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What the complex history of Cyprus can teach us about today's Europe 

The history of Cyprus can help point to a hopeful future

Deposed Cypriot president Archbishop Makarios III meets the Labour government’s foreign secretary James Callaghan in London in 1974

Deposed Cypriot president Archbishop Makarios III meets the Labour government’s foreign secretary James Callaghan in London in 1974. Image: Keystone Press / Alamy Stock Photo

Fifty years ago this summer, the island of Cyprus was divided by conflict. The crisis began on 15 July 1974, when soldiers backed by the Greek military dictatorship staged a coup, turning up in tanks to depose the democratically elected President of Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios III. In the ensuing chaos, the Turkish army invaded from the north. A third of the population had to flee their homes, and still haven’t returned. There is still no official peace agreement, only a ceasefire.

This state of division feels like a sign of the times we are living through now, with bitter conflicts playing out in eastern Europe and the Levant. In fact, Cyprus has always been a microcosm for whatever is happening across the region, standing as it does at the crossroads of three continents. Through Cyprus you can take in the whole history of the Mediterranean: the rise and fall of great powers, the vast trading networks that link Europe with Asia, and the birth of the modern age.

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Among early civilisations, Cyprus was responsible for a string of firsts. The dry island had the world’s first water wells, the first pet cat (take that Egypt!) and the first recorded sea battle (against the Hittites of Anatolia). It was Cypriots who first developed the smelting that ushered in the Iron Age, and some scholars think it was on Cyprus that the European alphabet was created, as Greeks mingled freely with literate Phoenicians. Later, Cyprus took part in the famous Persian Wars, gave Alexander the Great his favourite sword and hosted some of the first Christians. (You can still visit the tomb of Lazarus, who moved to Larnaca after Jesus raised him from the dead.)

On the very edge of the Byzantine empire, Cyprus already had Muslim influence and inhabitants just one generation after the death of the Prophet Muhammed. Richard the Lionheart conquered the island almost by accident on his way to fight for Jerusalem, and for centuries it became a Crusader stronghold. Then, the rising merchant empire of Venice took control, but not for long: the Ottomans besieged the city of Famagusta for almost a whole year. The fall of Famagusta prompted the Battle of Lepanto, an epic sea battle between the Ottomans and the Christian Holy League, where the Spanish writer Cervantes lost the use of his left hand “for the greater glory of [his] right”.

For the past 150 years, Cyprus’s fate has been tied up with the British Empire and its interests in the Middle East. Prime minister Benjamin Disraeli made a deal in 1878 to protect the Ottomans from Russia in exchange for Cyprus. Since then, it has been a key military base, protecting Suez and, later, hosting nuclear bombers that could reach deep into Soviet territory. The island was granted independence after a five-year guerrilla war in the ’50s, but the administration kept 3% of the island as ‘sovereign territory’, meaning there are places on the island where you are technically in Britain. These days, if British aid is to be transported to Gaza, or an Iranian drone shot down over Israel, the base of operations is Cyprus, which acts like “an unsinkable aircraft carrier” in the words of the old Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev.

Before the British colonial administration agreed to give up most of Cyprus, officials intentionally stoked tensions between ‘Greek’ and ‘Turkish’ Cypriots (terms that weren’t used before the 1950s). In my book, Cypria: A Journey to the Heart of the Mediterranean, I call this tactic ‘divide and run’, because once the island’s two main communities broke into open conflict, just as in other ex-colonies, the British administration had no real plan except to get out and wash their hands of the problem. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the new Cypriot government quickly collapsed as distrust and sectarian violence escalated, leading to the unfolding tragedies of 1974.

For the past 50 years, Muslim and Christian Cypriots who were once fond neighbours have lived largely separate lives. It seems to be one of the tragedies of the modern world, that once-thriving communities can end up hopelessly divided by ethnic or religious conflict. But I also believe that learning Cyprus’s history shows us a way through such conflicts. Pessimists speak as if our history is something that has been chopped up into a queasy salad of clashing civilisations. I think it is much easier to see a hopeful future when we choose to view each new cultural influence not as something that attempts to replace what came before, but as a new layer that adds richness and complexity, in the same way you make baklava. I’d like to think we can all agree on that. After all, who doesn’t like baklava?

Cypria: A Journey to the Heart of the Mediterranean by Alex Christofi

Cypria: A Journey to the Heart of the Mediterranean by Alex Christofi is out now (Bloomsbury, £20). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

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