Sumgait: An unendurable legacy

On a previous visit to Azerbaijan in 2014, I had travelled from Baku north-westwards to Sheki, and from there on to Tbilisi in Georgia (see entry of 24 March 2015). Along the way I visited towns and villages that illustrated the diversity of the country’s history and heritage, the remnants of peoples and civilisations that had been swept away by the moving sands of history, the migrations of peoples, by conquest or assimilation. A notable recent example had been the abrupt obliteration of the Armenian presence in Azerbaijan amid the collapse of the Soviet Union and the conflict between the nascent post-Soviet states of Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. On this occasion, in February 2020, I travelled to Sumgait, a short distance up the coast from Baku. The town had become notorious for the “Sumgait pogrom” in February1988, when a rampaging Azeri mob had hunted down Armenian residents, murdered them and raped them, forcing the rest of the Armenian community to flee.

The Lonely Planet guide had a very brief entry for Sumgait, describing the city as a “dystopian nightmare”, referring to its Soviet-era chemical industry. Perhaps the most uncomplimentary entry in a guidebook I had ever seen. Sumgait is indeed rather a drab city, but its depiction by the Lonely Planet seems harsh. Long, broad avenues lined with apartment buildings, typical of many Soviet towns, do little to inspire. Perhaps it was even more grim in the Soviet period. But there is a park, and monuments have been erected to give the town a civic identity. There is a long sandy beach that could indeed have been much better framed by more imaginative town planners than the architects of Soviet Sumgait. We found nice places to eat. Notably a restaurant overlooking the beach, where we ate qutab, a speciality of Sumgait, delicious pastries served with a variety of fillings, including meat, herbs, cheese and pumpkin.

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Peace Dove, Sumgait

The city’s most famous monument, dating from Soviet times, is the Peace Dove sculpture, a swirling abstract representation of a dove that is the symbol of the town. Given the 1988 events for which Sumgait is famous, the monument seems grimly ironic. In the late 1980s, Sumgait had a population of over 220,000, of whom around 17,000 were ethnic-Armenians. The backdrop of the tragedy of the Armenians of Sumgait was the escalating conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenians had long been aggrieved at the inclusion of the Armenian-majority province of Karabakh in Azerbaijan. As the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, loosened the Soviet regime, Armenians were emboldened to push for its transfer to Armenia. That February 1988, Armenians began demonstrating in Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital, Stepanakert, for their province to be joined with Armenia, and the province’s Supreme Soviet voted to that effect.

Disquiet among Azeris in Sumgait was aggravated by inflammatory statements by some Azerbaijani officials as well as stories told by Azeris from Armenia who claimed they had been beaten and forced out. As demonstrations erupted in Sumgait, some prominent local Azerbaijanis tried to calm the crowds, telling them that the rumours were false. But this message did not go down well. Others called for Armenians to be expelled or killed. Speeches ended with the cry “Death to Armenians.” Violence broke out on 27 February, as Azeri mobs entered apartment buildings seeking out Armenians. Unspeakable acts of savagery were carried out, including gang rapes. Some bodies were so mutilated as to be unrecognisable. Thousands of Armenians were given refuge by Azeri or Russian neighbours, but notably, the local police did nothing. Interior ministry troops tried to restore order on 28 February, but were attacked by the mobs. Some of their armoured personnel carriers were turned over or put out of action with Molotov cocktails. Finally, on the 29th, armed forces with tanks entered the city, imposed martial law and escorted surviving Armenian residents to safety. The official tally of victims released by the Soviet Prosecutor’s office counted 32 dead, of whom 26 were Armenians and six Azeris. Armenian sources claimed numbers in the hundreds.

Trials were held in Moscow. While some of the perpetrators received heavy sentences, many were treated lightly, being sentenced for mere hooliganism. While Armenians were dissatisfied that the main instigators had not been punished, many Azeris felt the punishments were too severe, and even campaigned for the release of the “heroes of Sumgait.” For Armenians the pogrom was quickly linked to the 1915 genocide, and a cross stone commemorating the violence was placed at the Genocide Memorial in Yerevan. But among Azeris a conspiracy theory gained currency that the pogrom had in fact been contrived by Armenians in order to discredit Azerbaijan. In Azerbaijan the pogrom is euphemistically referred to as the “Sumgait events.” There is something particularly distasteful about blaming the atrocities dealt upon the Armenian population of Sumgait on the victims themselves, and the failure of Azerbaijan to face up to this dark moment in its recent history is as shaming as the event itself. The massacre in Sumgait was followed by pogroms against the Armenians in other Azerbaijani cities, in Kirovabad (today known as Ganza), Azerbaijan’s second city, in November 1988, and in Baku in January 1990.

For most Azeris, the narrative is about the heroism and sacrifices of their own people, the hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis driven out of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding districts captured by the Armenians in the war of the early 1990s. Outside a school in Sumgait I saw a memorial to eight former pupils, young men who had been killed in the fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, “our martyrs” my guide told me, a young woman who had not yet been born in 1988.

On a hill overlooking the city and the Caspian Sea in Baku, the Martyr’s Alley commemorates the Azeri dead of the fist Nagorno-Karabakh war in the 1990s, as well as the victims of the “Black January” crackdown by Soviet forces which followed the pogrom against the city’s Armenian population in January 1990 and mounting disorder in the city amid demonstrations against communist rule. More than 130 people were killed during the Soviet crackdown, which succeeded in largely uniting Azerbaijanis against communist rule and strengthening demands for independence. The Martyr’s Alley had first been established as a cemetery for Muslim victims of the so-called March Events of 1918, during the civil war that followed the Bolshevik revolution, when thousands were killed. Upon coming to power, the Bolsheviks destroyed the cemetery and replaced it with an amusement park, but after the end of the Soviet Union the site was reinstated as a burial site for national heroes. Lines of graves under the trees, many with fresh flowers, and pictures of the young men they contain, mostly casualties of the Karabakh war. At one end of the Alley, overlooking the sea, is the tall domed eternal flame memorial.

