So who invaded Cyprus first?

It’s not the main topic of the news item, but it does make an interesting point about Turkey’s “invasion” of Cyprus back in 1974 . . .

Spooky pics of abandoned Cyprus airport frozen in time

nicosiaTHIS once bustling transport hub was suddenly abandoned 40 years ago, leaving jet planes and empty terminals as eerie signs of the past.

THIS airport was once a bustling, state-of-the-art transport hub on a popular holiday island. 

But for more than 40 years, time has stood still at Nicosia International Airport on Cyprus, which is now an eerie scene of decaying check-in desks and terminal equipment, and stripped-back jets stuck on the abandoned tarmac.

The airport became deserted after 1974, when it became a flashpoint for civil conflict on the Mediterranean island.

Cyprus had seen years of tensions between the Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots after it became independent from Britain.

In 1974, Greek nationalists overthrew the elected president of Cyprus and in the days that followed, Nicosia airport was briefly used to bring in troops from Greece.

The airport was also a scene of chaos during that time, as holiday-makers and other foreigners sought to flee the conflict.

Within days of the coup d’etat, Turkey invaded Cyprus, and the airport was severely damaged in a bombing campaign.

nicosia jetA demilitarised zone was created and Nicosia airport wound up right in the middle of it, which led to it being suddenly abandoned. The last commercial flight departed Nicosia in 1977.

After Nicosia airport was abandoned, authorities opened a new international airport at Larnaca, which is the island’s main airport that most Australians now fly into or pass through.

But intrepid travellers who venture to neglected Nicosia airport can see how its has become frozen in time, with derelict rows of seats in the terminals, stained carpets on now-empty corridors, and decrepit jet planes stuck where they last came to rest all those years ago.

Source

And another related snippet from the BBC . . .

Varosha – The abandoned tourist resort

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Famagusta before the Greek military coup – and subsequent Turkish invasion

Miles of sand where it’s just you and nature. Dozens of grand hotels where you’ll have the pick of the rooms.

Just remember to pack your bolt cutters to make a hole in the fence – and watch out for the army patrols with orders to shoot on sight. 

Before the division of Cyprus in 1974, Varosha – a resort in Famagusta – was booming. The rich and famous were drawn by some of the best beaches on the island. Richard Burton and Brigitte Bardot all dropped by – the Argo Hotel on JFK Avenue was said to be Elizabeth Taylor’s favourite.

But 40 years ago, after years of inter-ethnic violence culminating in a coup inspired by Greece’s ruling military junta, Turkey invaded Cyprus and occupied the northern third of the island.

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Incidentally, before taking matters into their owns hands, the government of Turkey had asked the UK government, as guarantors of Cyprus’s independence, to intervene  – which they declined to do.

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A Stroll through Nature and History – Yıldız Park and Abdülhamit II

The storks are back. I saw a muster of them a week or so ago. Or it could have been a phalanx. According to Wikipedia, the terms are interchangeable. Whatever, there were hundreds of them circling in the sky over the financial district of Levent as I headed home from work. In fact the birds don’t nest in Istanbul, but they gather here twice a year as they depart for, or return from their annual migration to warmer climes for the winter.

Red tulips

Spring tulips in Yıldız Park

So another spring is with us in Turkey. The swallows flew in a week before the storks, Persephone is on leave from Hades, and at least two ‘cemre’ (djemreh) have fallen. What’s a ‘cemre’, you may ask. Well, despite its being a Turkish word, I have yet to find anyone who can actually give a definition. Nevertheless, three of them are said to fall in the spring time, warming the air, the water and the earth – and then it’s summer.

In recent years the Istanbul Metropolitan Council has sponsored a tulip festival, and this year they’ve planted 8.5 million bulbs in parks around the city. This man-made riot of colour supplements the display of the ubiquitous erguvan (Judas tree) that splashes both banks of the Bosporus with dense bunches of purple blossom. You’ve got a brief two-week window of opportunity, so if you’re in town, you need to get out and feast your eyes. This year our choice settled on Yıldız Park.

