Famagusta: A forgotten city
Apart from being the setting of Shakespeare’s ”Othello”, the walled city of Famagusta was the scene of a signal act of treachery after the Ottoman siege in 1571. When the Venetian governor Marcantonio Bragadino finally surrendered after being promised safe conduct by Lala Mustafa, he was flayed alive, his skin was stuffed with straw and paraded round the town.
Now the Lusignan cathedral of St Nicolas, renamed Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque, remains with its twin towers lopped off and replaced by a minaret, and the town itself is a shadow of its former self. Before the Turkish invasion in 1974 Famagusta region attracted 53% of the island’s tourism but now its share has been reduced to a mere 7% of the tourism in northern Cyprus.
In 1973 46% of the total net registered tonnage of ships visiting Cyprus ports used Famagusta port, but by 2008 this figure had declined to 4.6%. This is in part due to the import tariffs imposed by the EU after the Anastasiou judgment of 1994, which precludes the acceptance of movement and phytosanitary certificates issued by authorities other than those of the Republic of Cyprus.
The situation in the beach area of Varosha is worse. After its mostly Greek Cypriot inhabitants fled in 1974, more than 100 hotels and 5,000 houses as well as businesses, public buildings, restaurants, museums and schools have been abandoned and watched over by the Turkish army. Despite two Security Council resolutions – 550 (1984) and 789 (1992) – Turkey has refused to transfer the administration of this area to the United Nations, but continues to sit there like a dog in the manger.
There have been several attempts to break this deadlock and both Famagusta and Varosha have been used as bargaining chips in the efforts to secure the reunification of Cyprus and to create some movement in the endless talks. In 2004 Cypriot President Papadopoulos suggested allowing trade with the EU from Famagusta under EU supervision, joint Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot management of the port and Turkish withdrawal from Varosha, but in vain.
In 2006 the Finnish term presidency proposed that Famagusta port be opened for direct trade under EU supervision on condition that Turkey opened some of its ports and airports to Greek Cypriot traffic. However, Papadopoulos stated that Greek Cypriot acceptance of this proposal was dependent on the return of Varosha to the Greek Cypriots, but Turkish Cyprus in turn insisted that Ercan airport in northern Cyprus should be opened to international flights.
An extra element was added when the Turkish daily Vatan reported that Deputy Chief of General Staff Ergin Saygun had reminded Turkish Foreign Minister (now President) Abdullah Gül that it was against agreed Turkish policy to open ports and airports and transfer Varosha to the Greek Cypriots under the control of the UN.
In October 2010 a group of 16 Turkish Cypriot businessmen and professionals issued a declaration on Varosha, calling for its reurn to its legal owners under UN supervision and the opening of Famagusta port under EU supervision, to create “a catalyst effect creating synergy for a comprehensive settlement”. Two months later another group of Turkish Cypriot businessmen and economists also called for the gradual return of Varosha to its owners but under Turkish Cypriot administration.
The European Court of Human Rights, in Lordos and others v. Turkey, has just awarded 32 Greek Cypriots €20 million in compensation for their occupied properties in the closed area of Varosha, which presages an even larger settlement at some later stage unless Varosha is returned to its original inhabitants.
The Turkish government has originally submitted that the Greek Cypriot owners had no legal claim to their properties, as these according to Ottoman law belonged to the Lala Mustafa Pasha, Abdullah Pasha and Bilal Aga Foundations. However, a request by the Evkaf Administration, an Islamic religious trust, to intervene as a third party in the Lordos case was refused by the Court.
The European Parliament has twice – in 2010 and 2011 – called for Turkey to abide by Security Council Resolution 550 and return the sealed-off section of Famagusta to its lawful inhabitants, but these resolutions Turkey has of course ignored.
Last year a No Man’s Land Project conceived and organized under the supervision of the Cyprus Architects Association was presented at the London Festival of Architecture. Based on “the hypothetical return” of the abandoned and fenced-off city of Famagusta to its former inhabitants, the team behind the project consider it an ideal chance to rebuild a whole city with proper urban planning and infrastructure. In fact, they see the potential of the city as “an example of a unified Cyprus”.
It would be encouraging if politicians on both sides of the Green Line - and in particular in Turkey – shared the same vision.
Robert Ellis is a regular commentator on Turkish affairs and advisor to the EFD's Turkey Assessment Group in the European Parliament