The Martyr’s Alley reminds us of the thousands of Azeri casualties of the conflicts with Armenia, not just the young soldiers killed in the war, but the hundreds of thousands of Azeris driven out of Nagorno-Karabakh and the territory surrounding it that was seized by the Armenians. Atrocities had also been carried out against Azeris, notably the massacre by Armenian troops of civilians fleeing the village on Khojaly during the first Karabakh war, in February 1992. Both sides focus on the sufferings and tragedies of their own people, and the crimes committed against them, often barely even recognising that people on the other side were also wronged. What hope that one day Azerbaijan might acknowledge the massacres of Armenians in Sumgait, Baku and Kirovabad, and that Armenia might acknowledge that there was no possible justification for the killing of civilians fleeing Khojaly? More than a hundred years after the Armenian genocide in 1915, such a prospect unfortunately looks far off, and the wounds of conflict look likely to remain open.

Crusader castles in Limassol, Cyprus

Today Limassol is Cyprus’s second largest city. Known as Lemesos in Greek, it is best known to history as the place where Richard the Lionheart landed in 1191, on his way to the Third Crusade. During a storm, some of the ships in his fleet put into Cyprus, or were wrecked on its shore, including one containing his fiancé and his sister, and another his treasury for the crusade. The Byzantine governor of the island, Isaac Komnenos, had mistreated his fiancé and sister, and also imprisoned survivors of the wrecks. Richard’s troops, led by Guy de Lusignan, quickly conquered the island. Richard initially sold Cyprus to the Knights Templar, before handing it over to Guy de Lusignan, thus inaugurating 300 years of rule on the island by the French Lusignan dynasty. Before his departure from Cyprus, Richard married his bride in Limassol.

Guy de Lusignan is said to have built a fortress in Limassol, but the castle we see today was built by the Ottomans following their conquest of the island in the 16th century. It is now a museum. The town has had its ups and downs. It fell into decline under the Ottomans, who favoured the port of Larnaca, along the coast to the east. But it experienced a revival under British rule, and by the end of the 19th century was an important port. Limassol’s rising importance was further boosted following the 1974 Turkish invasion of the island, both because of the loss to the Republic of Cyprus of the port of Famagusta, Now under Turkish control, and because of an influx of Greek Cypriots displaced from the north of the island. Modern Limassol has stretched eastwards along the coast, and has become one of Cyprus’s most important tourist destinations. It has also acquired a multicultural air, with migrants from Russia as well as well as middle eastern countries. The town centre, close to the castle, is now filled with bars and restaurants mainly catering to foreign visitors. Even in January, when I visited, tourists were very much in evidence.

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Kolossi castle

From my perspective, Limassol was less appealing than other places I visited on Cyprus, the tourism overdone. To the west of the town is the British sovereign base of Akrotiri. An unexpected benefit of the presence of this base is that it blocked the spread of the tourism industry along the shoreline with its sandy beaches west of Limassol. I took a bus that skirted around the British base, meandering through small towns and villages as it went, to visit the medieval castle of Kolossi. The original castle on the site was built by the Knights Hospitaller in the early 13th century. It was an important crusader stronghold, especially after the fall of Acre in 1291, when Kolossi became for a time the principal base of the Hospitallers.

Reduced to ruins by Mameluke attacks in the 15th century, the castle we see today, a hulking square keep, was built in 1454 by the Hospitaller commander, Louis de Magnac. His coat of arms can be seen on the exterior of the castle, together with that of the Kingdom of Cyprus and two grand masters of the order. The interior rooms of the three-story castle, with their imposing fireplaces with the Magnac coat of arms, may well have been splendid in their time. Today it is hard to imagine how these bare stone walls, without furnishings, the window alcoves with bare stone seats, might have looked. Did the occupants live in comfort and luxury in these vaulted chambers? Did they have splendid feasts? Without the trappings that would have given these walls life, the bare stones appear austere, the world that once existed here hard to fathom.

Close by the castle is large vaulted building that looks very much like a church, although it is in fact the remains of a medieval sugar factory. Cyprus became an important producer of sugar for Europe in the middle ages, and in the 15th century was the biggest producer in the Mediterranean. In the 16th century Cyprus was overtaken by the sugar plantations of Madeira and the Canary Islands, and later the Caribbean. Like them, the sugar plantations of Cyprus employed slave labour, probably from the Black Sea region. Sugar production continued in Cyprus until the 17th century, by which time it could not withstand the competition from the West Indies.

Nicosia, Cyprus's divided capital

I arrived in Cyprus’s divided capital of Nicosia by bus from Larnaca, on the south coast. I first spent a couple of days in the south of the city, the Greek-inhabited capital of the internationally recognised state, before crossing over to the north through the pedestrian Ledra Street crossing. The city is known in Greek by its older name, Lefkosia, and in Turkish as Lefkoşa, rather than the Frankish Nicosia.

The first crossing between the north and south of the island after the 1974 Turkish invasion was opened in 2003. Passing through the pedestrian Ledra Street crossing in the centre of the city is now a quick and painless affair. Very few people were crossing on the days that I passed to and from the north of the city, and I was through in minutes, with just cursory checks of my passport. On my first afternoon in the city, I saw a group of girls arriving in south Nicosia through the crossing, and being stopped by a Greek Cypriot policeman who asked, in English, where they were from? “Lefkoşa”, replied one of the girls. “You are Cyrpiot?” asked the policeman? “Yes”, they replied, and he waved them through without further fuss. An apparently normal occurrence, a group of Turkish Cypriot girls visiting the south of their city. Who knows what they planned to do? Perhaps some shopping. South Nicosia has the well-known western brands of clothes shops that are not found in the north.

Nicosia became the capital of Byzantine Cyprus in the 10th century, its relatively safe inland position preferred to coastal settlements such as the ancient city of Salamis, close to present-day Famagusta, which had been plagued by frequent Arab raids. The Frankish Lusignan dynasty, which ruled the island from the end of the 12th century, fortified the city, as well as building the gothic Cathedral of St Sophia and other Catholic churches and palaces. The impressive walls we see today, with their star shape and eleven bastions, were built by the Venetians, who ruled for nearly a hundred years from the late 15th century.

As with Famagusta and Kyrenia, the Venetians substantially upgraded the city’s fortifications in preparation for an expected Ottoman attack. For the most part the walls are still intact, although in places they were breached in the 20th century to make way for modern roads into and out of the old city. The Kyrenia gate, in the north of the city, one of the three city gates built by the Venetians, now stands in a gap in the wall, with roads passing either side. A postcard from 1922 shows the walls linking up with the gate, with paths sloping up on to the walls on either side. The walls are better cared for in the south of the city. In the north they are overgrown with greenery and the ground level is higher, burying the lower part of the walls and diminishing their impressive bulk.

The efforts the Venetians put into building the walls were to no avail. When the Ottoman force invaded Cyprus in June 1520, the Venetians withdrew to their fortified towns, Nicosia, Kyrenia and Famagusta. The siege of Nicosia began in July, and lasted only seven weeks. The victorious Ottomans set about massacring the inhabitants, sparing only the women and children, who were sold into slavery. The city was ransacked, and St Sophia’s and other Catholic churches were converted into mosques. Nicosia remained the administrative seat of the island under the Ottomans, but it was devastated by the conquest, its population reduced to not much more than 1,000 from the 21,000 it had been under the Venetians.

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Nicosia, the Selimiye Cami

The city recovered under Ottoman rule, unlike the coastal city of Famagusta, whose walled old town has a somewhat ghostly appearance, many of the buildings from the Venetian and Lusignan periods left to crumble, the empty spaces left empty, and relatively little new Ottoman construction. In Nicosia, by contrast, the Ottomans left their mark. The notable Ottoman-era architecture is more to be found on the northern side of the city. Long before the division of the city into Greek and Turkish halves in the 1960s, Muslims settled in greater numbers in the north of the city, where the seat of the governor of the island, the Konak or Saray was situated. The Saray, which had earlier been the palace of the Lusignan kings and Venetian governors, was demolished during the period of British rule, and replaced by law courts. The square is still known to locals as Sarayonu square, despite being officially named after Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic. In its centre stands a column which had been brought to the city by the Venetians from the ancient city of Salamis. The fine-looking law courts are typical of civic buildings from the British period, bright and open, with shady colonnaded terraces, a style appropriate for the Mediterranean, quite unlike architecture of the period in Britain. There are other, more familiar mementoes of British rule, notably the post boxes with the initials of British monarchs, now painted yellow in the south of the island.

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Buyuk Han

Perhaps the loveliest building in Nicosia is the Buyuk Han, the Great Han, a caravanserai or inn built shortly after the Ottoman conquest. Its layout is fairly typical of caravanserais around the middle east and central Asia, a square two-story building around a large central courtyard, with colonnaded terraces off which there are rooms which on the ground floor were used for commerce and on the first floor as accommodation for travelling merchants. In the courtyard is a small mosque which was for the use of travellers. Under British rule the han was briefly a prison, and then reverted to its original purpose, as an inn and shops. For a while it served as accommodation for poor families. The building was beautifully restored in the 1990s, and now houses handicraft and souvenir shops, as well as cafes with terraces on the courtyard. It was particularly lovely in the late afternoons, when the January sunshine slanted on to the sandstone arches of the courtyard, while visitors sat and drank their tea or coffee.

Typically of Cyprus, many of the buildings of the Ottoman period were converted Lusignan churches. Nearby the Buyuk Han is the Buyuk Hammam, the Ottoman baths, which had previously been the Church of St George of the Latins. It appears lower than it would have been, as a result of the rising of the street level over time. Also nearby is the Selimiye Cami, Nicosia’s biggest mosque, once the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St Sophia. Its conversion to a mosque involved the building of two minarets either side of its entrance. Strung between them today are the flags of Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), which is recognised only by Turkey. Like the converted Cathedral of St Nicholas in Famagusta, on the inside the gothic arches and vaulted ceiling of St Sophia’s have been whitewashed. The tombs of Lusignan kings lie beneath the carpeted floor whose lines point Muslims towards Mecca, its direction indicated by the ornate Mihrab on the side of the cathedral. In the southern, Greek part of the city is the Omeriye mosque, built on the site of the 14th century Church of St Mary, part of an Augustinian monastery. The church was badly damaged during the Ottoman siege, and was rebuilt as a mosque, with the addition of a minaret. However, the outline of the original church is clear to see, with its apse at the farthest end from the entrance, where the alter had once stood. On the outside, behind the minaret, a small rose window can be seen.

Next to the Selimiye Cami is a partially ruined building that has been re-purposed multiple times over the centuries, the Bedestan, or covered market. This started out in the Byzantine period as an Orthodox Church. The Gothic entrance across from the Selimiye Cami dates from the Lusignan period, when it may have served as a Catholic church for a time. Under Ottoman rule it became the Bedestan. When the British took over in Cyprus in the 1870s, they wanted to convert it back into a church, but were unable to do so due to the Islamic prohibition on having a shrine of another religion close to a mosque. Having been recently renovated, it is now a cultural centre.

The south of the city was and is predominantly Greek, and includes the Archbishop’s residence and the Orthodox cathedral, as well as the residence of the Dragoman, a senior Greek official who was the link between the Ottoman authorities and the Greek Orthodox population. The present-day archbishop’s palace, which was built in the 1950s, is large, with spacious grounds. Perhaps this reflects the importance of the Orthodox Church in Cyprus’s history. Archbishop Kyprianos, whose bust stands outside the palace, founded the Pancyprian Gymnasium, the island’s first secondary school, in 1812, and was among more than 400 Greek Cypriots who were executed by the Ottomans in 1821, in response to the wide support of the Greek community for Greece’s independence struggle. Archbishop Makarios III held a leading position in the Greek Cypriot community as it struggled for independence from Britain in the 1950s, and became the country’s first president following independence in 1960. The Cathedral of St John the Theologian, in contrast to the archbishop’s place, is a small, modest building. Built on the site of a Benedictine monastery, it had been turned over to the Orthodox Church in the 15th century, and the church was rebuilt in the 17th. Its modest exterior was required by the Ottoman authorities, but on the inside the cathedral is fabulously ornate.

Not far from the cathedral and the archbishop’s palace is the residence of Cyprus’s most noted dragoman, Hadjigeorgakis Kornesios, who held office in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The term dragoman literally means interpreter, but his duties were much more extensive, including collecting taxes from the Christian population on behalf of the Ottoman authorities. He was a powerful figure, and the opportunity to cream off his share of the taxes enabled him to accumulate great wealth. His fine house, now a museum, attests to that wealth, and is a fascinating insight into how a powerful Christian figure in Ottoman Cyprus could live. The reception room, with its ornate wood carvings and low divans around the walls, indicates that the Greek Cypriot elite in many ways lived in much the same style as their Turkish overlords. However, Hadjigeorgakis Kornesios’s power and the heavy taxes he collected were resented. He was executed in Istanbul in 1809.

Wandering the streets of Nicosia, there are many beautiful districts where the traditional buildings from the Ottoman period, with their covered balconies, have been preserved, and in many cases sensitively restored. This is particularly the case in the north of the city, perhaps because the relative economic stagnation of north Cyprus meant there was less new development in the old city than was the case in the south. The Arabahmet quarter, in the east of the city, close to the city walls just north of the green line, is particularly attractive. Many of the inhabitants of the district had been Armenian, clustered around their church. There had been an Armenian community in Cyprus for centuries, but during intercommunal violence in 1963-64, when the city was divided between its Turkish north and Greek south, the Armenian quarter found itself in the Turkish north, and the Armenians themselves were expelled. In subsequent decades much of the Abrahmet district and the Armenian church fell into decay and dereliction. More recently the quarter is gradually being renovated, the old houses beautifully restored. While the Armenians are gone, their church has been restored by the UN. It was open when I visited, but without its flock, its community, it was an empty and rather forlorn place.

Close by the Armenian church, right on the green line, next to the Paphos gate, and just beyond the barbed-wire-topped barrier, is a Roman Catholic Church. A little further south is the Maronite church. The Maronite community has existed for centuries in Cyprus, although their numbers have dwindled since the middle ages. They had mainly lived in a few villages in the north of the island, but following the Turkish invasion almost all of them moved to the south.

On the two sides of the city are museums which attest to the different versions of the history of this bitterly divided island. In the south of the city, close to the Orthodox Cathedral, is the National Struggle Museum, dedicated to the struggle against British rule from 1955-1959. It is uncomfortable viewing for a British visitor. The armed struggle had as its aim unification, Enosis, with Greece. It was led by Georgios Grivas, a Cypriot who had served for many years as an officer in Greece’s army, and who founded the EOKA guerrilla organisation. As well as weapons and other possessions of the EOKA fighters, the museum contains photos of killed EOKA members, some of them tortured or executed by the British. Some historians assert that claims of torture by the British were exaggerated and inflated by EOKA for propaganda purposes. Nevertheless, in 2012 the British Foreign Office released documents alleging torture and other abuses by British soldiers. In 2019 the British government agreed to pay £ 1 million to 33 Greek Cypriots who claimed they had been tortured, although without admitting liability.

It is not clear to me why the British government of the time felt it necessary to fight an ultimately unsuccessful four-year war to maintain its rule in Cyprus. De-colonisation was already well under way. A number of former British colonies had already become independent, and several more would follow over the next few years. It was surely clear that the era of colonialism had passed. Shortly before the start of the Cyprus insurgency Britain had announced its intention to move its military command in the eastern Mediterranean from Egypt to Cyprus. No doubt Cyprus appeared to be strategically vital. But Britain could surely have reached agreement with a newly independent Cyprus to retain its military bases, as indeed happened after independence in 1960. Yet at the time the British government maintained that decolonisation should not apply to Cyprus.

The war in Cyprus was a senseless waste, and worse than that, it had long-term damaging consequences, especially in exacerbating intercommunal tensions between the island’s Greeks and Turks. The island’s Turks vehemently opposed Enosis, and thousands of them were recruited by the British as auxiliary police in the struggle against EOKA. This inevitably inflamed tensions between the two communities, as Turks responded to Greek demands for Enosis with their own demand for Taksim, partition of the island. For its part, EOKA extended its attacks against the British to the Turkish community.

In the end, the Greek Cypriots did not achieve the desired Enosis with Greece, and had to settle for an independent state, under an agreement guaranteed by Britain, Greece and Turkey. Most Greek Cypriots were not satisfied, and continued to strive for Enosis, with disastrous consequences, as the coup in 1974 in the name of Enosis provoked the Turkish invasion of the island. On one of the bastions of the city wall is the Liberty Monument, which commemorates the release of EOKA fighters in 1959, prior to independence the following year, one of many monuments to EOKA men in southern Cyprus. But the aftermath of the violence that brought independence left a bitter hangover.

The independence war, with the intercommunal violence that it involved, soured the already strained relations between Greeks and Turks on the island. The baleful influence of both Greece and Turkey made matters worse. Greece’s military junta was behind the coup in favour of Enosis in July 1974 that prompted the Turkish invasion. The Turkish Cypriot minority looked upon the prospect of Enosis with terror, have seen the fate of the Cretan Muslim population who had been forced to leave Crete in 1923 as part of the population exchange between Greece and Turkey.

In the north of Nicosia, Cyprus’s Turks have their own National Struggle Museum. It tells a very different story to that of its counterpart a few hundred yards away in the south. In its telling, EOKA was a terrorist organisation aiming not only to drive out the British and achieve Enosis, but at the elimination of the Turkish community. The 1974 Turkish invasion is presented as a “peace operation” to provide “a peaceful environment for both communities.” The museum contains a memorial to those who died in “the struggle to preserve the Turkish existence in Cyprus.”

The Turkish Cypriot position is related even more vividly at the Museum of Barbarism, in the house of Dr Nihat Ilhan in the suburbs north of the old city. Intercommunal tension and violence had continued after independence in 1960, involving the displacement of Turkish Cypriots into enclaves. This reached a peak at the end of 1963. On the night of 24 December that year, while Dr Ilhan was on duty with Turkish Cypriot paramilitaries, Greek Cypriot irregulars came to his home and murdered his wife and three children, as well as a neighbour. Harrowing photographs in the house show the three children and their mother dead in the bath. There are also photographs depicting other atrocities against the Turkish community. The violence led to the deaths of 364 Turkish Cypriots and 174 Greek Cypriots, as well as the displacement of some 25,000 Turkish Cypriots.

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The Green Line, Abrahmet quarter

Following the December 1963 violence, a British general commanding a joint peacekeeping force with Greece and Turkey (a precursor of the UN peacekeeping force) drew an agreed line in green along a map demarking a Turkish North and Greek south of the city. As a consequence of the Turkish invasion in 1974 this green line was extended across the whole island. The green line remains a scar across the city, of abandoned streets and derelict buildings, in what was once its bustling heart. It is easier to approach the line in the Turkish north than in the Greek south, where soldiers keep watch from guard posts painted in the blue and white stripes of Greece’s flag, warning people not to take photos. On the northern side, while there are signs warning that it is a forbidden zone, it is possible to peer into the ghostly dilapidated streets. To someone not used to it, it seems quite bizarre. Just a few yards from narrow old-city streets with bars and shops, you come upon walls topped with barbed wire, beyond them the abandoned ruins of the green line, and just a short distance further the Greek south of the city.

The best place to get a view over Nicosia is from the top floor viewing point of the Shacolas Tower, in the south of the city. From that vantage point, one gets perhaps the best view of the Selimiye Cami. Surrounded by the narrow streets of the old city, it is hard to get a proper view from close up. Looking east towards the Abrahmet district, you can see the Maronite church and the nearby Catholic Church on the green line. Just to the north is the Ledra Palace Hotel, once Nicosia’s finest. Now stranded on the green line, after 1974 it had for decades served as the headquarters of the UN mission. But in 2019 it was vacated due to inadequate health and safety measures. On a mountainside north of the city a vast, provocative TRNC flag has been painted. Alongside, on a painted flag of Turkey, is the famous quote from Ataturk, in Turkish, “How Happy is the One Who Says I am a Turk.” Many Cypriots still live in hope that such provocations, and the bad memories of strife and violence, could one day be put behind. That Cypriots from both communities now travel back and forth and have renewed mutual contacts may give cause for that hope. Younger Cypriots are perhaps less burdened by the tragedies of the past. The incentives to reunite are strong, especially for the north, internationally isolated and unable to fulfil its potential. But the persistent failure to find a solution indicates that the obstacles remain great.

Kyrenia and Bellapais

Kyrenia, known as Girne in Turkish, is arguably the most attractive town in Cyprus. Situated on the island’s northern coast, its picturesque semi-circular harbour, with the vast bulk of its fortress at one end, is framed by craggy mountains to the south. Some of the restaurants around the harbour are converted warehouses previously used for storing carob seeds, once one of Cyprus’s main exports. The fortress dates back at least until Byzantine times, and was renovated by the medieval Frankish Lusignan dynasty and again by the Venetians, who strengthened its massive walls and adapted them for the age of canon. However, that did not help when the Ottomans invaded Cyprus in 1570. When the defenders heard of the fall of Nicosia and the massacre of its population, the Venetian commander of Kyrenia surrendered. It was said that when he was presented with the severed head of his counterpart in Nicosia, he immediately capitulated.

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Kyrenia

There is an attractive little 16th century mosque overlooking the harbour. The Orthodox church of the Archangel Michael, above the opposite end of the harbour, was built in 1860, when the island was still under Ottoman rule. The church bell was donated by a local Muslim, indicating that relations between the two communities in Cyprus were not always rancorous. The church is now an icon museum, but it was shut when I went there. On the outside it is a sad sight, its paintwork peeling off, its plaster crumbling.

The invading Turkish army landed close to Kyrenia in 1974, and the town was one of the first places to fall. As elsewhere in the north of the island, the Greek population of Kyrenia fled. A few tried to stay on, but they were moved out in 1975. Kyrenia had become a popular British retirement destination during and after the period of British rule. There is even an Anglican church close to the fortress. Most of the 2,500 or so British residents also gradually left after the Turkish invasion, although there has been a limited new wave of British retirees more recently. The departed Greeks and British were replaced by Turks displaced from the south of the island, as well as droves of incomers from Turkey.

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Bellapais

In the hills above Kyrenia is the beautiful village of Bellapais. The medieval Benedictine abbey dominates the village. Standing on the side of a hill, its high walls are impressive as you approach from below. The flags of Turkey and the unrecognised Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus fly from a tower at the entrance. The abbey is partly ruined now, having been abandoned after the Ottoman conquest. The church however survives, having been taken over by the Orthodox church, as do three sides of the cloisters and the refectory, with its little pulpit on one of the side walls, from which readings from scripture took place while the monks took their meals. Bellapais is also where the author Lawrence Durrell made his home from 1953-1956, an experience he described vividly in his book Bitter Lemons. I walked up to the house, which is rather unremarkable in itself. On the village square in front of the abbey, I ate the most delicious Gözleme, a kind of pancake filled with local cheese and herbs. Across the square was a café with an old red British telephone box outside, whose owner agreed to drive me back to Kyrenia.

I got talking to an elderly man on the village square, who I asked for directions to Durrell’s house. Several elderly men gathered there in the bright January sunshine to chat and while away the time. He had been born in a village in the south of the island, close to Limassol. He told me that following the Turkish invasion his family, as well as most of the rest of his village, had moved to Bellapais, while many of the Greek inhabitants of Bellapais had moved to his village, in a straight swap. He appeared to feel little resentment towards Greek Cypriots. He had taken Cypriot citizen, as had around 95 per cent of the Turkish Cypriot population, he estimated. One of his sons had married a Greek Cypriot and had lived in the south for ten years before his marriage broke down and he returned to Bellapais. Since travel between the two sides of the island had become possible, he had visited his former village, and even met the Greek family who now lived in his former home. They appeared to be good people, he told me. I asked him what language he had spoken with them. He replied that most Turkish Cypriots of his generation could speak both English and Greek, so communication was not a problem. By contrast, he was scathing about the more recent arrivals from the Turkish mainland, who he said now far outnumbered the native Turkish Cypriots. They came from the poorest regions of Turkey, he said, and were less well educated than Turkish Cypriots like him who had been educated in the British system. Their presence was also problematic as, unlike Turks who had been in Cyprus before the invasion, and their descendants, these more recent arrivals were not entitled to Cypriot citizenship. He told me that at this stage in his life he would not consider moving back to the village of his birth. He lived as part of a community in Bellapais, and was content.

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St Hilarion castle

In the hills south of Kyrenia there are three ruined castles, built originally during the Byzantine period, as a defence against Arab raiders. I visited St Hilarion castle, west of Bellapais, the best preserved of the three. The castle was extended during the Lusignan period, when it is said to have been a royal residence. Built along the craggy rocks of a hilltop, it is a dramatic sight, and is said to have inspired Walt Disney among others. I spent more than an hour climbing up its battlements and towers, looking into the ruins of a Byzantine church, the royal apartments, kitchens and stables. One window is known as the Queen’s window, because it is said that Queen Eleanor of Aragon, who reigned in the 14th century, used to sit next to it. Queen Eleanor was one of the most notable of medieval Cyprus’s rulers. She ruled as regent when her husband, King Peter I, was away on crusade, and again on behalf of her son after Peter was murdered. She secretly invited the Genoese to invade the island, in a move apparently aimed against her two brothers-in-law, who had been suspected of Peter’s murder.

Famagusta, Cyprus's ghost town

My first sight of Famagusta was from a hill overlooking the town in nearby Deryneia. Famagusta, known as Gazimağusa in Turkish, was occupied by the Turkish army during the 1974 invasion, and incorporated into the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), which is only recognised by Turkey. Having overrun Famagusta, from which the Greek Cypriot population fled, the Turkish army stopped short of Deryneia, which remains under the control of the internationally recognised government of Cyprus. On the edge of Deryneia is the Cultural Centre of Famagusta Municipality, also known as the Cultural Centre of Occupied Famagusta. An information centre about Famagusta as it once was and what became of it, the Cultural Centre also has a viewing point on its roof, where visitors can borrow binoculars to look across to nearby Famagusta.

I travelled to Deryneia by bus from Larnaca, across the territory of the Dhekelia British military base, one of two British sovereign bases on the island. Apart from signposts pointing to the military area, and a wire fence surrounding it, there was little obvious difference between this British territory and the rest of Cyprus. Deryneia is a small town, and I made straight for the Cultural Centre. Looking out towards Famagusta, even with the binoculars, I could not make out very much. Across the fields, in the foreground, the flags of Turkey and of the TRNC stood out on high flag poles above low buildings. The flags are similar, like negative and positive images of each other. The Turkish flag, a white crescent moon and star on a red background, the TRNC flag the same, but with the colours reversed, and with the addition of two red bands at the top and the bottom. Nearby is the Deryneia crossing point between the north and south of the island, one of the most recent such crossing points to be opened, just over a year before my visit, in November 2018.

I chatted with a lady who worked in the Cultural Centre. She could see her former home from the building, she told me. It was just one kilometre away, on the Turkish-occupied side. She had been only a teenager when they had fled in a hurry before the Turkish army advance in 1974. As with all the main towns in Cyprus, north and south, Famagusta had had a Greek majority. Prior to the 1974 invasion, there was no Turkish north or Greek south. Greeks and Turks lived side by side all over the island, except for the capital Nicosia, which had been partitioned in 1964. There had been Greek and Turkish villages, but the towns had been mixed. The Greeks of Famagusta had mainly lived in Varosha, a district of modern blocks of flats and hotels strung out along the beaches south of the old walled city. Not long after the Ottoman conquest of Famagusta in 1571, the Greek population was banished from the walled city, and many of them settled south of the city walls, the origin of Varosha. In the 20th century Varosha flourished. It was the main centre of Cyprus’s tourism industry, and in the early 1970s played host to international film stars such as Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Brigitte Bardot. The lady in the Cultural Centre spoke wistfully of those times, of what a wonderful town Famagusta had been. But Varosha had become a ghost town. Following the invasion, the Turks fenced off Varosha. Its Greek inhabitants were not allowed to return, and Turks were not allowed to settle there. The district had been left to crumble and rot.

The lady told me that the Turks kept Varosha as a bargaining chip, promising that, as part of a settlement, the district’s Greeks would be allowed to return. She had voted against the United Nations Annan Plan, named after UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, for the reunification of Cyprus in 2004. Three-quarters of Greek Cypriots had voted against in the referendum, whereas nearly two-thirds of Turkish Cypriots had voted in favour. She said she had three reasons: that under the plan the Turkish army would have remained on the island; that the return of people displaced by the invasion to their homes would be limited and slow; and that the plan was in several respects too vague, and left too much scope for interpretation. She feared that in such circumstances, the stronger party, Turkey, would retain the advantage.

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Land Gate, Famagusta

I crossed into northern Cyprus in Nicosia a few days later, and travelled in a minibus down to Famagusta. The minibus dropped me just outside the old town walls. They are an impressive sight, four and a half centuries after they were breached by the Ottoman conquerors of Cyprus. In the long history of conflict between Venice and the Ottomans in the eastern Mediterranean, the battle for Cyprus was among the hardest fought and most bitter, and it was at Famagusta that the Venetians had made their stand. I entered the old city through the Land Gate, next to the Ravelin Bastion, renamed the White Bastion by the Turks, because it was here that the Venetians flew the white flag of surrender. The Venetians had blown the bastion up as its breach by the Ottomans seemed imminent, killing as many as 1,000 Ottoman troops, it was claimed, as well as many Venetians. Inside the gate is a broad ramp leading up to the walls, up which cannon would have been dragged.

Medieval Famagusta had thrived on the trade between the European west and the Islamic east, especially after the fall of Acre in 1291 brought an end to the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem and an influx of Christian merchants and craftsmen into Famagusta. Cyprus was under the rule of the French Lusignan, or Frankish dynasty, that had been gifted the island by Richard the Lionheart after he conquered it from its Byzantine ruler during the Third Crusade. The Byzantine Governor, and pretender to the Imperial throne, Isaac Komnenos, had incurred Richard’s wrath by imprisoning survivors from three of his ships who washed up on the Cyprus shore, and by mistreating his sister and fiancé.

Under Lusignan rule, the wealth of Famagusta’s trade paid for magnificent Catholic churches that would look more in place in northern France than in the eastern Mediterranean. The Lusignans favoured the Catholic Church, while the Greek Orthodox Cypriots were over-taxed and downtrodden. In the 14th century, Cyprus became caught up in the rivalry between Genoa and Venice, and in 1372 the Genoese seized Famagusta. However, the tables were turned when Cyprus’s Lusignan King James II married a Venetian, Caterina Cornaro. Following the death of her husband and of their infant son, James III, Caterina became Queen of Cyprus in her own right in 1474, and in 1489, under pressure from her native city, she handed the island over to Venice.

The new Venetian rulers made extensive preparations for expected Ottoman attacks, renewing and expanding the fortifications of Nicosia, Kyrenia and Famagusta, adapting them for the age of sieges with artillery. At the outset of the Ottoman siege of the town, the Venetian defenders numbered some 8,500. They held out for nearly a year against an Ottoman army reckoned to have been more than 100,000 strong. By the time the town fell, in August 1571, fewer than 1,000 defenders remained alive, and the Turkish dead numbered more than 50,000. As the end approached, the Venetian commander, Marco Antonio Bragadin, negotiated surrender terms. However, as Bragadin surrendered, the Ottoman commander, Lala Mustafa Pasha, who was originally from Bosnia, accused him of killing Ottoman prisoners and reneged on the agreement. Bragadin was mutilated and tortured before being flayed alive.

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Lala Pasha Mustafa Mosque (St Nicholas Cathedral), Famagusta

Following the Ottoman conquest, Famagusta lost its importance as a commercial and political centre. To the visitor today it is striking how little the Ottomans did with Famagusta. Much of the old walled city was simply left to decay. The gothic cathedral of the Lusignans, once dedicated to St Nicholas but badly damaged during the siege, was re-purposed as a mosque with the addition of a stumpy little minaret at the corner of one of the destroyed cathedral towers. It was a half-hearted conversion, as if the conquerors couldn’t be much bothered. On the outside it looks like what it is, a ruined cathedral that was never properly repaired. Inside, the gothic arches and vaulted ceiling of a medieval French cathedral are as impressive as they must have been in their Christian heyday, with the addition of a Mihrab on a side wall, pointing the direction of Mecca, and a pulpit, or Minbar, from where the imam delivers his Friday sermons. But now the walls are whitewashed, without paintings or statues of saints, without stained glass windows.

The nearby Sinan Pasha Camii, once the Church of St Peter and St Paul, has a similar look. A large hulk of a church, with a sawn-off stump of a minaret in one corner from the time when it was a mosque. Nowadays it is used for performances. It was locked when I arrived, but I was able to go in thanks to a group of people who were planning an event to take place there. Its bare stone and soaring arches are more impressive on the inside that the rather forlorn and dilapidated exterior. The Church of St George of the Greeks, now a roofless ruin, but with the walls standing on three sides, must also have been an impressive sight in its day. Across from the former cathedral, now the Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque, is the entrance to the Venetian palace where Bragadin had lived, and in front of which he was so brutally killed. There’s not much left of the palace now. The three arches of the façade are supported by four columns taken from the nearby Roman town of Salamis.

As in many towns captured by the Ottomans from the Venetians, the conquerors left the symbols of their vanquished foes in place. The plaque with the Lion of St Mark continues to stand proudly above the entrance of the Sea Gate and over the entrance to Othello’s tower, a fortress standing at one corner of the city walls. The name of the fortress was bestowed by the British who ruled Cyprus for over 80 years until 1960, and is a reference to the principal character in Shakespeare’s tragedy, which told the story of a Moorish general in Venetian service in Cyprus.

At another corner of the city walls stands the Canbulat Bastion, named after one of the Turkish heroes killed during the conquest of Famagusta. Inside, there is a museum of the siege. Close to the bastion, inside the walls, is a small cemetery and monument to “Turks who, unarmed and defenceless, were martyred by Greek Cypriots and Greeks.” It is a reminder of the bitter memories of conflict that remain raw on both sides. The plaque, in English and German as well as Turkish, refers to an alleged attempt “to eliminate everything Turkish to achieve Enosis”, a reference to the Greek Cypriot aspiration to unity with Greece which prompted the Turkish invasion of the island.