Squirrel

Yıldız sincabı – Check out the squirrels

Yıldız is an interesting and picturesque area located on the slopes above the coastal districts of Beşiktaş and Ortaköy on the European side of Istanbul. Despite hysterical claims three years ago that the government was destroying the city’s last green areas, Yıldız Park is just one of its many beautiful natural reserves. These 29 hectares (73 acres) of semi-wilderness and ordered gardens are what remain of a forest formerly used for hunting by Byzantine and Ottoman aristocrats. Probably what saved this remnant for posterity was being chosen as a safe haven by one of the last Ottoman Sultans.

Abdülhamit II was the 34th Padishah, and one of its longest-reigning, ascending the throne in 1876 with the empire facing external threats on all its borders, as well internal rebellions, and managing to survive until deposed in 1909. In spite of, or possibly because of, holding a beleaguered fort for 33 years as the Ottoman Empire crumbled around him, Abdülhamit is regarded in the West as some kind of devil incarnate – and his time on the throne, even in Turkey, as a period to be quietly avoided.

ikinci-abdulhamid_263661

Sultan Abdülhamit II, 2nd from the right

Nevertheless, I have to tell you, I’ve got some sympathy for the man. A little like George VI of England, Abdülhamit ascended the throne somewhat unexpectedly. However, George’s rise to monarchic splendour came as a result of his older brother’s infra dig marriage to an American divorcee. Abdülhamit’s elder sibling was forcibly removed from office after a brief 93 days on the throne. This was the second such event in a matter of months, the royal princes’ uncle, Abdülaziz, having been deposed by his ministers earlier in the year. Uncle Aziz was found dead five days later – whether by his own hand or that of another, history does not tell us. So it was an inauspicious beginning for the 34 year-old Abdülhamit, and the fact that he retained his throne for 33 years is testament at least to his commitment and determination.

Things were not going well for the Ottoman Empire, and had not been for some time. The Great Powers of Europe, in particular, Britain, France, the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg Empire (where are they now?), and Russia, were keen to see it disappear, and to pick up the pieces for themselves. After 1870, two Johnnie-come-latelies, Italy and Germany, appeared on the scene, with similar intentions. All that really stood between the Ottomans and final dissolution was the self-seeking determination of each of those European powers to see that they got the best bits and the others didn’t.

So the Ottomans survived Russia’s expansionist plans in the 1850s because Britain and France decided it was in their interests to help out. They were fast losing interest, however. Russia’s pretext for starting the Crimean War, its ‘altruistic’ desire to champion the Ottoman’s oppressed Christian minorities, was recognised as a clever ploy, and that was the beginning of the end.

Yıldiz mosque & palace

Yıldız Palace and Hamidiye Mosque – fading glories of the 600-year Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire had for centuries been an obstacle to European incursions into Asia, and to Russian desire for access to the Mediterranean Sea. When the Suez Canal was opened under French control in 1869, that region suddenly assumed even greater importance for European trade. John D. Rockefeller founded his Standard Oil Company a year later, and ‘black gold’ slowly began to assume crucial significance. Put two and two together, and you can see why the downfall of the declining Ottoman Empire was pretty much signed and sealed. – and why its 34th Sultan was on a hiding to nothing when he got the big job.

Interestingly, despite his reputation in some circles for despotism and bloody massacres of innocent minorities, there had been expectations that Abdülhamit would continue the modernisation and democratisation processes set in motion by his father Abdülmecit (ruled 1839-61). Circumstances were against him, however.

