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Varosha Detail

The Suspended Future of Varosha

Cyprus’ perplexing conflict is inscribed on the city’s walls.

Words: Arie Amaya-Akkermans
Pictures: Arie Amaya-Akkermans

The iconic arches of the terrace bar at the King George Hotel in Varosha overlooking Famagusta Bay seem to barely hold the weight of the derelict building. They look like they are almost crumbling and merging with the landscape. Now a protective net adorned with one of the most ubiquitous signs in Cyprus: “forbidden zone” prevents passersby from coming any closer. From a narrow section of the beach, reopened in recent years by the Turkish army, and furnished with just a few sunbeds and no swimmers, it is possible to take a glimpse at the decaying front of the hotel. It looks almost as if it is floating on an irregular cushion of broken concrete, bent steel frames, and silted-up sand. 

For all its current dereliction, the hotel was featured often in postcards from the 1950s. It was a symbol of a belle epoque of wealth and prosperity in Cyprus. At that time the town of Varosha was the island’s economic and cultural center. 

The iconic landmark might be forgotten today, but the history of the hotel encapsulates the rapid transformations, contradictions, and paradoxes of Cyprus. In the convoluted decades between the island’s colonial British administration, a fraught independence, and the Turkish invasion in 1974, the hotel had its glory days. It served as a local hangout for the British army and, like the rest of Varosha’s seaside resorts, by the 1960s it became a destination for the globetrotting jet set. 

Built History

Built between 1937 and 1946, according to architectural historian Marko Kiessel, the King George was the first hotel to open on the seashore proper. Other hotels, still visible on the abandoned skyline, were built in this period, such as the Florida or the Costandia. 

The King George stood out for being one of the first modernist hotels in Famagusta. In its first phase, it was a semi-functionalist building, corresponding to local modernist conventions. It  vaguely approximated the International Style pioneered by European architects such as Lecorbusier and Mies van der Rohe. A careful look at archival images from the 1960s, however, indicates that the hotel underwent a second phase, reducing its modern features by adding the famous round arches in the ground floor patio and a tiled roof, both imitating Cypriot domestic architecture. 

On the back of the abandoned hotel, the facade and sign are still intact, but the outer walls are so high that you can only catch a small glimpse of a narrow line of the glowing sea. Standing looking at the stacked history in front of me,  it was impossible to resist  conjuring up images of what the hotel’s illustrious guests might have seen from those ornate, neoclassical balconies — the balconies too were added later. The whole scene, from the layers added on over the years to its abandonment and weathering through the years of neglect are marked illustrations of the history of this town, which has become the site of a political contestation between Turkey, as the heir of an imperial power, and the European Union, with the Cypriot population sandwiched between both. 

Just down from hotel row, along the main commercial avenue, Demokratias St., stands the Greek School for Girls. You wouldn’t know that’s what it’s called from looking at it: The Greek sign has been covered up by the Turkish efforts to “de-Hellenize” the city in 2020 ahead of Turkish president Erdoğan’s visit.  The school will turn a hundred years old in 2024 and the Cypriot Post issued a commemorative stamp. In 1974 photographs taken in the school became emblematic of the city’s fall to the invading Turkish army. In one image, the school’s theater is strewn with clothes that Varosha residents had collected to send to refugees of nearby Kyrenia, but before they could distribute them, Varosha’s residents also faced invasion and became refugees themselves. 

A little further up the road is the Esperia Tower Hotel, with the boarded up Perroquet nightclub on the ground floor, the walls of which are still adorned with artworks by modernist Cypriot painter Christophoros Savva. A shy attempt to take a closer look at the club resulted in stern warnings from a Turkish soldier, while a plain clothes police officer snapped pictures of tourists on bikes a few meters away. 

Before the town could be visited or photographed, Marko Kiessel produced a sketch of an exquisite house in Varosha, built sometime between 1968 and 1974, a kind of replica of LeCorbusier’s Villa Savoye at Poissy-sur-Seine (1928-1930), one of the most significant examples of the International Style, and one that has been replicated in many countries. The existence of this house is a testimony of a rich period of cultural and artistic experimentation in the city, which then became frozen in time. 

