Cyprus – When Kyrenia was Greek

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Map of divided CyprusWhen a deal appears to be too good to be true, it must be carefully investigated.  That was the reason for my first visit to Kyrenia, Cyprus in 1968.  At the time, I was living in London where a neighbor of mine of Greek-Cypriot extraction had offered to sell me his Kyrenia villa at a ridiculously low price.  The pictures that he showed me meant that I just had to go and see the property, even though the mere mention of Cyprus still left me apprehensive.  That is because, during the Cyprus Emergency from 1955 to 1959, almost 400 British servicemen were killed on the island.  Many of those killed had been conscripted into the British Army and were known as “national servicemen”.  At the time, I was in serious danger of being conscripted myself and of being forced to risk my life as a colonial policeman. In the end, a sympathetic Army doctor decided that a football injury would exempt me from conscription, except in event of war.   Until then however, a sticky end in Cyprus could well have been my destiny.

For many years, the island of Cyprus had been a British Crown Colony.  The population was three quarters Greek and one quarter Turkish.  In the early 1950s, the Greek majority population campaigned for Cyprus to be united with nearby Greece.  This proposed union was unacceptable to the Turkish minority population and to mainland Turkey, which lay even closer to the island than Greece.  The situation was further complicated by Britain’s need for a new military base in the eastern Mediterranean after its eviction from its former base in the Egyptian Canal Zone.  Britain wanted to use Cyprus as its new military base.  The killing of innocent young British conscripts by the Greek majority population was never likely to achieve its aim of the political union of the island with Greece, or “Enosis” as the campaign was called.   Finally, a deal was done in 1960, when the independent republic of Cyprus was formed with a Greek President and Turkish Vice President.  The two populations of the island lived apart from each other, governed at local level by their own people.  The British withdrew to sovereign bases on the island, which they would own in perpetuity.  The killing stopped and, for a time, this beautiful blood-stained island was able to relax in the sun.  There was still tension between Greeks and Turks, but the British were no longer targets.  That was still the situation a few years later in 1968, when I travelled to Cyprus to investigate my property deal.

Kyrenia Harbour at Night
Kyrenia Harbour at Night

When I flew into Nicosia, capital of Cyprus  and located in center of the island, my task was to travel from there to Kyrenia on the northern coast of Cyprus facing across the sea to Turkey.   This was a trip of about 15 miles by road, but there were complications.  The populations of Nicosia and Kyrenia were largely Greek, but the area between the two cities was in Turkish hands.  Therefore, one could not travel the Nicosia/Kyrenia road alone.  One could only travel the road as part of a United Nations convoy, with jeeps full of UN “peacekeeping” troops riding front and back.  So that is how I got from Nicosia to Kyrenia on that sunny day in April 1968.  Kyrenia was beautiful and well worth the trouble to get there.

Castle overlooking Kyrenia harbour
Castle overlooking Kyrenia harbour

The picturesque harbor is guarded by a fairytale castle dating back to the 9th century AD and built to deter Arabic raids.  It is said that the castle has never been taken by assault.  I saw my neighbor’s villa and, at the price he was asking, it was an incredible bargain.   I even consulted a local attorney regarding property transfer formalities.  The climate was perfect.  The sea was clean and exceedingly blue.

Bellapais Abbey
Bellapais Abbey (C) www.martin-liebermann.de

On its southern side, Kyrenia is surrounded by mountains.   High in those mountains, with spectacular views over the harbor below, lies Bellapais Abbey – founded by the Augustinians in the 14th century and well worth a visit, with the cool mountain air contrasting with the warmth of the pristine beaches below.  Everyone spoke English and was very pleasant, as if trying to atone for the recent atrocities of the colonial era.  Yet I was uneasy.   Everyone here was Greek yet, just over the horizon only 40 miles away, lay mainland Turkey.  What was its attitude to the political situation here?  The two communities were becoming increasingly polarized.  Turkish-Cypriots were living separately in their own enclaves.  The constitution of the new republic established in 1960 was not working.  Not only was there violence between the two communities, but the island was becoming impossible to govern.  They could not even pass a budget without a veto from one side or the other.  The Greek-Cypriots had not given up hope of a union with Greece.   The mainland Turks were talking of invading Cyprus to protect the Turkish-Cypriots.  Two members of NATO (Greece and Turkey) were threatening to go to war with each other over Cyprus, thereby giving poor old President Lyndon Johnson in Washington DC yet one more problem to add to his Vietnamese burdens.

UN Convoy in Cyprus 1964
UN Convoy in Cyprus 1964

With the help once more of the UN peacekeepers, I made my way back to Nicosia Airport and then to London.  I told my neighbor that his villa was delightful, which it was, and that I would happily buy it once the political situation stabilized.   With much Mediterranean gesticulation and shoulder shrugging, he told me that a stabilized political situation would greatly increase the price that he would want.  I told him that I would visit Kyrenia the following year to see how things stood then and I did.  I made a second visit fifteen months later in July 1969.   Kyrenia and the villa were just as beautiful, but tension between the two communities was, if anything, even worse than before.   This was no time to buy.  My concern proved justified five years later, in 1974, when Turkey occupied the northern part of Cyprus including Kyrenia.  The Greeks in the north fled to the south.  The Turks fled from the south to the north and moved into the Turkish occupied area, where they were joined by many immigrants from mainland Turkey.  Kyrenia is now entirely Turkish, although the island remains to this day partitioned between Greek and Turkish areas.   All the Greek-Cypriot owned property in Kyrenia has been taken over by the Turks, so my neighbor no longer has anything to sell.   Yet I shall always recall my two visits to Kyrenia, when it was Greek.