  • In 1860 Christian-minority Maronites rose up in Lebanon and established a peasant republic. Pretty advanced stuff for Middle Eastern peasants in those days! Britain and France threatened to intervene on their behalf, and the Ottomans were obliged to accept a Christian governor in Lebanon.
  • In 1860 there was a rebellion on the island of Crete in support of enosis – union with the recently established ‘independent’ kingdom of Greece. ‘Christian’ Greeks claimed that Muslims had massacred Greeks, in spite of which, the latter managed to seize control of the island with the assistance of thousands of Greek troops from the mainland.
  • The Russian invasion of the Caucasus saw Crimean and Circassian Muslims massacred and displaced, and hundreds of thousands of them sought sanctuary in Ottoman Anatolia after the Russians final victory in 1864.
  • The ‘Balkan Crisis’ began in 1875 as the Habsburgs and Russia attempted to annex Ottoman territory. Public opinion in Europe was aroused by reports that the Ottoman administration was using bashi-bazouk troops to commit atrocities against the innocent local Christians. In fact there were atrocities committed by both sides, of course. The bashi-bazouks admittedly had a long-standing grudge since most of them were recently settled Crimeans and Circassians who had seen first-hand what Christians did to Muslims.
  • In June 1876, Serbia and Montenegro declared war on the Ottoman Empire with the tacit support of Austria-Hungary and Russia. The European Powers held a conference in Istanbul/Constantinople to sort the issue out, but neglected to invite the Ottomans.
  • Meanwhile, in 1877, the Russians opened a new front threatening the Ottomans in the Caucasus. Their forces, led by Armenian commanders, captured several Ottoman towns in the east, and laid siege to others. What happened to the Muslims out there is generally overlooked in Western historical accounts – but it may well have contributed to later events when the Ottomans regained control.
  • Back in the west, Russian forces were at the gates of the Ottoman capital, whatever you like to call it (Constantinople? Istanbul?), and it was only the threat of intervention by the British Royal Navy that brought about a truce. And while everyone was looking the other way, the Brits grabbed the island of Cyprus.

The cost of all this to the Ottoman administration was disastrous: great losses of territory, not to mention prestige; a huge influx of impoverished refugees from the new ‘Christianised’ countries; enormous expenses leading to crippling debt; and a reputation in the West for savagery and barbarity Turks are still struggling to live down.

So poor Sultan Abdülhamit was up against it right from the start. Other supposedly enlightened nations have resorted to a state of emergency and suspension of freedoms with less reason – and yes, our man did suspend the recently introduced constitution. Well, I guess there are times when democracy just doesn’t seem to be doing the trick. And it was obvious that even his own ‘loyal’ governing classes were all-too-ready-and-willing to depose their monarch in times of trouble.

Erguvan and Bosporus

Judas trees flowering in Yıldız Park

But what about Yıldiz Park, and Istanbul in the springtime? What happened to that story? Well, the new sultan clearly felt that his father’s palace, Dolmabahçe, designed by his Armenian architects, and beautifully located on a spectacular Bosporus-shore location, was a little vulnerable. Consequently he took the decision to built a new home for himself a little further from the sea higher up in the forest. Possibly by this time, Armenians were shifting their loyalties, and responsibility for the royal building programme had been handed over to an Italian, Raimondo D’Aronco.

The palace complex comprised a number of buildings including accommodation for visiting dignitaries, a theatre and opera house, and a porcelain factory. Most of these buildings are now open to the public, apart from one retained by the government for receptions and office space. The Chalet Pavilion, where the sultan lived with his family, is now a museum, as is the carpentry workshop. Among Abdülhamit’s many hobbies and interests, he was a skilled carpenter/cabinet-maker and much of the furniture in the palace was made with his own hands. The porcelain factory still produces exclusive pieces for the high-end market – though more European than Ottoman in design, and they don’t appeal to me much.

In spite of his evident interest in Western technology and culture, Abdülhamit began to turn increasingly towards the practice of Islam, and his role as Caliph, leader of the world’s Muslims. This is hardly surprising, given that Christian subjects of the empire, despite having been allowed to build their schools and churches, practice their religion, speak their languages, educate their children, hold important positions in the empire, make pot-loads of money, and generally mind their own business for centuries, were beginning to seek support from foreign imperialists.

Interestingly Abdülhamit, in his capacity of Caliph, is said to have supported the United States’ conquest of the Philippines by requesting that Muslims there accept and support US sovereignty – which they duly did, and scant thanks the Ottoman Sultan got in return. It just goes to show, huh?

