The Two Nicosias, Part II
The deep history behind the Cyprus problem and the division of Nicosia
“It is not really a line, not very visible, and not often Green.” So began the preamble to a 2012 exhibit on the UN Buffer Zone in Nicosia, also known as the Green Line, which since the end of 1963 has split Cyprus’ capital right down the middle.
How did Nicosia (and the rest of Cyprus) become divided?
We need to start from the beginning. The history of Nicosia is complex, and traverses nearly every phase of Mediterranean history. It’s a palimpsest of modification, re-purposing, and evolution. This is a concise briefing—I’m leaving a lot out, and every person you talk to will tell you a different angle on this story. Here, at least, is a way into understanding that narrative.
Ancient history: The course of empire
Five thousand years ago, the area of Nicosia was first inhabited by the Eteo-Cypriots, a people who spoke a pre-Indo-European language, thought to have traded with the Minoans of Crete. Their settlement in the Nicosia area gathered along the banks of what is now known as the Pediaeos River (a dry riverbed that only ever “flows” in winter or after large rainstorms).
When the Greeks arrived and colonized the island in the 13th century BCE, they established a city-state in the area named Ledra. This colonization is what initially gave the island its core Greek character, sustained to the present day. Empires came and went—the Hittites, Egypt, Alexander the Great, the Ptolemaic regime in Egypt, Rome, and its eastern successor, Byzantium, based in Constantinople (modern Istanbul).
By the 4th century CE, well into the Byzantine and Orthodox Christian period, Ledra was known by the name Leukosia (pronounced Lefkosia). This translates to “white state,” or the city of the “white gods.” It also happens to be the name of a siren in Greek mythology, her mother the muse of tragedy, perhaps a foreshadowing of Nicosia’s particular fate.
Byzantine control was lost to various Western European Crusaders in 1185 CE (as narrated in a previous installment of The Cyprus Files). Leukosia had become the capital because it was inland, and therefore less vulnerable to Mediterranean pirates.
This led to the establishment of the Lusignan dynasty, establishing Frankish rule and a Catholic presence on the island. The French apparently couldn’t pronounce Leukosia, so the name evolved into the more consonant “Nicosia.”
In 1489, the Venetians took over the island by marriage. The Lusignan king James II married Venetian noble Catherine Cornaro and the Venetians moved in, treating Cyprus as a military and commercial base to add to their other holdings in the Mediterranean, such as Crete.
In 1567, confronted with the Ottoman Empire’s expansion in the (Sultan Mehmet had taken Constantinople more than a century before, in 1453, eliminating what was left of the Byzantine Empire), the Venetians sent their top engineer Giulio Savorgnan to do his best to defend their Cypriot capital.
The process was hasty and desperate. Giulio Savorgnan tore down monasteries, convents, churches, private homes and used their materials for the defense of the city. Despite the precise organization of the walls, the interior of the city remained a maze, which probably contributed to its quick defeat during the 1570 siege. Later on, Savorgnan also designed a city, Palmanova, in Italy with the same design, but the interior of the city, being a new town, had a radial network which made its design more effective.
After their victory, the Ottomans retained Nicosia as capital, dubbing it Lefkoşa. They turned the French cathedral into a mosque, and built caravanserai (medieval inns) within the walls. Ottoman rule gave back a lot of power to the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus, which took on a dimension of civil authority in the new arrangement.
In 1878, the Ottomans gave Cyprus to the British Empire as part of a defensive pact—if the British would hold onto Cyprus in trust, then they would agree to defend the Ottomans against the burgeoning Russian Empire. After the Ottoman Empire joined the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary during World War I, Britain annexed Cyprus outright.
EOKA, enosis, and the Turkish invasion
Greece declared independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821. After a long war, Greece became an internationally recognized and independent state in 1832. Over the next century, Greece would expand guided by a Manifest Destiny-esque ideology called “The Megali Idea,” the ambition to restore the historic geographical extent of the Byzantine Empire.
In Cyprus that ideology took the form of enosis, a policy demanding union with Greece, which many Greek Cypriots desired. Many Turkish Cypriots preferred independence or the concept of taksim, the policy of an India-&-Pakistan-style partition. But Turkish Cypriots only formed 18% of the population, which meant that taksim was an impractical solution.
Though Britain had often promised to give Cyprus to Greece eventually, they never did. Tired of waiting for this independence, EOKA, a right-wing militia group, started a guerrilla campaign on the island against the British in the 1950s, culminating in Cyprus’ independence—making Cyprus masters of its own fate for the first time since the Bronze Age. But “independence” is a strong term, because the constitution that Cyprus was forced to adopt made it essentially a vassal of three different states.
The compromise constitution established for the Republic of Cyprus stipulated that the president had to be Greek Cypriot, the vice president Turkish Cypriot, and quotas for ethnic representation of the legislature—70% of members must be Greek Cypriot, 30% Turkish Cypriot—and members of the other communities on Cyprus (Armenians, Maronites, and Latins) were only allotted non-voting representatives.
Meanwhile, Greece, Turkey, and Britain were given privileges as “guarantor powers” with the right to intervene if things went South, and Britain also got to keep two massive military bases on the island forever.
It was not to last. Tensions between Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot communities—previously stoked by the British authorities as part of their “divide and conquer strategy”—escalated. In 1963, fearful of their safety, many Turkish Cypriots retreated into enclaves.
Then, after what became known as “Bloody Christmas” in 1963, violence that led to the deaths of hundreds of Turkish and Greek Cypriots, the British drew the “Green Line” in Nicosia to divide the two communities.
That line became quasi-permanent and eventually extended across the entire island in 1974. That year, motivated by the military regime then ruling Greece, a right-wing coup took place in Cyprus, deposing the island’s first president, Archbishop Makarios. This led to Turkey invoking the “guarantor clause” to invade Cyprus. Quickly, Turkish troops seized 3 percent of the island, causing the military government of Cyprus to collapse, simultaneously accelerating the demise of the military regime in Greece. These events prompted a cease-fire. But then the Turkish military invaded again, proceeding to take 36 percent of the island, before another cease-fire, except this cease fire would last for decades.
The Green Line was thereafter frozen, and UN Peacekeepers were brought in to manage the Buffer Zone. The self-declared “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus”, only recognized by Turkey, was proclaimed in 1983. Cypriots on both sides were not permitted to cross the line until 2003, after protests on the part of Turkish Cypriots led to the opening of the crossings between both sides.
A frozen conflict
The opening of the crossings in 2003 after a generation of the line being impermeable represented a turning point in the history of the Cyprus problem. It, along with the Republic of Cyprus’ admission into the EU in 2004, motivated several rounds of peace talks and bicommunal initiatives.
So far, none of these efforts have succeeded in finding a solution. Cyprus and Nicosia remain divided today.
In a future issue (“The Two Nicosias, Part III”) of the Cyprus Files, we’ll discuss those peace movements and the current roadblocks holding the future of Cyprus in limbo.
This is the seventh post in The Cyprus Files, a limited-run newsletter series from The Usonian chronicling my Fulbright experiences in Cyprus. This article is a sequel to last month’s article, “The Two Nicosias, Part I,” which explores the experience of making the crossing from the Republic of Cyprus into the North. You can read all the posts in The Cyprus Files here. Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to subscribe so you don’t miss a (free) dispatch from the island of Aphrodite! — HWB