King George Hotel Varosha (1)
King George Hotel in Varosha, where Nobel laureate, Greek poet Giorgos Seferis, spent summers during the 1950s. Jan. 1, 2024.
Bombs on the Beach

The island of Cyprus is comprised of a Greek Cypriot majority in the south, and a Turkish Cypriot minority in the north, but it is difficult to estimate the real numbers, since no census has been conducted since 2011, and the uncontrolled influx of settlers from Turkey since 1974 has vastly changed the demographic of the island’s north. Conflict between the two communities is believed to have started as a result of British colonial policy on the island.  

When Cyprus became independent from Britain in 1960, the tensions between the communities escalated rapidly as a result of intercommunal fighting, internal disagreements between political actors, and the increasing pressure of Greece and Turkey. 

Nobel laureate, Greek poet Giorgos Seferis, spent summers at the hotel starting in 1953, and it is said that there he composed his volume of poetry “Log Book III,” dedicated to the people of Cyprus. A number of well-known poems about the history of Cyprus, named after known places in the island’s antiquity — Salamis, Engomi, Ayia Napa, are included there. All of these places are in proximity to Famagusta, which you can clearly see from the ruins of Salamis. In “Salamis in Cyprus” Seferis writes:

And those bodies,
formed of a clay they know not,
have souls.
They gather tools to change them;
they won’t succeed: they’ll only unmake them
if souls can be unmade.

In a letter to the writer George Thotokas, dated 1954 he explains the meaning of the poem: It is a foolish idea for Britain to want to impose a constitution on Cyprus, and shape the identity of the island along ethnic lines of Greek and Turkish Cypriots. It can only become a source for endless trouble in the future. 

While Varosha was enjoying its glory days as a tourist destination, the intercommunal tensions continued to simmer below the surface. Then in 1974, following a coup d’etat by Greek Cypriots aligned with some members of the Greek military junta, the Turkish army bombed Varosha and other parts of the surrounding Famagusta region.

The first invasion on July 22, 1974, concentrated on the tallest buildings in Varosha. During the second invasion, shelling of the city began on Aug. 14 that year. Residents of Varosha reported that they received warnings that the town would be bombarded. By the following evening, Greek Cypriots in the area were fleeing en masse to Ayios Nikolaos and Dhekelia. The fleeing denizens believed it was temporary and they would return to their homes within days. But the future of the island would be very different.

As Greek Cypriots in Famagusta and other communities in the north fled to safety in the south, Turkish Cypriots fled from the south in the opposite direction, setting the groundwork for the de facto split of the island. 

After the bombs stopped, Greek and Turkish Cypriots wouldn’t see each other for 29 years.

A Militarized Zone

These days, the heavily militarized zone of Varosha is accessible only via a narrow, congested seaside road, lined with barbed wire, Turkish army bases and former yacht clubs turned into security perimeters. 

Based on intelligence archives, historians don’t think that the Turkish army actually wanted Varosha when they launched the attack. They aimed, instead, to capture the Walled City of Famagusta, home to a Turkish Cypriot population with its deep water harbor, and didn’t want the enormous responsibility of a Greek Cypriot-majority city. But soon they realized the town had been abandoned and they decided to occupy it.  

After Varosha was occupied by the Turkish army, it remained abandoned, held on to as a key bargaining chip in negotiations with Greek Cypriots. But over time the bargaining chip turned into a burden, with mounting property claims, pressure by the UN and the European Union to hand it over, the almost total decay of infrastructure, and the discontent of Turkish Cypriots with the occupation of the city. The Turkish government was unable to resettle or develop the city, since UN resolutions of 1984 and 1992 decreed that only the original inhabitants who were forced out, would be allowed to live there. In 1983, the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus was declared an independent state with the backing of Turkey. So far no other country has recognized the break-away republic.  

From that point onward, Varosha would enter into a deep sleep. 

An example of modernist architecture in Varosha with a flat roof and straight lines. All photos taken Jan. 4, 2024.
The Esperia Hotel, on the ground floor of which the Perroque Club, is home to work by modernist painter Christophoros Savva, commissioned for the walls.
The Agia Zoni church, fenced off, on the outskirts of Varosha.
Offices of defunct Greek airline Olympic Airways.
Greek School for Girls, built in 1924, and chartered as a Greek high school under British colonial rule.
The skyline of Varosha frozen in time, including hotels such as the King George, the Argo, and the Golden Sands.
The ruins of the ancient city of Salamis, in the distance from Famagusta.
Picnic Over Pain

In 2019 Ersin Tatar, the newly elected president of the Turkish Republic of Cyprus  announced that the town would be reopened for settlement. The move was widely considered to be an electoral stunt, in coordination with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and despite fierce opposition among Turkish Cypriots. Nonetheless, the statement drew condemnation from the UN and the European Union, as it contravened the UN mandates about the town. 

