“Do you want to ride or walk?” asks Seyki Mindik. The municipal employee points under the fierce July sun towards the multicoloured bicycles stacked within view of the police barrier at the entrance to Varosha. “There is so much to see. Tourists love it here.”
Not so long ago the very notion of the eastern Mediterranean’s most famous ghost town being resurrected as a 21st-century theme park would have been unthinkable. For more than four decades there has been almost no movement among ruins of war left to rot with the passage of time.
But in Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus, transformation is in the air.
In a place whose fate could be a game-changer in the quest to put the divided island back together again, construction workers have been tidying up: laying cement, removing debris, roping off edifices sealed from public view since Ankara sent in troops and tanks in 1974.
On Demokratias street, beside buildings allowed to decay 47 years after their Greek Cypriot inhabitants were forced to flee, a mobile canteen offers cakes and juices to those who want to ogle the relics of conflict; on a section of the beach next to hotels reclaimed by nature, Turkish Cypriot authorities have erected tables, umbrellas and chairs.
All are small signs of a brewing battle over a resort that prior to becoming a bargaining chip in a game of geopolitical chess was the Mediterranean’s most glamorous destination. It was here, along the fabled sandy beach, that Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor played. It was here that Paul Newman enjoyed the famously turquoise waters when he spent the summer of 1960 filming the epic movie Exodus. And it was here that Europe’s cosmopolitan elite gravitated until rightwing extremists championing enosis, or union with Greece, staged an ill-fated coup with the support of the colonels then ruling Athens, prompting Turkey to invade.
Until Ankara stunned diplomats last year announcing Varosha would be partially reopened, the once vibrant enclave in the city of Famagusta – home to about 40,000 Greeks in its heyday – had lain out of reach behind barbed wire, a symbol of division but also of hope for its former residents optimistic that, at least, it had not been reoccupied like other parts of territory seized in 1974.
It is into this scene that Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will fly when he marks the anniversary of the incursion on Tuesday. In a move that has brought condemnation from the EU, the strongman has endorsed the proposal of Ersin Tatar, – his hardline Turkish Cypriot counterpart, elected with Ankara’s support in October – for a two-state solution to the Cyprus problem.
On Friday, following morning prayers, he promised “good news” for the breakaway republic, hinting at potentially groundbreaking statements when he addresses Nicosia’s self-styled Turkish Cypriot parliament during the visit.
Since the rump republic unilaterally proclaimed independence in 1983, it has been recognised only by Turkey, fostering years of international isolation for a population not only whittled down by policies of resettlement but increasingly dependent on Ankara for aid.
This month Brussels reiterated that any solution upending efforts to reunite the two ethnic communities in a bizonal, bicommunal federation – long the focus of UN-backed reunification talks – was a non-starter.
“I want to repeat that we will never, ever accept a two-state solution,” said European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen insisting the 27-member bloc would be watching Erdoğan’s visit closely. “We are firm on that, and very united.”
For many the changes in Varosha reflect Turkish Cypriot frustration with decades of failed talks. In 2004, when Cyprus came closest yet to securing a peace deal under the then UN stewardship of the late Kofi Annan, the minority community voted overwhelmingly in favour of the plan. Greek Cypriots, by contrast, rejected it. Efforts earlier this year to find common ground to kickstart negotiations made little headway.
But Varosha’s creeping commercialisation is also viewed as part of a broader policy by Erdoğan to improve Ankara’s leverage at a time when potentially explosive tensions over rival claims to offshore energy rights in the eastern Mediterranean remain far from resolved.
“It’s part of a wider Turkish strategy, pursued in recent years, to create facts on the ground that improve their bargaining position, or become permanent gains,” says Hubert Faustmann, a professor of history and politics at the University of Nicosia in the internationally recognised south. “And it’s clearly being done to appease nationalists in Turkey and in a very offensive way for Nicos Anastasiades’s government.”