Tunuslu Şeyh Muhammed Zafir

Abdülhamit’s personal spiritual teacher

Anyway, the Sultan, as one might expect of an educated man, was interested in the mystical aspects of religion, and in fact was a follower of one of the Sufi dervish sects. The Ertuğrul Tekke Mosque, on the right as you walk up the hill from Beşiktaş, was dedicated to the Shadhili (Şazeli) Sufi order, and the Sultan’s personal spiritual guide, Sheikh Hamza Zafir, is buried in the grounds[1]. The mosque itself is named for Ertuğrul Gazi, father of Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire. Further reflecting Abdülhamit’s focus on his Ottoman roots, another mosque in the grounds of the Central Military HQ further up the hill, bears the name of Orhan, son of Osman, and the Empire’s second sultan.

A third mosque, grandest of the three, and worth a visit, except that it is currently undergoing extensive restoration, is the imperial Yıldız Hamidiye, completed in 1886 in a combination of Neo-Gothic and traditional Ottoman architecture. The long, narrow Serencebey Park that now isolates these historic buildings from the frenetic traffic of Barbaros Boulevard used to be a public square, and was the site of an assassination attempt on the Sultan in 1905 by Armenians seeking revenge for the much publicised ‘Hamidian Massacres’ – which perhaps need to be seen in the context of our earlier historical discussion.

erdogan-merkel1

Turkey’s President Erdoğan hosting Germany’s Merkel at Yıldız Palace

I suggest a walk starting from the ferry buildings in Beşiktaş, up the hill through the Serencebey Park where, apart from the mosques, you will pass the statue of Yahya Kemal Beyatlı, revolutionary poet, politician and diplomat, who spent some years in voluntary exile in Paris because of his opposition to Abdülhamit. Clearly there is ambivalence in Turkey about their Ottoman heritage. After passing the campus of Yıdız Technical University, take a right at the traffic lights and cross over the motorway leading to the Bosporus Bridge. You’ll catch some intriguing glimpses of the bridge and the strait before arriving at the gate of Yıldız Park. Enjoy the peace, the trees, the flowers and the wildlife. Visit the porcelain factory shop. Stop for a coffee, a snack or a meal at one of the several cafes and restaurants. Pay a visit to the Chalet Museum. Emerge at sea level beside another stylish little mosque of the period, Küçük Mecidiye, opposite the gates of Çırağan Palace, now a five-star Kempinski hotel. Stroll back to Beşiktaş to complete your circuit. It’ll be a day well spent.

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[1] As an aside, Sheikh Shadili, founder of the sect, is reputed to have discovered coffee drinking in the Arabian town of Mocha, way back in the 13th century, whence the practice journeyed slowly westwards, eventually reaching America – another thing they don’t seem very grateful for.

Cyprus, Turkey and the EU – Getting it wrong again?

I don’t remember when I took out my first subscription to Time Magazine. I’m sure I must be one of their most loyal long-standing followers. Certainly there are occasions, generally during the lead-up to another United States presidential election, particularly when the opposition are going through the seemingly endless mumbo-jumbo of trying to select a candidate to challenge the incumbent, when I wonder why I bother. But I renew my subscription, mainly because I have never found a satisfactory substitute: a convenient and colourful package which keeps me more or less up-to-date with what’s going on in the world, from arts and literature to technology and politics, international affairs, sport and economics, to medicine and the environment.

Scary thought!

Sometimes you have to read between the lines, of course, and always be aware of its Americo-centric viewpoint – but lately they seem to have been working on that. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see a number of distinctly Muslim-sounding names showing up among their team of writers. On the other hand, there’s been another, more disturbing trend in recent issues: a most uncharacteristic negativity, or pessimism about the state of the world: the inevitability of food shortages, how to deal with the reality of sea-level rise – and, scariest of all, a cover story entitled ‘The Decline and Fall of Europe’[1].



