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Northern Cyprus: reading the stones in Famagusta

by Laurence Mitchell

Picture above: The ruins of St George of the Latins, a fortified thirteenth-century church — the oldest in Gazimagusa (photo © Laurence Mitchell).


Famagusta, on the east coast of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, was once a great trading outpost of the Venetian world. Great churches have been converted to mosques and the city is now very Turkish in demeanour. Laurence Mitchell reports from a city full of the ghosts of history.

For students of theatre, the town of Famagusta suggests just one thing - Othello. The setting for Shakespeare's play about the troubled Moorish king was described as "a seaport in Cyprus" and, although the Bard never ventured here, Famagusta fits the bill perfectly in terms of both geography and history. The modern town even boasts an 'Othello's Tower' if anyone were still in doubt. But putting fiction to one side, Famagusta is a town that is rich with ghosts from the real past - fertile ground for any number of playwrights, historians and travel writers with a taste for the lugubrious.

But you will search in vain for Famagusta on many modern maps of Cyprus. Today it is Magusa, or Gazimagusa - 'Veteran' Magusa - in Turkish and Ammochostos in Greek.

The community was founded as a fishing village around the third century BC, and later developed as a port, profiting from the demise of nearby Salamis. Famagusta has variously enjoyed or suffered Lusignan, Genoan, Venetian, Ottoman and British occupation over the centuries. For fourteen brief years (1960-1974) it was part of a unified Cyprus before fighting between Greek and Turkish factions tore the island in half. The ancient port found itself part of the Turkish sector. The town, generally referred to as Magusa these days, lies at the southeast extremity of what is now the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC, or KKTC in Turkish - Kuzey Kibris Türk Cumhuriyeti) a de facto state that is yet to be recognised by any country other than Turkey.

Magusa is well connected to both the TRNC capital Lefko?a and the coastal tourist resort of Girne (Kyrenia) by regular minibus services. The journey from Girne passes through a stark landscape that brings to mind the Middle East as much as it does the Mediterranean - as well it might for the Levant shore of Syria lies not far away to the east, far closer than Athens or even Ankara. Girne's outskirts reveal sundry new development geared towards the island's growing British expatriate community: the tastes of suburban Essex transported to a sunnier clime. There are supermarkets that advertise the availability of 'pig meat', furniture showrooms and estate agents, along with fish and chip outlets with terrible punning names like 'The Cod Father'. That one boasts awnings embellished with cartoon fish wearing fedora style gangster hats and wielding machineguns. With casinos thick on the ground too, chips play an important part in the new Cyprus in more ways than one.

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