Our boat rocked in the wind as we sat in the middle of Famagusta Bay. Remarkably clear, the pastel sky trailed off, bright and gleaming.
There were seven of us on-board: five tourists, the tour guide and the Captain. On my left there was an older couple, a man and a woman around sixty. The old man was unassuming, but with a scrunched-up sort of face, like he was sucking some perpetual lemon. His wife wore an over-sized floral hat, slightly too large for her head. They sat near the edge; he rested one arm on the handrail and she gazed out at the sea. A younger couple sat further along the port side. The woman was beautiful with sun-kissed skin and long, silky brown hair billowing in the wind. She kept brushing hair off of her face, tucking strands behind her ears; the man kept an arm around her and peered through black wayfarer sunglasses. The Captain sat at the helm, wearing summer shorts and a shirt buttoned up to his chest. He didn’t talk much, but just held the wheel loosely, occasionally checking the map on the dashboard. Our guide was hairy and tanned with a wet, clinging yellow t-shirt. He stared out into the horizon, shielding his eyes from the sun.
We stopped moving. The beating sun and turquoise sea dissolved, fading away. There it was, a melancholy mirror: a pale reflection of the vibrant body of Cyprus. Like Alcatraz, it sat as a lonely and remote sinister blemish on the island, hidden away in its furthest corner. I was struck by a monolithic cornucopia of dilapidated hotels and greying horseshoe beach around the water’s edge. Like a resort, but uncanny, ghostly and ineffable. Fences and barbed wire dotted the beach, blocking entry on every side, trailing across the beach and disappearing into the sea. This picture in the distance seemed altogether too still. Dead: it seemed somehow new, and untouched, but wracked with decay all the same. As I stared into this bleak horizon, the guide began: ‘This was once the most popular resort in Cyprus.’
In the sixties, Famagusta accounted for fifty percent of the total hotel accommodation of Cyprus. One of the best-known tourist spots in the world, it accommodated Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Brigitte Bardot; the biggest stars of their day. Following the post-war ‘package holiday’ boom, thousands of Brits holidayed in Famagusta through the sixties and early seventies. It was Cyprus’s tourist capital. Famagusta had nine nursery schools, seventeen primary schools, and eleven secondary schools. It was a cultural centre too, with a library, an art gallery, a rich archaeological museum and a municipal marketplace. In the sixties, it saw industrial growth fifty percent higher than the rest of the country. Famagusta had a vibrant nightlife, cinemas, restaurants and bars; it flourished in an unforeseen advanced market of international tourism.
We looked out at this strange, unnerving spectre of a resort. Everything looked strangely rotted, even at that distance, a moulding, decayed yellow hanging over the buildings, as if the city’s very existence was choking the life out of it. The old woman with the hat glibly remarked: ‘stunning, isn’t it Richard?’
The tour guide glanced over to a dark, stony guard tower perched alongside the barbed wire. It was far away; he squinted in the sun. Seemingly satisfied, he went on, keeping one eye in the distance.
The Cypriot National Guard received support from the Greek government for a coup against the Cypriot president, Archbishop Makarios. Looking for a greater presence in Cypriot affairs, the Greek Cypriots planned a union with Greece. The Turkish Cypriots (who shared power with the Greek Cypriots since the UK granted the island independence in the sixties) responded by launching a military invasion. The Turkish invading force was code-named ‘Operation Atilla,’ but Turkish Cypriots called it ‘Kıbrıs Barış Harekâtı,’ or ‘Cyprus Peace Operation.’ The Turkish occupied the northern third, Famagusta took a hard shelling during the second phase and, within two days, the Turkish military fully occupied the city.
At this point, the young woman with the brown hair was leaning on the handrail next to me. She’d let her hair flop over her face in the wind, but between the strands sat a hazel iris. I stared through sunglasses at the depth of this colour, for a moment, as she contemplated Varosha.
By August 1974, the Turkish army occupied thirty seven percent of the whole island. The 39,000 or so people who lived in Famagusta (who didn’t perish in the bombing) fled into surrounding fields, believing that, after the initial violence, they could return. The Turkish Army, however, had already cordoned off Varosha for the UN buffer zone. The buffer zone, or ‘the Green Line,’ is gash slicing Cyprus in half: Nicosia and Larnaca on one side, and Kyrenia and Famagusta on the other. Permanently under guard by UN peacekeepers, the buffer zone now comprises three percent of the whole island. Anyone caught in Varosha today risks being shot on sight. In the decades since that day in August, people who made their homes in Varosha could only see the city through barbed wire. Once the modern quarter of Famagusta, Varosha remains abandoned over forty years later.
The guide suddenly stopped what he was saying, raising a hand to his brow. He stared at the guide tower and, after a nod, dismounted the bow. He explained: ‘that’s the UN telling us to go back.’ It appeared that, in agreement of making these trips possible, organisers pre-arranged some signal with the UN to indicate when we’d come close enough.
The fact that Varosha had remained exactly the same, completely frozen in time, struck a chilling note of the spectral in me. According to rumour, there’s a car dealership on Leonidas, Varosha’s leisure street, with a brand new set of 70’s Toyotas put out just before the invasion, still parked exactly where they were on that day. One wonders exactly what level of deterioration they’ve endured in all that time.
I stared for a further moment, as we headed back towards Larnaka Bay. In forty years, nothing had changed for Varosha. It remained an anomalous, dusty painting; a capsule floating through the winds of time. I looked back at the city, fading further and further from view, and spied a tower crane hanging over the skyscrapers, seemingly mid-swing, stuck in the seventies and beyond escape. I wondered how long it would take for all the old iron and steel to rot away, for the foundations to collapse, and for all these old, dying buildings to fall like dominoes. Perhaps then, in the crumbling and decomposed ruins, nature will fully reclaim the quarter, and it will stand as a monument to lost civilization, to the immovable immutability of man’s self-destruction and the ever-present cyclical return of the natural order. All that remained for now was an empty vessel.