I have spent the last four months at the cusp of the division between East and West, between Islam and Christianity. Nowhere can this be seen better than in Cyprus.
In Famamagusta, or Gazimagusa as it is known in Turkish, I see the 14th century twin churches of the Templars and the Hospitallers, the Nestorian Church, the ruins of St Francis, St George of the Latins and other churches, all showing the enormous wealth of the Byzantine and Venetian republics. In all, 365 churches were built inside the old city walls. As in Istanbul, when the Ottomans took Cyprus, they converted churches to mosques. The 14th century St Nicolas Cathedral is now Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque.
In Islam there is a kind of logic to convert churches to mosques as the Quran is the final complete revelation and testament of God, given to the Prophet Muhammad. Thus the incomplete Christianity is superseded, and the minaret “completes” the church.
Although Northern Cyprus does not seem particularly religious – few women cover their heads, and those that do are mostly from the Turkish mainland; alcohol is on sale in every cafe and shop; and there are no crowds outside mosques – it was religion, or rather the desecration of Greek orthodox churches that is one of the points that still fuels hatred. “Enjoy yourself in the land of racial purity and true apartheid. Enjoy the sight of our desecrated churches” is one of the signs that welcomes those crossing over the border from Greek Cyprus.
I drive up to St Hilarion Castle, built by the Byzantines between the 7th and 14th centuries at the highest point in the mountains as protection against the Arabs, and then through the olive groves towards the village of Kazanköy. It is late afternoon, and the goatherds are coming out into the hills to collect their charges. I stop at the Greek cemetery. The marble crosses are all broken, and most are piled up in a heap. I make out their names: Vasilidis, Stefanou, Karagounis; died 1972, dıed 1970, died 1969. Nothing after August 1974 of course. I drive on into the village. Overripe lemons are dropping off the lemon trees along the road. The village looks wealthy. Lots of cars, extra storeys built onto houses. In the square the small church has now become a mosque. A bust of Atatürk, as in every village in Turkish Cyprus, adorns the square, next to the Spor Külübü. Pointing to one of the great ironies: portraits of the human form, sculpture more than any other form, are strictly forbidden by the Quran.
The scars run deep in this divided island. What happened to the Greek villagers? Many went to Southern Cyprus; others emıgrated to the mainland, the US or Australia; others dısappeared. Almost certainly kılled. As did many Turkish Cypriots: “Armed Greek Cypriots came to our villages with policemen on 14th August 1974, and took all the men of the village away … Suddenly the man at the bottom of the retaining wall shot one round. This was a sıgnal. They started shooting like crazy. I was slightly ınjured in my side, and I fell to the ground. A friend of mine’s corpse fell on top of me. I stayed where I was wıthout moving” (Trapped in the Green Line, Tony Angastiniotis, Rustem, Lefkosha).
The story has been repeated many times in Belfast, Beirut, Bosnia and many many other places…