Old wounds are opened at the Med's most infamous beach

Chris Leadbeater
·8-min read
Famagusta was one of the Mediterranean’s most desired holiday destinations, where Elizabeth Taylor, Raquel Welch and Brigitte Bardot had been known to stay - getty
Famagusta was one of the Mediterranean’s most desired holiday destinations, where Elizabeth Taylor, Raquel Welch and Brigitte Bardot had been known to stay - getty

In ordinary circumstances, the reopening of a famous beach that has been closed for almost half a century would be a cause for celebration. It would be written up in these pages and on this website with effusive passages about the beauty of the location and the view of the sunset. It would be a reason for tourists to head off in its direction, to see what the world has been missing. It would quickly become a fixture in Instagram feeds. Within weeks, it would be so familiar that you would feel that you’d been there yourself.

Of course, what happened yesterday in the eastern Mediterranean cannot be filed under the heading of “ordinary circumstances” – although not, strangely for 2020, because it has anything to do with Covid-19. No, this is something that has been embedded in the European psyche for far longer than the seven months the virus has haunted our lives. Much, much, much longer. It has its roots in the acrimony between Greece and Turkey – a centuries-old enmity which plays out most visibly on the divided island of Cyprus. And, this week, it has erupted in a flare-up that has been 46 years in the making.

The scene of the controversy is Varosha Beach, a lengthy and rather lovely crescent of sand midway up the east coast of the country. Indeed, its loveliness is at the bitter heart of this matter. When the Turkish invasion of Cyprus took place in July 1974 – the rolling-in of tanks and troops that created the de-facto (but internationally unrecognised) Republic of Northern Cyprus – Varosha was one of the main prizes seized by the incoming soldiers. 

The resort has been abandoned since 1974 - getty
The resort has been abandoned since 1974 - getty

At the time, this seafront district of Famagusta was one of the Mediterranean’s most desired holiday destinations. It was a hotspot where Elizabeth Taylor, Raquel Welch and Brigitte Bardot had been known to stay; a place of glamorous hotels and expensive homes – many them owned by Cypriots of Greek heritage. As its residents fled south, away from the bullets and shells coming down from the north side of the island, fearing a massacre, Varosha was roped off and wrapped in barbed wire. It would soon become a bargaining chip – a much-loved kernel of urban territory to be used as leverage in peace negotiations. But that was almost five decades ago. Since then, Varosha has remained behind its spiky cordon – and its inhabitants have not been allowed to return. Their houses are left just as they were in 1974; the hotels have crumbled as the sea air has gnawed at their masonry, biting dusty holes into their walls. And no-one – apart from the Turkish military and United Nations officials – has been permitted to walk on those lovely sands.

Until yesterday, that is. In a development that seems to have surprised Cypriot officials south of the UN-moderated “Green Line” between the “Greek” and “Turkish” halves of the island, Varosha was reopened – and people from the surroundings areas (which, north of the Green Line, are under Turkish-Cypriot control) were able to stroll along the beach. 

Varosha was reopened this week – and people from the surroundings areas were able to stroll along the beach - getty
Varosha was reopened this week – and people from the surroundings areas were able to stroll along the beach - getty

And only the beach. The buildings behind it are too fragile, too dangerous, for anybody to be allowed to pick a way through them. But that has not prevented the incident being an instant and enormous bone of contention. Thursday evening saw protests in Nicosia, the Cypriot capital through whose centre the Green Line runs – with Greek-Cypriot former residents of Varosha making their voices heard at one of the official border check-points between the two sides of the barrier. Simos Ioannou, the Greek-Cypriot mayor (in exile) of Famagusta described the move as “psychological pressure”. Nicos Anastasiades, the (officially recognised) president of Cyprus, called it “illegal”. Already, the UN Security Council has been asked to decide if the re-opening of the beach breaks international law.

