Visit to Varosha, Famagusta: The Vanishing City

My novel, August the Vanishing City, is about a young Greek Cypriot refugee who sneaks into Varosha, his occupied hometown, now the largest ghost city in the world. A few weeks ago I visited the outskirts of Varosha myself. Here are some of my impressions.

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In 1974, the Turkish army invaded Cyprus and forcibly partitioned the island. Unlike most of Northern Cyprus, which was resettled by Turkish Cypriots and mainland Turkish settlers after the invasion, Varosha, the modern resort suburb of ancient Famagusta, was fenced off and left to rot, accessible only to the Turkish army.

From 1974 to 2003, all of Northern Cyprus was off-limits to Greek Cypriots. That changed in 2003, when the Turkish side decided to open the border and allow Greeks to visit — albeit as tourists, not as residents.

Today, even as talks progress and there is renewed hope for a settlement between the two sides, Varosha remains abandoned. Last week I crossed the border into northern Cyprus to visit the city with some of my family.

Unlike the protagonist of my novel, I didn’t have to courage to sneak across the barbed wire and break into the forbidden zone. But enough was visible from suburb’s northern perimeter to give vivid hints of what lies inside, confirming the observations of the few who have been brave enough to defy the Turkish military and sneak inside the largest ghost-town in the world.

Even today, just taking photographs through the barbed wire carries a whiff of danger. Threatening signs telling visitors not to take pictures were posted frequently on the walls, and passersby warned us that we could get in serious trouble for what we were doing. This, mind you, was at the edge of a beach teeming with foreign tourists who soaked up the sun mere yards away from the hulking, ruined hotels at the northern edge of the forbidden zone. The dissonance of the scene was perhaps the most disconcerting moment of the trip. Did people who came to experience the sun and “unspoiled” beaches here have no sense of the uncanny sadness and loss in the buildings a few feet away?

We ended the day with brief trips to the ancient city of Salamis and Saint Barnabas monastery — the former, a reminder of the ancient roots of Greek culture in Cyprus (it is said that the great archer Teucer, the half-brother of Ajax, founded the kingdom of Salamis after the Trojan war), the latter of its continuity to the present (Saint Barnabas, companion of the Apostle Paul, founded the church of Cyprus in the earliest years of the Christian era).

Now both are museums. It makes sense that Salamis would be; the ancient kingdom from that spot by the sea are long since gone.

But for the Greek Orthodox faithful, who love to make pilgrimages and venerate icons in holy places, the state of Saint Barnabas monastery is much more disconcerting. Like Varosha, it is a startling reminder of the presence of a people who only recently built lives and raised families in this land — and both are startling symbols of how human beings can attempt to suppress or ignore the collective memory a place, even when there is no way that memory can be ignored.