Europe’s “ghost town”: What Turkey has done to Cyprus



Europeans may be unaware, but Europe includes a “ghost town”. Since 1974, it has been occupied, abused and emptied of its indigenous population by Turkey.

Fenced off 46 years ago when Greek Cypriots were forced to flee invading Turkish forces, a part of the Cypriot district of Famagusta has remained a “ghost town.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently declared that “the two main streets and the coast in the Maras region [Famagusta in Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus], which have been closed since the 1974 peace operation, have recently been opened to the use of the Cypriot people.”

“The closed Maras region belongs to the Turkish Cypriots; it should be known this way. There is no need to speculate on this … I call out to our cognates in northern Cyprus, to my Turkish brothers. This land is yours. You have to lay claim to these lands. You also need to protect the political will that lays claim to these lands. If we can put this out fully, I believe that the future in Cyprus will be very different,” Erdogan added,

The opening of the fenced-off area appears part of the “election” politics by Turkey; the Erdogan government aims at firing up local Turkish nationalists during the presidential election held on October 11 in Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus. No candidate won a majority of the votes in the first round and a second round will be held on October 18.

However, anyone who is clueless about the history of Cyprus and who listens to Erdogan would be misled to think that the opening of this “coast” is a positive development and that even Turkey’s 1974 invasion of Cyprus was a good incident.

But what have Turks really done to Cyprus?

The 1570 Ottoman Invasion

The Turkish presence in Cyprus dates back to the 16th century.

In an article entitled “The Battle of Lepanto: When Turks Skinned Christians Alive for Refusing Islam,” historian Raymond Ibrahim describes how “Muslim Turks — in the guise of the Ottoman Empire — invaded the island of Cyprus in 1570 and captured Famagusta.”

“After promising the defenders safe passage if they surrendered, Ottoman commander Ali Pasha — known as Muezzinzade (‘son of a muezzin’) due to his pious background — had reneged and launched a wholesale slaughter.  He ordered the nose and ears of Marco Antonio Bragadin, the fort commander, hacked off. Ali then invited the mutilated infidel to Islam and life: ‘I am a Christian and thus I want to live and die,’ Bragadin responded.  ‘My body is yours.  Torture it as you will’,” Ibrahim wrote, adding, “So he was tied to a chair, repeatedly hoisted up the mast of a galley, and dropped into the sea, to taunts: ‘Look if you can see your fleet, great Christian, if you can see succor coming to Famagusta!’  The mutilated and half-drowned man was then carried near to St. Nicholas Church — by now a mosque — and tied to a column, where he was slowly flayed alive.  The skin was afterwards stuffed with straw, sown back into a macabre effigy of the dead commander, and paraded in mockery before the jeering Muslims.”

The Ottoman Turks converted many historic churches into mosques, such as St. Nicholas Cathedral, the most majestic structure in Famagusta. “In 1570 the Ottoman invasion which took Nicosia, then Famagusta, in hideous and bloody sieges, marked the end of the natural life of the edifice as a place of Christian worship,” according to Michael Walsh, a professor of art and archaeology. St. Nicholas Cathedral is still used as a mosque in Turkish-occupied Famagusta and is now named “Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque” after the commander of the 1570 Ottoman invasion.

People walk on the beach near a Turkish military guard post in front of deserted hotels in occupied Famagusta. Cyprus has been divided since 1974 when Turkey invaded and occupied its northern third. Famagusta is often described as a ‘ghost town’ after its Greek population was forced to flee Turkey’s invading armed forces. UN Security Council resolution 550 (1984) considers any attempts to settle any part of Famagusta by people other than its inhabitants as inadmissible and calls for the transfer of this area to the administration of the UN. EPA-EFE//KATIA CHRISTODOULOU

Author Helen Starkweather also noted, “In 1570, the Ottoman Turks sent cannonballs ripping through the walls in a siege that lasted for nearly a year. Outnumbered and starving, the Venetians surrendered in 1571. The Ottomans took over Cyprus and closed Famagusta to Christians. They built fountains throughout the city to modernize the water supply, and they converted most of the churches to mosques. A minaret was placed above the gothic buttresses of the former Cathedral of St. Nicholas, where Jerusalem’s kings had once been coronated. Churches that weren’t converted—as well as other buildings damaged by the siege—were left to ruin. By the 19th century, only a handful of residents remained, most living in shacks attached to deteriorating churches. In 1878, when the British occupied Cyprus, Scottish photographer John Thomson called Famagusta ‘a city of the dead.’”

Despite successive invasions and occupations throughout the centuries, including the Ottoman occupation from 1571 until 1878, the population of Cyprus remained predominantly Greek throughout the country. The Turkish-speaking Cypriot minority was scattered all across the island. The atrocities of Turkey in 1974 drove out the Greek Cypriots from the northern area, turning it into a Turkish colony.

The 1974 Turkish invasion  

In 1878, Britain assumed the administration of Cyprus and annexed it following Turkey’s defeat in the First World War. Cyprus declared its independence from British rule in 1960. The Treaty of Guarantee said that it “recognized and guaranteed the independence, territorial integrity and security of the Republic of Cyprus.” It was signed by Britain, Greece, Turkey and Cyprus.

Fourteen years later, however, Turkey, violated the treaty and invaded Cyprus twice: on July 20 and on August 18, 1974. What followed was ethnic cleansing through forcible displacement. Like the Ottoman occupation in 1570, the 1974 Turkish invasion was bloody and brutal.

