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Divided Cypriots unite to preserve ancient Famagusta

The history of the storied port is reflected in its French Gothic cathedral, Italian Renaissance palace, Byzantine church, and Ottoman madrassah-turned-restaurant.

By Michael TheodoulouCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 3, 2008

Courtesy of Allan Langdale

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Famagusta, Cyprus

In its pulsating 14th-century heyday, this walled port was the region's richest city. Home to rich merchants and bejewelled courtesans, Famagusta's streets and markets echoed with Greek, Arabic, French, Hebrew – even Tamil and Norse.

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The fabled setting for Shakespeare's Othello, it was also the seat for Jerusalem's exiled French Crusader kings. Later ruled by Italians and then conquered by the Ottomans, it testifies to a storied past. Within a few blocks stand a French Gothic cathedral, an Italian Renaissance palace, a Byzantine church, and an Ottoman madrassah-turned-restaurant.

"You have 2,000 years of historical architecture within reaching range. It's astonishing," says Allan Langdale, a Canadian art historian who recently made a documentary about Famagusta's beauty and plight.

Now, in a rare bicommunal project, the city's estranged Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities are uniting to preserve the ancient walled city's architectural treasures. So far, such efforts have been frozen by the politics of a divided Cyprus and a lack of funding.

Supporters hope the cooperative nature of the project will help overcome political hurdles, opening legal channels for foreign funding. In turn, they say, the project could boost reunification efforts for Cyprus by building confidence. In a symbolic step toward reunification, the crossing point on Nicosia's Ledra Street was to be opened Thursday.

"The people of Famagusta, Greek and Turkish Cypriots ... should join forces not only to save the past, but to build a future in a reunited Cyprus and Famagusta," Alexis Ghalanos, representative of Famagusta's displaced Greek Cypriot community, said at a meeting that launched the project in December.

"The value Famagusta holds for world heritage is greater than all those things that have separated us for so long," he added. "I sincerely hope that this [initiative] can prove a steppingstone to the opening of the city to Europe and to Cyprus as a whole."

Oktay Kayalp, Famagusta's Turkish Cypriot representative, agreed that a common front is needed to help the city that he sees as a historic bridge between East and West, Christianity and Islam.

The political atmosphere was transformed following February polls, when Greek Cypriots rejected their hard-line president and voted in moderate President Demetris Christofias. For the first time in decades, both sides have conciliatory leaders determined to restart peace talks that collapsed four years ago.

Famagusta lies on the internationally unrecognized, Turkish-controlled northern half of the island, which foreign experts say lacks money and expertise to preserve the monuments. Greek Cypriots, who head the island's internationally recognized government, generally frown at unsanctioned intervention in antiquities in northern Cyprus, which they do not have access to. For more than three decades, none of Famagusta's 45,000 former Greek Cypriot residents have enjoyed access to their homes in new Famagusta, a fenced-off ghost town known as Varosha.

Cyprus has been split along ethnic lines since 1974, when Turkey invaded the north in response to a Greek Cypriot coup engineered by the military junta then ruling Greece. Some 180,000 Greek Cypriots and 50,000 Turkish Cypriots were displaced.

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