Cyprus. The divided island and its ghost town

For almost half a century Varosha, once a fashionable vacation resort on the Mediterranean, has been lying dormant. Splendor and beauty can still be guessed. If you look closely, you will see architectural classics. Elisabeth Taylor loved to stay in Varosha. Sophia Loren and the British royal family are said to have owned their own houses here. The jet set is long gone. Time has stood still, while politicians still can’t agree on a new status for the district. On Wikipedia, one can find a kind of inventory list. As of August 14, 1974, the district of the port city of Famagusta, called Varosha, Varosia or Maraş in Turkish, had 45 hotels with 10,000 beds, 60 apartment hotels, 99 recreation centers, 21 banks, 24 theaters and cinemas, and about 3,000 smaller and larger stores. Whether fashion boutiques, leather goods or furs. everything was available at that time for the jet set from the Middle East, the USA and Europe. Another 380 buildings were still under construction in 1974. The former tourist stronghold on the Mediterranean had been a restricted military area since the Turkish invasion in 1974.

Am Besuchereingang zum Varoscha-Viertel kann man Fahrräder mieten / © Foto: Georg Berg
Bicycles can be rented at the visitor entrance to the Varosha district / © Photo: Georg Berg

Fresh asphalt and crumbling facades

Since the end of 2020, a small part of the ghost town has been open to civilians. The entrance is free and the uniformed people behind the barrier are friendly. They want to look inside the backpack. Alcohol in it or a drone? The streets are newly paved and contrast with the dilapidated houses. Fresh white lines mark bike paths. You can rent bikes right at the entrance. But it doesn’t feel like a ride into the past, because the bitter truth has been for a few weeks that a war in the middle of Europe is a reality again.

Cafe und Snackbar auf der Straße der Demokratie in der Geisterstadt Varoscha / Maraş / © Foto: Georg Berg
Cafe and snack bar on the Street of Democracy in the ghost town of Varosha / Maraş / © Photo: Georg Berg

War in Europe – then and now

It is March 2022 and the brutal war of aggression by Russia on Ukraine is only a few days old. We walk down the Street of Democracy, looking through windowless houses and at crumbling facades. Cities whose names I didn’t even know recently run through my mind. Kharkiv, Kherson, Mariupol. What might it look like there now? On August 14, 1974, residents, businessmen and tourists left the vacation paradise in flight. Varosha was not so heavily bombed then as many cities in Ukraine are today. Varosha was neither totally destroyed nor rebuilt. If you walk through Berlin today, you will hardly find any traces of the Berlin Wall. If you walk through Varosha, faded advertising signs, mighty but unkempt palm trees and the remains of magnificent architecture help to piece together the picture of what was once a dream destination on the Mediterranean.

Wer genau hinschaut sieht Klassiker der Architektur. Das Design der 1960er Jahre war hier nie weg. Die Zeit ist einfach stehen geblieben, während sich die Politik bis heute nicht auf einen neuen Status für den Stadtteil einigen kann / © Foto: Georg Berg
If you look closely you will see classics of architecture. The design of the 1960s never left here. Time has simply stood still, while politicians to this day cannot agree on a new status for the district / © Photo: Georg Berg

Green Line – the divided island

The north and south of Cyprus have been separated since 1963 by the so-called Green Line, which runs through the middle of the capital Nicosia. In July 1974, the north of the island of Cyprus was occupied by Turkey, after Greek coup plotters had wanted to enforce the annexation of the island to Greece. In November 1983, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus was unilaterally proclaimed for the northern part, but the UN declared it invalid three days later. UN soldiers have been stationed on this border since 1984 and also show a presence in the restricted area of the ghost town of Varosha. In May 2004, the entire island of Cyprus was admitted to the EU as the Republic of Cyprus. In fact, however, only the southern part of the island belongs to the territory of the EU. Turkey is the only country to recognize the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. International sanctions have prevented direct flights to Ercan Airport in northern Cyprus for decades. Airlines are only allowed to fly to the north of the island with a stopover in Turkey. Varosha is still used today as a pledge for the lifting of sanctions.

UN Stützpunkt / © Foto: Georg Berg
UN base / © Photo: Georg Berg

Cheese can also be political

As early as the 1990s, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus offered to return its property to the original owners if sanctions were lifted. Whether the current opening of Varosha is the harbinger of a creeping resettlement is difficult to judge, given the multi-layered interests of all parties involved. The hope for rapprochement lies more in the seemingly trivial, such as a white cheese that keeps its shape quite well. For halloumi (Greek) or hellim (Turkish), there has been a Community solution since 2021. The EU Commission has registered the cheese, which is produced throughout Cyprus and has been part of the cuisine in the eastern Mediterranean for thousands of years, as a protected designation of origin. Only halloumi and hellim produced in Cyprus in compliance with the product specification may now bear the registered name. This brings economic benefits to Cyprus and perhaps also contributes to the rapprochement of the two parts of the island.

Halloumi bzw. Hellim wird in Geschäften auf Zypern in kleinen Eimern gestapelt und mit Molke bedeckt verkauft / © Foto: Georg Berg
Halloumi or hellim is sold in stores in Cyprus stacked in small buckets and covered with whey / © Photo: Georg Berg
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