‘Where there is ruin, there is hope for a treasure’ — Rumi
This week, we look at Varosha, the abandoned southern quarter of the Cypriot city of Famagusta. In the early 1970's, the town acted as a thriving tourist resort and was a favourite destination of the rich and famous. Indeed, the Argo Hotel on JFK Avenue was said to be one of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s favourite holiday locations. On the 20th of July 1974, however, the Greek military junta backed a coup in Cyprus that sparked a Turkish invasion of the island.
At the height of the summer season the impending Turkish invasion suddenly drove upwards of 40,000 inhabitants and guests out of the city. After a short battle, the city was taken by Turkish forces and placed under occupation, preventing the return of residents. Fast forward some 40 years and the area remains eerily abandoned, still under the occupation of the Turkish Armed Forces and without any of its previous dwellers. Quite simply, the ‘ghost town’ of Varosha remains caught in the middle of a divided island.
With miles of empty beaches and grand hotels left standing as hollow shells, Varosha is far from the luxurious hotspot it was advertised as only a few decades ago. For those who dare to venture towards its barricaded perimeters, just remember to pack a few bolt cutters and, if possible, a good pair of trainers. Army patrols continue to follow shoot on sight orders, as evidenced by the many warning signs. While a quiet stroll along your own private Mediterranean beach sounds like paradise to many, unsurprisingly, most would advise that Varosha remains best viewed from a distance.
Since the day the barricades were erected, it is no exaggeration to say that only a handful of individuals, other than Turkish soldiers, have dared to trek inside. Of the intruders who have manged to re-emerge unnoticed, they describe extraordinary sights which even photography fails to capture. A car dealership still stocked with 1974 models, window displays of mannequins dressed in long-forgotten fashions, deserted nightclubs, the ever encroaching sand dunes and the crumbling structures of buildings which once housed around 39,000 local inhabitants. In a hypothetical sense, Varosha sits as a surreal theme park, which takes you back to life in 1970s Cyprus. The only component missing, is a way in.
While the physical condition of Varosha stands dormant, there are numerous groups and organisations which are pushing for new approaches to regenerate the region. Many calls have been made for innovative propositions to end the lack of action. As of yet, however, none have received significant backing at the state-level. One proposal of particular note, made by the daughter of a former resident, suggests turning Varosha into an eco-city — “a model for sustainability and peaceful coexistence”.
The project culminated in the creation of a documentary, which presents a unique opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the past and rebuild for a better future, where sustainability is at its core. Principal to this, is the use of renewable energy. Local and international architects have worked to produce master plans of what the new city could look like, with many of their suggestions receiving wide-spread recognition. Built into the eco-city idea, it is important to mention, is an awareness of the risks which its realisation poses. Without careful planning, it could become just another unsustainable development in an already crowded Mediterranean tourism market. Added to this, the project is realistic in terms of its potential to adjust long-standing and political sensitive territorial boundaries.
What the eco-city scheme does present is a promising illustration of what life could be like in the resort. Rebuilding Varosha in the context of a model ecopolis promotes peaceful coexistence amongst all of Famagusta’s inhabitants. Likewise, it embraces the latest eco-city technologies and attempts to turn Famagusta into a centre for peace and sustainability within a troubled region. The project ultimately aims to turn all of Famagusta into a model city of the future. This is a multi-track approach to environmental sustainability, economic prosperity and peace building.
While it is difficult to say that the future of Varosha is bright, there are certainly efforts being made to reach a prosperous future for the region. As Vasia Markides, head of the eco-city project, poignantly asserts; “to really take a place that is a symbol of war and neglect and hatred, and turn it into a model that the rest of the world could use — to me it’s a success story, even if we only bring awareness”. For now, Varosha remains abandoned and one of the rare places on earth where humans are forbidden from visiting. Unfortunately, little suggests that this will change in the foreseeable future.