What is a country? As I walked towards the border I suddenly realised I had no idea what that word actually meant. A few minutes later I crossed into the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus; the first place I’ve visited that technically, doesn’t exist.
The cosmopolitan sprawl of Lefkosia in the heart of Cyprus looks like every other modern Mediterranean enclave at first glance. The only giveaway to its unusual past: a white etching of a crescent moon and star in the hills behind its tower blocks. As you drive further into the city, the designer shop facades hide a gritty history.
Everyone from the Venetians to the Egyptians has occupied Cyprus. More recently, an attempt by Greece to take the island under its government in 1974 led to a Turkish invasion of the north. Many Greek Cypriots and Turkish inhabitants were displaced during the conflict*. In 2014, the rift is dormant but tensions exist. Several international organisations, including the UN, view the presence of Turkish military in the north as an illegal force. Mainland Turkey heavily supports the republic and of course, holds a contrary opinion to the global community.
And so, in 1983, the city was completely split down the middle. Sliced in half by a political division that overrides the area’s geography. Few hire companies allow their vehicles to cross without extra insurance, and walking only intensifies the incredibly short distance between the two cultures.
I approached along a wide avenue where the jovial bustle of alfresco diners spilled out of chain restaurants, coming to a sudden stop at passport control. By the time I passed through the border station with my stamps, the laughter of lazy lunches was a distant hum. Guards nodded in acknowledgement of my presence and signage forbid photography. I was left with a moment’s glimpse over a high wall of the city that was. Paused forever in the early eighties, no man’s land sported bullet-holed balconies and old clapped out car rubble: a healthy reminder of the conflict that led to the unique partition.
On the Turkish side, the streets around me narrowed. Starbucks disappeared. Tiny shops bursting with linens, leathers and ornaments hemmed me in. At the end of my path the spires of the Selimiye mosque loomed over bazaars, friends sipping sweet Turkish coffee and bicycles selling flowers. Non-Muslim women are allowed into the mosque so my shoes came off and I wrapped a white shawl over my head before entering. The once-medieval church had been stripped of its gold and carpeted. A solitary man knelt diagonally in prayer. The building’s former life hadn’t accounted for the direction of Mecca.
A large indoor bazaar still sells its wares alongside the mosque, however other old haunts now hold a new purpose. I indulged in traditional fare as the warm afternoon sun filled the ochre archways of the Buyuk Kahn. The Great Inn (directly translated) was once a place for traders from the Silk Road to park their caravans overnight and cook a well-earned meal. Today, a mixture of meze restaurants, bric-a-brac shops and inquisitive tourists occupy the courtyard.
It was difficult to remember that Greek Cyprus was only fifteen minutes walk away. More outstanding though, is that this region, with its distinct culture and quasi-autonomy, doesn’t exist. The UN and other international bodies acknowledge it geographically as part of Cypriot mainland but not as a separate country. Turkish Lefkosia, its small hinterland and the untamed beaches that lace the northern coast of the island, are not on the international political map.
I felt slightly lost and confused by my surroundings. I can only imagine what the residents themselves feel. Do they identify with mainland Turkey? Do they consider themselves Cypriot? I didn’t have the chance to ask. Mostly because my time was limited, but also because, if I’m honest, I felt a little embarrassed by their predicament. As if my visit was somehow voyeuristic; another foreigner coming to gawp at a ‘false’ country that to its people, is unequivocally real.
That night, I returned to the universally accepted Greek Cyprus and finally looked up the definition of the word country. It states: A nation with its own government, occupying a particular territory. I wonder: can something so complex be summarised so easily?
* My knowledge of the intricate political history of Lefkosia is limited to the reading I have done in preparation for my trip and since visiting. It can’t, of course, be summarised in one paragraph. The information on the conflict in this article was read on Wikipedia.