Camel greeting

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Cyprus - What are the Turks doing there anyway?

No one in the world recognises the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus except Turkey, and, one must suppose, the people who actually live there, but we can’t count them, because no one recognises them, except Turkey, and the people who . . . Well, clearly this isn’t getting us anywhere! We’ll need to try starting somewhere else.

One of my first expeditions out of Istanbul was with a busload of Turkish High School students and teachers. It was an educational trip, for me perhaps more than the students. We visited the battlefields and cemeteries of Gallipoli, the excavations of ancient Troy, and the ruins of Assos scattered through the rustic village of Behramkale.

The hill rising above the blue waters of the Aegean commands an impressive view over the sea and the islands so steeped in history and beloved of modern sun-seeking tourists.

‘What’s that island?’ I asked one of my Turkish colleagues, pointing to a largish land mass rising from the sea about 10 km away.

‘Well, we call it Midilli’, was the reply, ‘but Europeans know it as Lesbos – it’s a Greek Island.’ A quick check of Google Earth reveals that the government in Athens is some 230 km from the island. I didn’t know that at the time, but I definitely couldn’t see the coast of Greece from where I stood.

So how does a strategically significant and desirable piece of island real estate 10 km off the coast of Turkey come to belong to the government of a foreign nation more than 200 km away (a pretty  major distance in the Balkan region, as a glance at recent historical developments will show)? As with most seemingly simple questions in this part of the world, the answer is somewhat less than simple.

‘Greece’ is an interesting word. In fact the modern inhabitants of that nation call it Ellada, but like it to be known officially, in English, as the Hellenic Republic. People speaking a language related to modern Greek spread throughout the region in the last millennium BCE. Various kingdoms and city states rose and fell until most were united after conquests by the armies of Rome in the 2nd century BCE. Latin, of course, became the official language and so continued for many centuries. After the fall of Rome in the 5th century, the power base of the Roman Empire shifted to the eastern capital of Constantinople, and the Greek language bubbled back to prominence again, in much the same way as did English in the centuries after the Norman (French) Conquest.

The island of Lesbos continued as part of the Roman (Byzantine) empire until, with the decline of Byzantine power, it passed into the hands of, first, the Latin crusaders, and then to the Genoese in the 14th century. The Ottomans incorporated it into their empire in 1462, where it remained for some 450 years until the break-up of that empire in the early 20th century. One important feature of Ottoman rule (in all parts of their empire) was the tolerance they granted to conquered peoples to continue using their own language and practising their own religion. They did, however, import and settle Muslim families from their Anatolian heartland to live alongside the locals.

It is with the dawning of the 20th century and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire that the matter seems to become more clouded. The English version of Wikipedia, on the subject of Lesbos, contains this laconic sentence: ‘The island was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1462. It remained under Turkish rule until 1912 when it was ceded to Greece.’ The entry in Turkish is a little more explanatory: During the Balkan Wars, in January 1913, Greeks occupied the island without firing a shot. It was then given to Greece under the terms of the Treaty of London, 30 May 1913. In 1922, during the exchange of populations after the Turkish War of Liberation, the Turkish population was sent to Anatolia and replaced by Greeks from the Turkish mainland (my translation).

So what, you may ask, has all this got to do with Cyprus? Well, the first thing I’d ask you to do is to take a look at a map of the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean. Have a close look at the Greek Islands in particular, and notice how close most of them are to the Turkish mainland. Then, leaving aside other considerations, ask yourself how may other nations would accept the continuing occupation, by a foreign power, of islands so close to their own shores. The attitude of successive US governments to the island of Cuba springs to mind as an example.

Tragedy for Othello - and the Venetians
But of course, as you were no doubt quick to point out, we can’t leave aside other considerations. We need to delve a little into history in order to understand where we truly are in the present. As one might expect of an island with such geo-political importance, ownership has passed through many hands. It came under the sway of the Byzantine Empire in 395 CE,  before falling into the hands of the Arabs for three centuries. The Byzantines reclaimed the island in 966 CE before losing it finally to a succession of Crusading princes and Venetians starting in 1191. It was from the Venetians, then, that the Ottomans seized control in 1570, despite the report in Shakespeare’s Othello that the invading Turkish fleet had been destroyed by a storm.

As noted above, the Ottoman Empire applied a relatively enlightened policy (in the context of history) in allowing minority groups (such as Jews and Orthodox Christians) to use their own language and practise their own religion. It has been suggested by at least one historian that things might have turned out better for the Ottomans in the long run if they had been less accommodating – but there you are.

The nineteenth century was characterised by the rise of nationalism as a political force. Encouraged by the Great Powers of Europe, with an eye to their own advantage, minorities within the Ottoman Empire began to demand independence and autonomy. After the kingdom of Greece was established in 1830, other Greek peoples within the Empire (known as ‘Rum’ in Turkish) began increasingly to nurture the hope of a reincarnation of former Byzantine glories.

In 1878, folowing a secret agreement with the increasingly desperate Ottoman government, the British occupied the island of Cyprus. ‘Why?’ you may ask. In fact, by the 19th century, the Mediterranean had ceased to be an Ottoman lake and had pretty much become a British one. In 1814, the island of Malta had become part of the British Empire. The territory of Gibraltar, on the south coast of Spain, has been a British possession and site of a naval base since 1713. After the opening of the Suez Canal, in 1869, and the increasing threat of Russia to British interests in India and the Near (Middle) East, Cyprus was seen as having major strategic importance. In fact, despite granting independence to the island in 1959, Britain maintains, to the present day, two military bases there at Akrotiri and Dhekelia.

In the last years of British administration after 1955, as Greek nationalists (EOKA) began a campaign of guerilla tactics, Turkish Cypriots were used in a policing capacity by the British, and internecine violence began to escalate. Anti-Greek riots broke out in Istanbul resulting in the last major exodus of Greeks from the city.

After independence was achieved, a constitution was established creating a Greek-Turkish state in Cyprus, but violence continued, fueled by a desire among members of the Greek community for Enosis (union with mainland Greece) and the perception, among the Turkish minority, that they were being driven out.

The issue came to a head on 15 July 1974 when the ruling military junta in Greece authorised a coup in Cyprus to take over the elected government and make Enosis a fact. There is some divergence of opinion about what happened next. The Greek position is that Turkey used this as a pretext for their military invasion; the Turks claim that they asked Britain and France to intervene to stop the violence on the island, but, receiving no reply, took the matter into their own hands.

These differing claims are reflected in the words used to describe the events of July 1974, which most of the world calls ‘The Turkish Invasion’ but Turks refer to as ‘The Peace Operation’. 


  1. Hi Alan, a very informative article! I love the interesting segues into naming practices.

    I heard there were massacres of the Turkish minorities on Cyprus before and after the coup, but you speak of a "perception that they were being driven out" -- do we have records of actual violence and injustice?

  2. Thanks Perin - well, I haven't read any primary sources but most of the material I have read refers to acts of violence against the Turkish minority, which prompted the intervention by Ankara. I"m tying not to be too provocative here - just to suggest that the issue is rather more complex than is generally accepted outside of Turkey.