I’m not an economist, and I’m not privy to any inside information. Some of us thought the capitalist system was on the verge of collapse back in the 70s, but somehow it managed to keep itself going. The US Dollar, the Euro and the Pound Sterling seem remarkably strong, considering the parlous state of the economies they represent, so clearly there are issues involved beyond my ken. Nevertheless, if United Europe does survive into the third decade of the 21st century, it will, in my opinion, be more a result of good luck than good management.

The original six nations of the 1957 European Economic Community had expanded to twenty-seven by 2007. The European Commission has stated that it believes accepting countries like Bulgaria and Romania into the Union will encourage them to make the reforms needed to bring them in line with European standards – and it’s becoming increasingly evident that they were wrong. There is no need for me to question the wisdom of accepting twelve new members since 2004. The current economic woes of the EU speak eloquently for themselves. I do not intend to argue for the acceptance of Turkey. I am well aware that the Commission has many reasons for postponement. However, it seems that the long-running Cyprus problem is about to blow up again, and this, I believe, is a direct result of misguided EU policies.

The Government of Turkey has announced its objections to two matters related to the Cyprus problem. The first is that the Republic of Cyprus (in fact the Greek republic of Southern Cyprus) is planning to begin offshore drilling for natural gas. The second is that the aforesaid ‘Republic of Cyprus’ is in line to take over the rotating presidency of the EU in 2012. The Turkish Government is understandably upset, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs has conveyed their strong feelings to the EU Commissioner.

Interestingly, the report I read referred to ‘the 37-year Cyprus conflict’, which implies that the problem began when the Turkish Government at the time sent troops to the island and established the partition which continues to this day. This line of thinking has led to international condemnation of Turkey, and recognition of part of the island as representing the whole. However, it doesn’t take much research to establish that the roots of the problem go back way beyond 1974.

Like everywhere else in this part of the world, the island of Cyprus has a long history of conquests and occupation. It became a Roman province in 58 BCE, and subsequently part of the Eastern Byzantine Empire. When the Arabs began their expansion in the late 7th century, Cyprus was in the firing line, and the Byzantine emperor came to a compromise arrangement with the Muslim caliph whereby both ruled the island jointly – until the Eastern Christians were able to reassert ownership in 965 CE. As we have noted elsewhere, crusading Christians from Western Europe did not focus their aggression on Muslims alone. Ever wondered where Richard the Lionheart actually was when Robin Hood and the downtrodden English were struggling against wicked King John? It seems at least some of his time was spent conquering Cyprus (from Christians) and rescuing a French damsel-in-distress (as knights were expected to do in those days).

For the next four hundred years, Cyprus was occupied and ruled by a succession of crusaders and their hangers-on, various local potentates and Genoese mercantile interests, until finally it was purchased by the Venetians, from whom the Ottomans took it by conquest in 1571. It should be noted that, during those four centuries, the religion of the rulers was Roman Catholicism, whose adherents had little love for their Eastern Orthodox cousins, whom they persecuted and kept in subservience.

Needless to say, the Ottoman conquest was not a peaceful affair. It was pretty much standard practice in those days for conquering armies to exact revenge on the defeated populace in proportion to the amount of difficulty they had put the conquerors to. Nevertheless, the Ottomans subsequently applied their ‘millet’ system to the island, whereby the Greek Orthodox community was allowed to maintain its own culture, language and religion. Without this tolerance, it is arguable that there wouldn’t be a Cyprus problem today – the island would be simply Turkish and Muslim. Take as a comparison, the situation in contemporary France and Spain, where religious dissidence was violently suppressed, resulting in homogeneous communities of (Roman Catholic) ‘faith’.

So, Cyprus became Ottoman territory, and remained such for the next three centuries. Its Greek Orthodox inhabitants may not have been altogether happy, but at least they were allowed to stay, to speak their own language, practise their own religion, and within certain limits, administer their own affairs. Ottoman domination came to an end in 1878 when the British claimed the right to occupy the island. How this came about is an interesting example of 19th century European power politics. Russia is a huge country, but an ongoing historical problem has been the lack of convenient all-seasons sea access to the west. Consequently, a major focus of its expansionist drive has always been gaining access to the Black Sea, the Aegean and the Mediterranean. An important facet of Britain’s foreign policy in the 19th century was preventing them from doing just that.

