Varosha, Northern Cyprus: Celebrity Getaway turned Ghost Town

This past Saturday, Boyfriend and I stopped at a Cypriot restaurant (with a breathtakingly imaginative name: Cyprus Restaurant) in Berkeley for lunch. It was a beautiful day so we got a table outdoors, and I wasted no time sinking my teeth into the juicy goodness of the tabouleh, the nutty, earthy flavors of the dolmeh, and the flaky deliciousness of the spanakopita, the butter from which I’m sure went straight to my arteries and made a comfortable home there. Halfway through my meal I looked up, and noticed that all of Boyfriend’s food was still lying untouched on his plate. And Boyfriend? He was in exactly the same position in which I last saw him: upright in his seat, staring intently at the menu.

“Umm, what’s up?” I asked.

“These guys have doner kabobs on the menu… which are Turkish… but they also have gyros, which are Greek,” Boyfriend muttered, his face still in the menu.

“Ok… So?”

“Oh, I’m just trying to figure out if the owners of the restaurant are from North Cyprus or the Republic of Cyprus.”

“Really? By looking at the menu? Did they teach you that in Research Methodologies in grad school?”

Boyfriend looked at me, bewildered. “Well, I can’t just ask them, can I? That’ll be incredibly rude.”

I would have asked why the question of whether the owners of the restaurant were from the Turkish or the Greek part of Cyprus needed to be answered in the first place, but experience indicates that it would have been met with even more bewilderment. Why do I want to know? WHY? Because when you see both gyros and doner kabobs on the menu of a Cypriot restaurant, how can you NOT wonder? Right? So I left him to his deduction-drawing and moved onto demolishing the baklava on my plate, causing several mini-sugar-crashes in my bloodstream. Happy, and a little dulled in judgement from my sucrose-high, I picked the last crumbs off my plate and was contemplating ordering another helping of the dessert, when Boyfriend suddenly put the menu away and resumed conversation, with this:

“Did you know that near the border between Cyprus and North Cyprus is a fenced-in ghost town called Varosha, where, in restaurants there are tables set with the finest cutlery; in hotels, there are beds that had been made with utmost care; in residential car garages, there are cars parked neatly in their spots, but there are wild shrubs and creepers growing over all of them because no one has visited the town since the 1970s?”

WOAH.

WOAH. (Gif source.)

Here’s how it happened: In Northern Cyprus, close to the border with The Republic of Cyprus, lies a city named Famagusta. Back in the day – and by “back in the day” I mean about 600 years ago – Famagusta was an important trade port, and everyone wanted a piece of it. It was built in the 10th century in the same location as Arsinoe, an even more ancient Egyptian city dating around the 3rd century BC. And as the Smithsonian Magazine informs me, the city changed hands like a common item on the stock market. During the Crusades it was captured by Richard the Lionheart, who sold it to the Knights Templar, who then sold it to Guy de Lusignan, a French knight, in 1192. By the 14th century Famagusta was a flourishing city, with all the typical signifiers of prosperity – two layers of walls and a moat to protect the city, and a separate church for every day of the year. (If you decided to give up religion in 14th century Famagusta, it would definitely not be out of boredom.) There was also beautiful architecture and robust trade, and because of its cosmopolitan nature, it became a place where several languages – Greek, Hebrew, Italian, and Arabic – thrived. In the 15th century Venetian princes took over the city, and made its walls stronger still, measuring 50 feet in some places. It was a city that was now indestructible, because no one could get past those walls.

Until the 16th century, when the Ottomans Turks came in with their wrecking balls. (Resist the urge to make a Miley Cyrus joke. You’re better than that. Resist it. Now.) It took them a year, but as we know, the Ottomans don’t give up easy. They finally broke into Famagusta and took it over. The one-a-day churches found themselves with minarets planted on their roofs, and Famagusta was declared a no-Christian zone. And while the Ottomans did modernize some of the infrastructure, by the 19th century most residents had left Famagusta, and the city was a far cry from its former state of grandeur.

In 1960, when Cyprus regained independence from the British Empire, some of Famagusta’s glory was restored, albeit in a tiny quarter of the city, and in a manner very, very different from anything any of its historic residents would have imagined. Varosha, an area within Famagusta, was developed into a luxurious beach resort town with modern architecture and dedicated hospitality, but free of the overexposure and diminishing exotic value of the French Riviera. (First World problems, I tell you!) If the famed guests of the French Riviera were Queen Victoria, Pablo Picasso, and Edith Wharton, Varosha had the loyalty of Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and Paul Newman to boast of.

Until 1974, when the Turks came in with their wrecking balls. (Ok, they didn’t actually come in with wrecking balls. And no, I’m still not going to make a Miley Cyrus joke.)

Turkey invaded North Cyprus in 1974, in a brutal attack that leaves that part of the country under Turkish control to this day. Fueled by the ethnic strife between the Turkish and Greek populations of Cyprus – in Famagusta, for instance, property owners were often Greek, while the labor force comprised mostly of Turks – the Turkish army took an aggressive stance against the Greek residents. Fearing for their lives, tourists, celebrities on holiday, and Greek residents fled the city overnight, leaving behind property, houses, hotels, and cars. The Turkish army sealed off Varosha immediately, and built a fence around it so no one could enter. Since that day in 1974, Varosha remains the way it was left – silverware arranged neatly on tablecloths set for dinner, beds made or unmade depending on whether the hotel guests were sleeping in or not, and striped umbrellas dotting the beaches by the hotels, empty recliners lying in their shade.

Almost forty years down, the table cloths and furniture, the bed covers and pillows, the umbrellas and cars remain, but wind has bitten holes into them, and water has caused their bones to rot. There is silverware on the tables, but it is tangled in the tendrils of creepers that have pushed through the broken asphalt roads and fingered their way into houses and car garages. Rats and snakes no longer feel the need to remain buried in dark places under the earth, and instead roam the town freely, the only living to haunt its hotels and restaurants. Sometimes at night, when these creatures have crawled to rest in the corners of empty ballrooms, and the wind howls through the hallways of the hotels, one can see a light flickering in a window – a weak light, like the flame of a candle by someone’s breath – and if you go close enough to the room, which was known to have been favored by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, you can hear a low, raspy refrain: “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf, Virginia Woolf, Virginia Woolf…”

Good times. (Screen capture. © 1966 Warner Bros. Credit: © 1966 Warner Bros. / Flickr / Courtesy Pikturz.)

Good times. (Image source.)

Ok, so I don’t really have a verifiable source for that last statement about candlelight and raspy refrains. But the rest is sadly true. Ever so occasionally photojournalists have been allowed beyond the fence, and the pictures they’ve taken show a world abandoned in the midst of a moment of leisure. And nature, it seems, is slowly reclaiming humanity’s prize achievements in this little corner of the planet.

The ruins of Varosha. Images from this blog, where you can see some more haunting pictures of the abandoned town.

The ruins of Varosha. (Images from this blog and Sometimes Interesting, where you can see some more haunting pictures of the abandoned town.)

More recently it has been said that Varosha holds the key to the reunification of Cyprus, but quite like Famagusta, of which it is a part, Varosha will probably never reclaim its past glory. Not even in the highly unlikely scenario where, through some force of magic, the Turkish and Greek parts of Cyprus are reunited.

Want to know more? Go here. And here.

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