The announcement that Erdogan would celebrate the anniversary of the unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, with a festive lunch on the beach of Varosha, was met with protests by peace activists with the slogan “No picnic over pain.” “This museumification does not serve the stated purpose of reviving the area and instead only encourages dark tourism in the resort’s ruins, potentially poisoning possibilities for reconciliation,” Turkish Cypriot scholar Mete Hatay wrote. 

But what opened in the end was a mere 3.5% of the surface area, in a crude, watered down version of the town, reminiscent of a theme park: Only the main commercial avenue, and two small streets leading to and from the beach. 

A few street signs have been replaced with identical ones and ropes erected around decayed buildings, so that it remains both a place for tourism and a military enclosure at the same time, in a strange transition from forbidden zone to pseudo-archaeological site. At the entrance of the city, there’s a coffee shop, bike rentals, and tourists can also rent electric minicars, or head to the beach for a swim and enter the shabby tent built over the demolished ruins of a seaside restaurant. But it is mostly only possible to glimpse from afar this sequestered past, and none of the buildings are open to visitors. 

Blurry Borders 

Traveling from the capital Nicosia to Varosha is only about 87 km (54 miles) but it is necessary to traverse a blurry borderland, punctuated by checkpoints. From the territory of the Republic of Cyprus, you move into sector 4 of the UN Buffer Zone, manned by Slovak blue berets, covering 7 km from south to north, adjacent to the Sovereign Base Area under British administration, and then finally you enter the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. 

Zooming out from Nicosia onto the hinterland reveals a profound spatialization of conflict. The landscape is littered with enclosures, charred ruins, dead end roads, fences, watchtowers, and abandoned settlements. The landscape might appear porous at first, but physical borders can appear suddenly and become rapidly ineludible. Stray cats are the only ones easily crossing the politically imposed divisions. 

In the direction of Famagusta, just north of the Buffer Zone, lies the village of Achna, abandoned by Greek Cypriots in 1974 as the Turkish army advanced southwards. You can still see today the rows of abandoned houses in the distance, inaccessible, as the village is now a Turkish Cypriot military camp. During the invasion, the inhabitants of Achna settled in a temporary tent village in the forest, a few hundred meters away, and later built a new village, Dasaki Achnas, across the road from Achna. The people of Achna have lived all these years staring into their lost homes every day. 

The soldiers along the ceasefire line often appear infinitely bored, impatient, anxiously waiting. The ghost village of Achna, however, is emblematic of the Cypriot conflict: The nervous inertia of a state of neither peace nor war.

Vasos Demetriou at Dimokratia St. 55
Famagusta ceramist Vasos Demetriou, in front of Dimokratias St. No. 55, formerly the insurance company Norwich Union, where he worked in his youth. Jan, 4, 2024.

In January, I visited Varosha with Vasos Demetriou, a ceramic artist from Famagusta,  whose family fled south in 1974 when he was 20 years old. He led us to see a number of buildings along Demokratia street — a place preemptively familiar to us, from many books and documentaries about Famagusta that circulate in Cyprus.  The buildings lean on each other, like stacks of marshmallows, hardly holding their shape, or are being taken over by nature. We passed among the remains of the Hadjihambi Cinema, the Agios Nikolaos Church where all the town parades started, and the municipal gallery, perhaps the island’s first. In 2003, the Turkish Cypriots first opened the borders, allowing Greek Cypriots to come visit the northern half of the island — the city of Varosha, though, was still locked down. Demetriou came often when initially granted the right,  “I thought they were going to close the border again, so I wanted to see as much as I could.”

But when Varosha opened for visitors in 2020, Demetriou didn’t immediately visit. “I didn’t want to go, not because I didn’t want to visit but because I thought it was very abnormal to open one road and show people the ruins of what is left, as if you’re entering an archaeological site. There’s no respect for the culture and the history of Varosha, it was the most beautiful town in all of Cyprus, and now it’s been reduced to ruins.” 