In 1877-78, the Ottomans were engaged in a losing war with Russia, who were altruistically supporting the nationalist struggles of Romanians and Bulgarians in the Balkans, and Armenians in eastern Anatolia. At the conclusion of this war, the European Great Powers met, at the Congress of Berlin, with the Ottoman Empire, to reorganise the Balkans, which more or less meant ejecting the Ottomans. While everyone was looking the other way, the Brits managed to insert a clause whereby they acquired ‘informal’ control of Cyprus. Behind this move, of course, were, the recent opening of the Suez Canal, the growing importance of oil as an energy source, and the associated inclination of Britain to consider the Mediterranean part of their own sphere of influence.

Informal control of Cyprus was formalised in 1914 when the British illegally annexed the island. The Ottomans weren’t happy, but were far too occupied fighting for survival elsewhere to offer any opposition. Many Muslim Turks left the island, especially during the population exchanges at the end of the Turkish War of Independence in 1923. In the 1950s a struggle for independence began, largely involving the Greek community who wanted not only independence, but ‘Enosis’ (union with mainland Greece). The British Government on its part was reluctant to surrender its strategically important military bases on the island, and opposed the insurgents, often employing local Turks as police to maintain order (thereby, needless to say, exacerbating inter-communal bitterness).

Eventually, however, the struggle was partially successful and Cyprus became an independent nation in 1960. The new constitution, guaranteed by the British, Greek and Turkish Governments, enshrined significant representative rights to the Turkish minority, somewhat reduced, but still close to twenty percent of the population. The Greeks hadn’t given up, however, and the main evidence of this was their choice of Michail Christodolou Mouskos, a.k.a. Archbishop Makarios III as first president of the new republic. Hard to imagine a more provocative choice, given the saintly archbishop’s well-known involvement in the Cyprus independence movement and strong support for Enosis, but there you are. Within three years he was proposing amendments to the constitution to reduce specific Turkish representation. Cypriot Turks withdrew from the government and increasing incidents of inter-communal violence broke out. Greeks from the mainland began entering Cyprus to aid the struggle for Enosis and Turks began to retreat into safer conclaves. In 1964, a United Nations peacekeeping force was set up on the island.

Over the next few years, The Turkish Government repeatedly warned the international community about violence and intimidation of the Turkish minority. There was talk but little action, and in July 1974, the military junta in mainland Greece sponsored a coup to depose the good archbishop and take over the island. Turkey’s first response to this was to ask the other guarantors of Cyprus’s independence, Greece and Britain, to intervene to stop renewed violence on the island. Receiving no reply, the government under Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit sent troops, and enforced partition of Cyprus into northern and southern sectors, which continue to this day. Interestingly, it was the threat of war with Turkey that led (by a process too complex to detail here) to the restoration of parliamentary democracy on the Greek mainland.

Interesting too is the fact that Great Britain (or the United Kingdom – the terminology still confuses me) retains two significant chunks of the island (in total, a little over 250 km2) where it maintains military bases. These areas, of course, are not within the Turkish sector, though in theory they are not Greek either.

Despite all the foregoing, it is the Greek southern section of the island that is recognized by the international community, and Turkey that is continually blamed for causing and perpetuating the problem. A 1998 decision of the European Human Rights Commission held Turkey responsible for denying human rights to Greek Cypriots by preventing them from returning to their homes in Northern Cyprus. On the other hand, in 2004, the European Union admitted the (Southern, Greek) Republic of Cyprus as a member, despite a clear stipulation in the 1960 Constitution that both sectors of the Cypriot community must agree before the island could join another state. Evidently going for the letter of the law rather than its spirit, the EU decided that, since it is not actually a ‘state’, the condition didn’t apply. Perhaps, in retrospect, Turkish Cypriots would have been better not to resign from the government back in 1963 – though, given the violence being perpetrated against their people, it’s difficult to see what else they could have done.