It is worth stating at this point that the fault-line between the Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot communities on the Mediterranean’s third biggest island is an immensely complicated and long-running issue. Many people have lost a lot, and much of the harm cannot be undone – but there are arguably as many sinners as there are saints, and neither side is blameless. The summer of 1974 was only the boiling-over of a pot that had been bubbling for many years. And some of the fires of the crisis were lit in Athens, where the military junta which ruled Greece between 1967 and 1974 was seeking greater influence in Cyprus. This went to the extent of prompting a coup d’etat – carried out on July 15 1974 by high-ranking Greek officers and the Cypriot National Guard – which installed a puppet president in Nicosia. This was decried by the UN just as much as the Turkish invasion that followed in response, five days later. But while the fighting stopped, and the island has settled into a becalmed tension, the chasm between the two sides has proved unbridgeable. The Annan Plan – a UN proposal to reshape Cyprus as a federation of two states – was put to a referendum in 2004, and rejected (by the Greek-Cypriot community).

The move will have riled many on the island - getty
The move will have riled many on the island - getty

In this light, the reopening of Varosha Beach is not so much a remarkable situation as a deliberate prodding of an old and badly-scabbed wound. It is almost certainly a naked act of provocation which might be called “political theatre” – were that not too grand a description for what is clearly a cheap shot. Mustafa Akıncı, the current “president” of “Northern Cyprus” is up for re-election in a vote that, having been postponed for seven months due to the pandemic, is set to take place on Sunday (October 11). We live in an era where playing the strong-man who is prepared to go against convention seems to cause an up-tick in the polls – and what better way to do that in “Northern Cyprus” than to make Varosha give you a twirl? It is easy, it grabs attention, and the decision can be reversed in a second when necessary. Then you can sit back and wait for the ballot boxes.

It seems unlikely, even against as anguished a backdrop as the divided Cyprus, that this will go beyond a few sun-seekers on the shore. To reopen the sand is one thing. To start meddling with Varosha’s abandoned properties would be quite another – not so much a prodding of an old wound as cutting it with a rusty blade, watching the blood flow, and begging reprisals. True, a road leading towards the beach has been surfaced with fresh tarmac – which will raise hackles and suspicions in the other “half” of the island. But it remains to be seen if the beach will be accessible once the polling stations have shut. A cynic might suggest that the barbed wire will be back on Monday.

Greek Cypriots protest the stunt - getty
Greek Cypriots protest the stunt - getty

In a way, this is nothing new. Because it is not as if you cannot go and look at Varosha Beach. It is not hidden. Indeed, “Northern Cyprus” seems quite keen to make a display of its hostage. You can amble down the seafront from the centre of Famagusta (known as “Gazimagusa” by Turkish-Cypriots) – passing newer hotels that have sprung up since the partition – to peer at it. Were it not so serious, the set-up would almost be comical. A flimsy piece of metal fencing keeps visitors from going further than they should, backed up by signs showing heavily armed soldiers – and warning that photography is forbidden. It looks quite ominous, but the Mediterranean rolls up to the left and right of the barrier regardless, as seagulls hop across the tattered plastic sheeting, caw-caw-ing at each other.

Five years ago, I spent a week on Cyprus, researching a feature on the Green Line that meant exploring the island on both sides of it. Inevitably, this drew me to Famagusta, and the edge of Varosha Beach. I decided to test out the cautionary plaques on its periphery – and found that they weren’t lying. A young soldier emerged from behind a shelter, pointing his rifle at me and the camera in my hand. It was a nervous moment, but equally, as much for show as the events of the last 24 hours. I very much doubt he would have fired at me, and I firmly suspect that this intervention was just about the only “exciting” thing that happened during his shift. People go into the military for many reasons, but I’m not sure guarding a slice of kidnapped beach real-estate on a quiet Sunday is one of them.

Nonetheless, even if it only amounts to a flurry of headlines, a lot of international tutting, and a return to the status quo next week, yesterday’s photo opportunity will do nothing to resolve the Cyprus question. It will annoy, and it will exacerbate. Varosha Beach may be beautiful, but it is unlikely to be the subject of travel features or sun-and-sand holidays in the imminent future. It hasn’t been for 46 years. It could easily spend another 46 in stasis.