Text: NESLİHAN PEKDEMİR Photos: KAĞAN AYBUDAK
A starfish in the middle of the Mediterranean, which awaits explorers to whom it can reveal its lesser known beauty spots.
In just an hour and fifteen minutes the Turkish Airlines' North Cyprus plane is descending to land in the heart of the turquoise. The first thing I do is pick up a map from Ercan Airport Tourist Information. I haven't a single guidebook with me. I deliberately did no prior investigating before coming to Northern Cyprus and decided just to be surprised by what I saw. We are heading now to Gazimağusa in a taxi. It's almost midnight, so whatever this turquoise island has to say will only become clear in the morning.
MORNING IN AN ANCIENT CITY
I wake up about five-thirty. Fifteen minutes later we are in the ancient city of Salamis, the island's Roman period. Day is dawning slowly over the agoras, statues and columns. This is one of the best times of day for touring an ancient city. The surroundings are reminiscent of a 19th century oil painting in the Romantic style. Lizards seem to be the real owners here and pose unruffled for our cameras. Centuries ago this ancient city on the Merya Plain was one of the island's most important spots. And extremely powerful too owing to its position. Its gymnasium, theater, bath, toilets and mosaics provide many clues to Salamis's past. Founded in the 11th century B.C., the city emerged onto the stage of history as a major center of trade in the 8th century B.C. and in the Hellenistic and Roman periods shared its wealth with cities like Ephesus, Pergamum and Athens to become a key trading point of the Mediterranean world. Although a series of earthquakes put a halt to the city's development, the Byzantine emperor Constantine II (337-361 A.D.) had it rebuilt and renamed it Constantia. Wearied by attacks, however, the city's inhabitants resettled in 648 at Arsinoe, today's Gazimağusa. And we, like them, are also heading there.
GATEWAY TO THE SEA: GAZİMAĞUSA
We continue our history of North Cyprus's ancient period with our tour guide, Giselle, and are instantaneously transported back to the Middle Ages. At Mağusa, one of the wealthiest cities in the world under the Lusignan dynasty (1192-1489), we visit the Venetian walls, Gothic churches, Othello's Tower - said to have inspired Shakespeare's play of the same name - and the church and cathedral of St. George. As the largest port on
this island on the Mediterranean trade route, Mağusa was a place where upwards of 350 churches rose one by one during Lusignan's 300-year reign. This port was literally the island's gateway to the world. After surveying the harbor from the upper terrace of Othello's Tower, built in the 14th century to defend the port, we stroll to the city center. Opposite the Gothic windows and vertical lines of the Lala Mustafa Paşa Mosque (former Cathedral of St. Nicholas) which soar skywards from the middle of Namık Kemal Square stands the Venetian Palace, built in the 13th century as the Lusignan Royal Palace. With its tiny bazaar, cafes and souvenir shops, Mağusa nevertheless appears to be all quiet at noon.
TO THE TIP OF THE ISLAND
I try to take notes as Giselle talks: “The island has an extremely colorful past owing to its strategic location between East and West. Its history, which continues with colonists from Phoenicia, Ancient Greece, Assyria and Egypt, actually began to be written much earlier in the 7000's B.C. It boasts cities that were either founded, restored or built from scratch in the time of the Byzantines, the Knights Templar, Lusignan, the Venetians and the Ottomans.” Regarded as a 'ghost town' by the locals, Maraş leaves us awestruck. A coast stretching to the horizon and an abandoned city...
There is one point that on the Cyprus map appears to be at the very tip of the island - a piece of land that reaches right out into the Mediterranean - and that's where we head to Dipkarpaz.
Along the way on our right are medieval castles atop green hills, and on our left the boundless sea and beaches where Caretta caretta and green-headed turtles (Chelonia mydas) have laid their eggs for millennia.
FINDING THE TURQUOISE
After enjoying Cyprus cuisine at Yeşilköy on the way to Karpaz, we are now approaching the villages of North Cyprus, the long beaches, in short, the extraordinary beauty. The village of Sipahi, the adorable wild donkeys in the national park, and the ruins of the Hagios Trias Basilica with its fascinating mosaics are all places we can't leave without photographing. And when we finally get to the tip of the island, the Monastery of the Apostle Andrew greets us. Giselle tells us the story of the water gushing from the rocks immediately below the monastery and of a ship that once sailed past here. As we advance a little further in front of this structure surrounded by the Mediterranean as far as the eye can see the blue that looms before us provides the inspiration for the opening lines of this article.
SUNSET IN A MEDIEVAL CASTLE
As we return from Dipkarpaz to Mağusa, it's time now to explore the island's Middle Ages. Near the boat landing, we start to climb from the coast up into the hills, ending our day at Kantara Castle, which was built as an observation tower in the 10th century and is one of three medieval castles in the Beşparmark (Five-Finger) Mountains. The other two are St. Hilarion and Bufavento.
LOVELY HOUSES IN NARROW STREETS
The next morning we are in Lefkoşa, beside the walls in the defense of sections of which Leonardo da Vinci had a role. As it is told, the great painter had a Cypriot lover at the time and on one of his visits to the island heard that the Ottoman Empire was preparing to conquer it. He alerted the Venetians and a repair of the defense walls was undertaken immediately. Although they were not ready in time for the attack, their finished parts stand today completely sound.
The quarter known as Arap Ahmet Mahallesi on the dividing line is our first rest stop in Lefkoşa. Reminiscent of a film set, this is a warren of narrow streets and lanes with Greek, Ottoman and English houses all built at different times. Although we'd like to stay longer and take photographs for hours, the time comes to depart. We still have to visit the Silk Thread Makers Market, the Great Khan, the Mevlevi Museum, Girne Gate, Selimiye Mosque (Cathedral of St. Sophia), and the Dervişpaşa Mansion. I recommend a midday stop at the Great Khan (Büyük Han) either for a short break or to buy some unique North Cyprus handicrafts. A touristic bazaar today, the khan has cafes, art galleries and ateliers as well.
FROM CASTLE TO CASTLE
As we are leaving Lefkoşa and heading for Girne, we suddenly decide to climb St. Hilarion castle when our guide cautions us not to leave without seeing it. Leaving behind the area the knights once used for sword practice, we are now in the castle itself, where we have a cold drink and enjoy the view of Girne. As we do so, Mustafa Gürsel, a man with a strong interest in nature and culture in Cyprus, shares with us his knowledge of North Cyprus's endemic plants, the tulip and the orchid.
Now the time has come to descend into the heart of Girne. Designed on the interior like a fine museum, Girne Castle survived the Lusignan,
Venetian, Byzantine and Ottoman periods, and the coats of arms suspended on its walls enable us to 'read' this history. The Port of Girne, visible from the structure's highest point, looks like a charming Mediterranean town with restaurants lining the shore and yachts moored in front of them. This is finally the spot where we relax and listen to the turquoise island. And at that moment the following thought occurs to me about the time I've spent here: North Cyprus is a place to which I did not bring all I had heard and learned about it up to now, a turquoise island that was able to surprise me every minute - and the more it surprised me the more I loved it - and, all else aside, a turquoise island where I saw peace and tranquility on every side.