Varosha – A Ghost Town in Cyprus
The suburb of Varosha, or Maras, in the city of Famagusta was abandoned during the 1974 war in Cyprus. The area was sealed off by the invading Turkish forces and has remained so ever since. It appears to be frozen in time, the clothes still on the racks in the shops, homes and holiday apartments untouched for nearly 50 years. Some of the lights were even left on in the buildings for years after the evacuation.
To understand the story of Varosha though, it’s probably best to look at the history of Cyprus as a whole. In 1570, the Ottomans captured Cyprus and massacred many Greek and Armenian Christian inhabitants of the island. Under the Ottomans, the millet system was introduced under which non-Muslim peoples were governed by their own religious authorities. The Church of Cyprus, a branch of the Greek Orthodox Church, became the leader of the Greek Christians on the island. From then on, Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots would both call the island home.
Map of The Ottoman Empire in 1683
A map of the Ottoman Empire. Both Turkey and Greece were part of the Empire at one stage. Greece gained independence in 1821 and Cyprus became a British crown colony in 1914.
After the Greek War of Independence in 1821, there were calls from many for a union between Greece and Cyprus. Enosis, as it was called, was fuelled by centuries of neglect and severe poverty under the Ottomans.
During the Congress of Berlin in 1878, following the Russo-Turkish War, Cyprus was was “leased” to the British Empire. It was at this Congress too that Austria-Hungary took over Bosnia & Herzegovina. Technically, the island still remained Ottoman territory but when the Ottoman Empire entered World War I in November 1914, the British Empire formally annexed Cyprus. The following year, the British offered Cyprus to King Constantine I of Greece in exchange for Greece entering the war on the side of the British but the king refused. After the war, the Turks withdrew all claim to Cyprus and it became a British crown colony in 1925.
Flag of British Cyprus
The flag of British Cyprus.
Under British rule, the Greek Cypriots continued to argue for Enosis, a union with Greece. A militant group, Ethniki Organosis Kyprion Agoniston or National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters (EOKA), began an armed struggle to free themselves of British rule and merge with Greece. The Turkish Cypriots began to suggest partition as the best possible outcome, afraid that they would be forced into a unification with Greece against their will.
On 16 August 1960, Cyprus became an independent country following an agreement between Britain, Greece and Turkey. Not long after, violence erupted between the two sides. Turkey threatened to invade the island in 1964 to protect the Turkish minority but US President Lyndon B. Johnson wrote a strongly worded telegram warning against it, fearing the Soviet Union would intervene on behalf of Greece. King Constantine II responded by dispatching 10,000 troops to Cyprus and calling for a “a speedy union with the mother country”.
Archbishop Makarios III
Archbishop Makarios III, the first president of Cyprus.
On 15 July 1974, president Makarios III of Cyprus was ousted in a coup d’état orchestrated by the Greek military junta. Their plan was to force the country into the union with Greece. In response, the Turkish army invaded the island five days later on 20 July 1974 to restore the constitutional order agreed in 1960. The Turks captured an area from Kyrenia on the northern coast, down to the Turkish areas of the capital Nicosia. A ceasefire was quickly agreed and the constitution was restored with a temporary leadership placed in charge until such time that Makarios III could return having fled during the initial coup. Despite the ceasefire, a second Turkish invasion occurred on August 14 and this time, they took further territory in the northern part of the island, including the city of Famagusta.
Abandoned hotel in Varosha
An abandoned hotel in Varosha. | Image: Shanomag via Wikimedia Commons
It was during this invasion that Varosha was evacuated and sealed off. Up until then, Varosha has been an affluent, tourist area with hotels, restaurants and bars. It was popular among travellers from north and west Europe, as well as wealthy Greeks. During the Turkish invasion, the majority Greek Cypriot population fled the fighting between the Greek and Turkish armies in Famagusta, helped by the British military who had kept their bases on the island since the time it was a crown colony. Many refugees fled south to Paralimni, Dherynia and Larnaca. The Turkish army fenced off Varosha and refused to let anyone in.
Following the invasion, a UN Buffer Zone was created to separate the island. 180,000 Greek Cypriots had been evicted from their homes in the north and 50,000 Turkish Cypriots were displaced from the south. Nicosia Airport, in the middle of the buffer zone, was taken over by the UN.
In 1983, the northern side of the island declared itself independent as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. It is not recognised by any UN member except for Turkey. In 2004, a peace plan drafted by the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was put to a referendum prior to Cyprus entering the European Union. The Turkish side voted for the plan and the Greeks voted against. Since then, reunification talks have been held between both sides although as time goes on, more observers have suggested that partition may be the best solution.
There has been talk recently about reopening Varosha however this has yet to amount to anything. For now, the former favourite holiday spot of celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Brigitte Bardot remains abandoned.