Having just arrived in Larnaca on the south coast of Cyprus, I found a beach bar where, at the dimming of the day, I sat outside and took that first sip of Keo beer. Is it possible, I asked myself, that it tastes the same as it did 50 years ago? Probably not: it’s more likely that the familiar-yet-foreign tang, combined with the place itself, was causing me to reminisce. I lived here as a young teenager – part of the ‘camp-following’ of the occupying British Armed Forces – and have returned from time to time to explore aspects of the island’s culture in which young teenagers are not ordinarily interested. The next day I travelled to the north coast, crossing the border created after 1974 when troops landed from Turkey, ostensibly to protect the ethnic Turkish population from the violence that had erupted between them and the Greek Cypriots.
The two ethnic groups used to be quite jumbled up on the island but since the invasion there has been much relocation, resulting in a Muslim culture separated from an Orthodox Christian one and, although tempered by years of proximity and mutuality, the two are determinedly distinct. Reunification talks are on the table but they are, inevitably, tortuous and protracted. Meanwhile there is considerable military posturing in the north compared with the relatively free-wheeling, EU-centric south. I am dismayed by the number of army garrisons everywhere I go, by the paranoia-driven unavailability of up-to-date road-maps, the fact that sat-nav is “unavailable” and that Wikipedia is blocked. I sense the dead hand of the authoritarian Turkish regime and its undeclared preference for annexation to the mainland. Nevertheless, the people are friendly – at least to tourists, which is what I am. After descending from a mountain hike (something I am not used to doing without a detailed OS map) I walked through a picnic spot where an extended family was feasting. They waved hellos and ran over with a bowl of stuffed vine leaves, insisting I eat my fill. They were much better than the tinned ones we get at home.
History is all explained by geography, if what we mean by history is the ongoing story of powers jostling for control of territory, and the evidence is plain to see in Cyprus, an island which, because of its strategic location, has been fought over for millennia. The mountains along the northern coast are topped by a string of castles, established by one dynasty or another and augmented by those succeeding. The castles, precariously perched on precipitous peaks, are astonishing in their ruined state and must have been even more so in their heyday. Just contemplating the effort that went into building them and the constant to-and-fro up and down the mountains to keep their occupants supplied makes me feel fatigued. In the end, however, the castles proved ineffective against sea-borne Arab raiders and when the Venetians took over they sensibly abandoned them in favour of coastal forts.
The mountains were also the favoured location for abbeys and monasteries built by the religious orders and subsequently sacked by the Arabs. The ruins are an important part of the tourist trail, though seeing them always makes me feel sad that once-magnificent buildings are reduced to a few stone arches, bashed-up pillars and shattered mosaic floors. Sadly, this kind of destruction is not limited to bygone ages. In many of the villages hereabouts stands the windowless, doorless hulk of an abandoned church, its interior stripped and vandalised: usually, there is a pristine mosque close by. At one such church there was, unusually, a caretaker, a friendly, loquacious, 82-year-old ex-policeman who had served under British rule. We swapped reminiscences, he lamented the division of the island and when it was time to go, we shook hands warmly. In that moment I felt the approving presence of my long-deceased dad.