On November 15, 2020, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited a part of Famagusta, Cyprus, after joining the ceremony celebrating the 37th anniversary of the unilateral declaration of the "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus", the illegally-occupied northern part of Cyprus that is not recognized under international law. Since 1974, it has been under Turkish occupation, which has looted and ethnically cleansed its indigenous population. Pictured: Erdogan (second from right) in Varosha, Famagusta on November 15, 2020. (Photo by Alexis Mitas/Getty Images)
The international community may be unaware of it, but Europe includes a ghost town located in the Republic of Cyprus. Since 1974, it has been under Turkish occupation, which has looted and ethnically cleansed its indigenous population.
Designated a military zone by the Turkish army 46 years ago, when Greek Cypriots were forced to flee invading Turkish forces, a part of the Cypriot district of Famagusta has remained deserted.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared in October 2020:
"[T]he two main streets and the coast in the 'Maraş region' [Famagusta in Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus], which were closed since the 1974 peace operation, have recently been opened to the use of the Cypriot people..... The closed Maraş region belongs to the Turkish Cypriots; it should be known this way...
"I call out to our fellow Turks 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."
On November 15, 2020, Erdogan visited a part of Famagusta after joining the ceremony celebrating the 37th anniversary of the unilateral declaration of the "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus" (TRNC), the illegally-occupied northern part of Cyprus that is not recognized under international law.
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 development. But what have Turks really done to Cyprus?
The 1570 Ottoman Invasion
The Turkish presence in Cyprus dates to the sixteenth 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 Müezzinzade ('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.'
"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 afterward 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, still used as a mosque in Turkish-occupied Famagusta, is now named "Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque" after the commander of the 1570 Ottoman invasion.
Author Helen Starkweather notes:
"In 1570, Ottoman Turks sent cannon balls 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 Christian. The Turkish-speaking Cypriot minority was scattered all across the island, never a majority in any district or major town. The atrocities of Turkey in 1974 drove out the Greek Cypriots from the northern area, turning it into a Turkish colony and putting an end to a recorded non-stop Greek presence predating the birth of Christ.
The 1974 Turkish Invasion
In 1878, Britain assumed 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 time. 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":
"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
- Reports by international media"
Since 1974, Turkey has forcibly occupied 36% of the sovereign territory and 57% of the coastline of the Republic of Cyprus. The ethnic cleansing of northern Cyprus by Turkey has resulted in the displacement of more than 170,000 Greek Cypriots, or roughly one-third of the island's population. In addition to Greek Cypriots, Armenian, Maronite, and other non-Muslim Cypriots were also forcibly displaced. The result was that Turkey effectively crushed the Christian population.
In 1983, the "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus" ("TRNC") was established by a unilateral declaration that was condemned by the international community. To this day, Turkey remains the only country that has recognized the entity. The "TRNC" does not exist as a state but rather as a de-facto administrator of the Turkish occupation.
Turkey has, in addition, caused the obliteration of much 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, a district on the east coast of Cyprus, has a long history and deep significance for its cultural heritage.
During the second phase of the Turkish invasion on August 14, 1974, Famagusta was bombed by the Turkish Air Force. As a result, dozens of civilians died, including tourists. Famagusta is thus a crime scene and the current activities of Turkey are destroying evidence of these war crimes.
In the 1980s, the Turkish military completed re-zoning the empty, looted part of Famagusta, which was then fenced off and became accessible only by the Turkish military. With its abandoned shops, hotels and homes untouched since 1974, Famagusta has remained a ghost town ever since.
The current status of Famagusta is the same as the rest of the occupied area. Most of Famagusta is under Turkish military occupation, under the control of Turkey – not because the Greek locals got bored and abandoned the town, but because they were terrorized by Turkish troops and fled.
In a 2009 article at Smithsonian Magazine, author Helen Starkweather warned the world about the situation of Famagusta, by calling it an "endangered site." She noted:
"'All ships and all wares,' a 14th-century German traveler wrote, 'must needs 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."