Few places are as redolent of the pain suffered by Greek Cypriots – turned into refugees overnight as heavily armed Turkish forces advanced across the Mesaoria plain towards the eastern port town. Tales of homes abandoned in mid-afternoon, meals left on tables, valuables hastily hidden by inhabitants fleeing with little more than the clothes on their back, are legendary. “What to say?” said Alexandra Orfanou, returning to Varosha to see the city and retrieve a photo, taken on the day of her engagement to her husband, Sotiris, that a kindly Turkish Cypriot doctor had found and wanted to return. “Loss, loss, loss, that’s what I feel,” she says, eyeing edifices frozen in time. “We lived in a village nearby but came here every day. I can remember taking my daughter to elementary school as if it were yesterday.”
Anna Marangou, whose family spent every summer in the town, was among those who fled in little more than flip-flops, a swimsuit and T-shirt on 14 August 1974 when Ankara launched the second phase of its “peace operation” in a land grab that saw Turkish troops occupy 37% of the island.
At 70, she can still vividly recall sipping Pimm’s on the porch of the beachfront villa from which she and her relatives took flight. “We made our way to the British bases. Everyone said we’d be back in hours,” the prominent archaeologist and art historian says.
In November when Erdoğan declared his intention to enjoy a picnic on Famagusta’s once fenced-off shoreline as part of the new policy to exploit Varosha, she responded with a cri-de-coeur video that soon went viral reminding him it was neither his homeland, nor that of Turkish investors or settlers, but belonged to Greek Cypriots who had historically inhabited it.
“Stay away from Cyprus, from Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots and respect our human rights,” she says in the voiceover. “Our right to bring peace and love back again to our country, respecting each other, accepting our similarities and our differences. We can work together as long as you keep away from our land.”
But its also galls Marangou, an ardent supporter of reconciliation who co-founded the Famagusta for Cyprus movement which recently contested parliamentary elections, that successive Greek Cypriot administrations have handled negotiations with an “all or nothing” approach.
“Famagusta was always a special case,” she insists, adding that an agreement ending the territorial dispute could have played a decisive role in reaching a settlement. “It was under Turkish military occupation and never belonged to the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. There was a UN resolution [stipulating] it be handed back to its lawful owners. We’ve been offered it seven times, including in 1978 when we could have swept the floors and moved back into our homes. But there was always this ‘all or nothing’ approach.”
The Anastasiades government has been chastised, at home and abroad, for its lacklustre handling of peace talks. In 2017 the Greek Cypriot leader reportedly walked out of negotiations when the moderate Turkish Cypriot Mustafa Akıncı was prepared to make unprecedented concessions.
Yet the prospect of a two-state solution also faces stiff resistance from Turkish Cypriots themselves, many appalled that a ghost town that was never theirs should now be opened to sightseers. “This place doesn’t belong to us,” says Peril Emiroğluları, taking in the dilapidated buildings still decorated with Greek signage. “The original owners should be back. We should be living in Cyprus together.”
Erdoğan has also intimated he will appeal to Greek Cypriots to return to their homes.
More than 300 have already applied to the immovable properties commission in northern Cyprus to win back real estate that is likely to cost Turkey billions in compensation. If local remedies fail they will resort to the European Court of Human Rights.
“Greek Cypriots have been deprived of their right to enjoy their properties and I am encouraging everyone to make claims in opposition to government policy,” says Achilleas Demetriades, the island’s leading human rights lawyer who also spent much of his childhood in Famagusta. “I want vindication on this issue but also reconciliation.”
A possible contender in the next presidential elections, the 60-year-old remains optimistic despite all the signs pointing to deeper partition.
Cyprus, he says, is too small to be divided and there is a “dividend to peace”.
“It is in both communities’ interest to solve the Cyprus problem. We may be in a frozen conflict but we are still in conflict. Varosha is the beacon that will guide the way. If we lose it, we lose our direction towards a solution.”