In the mid-twentieth century, Great Britain abandoned its control of a Mediterranean territory, leaving two ethnically and religiously divided populations, each with historic claims to its occupancy, to sort out competing claims of legal status and sovereign authority with little help from the international community. Unsurprisingly, intercommunal violence, the involvement of outside powers, and a de facto division of the two populations to the satisfaction of neither resulted. Decades later, the situation remains stalemated despite various attempts at adjudication, with lasting embitterment on both sides.
With that description, most people would think automatically of Jews and Palestinians on the contested territory between Israel and the Palestinian lands west of the Jordan River. But it applies equally well to a conflict the world all but ignores save for the principals involved themselves. That conflict, of course, divides the island of Cyprus, as it has for the past forty-seven years.
Cyprus is an island favored by nature in all respects but one: its proximity to the coast of Asia Minor or Anatolia, the large peninsula that juts out into the Black Sea, and the northern Mediterranean as the westernmost landmass of Asia. It has been ruled by Phoenicians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Ptolemaians, Romans, Byzantines, Frenchmen, Mameluks, Venetians, and, from 1571 to 1878, by the Ottoman Empire, which ceded it in the latter year to Great Britain. Among the many who contended for it were Richard the Lionheart and the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick the Great. Shakespeare’s Othello is represented as a naval commander defending Cyprus on behalf of Venice. Itself a conqueror at times, it had once controlled Palestine and occupied Jerusalem. But the island was Hellenized during the period when Greek city-states flourished along Anatolia’s western shores and was recognized as a part of the Greek world during and the centuries that preceded the Roman conquest.
By Dr. Robert Zaller, Professor Emeritus, Department of History, Drexel University