Meanwhile, the Turkish government has begun the second phase of the ethnic cleansing of the region: changing the street names in the ghost town to Turkish. On November 22, the 57th anniversary of the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy, Turkey and the regime in occupied northern Cyprus renamed Kennedy Street in Famagusta after Semih Sancar, the chief of the general staff of Turkey who orchestrated the 1974 invasions.
Turkey used two main pretexts for invading Cyprus. The first was the July 15, 1974 coup engineered by the Greek military, which attempted to topple the democratically-elected Cypriot president, Archbishop Makarios III. Five days later, on July 20, 1974, the Turkish Armed Forces launched a full-scale invasion of Cyprus, using the coup as a pretext even though Makarios had escaped, and the United Kingdom, the third guarantor power of Cyprus, had refused to take joint action. Just days after the Turkish invasion, the Greek junta collapsed and democratic rule was reestablished in Greece. The path was now clear for Makarios's return to Cyprus. Turkey, however, had other plans. Less than a month later, on August 14, Turkey launched a second and even more devastating invasion of the island.
This pretext becomes even more irrational when one considers Turkey's own history of military coups: mainly, the coups in 1960 and 1971. Six years after Turkey invaded Cyprus, another military coup d'état in 1980 in Turkey would destroy whatever crumbs of freedoms remained. According to US secret diplomatic documents, at least 650,000 people were detained. Many were tortured and hundreds died in custody. A state such as Turkey -- whose history has been largely shaped by military coups -- does not have a right to "interfere" in the internal affairs of other nations by using one extremely short-lived coup there as an excuse to invade and occupy the place.
A second excuse was that Turkey "aimed at protecting Turkish Cypriots" from Greek Cypriot violence. But the falsehood of this excuse has been repeatedly exposed, most notably by Turkish General Sabri Yirmibeşoğlu. He said in 2010 that Turkey had burned a mosque in Cyprus in the 1950s "in order to foster resistance" against Greek Cypriots.
"If you want the people somewhere to be alarmed [agitated] and engage in a resistance movement, and if you demonstrate that your esteemed values are degraded by the enemy or the other side, you will provoke the people. There is a rule in the [Turkish] Special Warfare: To increase the strength of the people, some of their values must be sabotaged as if [the sabotage were conducted] by the enemy. [For example], a mosque can be burned. We burned a mosque in Cyprus."
Even prior to the 1974 invasions, Turkey militarily provoked intra-ethnic tensions in Cyprus by sending weapons and fighters there, starting at least in the 1950s. Yirmibeşoğlu noted that the "Tactical Mobilisation Group" (Turkish: Seferberlik Tetkik Kurulu) was established in 1953 in Turkey and sent weapons to Cyprus to be used against Greek Cypriots:
"The Committee had three officers in Ankara. It was a new organization [established] to send weapons against the EOKA [National Organization of Cypriot Fighters]."
The main reason for Turkey's colonization of northern Cyprus, however, was announced by former Turkish deputy prime minister Tuğrul Türkeş in 2017. "There is misinformation that Turkey is interested in Cyprus because there is a Turkish society there," Türkeş said. "Even if no Turks lived in Cyprus, Turkey would still have a Cyprus issue and it is impossible for Turkey to give up on that." Turkey is occupying northern Cyprus for geopolitical reasons. The occupation enables Turkey to dominate the eastern Mediterranean.
Today Turkey still 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. The invading Turkish army killed, tortured and raped.
Those who were forcibly displaced by Turkey are still not allowed to return unless the Republic of Cyprus -- the Greek-run area in the south -- agrees to the blackmail of relinquishing the sovereignty of the entire occupied northern area, and transferring it to the Turkish Cypriot minority -- in effect to Turkey itself -- thus legitimizing in Cyprus a pure Muslim zone for the first time ever.
Uzay Bulut, a Turkish journalist, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute.