Cyprus Lives in Love and Strife | Travel | Smithsonian
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Cyprus Lives in Love and Strife

Despite ethnic tensions, today's tourists can't resist the past and present of this ancient Mediterranean crossroads

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The island of Cyprus, tucked into a corner of the Mediterranean Sea, is one of those flash points of ethnic conflict that periodically threaten the peace of the world. Almost daily, Greeks and Turks hurl insults at each other across a long, thin line patrolled by a handful of United Nations troops. But for the millions of tourists who flock to its beautiful beaches in the shadow of picturesque fortifications, Cyprus remains a carefree island of love and beauty.

In ancient times, the sanctuary of "foam-born" Aphrodite, worshiped as the goddess of love, attracted pilgrims to Cyprus from all over the civilized world. But Cretans and Assyrians, Phoenicians and Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans and Byzantines, Arabs and crusaders, Genoese and Venetians, Turks and British, all exploited the island. The Greeks first came in about the 12th century B.C., and gradually imposed their language and culture.

In A.D. 1571 the Ottoman Turks took Cyprus from the Venetians. Then, in the middle of the 20th century, Greek Cypriots, led by Greek Orthodox archbishop Makarios, called for union with Greece. Turks on Cyprus and in Turkey were adamantly opposed.

Finally, in 1960, Greeks and Turks accepted a painful compromise. Cyprus became an independent republic, with Archbishop Makarios as its first president, but with protections for the rights of the Turkish minority. In 1974 a Greek military officers' plot to murder Makarios failed, but not before the Turkish government had seized the opportunity to occupy a third of the island, stopping at a line that to this day divides Cyprus into Greek and Turkish communities.

Meanwhile, fueled by tourist money, a building boom has been in progress on both sides of the line. In barely a generation Cyprus has gone through a process that in most of Western Europe took 200 years. Surely the fun-loving Aphrodite would be pleased to see so many of her modern-day devotees plunging into the very Mediterranean that gave her birth.

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