This blog aims to look into the past to interpret the present and bridge better the necessity of history with today’s reality and the possibility of tomorrow. It’s about culture, anthropology, history, and geography, and also about continuity, discontinuity, conflict, and reconciliation in our human affairs.
Every year around this time, my family has the tradition of planning our summer vacation. Each of us comes to the table with preferences and ideas to make those two weeks count.
As I wrote before, we got the opportunity to visit my grandfather’s ancestral grounds in the Peloponnese last year. It was a trip loaded with history and a rich cultural experience, especially given my interest in unearthing the roots of the present and spotting the branches of the future.
And this year, I hope that the upcoming vacation will give me the chance to better understand one of the most momentous events of our times: the refugee upheaval in the eastern Mediterranean.
Eastern Mediterranean is one of the cradles of civilization. It’s where the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Jews, and Muslims all call home and the arena where they and their religious and cultural institutions – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam – have both co-existed and collided for centuries.
Historically the region’s frictions have resulted in significant dislocations with endless waves of refugees. In biblical times the Jews moved out of Egypt. Centuries later, the Romans exiled the Jews, forcing them to spread throughout Europe. And over the last few years, the civil war in Syria has created one of history’s largest humanitarian crises, with refugee waves that have flooded most of Europe.
Major dislocations like those have complex historical and cultural roots and long-lasting consequences, which are fascinating to me. And, if we ever hope to end such crises, we need to understand how they come about and be ready to prevent or reverse them early on.
After many decades of relative quiet in the region, many think that the recent Syrian refugee crisis is the first modern wave of dislocation. But this is not what my study of the history of the Eastern Mediterranean shows me. Decades before the Syrian crisis, in the 1970s, there was another wave of refugees on the tiny outpost of the Eastern Mediterranean, the island of Cyprus.
A brief background: Cyprus is the birthplace of the goddess of beauty, Aphrodite or Venus. A primarily Greek population has inhabited it alongside a minority of Turks and other ethnicities in the last centuries. The island has great strategic significance, as it overlooks the crossroads that connect Asia with Europe and Africa and is close to the world’s oil reserves.
In 1974 Cyprus was an independent country throughout the entire island. It had a democratic government, led by a bishop of the Greek Orthodox Church, and a market-based economy. The early ’70s was a period of turmoil in the region. In 1973 Israel and Egypt fought a major war, and in 1974 the Greeks staged a rebellion against their country’s dictatorship.
Taking advantage of the regional upheaval, an increasingly aggressive Turkey staged a surprise invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and seized 40% of its territory.
The pretext was the alleged abuse of the Turkish minority by the Greek majority. Still, instead of just offering protection to the ethnic Turks, the Turkish army forced a massive displacement of the ethnic Greeks, who were forced to leave the northern part of the island and escape for their lives to the south.
Since then, through the UN, the international community has continuously disavowed the invasion and protested the refugee crisis, but to no avail. Still today, 47 years later, that first wave of modern-era refugees in the Eastern Mediterranean remains unsettled.
Over time the Turkish army has relocated ethnic Turks from Anatolia to resettle the entire north. And the original refugees, displaced now for 44 years, are left to walk up to the demilitarized zone that divides the North from the South so that they can catch a glimpse of the life they were forced to leave behind.
If I am fortunate enough, this summer, I want to visit the island to talk to the refugee families and, perhaps, even get permission to cross over to the North and see for myself the change that has taken place. If this happens, I hope to be able to blog throughout my visit, and you will be invited to follow my journey here.