As I mentioned earlier, it is stated policy of the EU Commission to admit countries which may not have fulfilled all the prerequisites of membership, on the principle that, once they are in, they can more easily be brought into line. Well, ask Angela Merkel if she feels that Greece and Ireland, Spain and Portugal made much effort to bring their economies into line with EU requirements after joining. As for the ’Republic of Cyprus’, it’s hard to escape the feeling that international and EU acceptance has merely hardened their attitude to their Turkish brethren in the north. United Nations Secretaries-General, Boutros Boutros Ghali and Kofi Annan, both proposed peace settlements for the Cyprus issue. The most recent of these, the Annan Plan (2002), was accepted by the Turkish Government and the people of Turkish northern Cyprus in a referendum, but rejected by the Greeks in the south.

Once again the Cyprus issue is making headlines around the world. The Turkish Government is vociferously objecting to Greek Cypriot plans to conduct natural gas exploration in waters off the coast, and to the likelihood that Greek Cyprus will provide the next EU President. It is unlikely that Turkey would be prepared to go to war over either of these issues, given that they would undoubtedly be warned off by Europe and the USA. However, it is a sign of Turkey’s increasing confidence in the region that its government is prepared to take the initiative on the Cyprus issue rather than continuing to accept a defensive pariah role. If the international community decides to take a more even-handed approach to solving the problem, Mr Erdoğan and his government will probably consider the risk to have been worthwhile.


[1] Time Magazine, 22 August 2011

Cyprus – What are the Turks doing there anyway?

No one in the world recognises the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus except Turkey, and, one must suppose, the people who actually live there, but we can’t count them, because no one recognises them, except Turkey, and the people who . . . Well, clearly this isn’t getting us anywhere! We’ll need to try starting somewhere else.

