A Tale of Two Islands

A dispatch from Cyprus's divided capital

By / October 2015

Cyprus, a 3,500-square-mile island in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, is home to the world’s last divided capital. Turkey controls the northern half and calls its capital Lefkosa, while Greece owns the southern half and calls its capital Nicosia. Recently I ambled between the two sides with little trouble–waiting in a line at the checkpoint was my only hassle–but traversing this island hasn’t always been that easy.

In 1960, 35 years after becoming a British colony, Cyprus declared its independence. Because of the island’s proximity to both Greece and Turkey, its Turkish residents settled in the north, while its Greek residents made homes for themselves in the south. But just 14 years after independence, Turkey invaded Northern Cyprus and claimed it for its own. In the years since, the Turkish side and the Greek side, which today contain two distinct airports, two different languages, two official religions and two very different cultures, have argued over just about everything.

I wait in line at the checkpoint to cross from Turkey over to Greece. Although the Greek government allows its citizens to freely cross from one side the other, the Turkish Cypriot side only allows those born before 1974 to pass from north to south. When I’m ushered through, I immediately glance at a flank of abandoned homes pockmarked with bullet holes. In the aftermath of the invasion, those living in a 110-mile stretch, now know as the Green Line, were forced to pick a side. People left houses and belongings, shops, cars, even glass Pepsi bottles sitting on tables.  The ghostly homes, like a movie set leftover from the 70’s, are a vivid and constant reminder of the peculiar state of the city.

Photograph by Leonid Mamchenkov

As much as I would like, I can’t loiter in the buffer zone. A few people try to snap pictures. But posted signs and the presence of military inhibit much exploration. I meander due south from the Green Line. I head past McDonalds and Starbucks and hit Ledras Street, a cobblestone avenue primarily for pedestrians. This shop-lined thoroughfare attracts all sorts. A little farther down, I am drawn to a store so overrun with Cyprus trinkets and souvenirs. Inside, I notice variations of the Cyprus and Greek flags placed around the store. There are Cyprus hand towels, Cyprus coffee mugs, Cyprus T-shirts, even Cyprus underwear folded neatly in the corner.

The only person in the shop is bent over in the corner rearranging some miniature Greek gods and goddesses. At my first sound, he stands and turns to face me. After sizing me up for a split second, he speaks in Greek-accented English. “Hello,” he says, “my name is Andreas, anything you need I can help you find.”

We get to talking about the dual capitals. “People like to say there is a Turkish Cyprus and a Greek Cyprus,” he explains. “But to us there is just Cyprus. North and South. We are all just Cypriots. Governments of the world want to make a distinction. But to us, we are all brothers and sisters, sharing the same land, the same air.”

Later in the day, I head back for the checkpoint. Reaching the lines at the border gate, I spy an older man walking up to the counter. I ease closer to hear his conversation with the guard checking his papers. Trying my best not to snoop, or at least not to be caught doing so, I peer over his shoulder. I notice innumerable stamps in his passport. It appears he’s even added pages multiple times. But the stamps aren’t from world travel. They’re from crossing the street in his own city, from entering and exiting Nicosia and Lefkosa.

I wonder what could possibly cause this man to take so many trips across the border. Could it be family? Work? I move in closer still and see the reason for his regular trek across the Green Line. He’s carrying a brown McDonald’s bag. He explains to the guard checking his passport that his family absolutely loves their burgers. But Northern Cyprus has no McDonald’s. Thus, his frequent international trips are for Big Macs and fries.

Completing my own passport check, I catch up to my friend with the sack lunch. Kadir, a Turkish Cypriot born before 1974, seems to have the same perspective as Andreas. “Whether we are Turkish or Greek Cypriots,” he repeatedly states, “it does not matter. To us, we are just Cypriots.” After about a 10-minute walk, we reach his house. His sandwich must be getting cold. He turns to me and says, “I don’t really understand why we are still separate.”


Kenny Houston is a contributing writer for EthnoTraveler.