Bitter Lemons of Cyprus Revisited

Article excerpt

'IT seemed in that warm honey-gold afternoon a delectable island in which to spend some years of one's life', mused the writer Lawrence Durrell, having just bought a house in Bellapais, a village about five miles up in the hills above Kyrenia. He was sitting on the bastions of Kyrenia castle--enjoying celebratory beers and mezes--with his Turkish estate agent, Sabri, calculating the cost of repairs needed to make the property habitable. Sabri recommended a local Greek builder whereupon Durrell commented, 'I was sent to you by a Greek and now the Turk sends me back to a Greek'. Sabri laughed, 'Cyprus is small and we are all friends though different'.

That was in 1953 and Durrell only stayed three years. The story of the house purchase, its renovation and his years on the island are chronicled in his book Bitter Lemons of Cyprus (1957). Half a century later, although changes have taken place, there is still much that Durrell would recognise.

Shortly after his arrival those differences between Greek and Turk flared up and became exceedingly unfriendly. The former wanted reunion with Greece (enosis) and independence from Britain--the island became a Crown Colony in 1925 having been occupied since 1878--but the Turks were content to remain under British rule. Guerilla warfare broke out, in which some of Durrell's students at the Nicosia Gymnasium (where he taught English) were involved. Durrell was appointed Press Advisor to the British government and became increasingly unhappy about the situation. Bitterly disappointed, he left his 'delectable island' never to return.

Relations became even more fraught when Turkish troops moved in to protect the Turks of Cyprus in the mid-1970s and have still not been resolved. Attempts by the United Nations came to nothing more than the establishment of a boundary zone (the Green Line) separating a larger Greek southern section from a small Turkish northern section. Greek families left homes and livelihoods behind as they moved south or emigrated; many could not return as their houses have either been sold to foreign incomers as second or retirement homes or have fallen derelict. In 1983 the northern part of the island declared independence as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, though in 2004 two-thirds (65 per cent) of its population voted in favour of re-unification; Greek Cypriots, however, rejected this by a massive 85 per cent. Southern (Greek) Cyprus then became a full member of the European Union, leaving Turkish North Cyprus politically isolated, not even recognised as a state.

Although there has now been some relaxation of border controls, people are still affected by the division of this small island. Durrell travelled by boat from Venice; most visitors today arrive by air, but international flights are not permitted to operate directly to a country which, officially, does not exist. So planes touch down on the Turkish mainland; alternatively visitors can fly into Larnaca, hire a car or taxi and drive north via one of three check points. Thus Northern Cyprus receives far fewer tourists than the popular resorts of the south. Only more determined travellers overcome such obstacles and, of these, many find their way to Bellapais.

The village made a profound impression on Durrell, even though his first sight of it was in pelting rain: 'I already knew that the ruined monastery of Bellapais was one of the loveliest Gothic survivals in the Levant, but I was not prepared for the breath-taking congruence of the little village which surrounded and cradled it against the side of the mountain.... The village comes down to the road for the last hundred yards or so with its grey, old-fashioned houses with arched vaults and carved doors set in old-fashioned moulding'. In bright autumn sunshine it is even more breath-taking.

Entering the village via the Kyrenia road, the ruined monastery still dominates. The first monks were Augustinian who fled from Jerusalem when the city fell to Saladin in 1187. …