One of my first expeditions out of Istanbul was with a busload of Turkish High School students and teachers. It was an educational trip, for me perhaps more than the students. We visited the battlefields and cemeteries of Gallipoli, the excavations of ancient Troy, and the ruins of Assos scattered through the rustic village of Behramkale.
The hill rising above the blue waters of the Aegean commands an impressive view over the sea and the islands so steeped in history and beloved of modern sun-seeking tourists.
‘What’s that island?’ I asked one of my Turkish colleagues, pointing to a largish land mass rising from the sea about 10 km away.
‘Well, we call it Midilli’, was the reply, ‘but Europeans know it as Lesbos – it’s a Greek Island.’ A quick check of Google Earth reveals that the government in Athens is some 230 km from the island. I didn’t know that at the time, but I definitely couldn’t see the coast of Greece from where I stood.
So how does a strategically significant and desirable piece of island real estate 10 km off the coast of Turkey come to belong to the government of a foreign nation more than 200 km away (a pretty  major distance in the Balkan region, as a glance at recent historical developments will show)? As with most seemingly simple questions in this part of the world, the answer is somewhat less than simple.
‘Greece’ is an interesting word. In fact the modern inhabitants of that nation call it Ellada, but like it to be known officially, in English, as the Hellenic Republic. People speaking a language related to modern Greek spread throughout the region in the last millennium BCE. Various kingdoms and city states rose and fell until most were united after conquests by the armies of Rome in the 2nd century BCE. Latin, of course, became the official language and so continued for many centuries. After the fall of Rome in the 5th century, the power base of the Roman Empire shifted to the eastern capital of Constantinople, and the Greek language bubbled back to prominence again, in much the same way as did English in the centuries after the Norman (French) Conquest.
The island of Lesbos continued as part of the Roman (Byzantine) empire until, with the decline of Byzantine power, it passed into the hands of, first, the Latin crusaders, and then to the Genoese in the 14th century. The Ottomans incorporated it into their empire in 1462, where it remained for some 450 years until the break-up of that empire in the early 20th century. One important feature of Ottoman rule (in all parts of their empire) was the tolerance they granted to conquered peoples to continue using their own language and practising their own religion. They did, however, import and settle Muslim families from their Anatolian heartland to live alongside the locals.
It is with the dawning of the 20th century and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire that the matter seems to become more clouded. The English version of Wikipedia, on the subject of Lesbos, contains this laconic sentence: ‘The island was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1462. It remained under Turkish rule until 1912 when it was ceded to Greece.’ The entry in Turkish is a little more explanatory: During the Balkan Wars, in January 1913, Greeks occupied the island without firing a shot. It was then given to Greece under the terms of the Treaty of London, 30 May 1913. In 1922, during the exchange of populations after the Turkish War of Liberation, the Turkish population was sent to Anatolia and replaced by Greeks from the Turkish mainland (my translation).
So what, you may ask, has all this got to do with Cyprus? Well, the first thing I’d ask you to do is to take a look at a map of the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean. Have a close look at the Greek Islands in particular, and notice how close most of them are to the Turkish mainland. Then, leaving aside other considerations, ask yourself how may other nations would accept the continuing occupation, by a foreign power, of islands so close to their own shores. The attitude of successive US governments to the island of Cuba springs to mind as an example.
Tragedy for Othello – and the Venetians
But of course, as you were no doubt quick to point out, we can’t leave aside other considerations. We need to delve a little into history in order to understand where we truly are in the present. As one might expect of an island with such geo-political importance, ownership has passed through many hands. It came under the sway of the Byzantine Empire in 395 CE,  before falling into the hands of the Arabs for three centuries. The Byzantines reclaimed the island in 966 CE before losing it finally to a succession of Crusading princes and Venetians starting in 1191. It was from the Venetians, then, that the Ottomans seized control in 1570, despite the report in Shakespeare’s Othello that the invading Turkish fleet had been destroyed by a storm.
As noted above, the Ottoman Empire applied a relatively enlightened policy (in the context of history) in allowing minority groups (such as Jews and Orthodox Christians) to use their own language and practise their own religion. It has been suggested by at least one historian that things might have turned out better for the Ottomans in the long run if they had been less accommodating – but there you are.
The nineteenth century was characterised by the rise of nationalism as a political force. Encouraged by the Great Powers of Europe, with an eye to their own advantage, minorities within the Ottoman Empire began to demand independence and autonomy. After the kingdom of Greece was established in 1830, other Greek peoples within the Empire (known as ‘Rum’ in Turkish) began increasingly to nurture the hope of a reincarnation of former Byzantine glories.
In 1878, folowing a secret agreement with the increasingly desperate Ottoman government, the British occupied the island of Cyprus. ‘Why?’ you may ask. In fact, by the 19th century, the Mediterranean had ceased to be an Ottoman lake and had pretty much become a British one. In 1814, the island of Malta had become part of the British Empire. The territory of Gibraltar, on the south coast of Spain, has been a British possession and site of a naval base since 1713. After the opening of the Suez Canal, in 1869, and the increasing threat of Russia to British interests in India and the Near (Middle) East, Cyprus was seen as having major strategic importance. In fact, despite granting independence to the island in 1959, Britain maintains, to the present day, two military bases there at Akrotiri and Dhekelia.
In the last years of British administration after 1955, as Greek nationalists (EOKA) began a campaign of guerilla tactics, Turkish Cypriots were used in a policing capacity by the British, and internecine violence began to escalate. Anti-Greek riots broke out in Istanbul resulting in the last major exodus of Greeks from the city.
After independence was achieved, a constitution was established creating a Greek-Turkish state in Cyprus, but violence continued, fueled by a desire among members of the Greek community for Enosis (union with mainland Greece) and the perception, among the Turkish minority, that they were being driven out.
The issue came to a head on 15 July 1974 when the ruling military junta in Greece authorised a coup in Cyprus to take over the elected government and make Enosisa fact. There is some divergence of opinion about what happened next. The Greek position is that Turkey used this as a pretext for their military invasion; the Turks claim that they asked Britain and France to intervene to stop the violence on the island, but, receiving no reply, took the matter into their own hands.
These differing claims are reflected in the words used to describe the events of July 1974, which most of the world calls ‘The Turkish Invasion’ but Turks refer to as ‘The Peace Operation’.