Northern Cyprus … or is it Turkey?

Well today was my last day in Cyprus before heading on to Lebanon.  Lenia and Panaco picked me up at 10:00 and we were soon heading north out of Limassol towards the border between Cyprus and Northern Cyprus (or as the Turks call it … Turkey).

Amathounta ruins

As we drove along the Limossol waterfront, we made a slight detour so that we could drive by the Roman ruins in the old town of Amathounta.  The site dates to 1100 BC and incudes the excavated ruins of the agora (market) and the Acropolis as well as the upper and lower walls of the ancient city.

Once we passed the ruins, we made our way to the freeway turning north towards the city of Famagusta.  The drive took us through a British military base and along a road run by the Brits, which splits land controlled by the Turks and land controlled by the Cypriots.  The interesting aspect of the divide was that we frequently passed lookout posts armed by Turkish soldiers watching the area on the Turkish side, but nothing on the Cyprus side.

We eventually reached the Turkish checkpoint to cross into Northern Cyprus, and as we were waiting in line so I could present my passport and Lenia and Panaco could present their Cyprus ID cards, I received a message on my phone welcoming me to Turkey ….

Venetian walls in Famagusta
Ghost town (Varosha) of Famagusta
Ghost town (Varosha) of Famagusta
No go zone in Famagusta
Ghost town (Varosha) of Famagusta
Ghost town (Varosha) of Famagusta
Ghost town (Varosha) of Famagusta

Once through the checkpoint, we passed by shops and restaurants before we entered Famagusta where we drove by ancient Venetian walls of the old city before driving south and entering the former resort suburb of Varosha or what has become known internationally as the ghost city of Famagusta.  The name is derived from the fact that when the Cypriots were forced to flee Famagusta in July 1974 when the Turks invaded, the homes and shops they left behind remain largely abandoned.  And while we could drive through the area, all of the buildings are fronted with barbed wire and periodically we would pass a huge red sign with a soldier holding a gun and the words “Forbidden zone” written on the sign.

As we drove through the empty streets past derelict buildings, including homes, apartment buildings, churches and shops, I had to wonder why the buildings had not been occupied by the Turks after the takeover.  Lenia said that when the Turks invaded, there were simply insufficient Turks who they could move into the area.  As a result, the buildings have been left to decay.  Now the Turks, apparently, finally have a plan to demolish the buildings and build new apartments in their place.  Sadly, this means that Lenia’s childhood home is set for demolition, which brought her to tears as she told me this.

And even sadder, the location of Lenia’s childhood home sits in a restricted area surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards so we were not even allowed to drive past the home and were left to take pictures from a distance.  Heartbreaking.

So after driving around the ghost town for about a half hour, we turned back and headed north through the new Turkish part of Famagusta and to the ancient site of Salamis, which contains Roman ruins dating to 1100 BC.  The city experienced a series of disasters, including revolts, raids by Arabs and earthquakes.  As a result of the disasters, the ruins are a mishmash of Greek, Roman and Byzantine construction.

Salamis ruins
Salamis ruins (Roman baths)
Salamis ruins (fresco in Roman baths)
Salamis ruins
Salamis ruins (Roman toilets)
Salamis ruins (gymnasium)
Salamis ruins
Salamis ruins
Salamis ruins (theater)
Salamis ruins

The remains of Salamis cover over 1 square mile and include an extensive public bath complex, a gymnasium and a large theatre that could hold 15,000 people.  Lenia and I entered the site in the blazing sun, passing by four headless Roman statutes surrounding a bath compound, before climbing through a doorway to a second bath area to view the remains of frescos covering the arched ceilings of portals looking out from the bath area.

We then walked around another bath area and towards the large gymnasium surrounded by colonnades.  On the other side of the gymnasium was the public toilet area, although most of the toilets had collapsed and were no longer visible.

We moved back through the gymnasium and then walked along the former Roman road to the theatre, a massive complex that included to headless statutes at either side of the theatre.  I ended up walking around the theatre and up the stairs while Lenia hung out in the shade.

Overall, the site was magnificent and is really good shape, but the thing that struck me most was the dominance of the Byzantine design, which was a testament to the damage that occurred over the years leaving far less Roman ruins and a lot more Byzantine structures.

Anyway, after the visit to Salamis, we headed back to Famagusta and into the walled area of the old city which at one time held 365 churches.  Now with the the influence of the Turks, the churches have been converted to mosques or abandoned all together.

Saint Barnabas Monastery
St. Nicholas Church aka Layla Mustafa Pasa Mosque
Church of St. George of the Greeks

We drove along the walls past the Saint Barnabas Monastery and by open fields before circling back and parking.  Lenia and I then began a walk through the narrow streets of the old town to take in the various sites.  First up was the  St. Nicholas Church aka Layla Mustafa Pasa Mosque, a huge church that had been converted into a mosque by the Turks.  Now while the building inside and out looked like a church (I stuck my head inside the doorway, but did not go inside as they required me to take off my shoes and wear some cloak that God knows how many others had worn before me), the Turks had built a minaret on one side of the church converting the church to a mosque.

Next up was a trip down to the street to the ruins of the St. George of the Greek Church, a massive building that includes beautiful archways and the remains of a Bishop’s residence.  We then walked up the street and through an archway past old homes fronted by beautiful old doors before walking back to the square in front of St. Nicholas Church to the Venetian Palace, a Gothic designed residence dating to the 13th century.

Ancient door in old Famagusta
Ancient residence in old Famagusta
Entrance to Venetian Palace
Remains of hamman in old Famagusta
Narrow street in old Famagusta
Making my pomegranate juice
Grazing sheep and goats

From here, Lenia decided to go sit in the shade while I wandered around the area past the remains of a hamman and down a narrow shopping street before doubling back and stopping at a little juice stand where I had a lady make me a glass of pomegranate juice (2 euros).  YUM!

Once I met back up with Lenia we walked to the seawall, where Lenia insisted I take a picture of the lions statutes that were installed by the Venetians in the the 2nd century AD and became a symbol of Famagusta.  In fact, lions are carved in the gates of the walls and are literally everywhere.  I then climbed up the staircase of the seawall to take in the view before heading back to the car.  Time to go.

We headed back through the border, crossing the Turk checkpoint before then crossing the British checkpoint.  Initially, the guard was not going to let me in as she advised the boarder crossing we were at was to only be used by EU members.  No sign.  No advance notice.  Completely arbitrary.  Anyway, after a brief discussion, they let us pass rather than require us to drive back through Famagusta to a different checkpoint.  So weird since we used the same checkpoint earlier in the day.

Anyway, once through the checkpoint, we drove along the same British highway dividing the Turkish and Cypriot lands, past potato fields and abandoned homes before crossing back into full Cypriot territory.  Just before we made the turnoff to Larnaca and the airport, we past, for the first time, a herd of sheep and goats.  Finally.  The restaurants are full of goat and sheep on the menu, but I had yet to see a single animal.  The funny thing was that because the dirt is so red here, the sheep and goats all looked red.

By now, it was close to 5:30.  My flight to Beirut departed at 9:25 so I had plenty of time to check in and relax at the airport.  It had been a long, hot day so I was looking forward to sitting down and cooling off.  I said my goodbyes to the wonderful Lenia and Panico and headed off into the airport.  I really enjoyed Cyprus and would not hesitate to return.

Author: lawyerchick92

I am a lawyer by trade, but long to be a full time traveller. My life changed for the better when my brother donated a kidney to me on October 14, 2002.

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