Cyprus has a split personality Island: Greeks and Turks are only the latest to lay claim to history-drenched gateway in eastern Mediterranean.

June 02, 1996|By Adam Z. Horvath | Adam Z. Horvath,NEWSDAY

On an island where every promontory seems to shoulder a romantic ruin from an ancient age, a vast courtyard of Roman columns and crumbling baths sprawls improbably across 16 centuries to a shore where modern beachgoers bob like corks in the buoyant Mediterranean.

It's the single most dramatic spot on Cyprus. And most of the island's population has been barred from it for 20 years.

Clambering over Cyprus' stones of past millenniums in the Bronze Age city of Salamis is an adventure denied to the Greek Cypriots of the island's southwestern half, just as access to nearly as glorious relics -- the arches of Kourion, the tombs of the Kings in Paphos, the Byzantine-frescoed churches of the Troodos Mountains -- are off-limits to the Turks of the northeastern half.

Turkey's invasion in 1974 created the island's current divide between two Mediterranean cultures technically at war and very much at odds. But it picks up from a trading back and forth of Cyprus that goes back through hundreds of remakings over thousands of years.

Every empire to spread across the Mediterranean has battled for claim to Cyprus, an emperor's island gateway between Europe and the Middle East about twice the size of Rhode Island. It has been conquered in turn by the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Byzantines, the crusaders, the Ottomans, the Venetians and undoubtedly some others.

Many famous names

Each age has left behind its rich remains. By the time I reached the columns of Salamis, birthplace of Euripides, I had visited the sea-sprayed rocks where Greek legend places Aphrodite's birth, the spooky preserved tombs of the Ptolemies, the Byzantine church where Lazarus spent his extended life, the seventh-century tomb where Mohammad's aunt was buried, the crusader castle where Richard the Lionhearted was wed, the dramatically crumbling Gothic churches of once-Venetian Famagusta, and the mountain village of lace makers where Leonardo da Vinci once bought an altar cloth.

Only an outsider can cross the sandbagged Green Line from the Greek side to the Turkish to see both sides of the island revered for centuries as the birthplace of the Greek goddess of love, but historically just as hospitable to her husband, the god of war.

I crossed the chasm between cultures at the only place one can, in Nicosia, which, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, is the only divided capital city in the world. I signed a guard station's entry book as if visiting an office building, and with my shoes crunching a pebbly path, I strode alone in silence past a former luxury hotel where United Nations soldiers had hung their laundry from cement balconies. Another sentry warned me not to take photographs as I gaped at Cyprus' most contemporary ruins -- sandstone-colored houses left roofless.

The Greek side of Cyprus, where 80 percent of the population lives, is still a thriving, varied country, balanced between commercialized beachside cities and rustic mountainside towns that produce more wine per capita than any place in the world. There are vineyards seemingly on every spare spot of sloping land, even behind the convenience stores, and during grape harvests, signs caution drivers: "Warning: Grape Juice on Road."

Turkish side

The Turkish side, where the Greeks fled their homes after the invasion, covers one-third of the island but encompasses two-thirds of the former tourist attractions and beaches. The sites now rarely attract foreign visitors because the occupying government is not recognized by any other country and day passes from Nicosia are the only legal entry. The Turkish side is more sparse and rundown; it's symbolized by the once-thriving border city of Varosha, now empty except for patrolling troops.

My arrival on Cyprus wasn't auspicious: My flight landed at 2 a.m., my rental car was nowhere to be found, and the family-run inn in the mountains where I planned to stay didn't answer the phone. So I booked myself near the airport in the Princess Beach, the most attractive of a string of serviceable high-rises.

I had some serious wandering to do, and I began heading west and backward in time. In Larnaca, where elaborate iron doors graced putty-colored buildings in various states of repair, an 8-year-old boy named Anas charged admission to the abandoned 16th-century Grand Mosque while his grandfather played backgammon across the street. From the top of the narrow minaret -- Anas can show you how to climb it -- you can look down on an Ottoman fort and the tree-lined harbor. And down the street, the heavy 10th-century Byzantine church of Ayos Lazarus -- adorned with a graceful 19th-century square Italian campanile -- marks the site of Lazarus' ministry after Christ resurrected him, according to the Bible.

Just outside town is a holy site of the Koran, an oasis of cypresses amid the salt marsh that shrouds the domed Tekke of Hala Sultan. Inside is the seventh-century tomb of Prophet Mohammed's aunt, the most revered Muslim site on Cyprus, though now inaccessible to Turkish Muslims. Just to the north, an Ottoman aqueduct surfaces in a gully along the highway, to be glimpsed like wildlife running for cover.

So far, I'd laid eyes on the remnants of four different ages, and I was still within sight of the airport.

Pub Date: 6/02/96

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