motor vehicles passing in the near distance. This is unlike the unoccupied part of Nicosia which is alive with restaurants, night clubs and commerce.

For the vast majority of visitors to Cyprus a good time can be had. For those prepared to be a little adventurous Cyprus is also filled with sharp contrasts.

* Akis Haralabopoulos visited Cyprus in the summer of 1997 unescorted and on an independent basis.

How to get there: Olympic Airways to Athens and then Larnaca will cost about $2,300 return (from Australia). Entering the UN Buffer zone is not recommended.