Many well-documented atrocities were committed by occupation forces during that period. Civilians, including children between six months and eleven years, were murdered. Many were arbitrarily detained by the Turkish military authorities and placed in concentration camps. The detainees were tortured or exposed to other types of inhumane treatment, including performing forced labor.

Greek Cypriot women and children between the ages of 12-71 were raped. Houses and business premises of those who had to leave were looted, seized, and appropriated.

Professor Van Coufoudakis notes in his 2008 report “Human Rights Violations in Cyprus by Turkey” that “evidence of the gross and continuing violations of human rights by Turkey in Cyprus come from, among others, eyewitness accounts, NGO investigations, various international organizations, the European Commission of Human Rights, the European Court of Human Rights, and reports by international media.”

Since 1974, Turkey has forcibly occupied 36 percent of the sovereign territory and 57 percent of the coastline of the Republic of Cyprus. The ethnic cleansing of the northern area of Cyprus by Turkey has resulted in the displacement of more than 170,000 Greek Cypriots. In addition to Greek Cypriots, Armenians, Maronites, and others were also forcibly displaced. As a result, it was the Christian population who was dissolved by Turkey.

In 1983, the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (“TRNC”) was established with a unilateral declaration. This declaration was condemned by the international community, and to this day, Turkey remains the only country that has recognized the entity. The “TRNC” does not exist as a state but rather a de-facto administration of the Turkish occupation. Turkey is the one to be held accountable for its actions in Cyprus such as the obliteration of the island’s cultural heritage.

A 2012 report entitled “The Loss of a Civilization: Destruction of cultural heritage in occupied Cyprus” documents the devastation by Turkish forces of monasteries, churches, Christian and Jewish cemeteries, among other religious and cultural artifacts. According to the report,

“Turkey has been committing two major international crimes against Cyprus. It has invaded and divided a small, weak but modern and independent European state (since 1 May 2004 the Republic of Cyprus has been a member of the EU); Turkey has also changed the demographic character of the island and has devoted itself to the systematic destruction and obliteration of the cultural heritage of the areas under its military control.”

Famagusta since 1974

Famagusta is a district on the east coast of Cyprus with a long history and deep significance as a cultural heritage place.

During the second phase of the Turkish invasion, on August 14, 1974, Famagusta was bombed by the Turkish air force. As a result of the Turkish airstrikes, dozens of civilians died, including tourists.

In 1984, the Turkish military completed surrounding the empty and looted part of Famagusta. A section of Famagusta was fenced off and became only accessible for the Turkish military. Its disused shops, hotels and homes have remained untouched since 1974 and it has been given the label of “a ghost town”.

The current status of Famagusta is the same as the rest of the occupied area. Most of Famagusta is under Turkish military occupation and under the control of Turkey – not because the Greek locals got bored and “abandoned” the town. It is because they were terrorized by Turkish troops and fled for their lives.

A deserted Greek Orthodox Church inside the Turkish-occupied coastal city of Famagusta in the north of Cyprus. EPA//KATIA CHRISTODOULOU

In a 2009 article at Smithsonian Magazine, author Helen Starkweather warned the world about the situation of Famagusta, calling it an “endangered site.”

“‘All ships and all wares,’ a 14th-century German traveler wrote, ‘must come first to Famagusta.’ The port city on the northeastern coast of Cyprus was once on a bustling shipping lane, carrying merchants from Europe and the Near East and armies of Christian knights and Ottoman Turks. Famagusta rose to prominence between the 12th and 15th centuries, most notably as the city where the Crusader kings of Jerusalem were crowned.

“Now ancient Famagusta, tucked into a modern city of 35,000 people, also called Famagusta, is largely forgotten, except, perhaps, as the setting for Shakespeare’s Othello. Some 200 buildings—reflecting Byzantine, French Gothic and Italian Renaissance architectural styles—are in a state of disrepair. Weeds and wildflowers press against sandstone walls eroded by rain and earthquakes. Agencies such as UNESCO are unable to send either funds or conservationists due to the economic and social embargo the international community imposed on northern Cyprus after it was forcibly annexed by Turkey in 1974.”

Turkey has used two main pretexts for invading the island. The first one is the coup engineered by the Greek junta, which toppled the democratically-elected Cypriot president, Archbishop Makarios III. The coup collapsed a few days later and democratic rule in Cyprus was re-established. Hence, there was no actual need for Turkey to intervene. A second excuse was that Turkey “aimed at protecting Turkish Cypriots” from Greek Cypriot violence. But even Turkish officials have confessed that the violence was mostly committed by Turks to pave the way for a military invasion.

General Sabri Yirmibesoglu, a Turkish army officer, for example, said in 2010 that Turkey had burned a ‎mosque during the Cyprus conflict “in order to foster civil resistance” against Greek Cypriots. He also said that “the Turkish special warfare department has a rule to engage in acts of sabotage against the respected values [of the Turks] made to look as if they ‎were carried out by the enemy.”

Today Turkey still shockingly calls the atrocities it committed in 1974 “a peace operation.”

No matter what the Turkish government claims, the photos and documents concerning Famagusta and the rest of the occupied area in Cyprus tell their own story: People fled from the invading Turkish army that killed, tortured and raped. And those who fled are still not allowed to return.


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