Tuesday: travel to Cyprus all day – as previously noted, the sky was pretty clear over Belgium, but Cyprus was damp. Had enough time to walk around Nicosia in the evening and get a renewed sense of it. I’d been to Cyprus twice before – in 1993 for our honeymoon and again in 2001 – but both times concentrating on the coast with only day trips to Nicosia. Of course this visit was also essentially a day-trip to Nicosia, but without the pleasant hanging out at the beach for a few days on either side.
I was struck, as ever, by the economic dynamism of the south – becoming more and more like the rest of Europe. But I was also struck for the first time by how ex-British it feels too. Last time I was there, in 2001, I had never been to Greece; since March 2002 I’ve been to several conferences in Athens and Thessalonika, and in comparison Cyprus is simply much closer to what I grew up with. (The fact that I had just come from another formerly British-ruled island which also has its northern part still occupied by the larger neighbour perhaps also increased my sense of familiarity.) In particular, southern Nicosia seems to have a lot of Asian immigrants – both from the sub-continent and also from more eastern parts. I can see how its small very open economy would be a natural point of attraction for other countries which are surfing the waves of globalisation successfully.
On Wednesday we had the formal launch of our Cyprus report at the Ledra Palace Hotel in the middle of the Green Line, the UN-patrolled buffer zone which has separated the two sides since 1974 (1963 in some places). There was a panel of four respondents, two from each side including former members of their negotiating teams, with some robust debate.
The most striking thing here was that the Green Line has now been opened, and people were calmly and freely walking between the two halves of the city, past the Ledra Palace Hotel, with only the most perfunctory of formalities on the northern side (and none at all on the southern side). Yet it did not feel like the sort of liberation that I know I felt when I went to Berlin in 1992, having previously visited in 1986. By 1992 the Wall was completely gone, and the Brandenburg Gate freely approachable from the West; I found myself choking with tears as I walked up to it. But in Nicosia the Green Line is still there. It has been a divided city for 43 years, compared to Berlin’s 27. I did not come away with any confidence that it will be reunited very soon.
We had several more meetings, but got into the north for an hour or so’s sight-seeing. I had visited briefly in 2001, and while Turkish-controlled Nicosia still struck me as quaint, reminiscent of how I thought Sarajevo must have once been, and much quieter than the southern part of the city, there seemed to be a new (if still quiet) buzz about the place. An indication of this was – again – the visible presence of immigrants, African rather than Asian this time (mainly from the Mediterranean coastal countries, of course, but a fair few from further south). One of our interlocutors told us that there had been a lot of investment in the North because of the prospects of a settlement.
It is peculiar to find a Gothic cathedral in the Eastern Mediterranean, though less so if you remember the enduring legacy of the Crusaders (long before the British took over in 1878, Richard the Lion-Heart conquered Cyprus in 1191 as part of the Third Crusade, and promptly floged it to the Templars who sold it on to Guy de Lusignan, the ex-King of Jerusalem). It’s pretty bizarre anywhere to see a Gothic cathedral with added minarets. Inside, the whole place has been reoriented to face Mecca rather than Jerusalem, giving a peculiarly skewed feel. The local clergy approached us and tried to engage our interest in the teachings of Beiüzzaman Said Nursi, whose mystical writings would probably make a lot more sense to me if I knew more about the Quran, though they seem in general pleasant enough.
Of course, I might as well have taken my time, because my flight to Athens had been cancelled and I had several hours’ wait for the next one in Larnaca irport, attempting to use the variously inadequate internet facilities to catch up with work. Finally got into Athens after midnight; Thursday was a beautiful day, but I was too busy to take any photographs unfortunately, and flew straight on to Istanbul in the early evening.
This was my first visit to Turkey, and I will have to go again. I had only about five waking hours there on Friday, four of which were spent talking to people and the fifth in the taxi on the way to the airport. There was a decent view from the hotel and I managed to snap the Hagia Sophia from the taxi, but it’s not really satisfactory. Also the weather (unlike in Athens) was pretty dull.
And so home again. At last.