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The Last Divided Capital

March 3rd, 2015 · No Comments · tourism, Travel


Nicosia is probably best known, among soccer fans, as the home of the Cypriot club Apoel, which made the quarterfinals of the 2011-12 Uefa Champions League.

Among tourists, Nicosia probably is known for being the planet’s last divided capital city. A sort of post-Cold War Berlin Lite. Complete with passport scrutiny, a dead zone and a zig-zagging path from one polity to the next.

And to see the ugly scar that runs between the Republic of Cyprus and Northern Cyprus, a sort-of country invented by Turkey and recognized by no other government … well, it takes you back to Checkpoint Charlie.

I saw the famous Checkpoint Charlie in early 1990. I was covering the U.S. national team in two friendlies, against Hungary in Budapest, and then against East Germany in East Berlin, and anyone who was in Berlin in those days went to Checkpoint Charlie — or as close as they could get to it.

The Berlin Wall, constructed in 1961 and breached in 1989 (not fully torn down till 1992), had become more symbol than reality, by then.

Germany was headed for unification but the zombie version of East Germany was still there, and someone wishing to travel between west and east Berlin still needed to go through Checkpoint Charlie.

I do not recall if I needed a special visa, as I walked through, but I believe I did, and the place still held a sort of menace.

The barrier between the northern part of Nicosia, the Turkish half, and the Greek-dominated southern half, is not as dramatic. Neither is it as fortified as the Berlin Wall had been.

But it shares several characteristics. The suspicion. The threat of violence. The dead zone of about 50 yards of empty streets and empty buildings where no one has lived since 1974.

(The Green Line extends 112 miles across the island, dividing the mostly Turkish and Muslim north from the mostly Greek and Christian south.)

We made the drive from Limassol to Nicosia specifically to see the Green Line, and its most-visited spot — right there in the middle of Cyprus’s capital.

As you approach Nicosia from the south, you can see the North Cyprus flag painted on the hill north of the capital. It seems a sort of petty “take that” to the larger and wealthier Republic of Cyprus … but there it is.

You follow the directions to the city center, and park near a main bus terminal, and walk in the rest of the way. Ledra Street, now a pedestrian zone, is the most popular crossing.

The approach from the Republic of Cyprus side takes a tourist past blocks of commercial development.

Then you reach an area where the shops stop and the Green Line begins.

On the left is a shack with North Cyprus civil servants inside, and they check out the slip of paper you have prepared, as well as your passport, before sending you forward. (Presumably, they don’t stamp your passport, because the Republic of Cyprus will not let in someone with a North Cyprus stamp in their book.)

You walk through the dead zone, where photos are not allowed, with blocked off streets and empty hotels to your left and right, and you enter North Cyprus. As I recall, the first storefront I saw sold alcohol.

In general, this part of Nicosia seems economically shaky, and most of the goods on sale reportedly are counterfeit. Knockoffs.

It is a depressing place, and we did not stay long. Went up a block of two, turned a corner, headed back. Bought nothing.

The trip back included North Cyprus officials putting an “exit” stamp on the slip of paper they had given us on the way in. The Republic of Cyprus pretty much waves you through, the theory being that you never really left the country.

Going through the checkpoint and into the other half of the city has become a tourist attraction. Especially from south to north.

We saw a large group of older Germans as they were coming back into the south, and it made me wonder if they had a sort of “checkpoint nostalgia”.

The Cyprus Green Line, which is manned by UN Peacekeepers, is not the last line of demarcation between people who once lived in the same country.

The most prominent line still active is at Panmunjom, in Korea, which divides the communist North from the democratic South, and where the divide is taken with deadly seriousness — with armed soldiers from each side staring at each other all day. (I was there in 1988, ahead of the Seoul Olympics, and it is a very creepy place.)

But this one seems more preposterous.

Yes, we understand the history of Greek versus Turk animosity and violence, but ultimately the people on each side share a not-very-big island, one that would be more important if it were a single polity.

It is hard to imagine this lasting forever, but it’s been 41 years now. Which is why we drove 70 miles to have a look at it.

Without the Green Line, maybe we would go to Nicosia for dinner. North or south of the line. For now, the first thing a tourist does, in Cyprus, is go see that sterile, anachronistic line of demarcation.



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