Demetriou was born in the outskirts of Famagusta and attended high school near Varosha, so he had known it well in his youth. During our visit, he stopped at Dimokratias St. No. 55, a villa that he said once housed the insurance giant Norwich Union, where he used to work as an errand boy at the age of 16, before he took up work in one of Famagusta’s specialities: pottery workshops. Norwich Union ceased to exist in 2009. Its ghostly remnants echo the other signs still standing in Varosha of companies that have long ceased operations: Olympian Airlines, British European Airways and others. 

On the way back from Varosha to Nicosia, you can still see the destroyed buildings of the Greek Cypriot administration of Famagusta pre-1974, covered with scaffoldings, boarded up or simply collapsed, alongside the new buildings of the Turkish Cypriot administration. The nearby Agia Zoni Church, several kilometers inland from the entrance of the abandoned city, is fenced off as a part of the military zone of Varosha. The distance gives an idea of the enormous size of the occupied territory.

But the eastern coast of Cyprus is no stranger to conflict, and the area has been inhabited, destroyed and resettled for thousands of years, since Engomi was settled in the Middle Bronze Age. The history of Famagusta begins In 274 BCE, after an earthquake destroyed the ancient city of Salamis, the city of Arsinoe was founded by Ptolemy II Philadelphus. Its heir Famagusta would grow to enormous prosperity during the Byzantine, Lusignan, Genoese and Venetian rule, until it was conquered by the Ottomans in 1570. Lala Mustafa Pasha banished Greek Cypriots from the walled city in 1573-1574, and they were forced to settle in the suburbs, later known as Varosha. The city grew, once again, to be the most prosperous in Cyprus in the 20th century. Then, as we know, the Greek cypriots were banished in 1974.

This late medieval tale matters because it points to the endless tension and uncertainty over claims of ownership in the space. Evkaf, a religious Turkish charity organization, founded in Cyprus in 1750 under Ottoman rule, claimed in 2005 that the foundation owns most of Varosha, arguing that its properties were illegally expropriated during British rule, even though there’s ample evidence that the title deeds were legally acquired and that Evkaf received compensation. A billboard with Evkaf’s claims still stands defiantly in the middle of Varosha. Meanwhile, every month there are new rumors about transfers of property and hotels being slated to open. But the future of Varosha is still uncertain. 

An Uncertain Future

Cyprus is today perhaps further away from a resolution than at any point in the past, which is saying something. Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary-General, once described the conflict as the “oldest item continuously on the peacemaking agenda.” The most recent report of the International Crisis Group in 2023, reaffirmed that hopes for reunification are faint. It stressed the precarious geopolitical environment in the Eastern Mediterranean, and cited several worrying factors, including the erosion of the status quo in Varosha, and the increasing reliance of the Turkish Cypriot administration on Ankara. Cypriot President Nikos Christoulides has proposed once again placing Varosha under the administration of the UN.

The country joined the EU in 2004, and has initiated the process to join the Schengen zone this year. But the fragile and porous border with Northern Cyprus could complicate the process. Cyprus had the highest number of refugees and migrants compared to its overall population size of the EU in recent years — many of whom enter through Northern Cyprus. But without Schengen status the island is a bit of a dead end for people hoping to move to Europe. There are concerns about the implications of including the country when a third of the island is ungoverned by the EU recognized government, and acts like a proxy state for Turkey.

Meanwhile, former residents of Varosha sway between anguish and limited hope. 

As we walked through the streets of the ghost town, I asked Demetriou what he envisions for the future. His response echoed the opinion of many Greek Cypriots: “I don’t know. I don’t trust anybody and I don’t believe in anybody.”

Archaeologist Anna Marangou is more optimistic. She penned a letter dated into the future, writing from her imagined perspective in the year 2124, where she envisions a different Famagusta. She speaks about a unified Cyprus and the revival of cultural institutions in Varosha, but also about the collapse of the neo-Ottoman regime in Turkey and a possible invasion in the 21st century. The end is sweet, but she foresees many bitter lemons ahead. She told me about her limited hope, transfixed into the future: “Varosha to me is a hope and a wish. Hopefully not a memory site but a living, thriving city. Definitely not through my years on this earth, but for my grandkids.” 

For now the city is still waiting.

Arie Amaya-Akkermans

Arie Amaya-Akkermans is a writer and researcher based between Cyprus and Italy, after a decade in Turkey. His work sits at the intersection between archaeology, art and politics in the Mediterranean region.

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