Another sad monument to the bitterness of the Cyprus conflict is the forlorn district of Varosha, a short walk south of the old town. Fenced off and with signs warning that it is a forbidden zone, its hotels and apartment blocks crumbling, its cracked streets gradually being reclaimed by scrubby weeds and trees, it is a bleak sight. There would surely be little for the former residents to return to, many of the buildings fit for nothing but demolition. Yet Varosha, with its sandy beaches, remains highly desirable and contested. In 1984, a UN Security Council resolution demanded that Varosha be handed over to UN administration, and that no one but the expelled inhabitants be allowed to settle there. The Turks did not comply, and Varosha was left to fester. In 2019, the TRNC government announced that Varosha would be opened for settlement, a red rag to Greek Cypriots and, if it were to go ahead, an affront to the rights of the Greek former residents.

Larnaca, Cyprus

Larnaca has Cyprus’s biggest international airport. Arriving on an evening flight, my decision to spend my first days on the island there was based on convenience more than anything. Larnaca became one of Cyprus’s more significant centres during the period of Ottoman rule, following their conquest of the island in 1571, when the town became an important port. With its long promenade and beaches, today the town no doubt attracts tourists during the summer months, although less than resort towns such as Limassol, Pafos and Agia Napa. When I was there in January, it was quite sleepy. The seafront restaurants had few customers.

At one end of the promenade is the fortress, originally built in the 14th century, rebuilt by the Ottomans, and used as a prison by the British, who ruled the island from 1878 to 1960. It is much less substantial than the huge fortifications built by the Venetians at Famagusta, Kyrenia and Nicosia, as they prepared for the expected Ottoman onslaught. Larnaca warranted less attention. Close to the fortress is the Grand Mosque. Originally a Catholic Church, it has been much rebuilt since the Ottoman takeover. It was being renovated when I visited. A handful of people were praying inside, almost all, I think, south Asian immigrants, the town’s Turkish population having departed following the partition of the island in 1974, when Larnaca found itself in the southern, Greek part of the island.

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Hala Sultan Tekke, Larnaca

A more impressive mosque is the early 19th century Hala Sultan Tekke, on the edge of the town, not far from the airport. Sitting on the edge of a salt lake, among palm and cypress trees, the water shimmered in the winter sunshine, reflecting the mosque. It was a fine sight as I approached on foot. Further out on the lake pink flamingos idled in the water. Apparently in the heat of summer the briny water evaporates away leaving hard white dry salt. The special importance of Hala Sultan Tekke is that it contains a tomb said to be that of Umm Haram, whose brothers and husband were companions of the prophet, and who is believed to have died during an Arab raid on Cyprus. Hala Sultan Tekke was for me the most beautiful mosque I saw on the island, not only because of its wonderful setting on the shore of the lake. Unlike so many mosques in Cyprus that were repurposed Christian churches, architecturally awkward, Hala Sultan Tekke was purposely built as a mosque in the classic Ottoman style, with its elegant domes and pointed minaret.

Round the corner from the Grand Mosque is the church of St Lazarus, who, according to the Bible, Jesus had raised from the dead. The story is that Lazarus, facing plots against his life, had fled to Cyprus, and been made the first bishop of Kition, as Larnaca was known in antiquity. In 890, after a period of Arab rule, a tomb was found with the inscription “Lazarus, four days dead, friend of Christ.” The remains were transferred to Constantinople (from where they were looted during the sacking of the city during the Fourth Crusade). The church was built at the spot where the tomb had been discovered. The building’s history reflected the story of the island, becoming a Catholic church under Frankish and Venetian rule in the 13th-16th centuries, then a mosque after the Ottoman takeover, and then, shortly afterwards, returned to the Orthodox Church, after which it was used for both Orthodox and Catholic services. The church’s complicated history is reflected in its mish-mash architecture. A Gothic portico was added during its Catholic period. The domes of the Orthodox basilica, as well as the original bell tower, were destroyed following the Ottoman takeover, and a new bell tower was constructed in the mid-19th century, when the Ottomans again allowed Christian churches on Cyprus to have bell towers.

At the far end of the promenade, next to Larnaca’s marina, stands a memorial to the 1915 Armenian genocide, on the spot where thousands of fleeing Armenian refugees first landed upon arrival in Cyprus. On the four sides of the plinth are inscriptions in Greek, Armenian, English and Turkish, explaining the memorial, and expressing the gratitude of the Armenian nation to the people of Cyprus for their assistance and generosity. In my travels around the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea regions, I have so often come upon reminders of the tragedy of the Armenian people a century ago, sometimes in places where I was not expecting it, such as in Byblos, Lebanon, and now in Larnaca.

Ethiopia and the Lion of Judah

During Ethiopia’s long history, its boundaries and centres of power repeatedly shifted. From Aksum in the far north of the country two millennia ago, with its imposing stele, to medieval Lalibela with its churches excavated out of the solid rock, and 16th century Gondar with its impressive palaces. The present-day capital of Addis Ababa is relatively new, dating only to the latter part of the 19th century. Nevertheless, in its monuments and museums, Addis Ababa offers ample history, both glorious and painful.

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The Lion of Judah, Addis Ababa

Close to the city’s old railway station stands a statue of the Lion of Judah, commissioned for the coronation of Ethiopia’s last Emperor, Haile Selassie, in 1930. The Lion of Judah signifies the claimed Solomonic roots of the country’s imperial dynasty, going back to the fabled union of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. As an important symbol of the country, despite its royalist connection, even the communist Derg regime, which ruled from 1974 to 1991, decided to leave it in place. It had been removed to Rome following Italy’s occupation of Ethiopia in 1935. In 1938, a young Eritrean protested the occupation by wounding several people in front of the monument, before being shot by police. The statue was returned to Addis Ababa in the 1960s.

The most glorious event in Ethiopia’s modern history was the Battle of Adwa in 1896, when an Ethiopian army routed Italian invaders. As the only African country successfully to resist the carve up of the continent by European colonial powers, Ethiopia’s victory at Adwa was significant for the whole continent. The Italians had invaded Ethiopia from Eritrea, which they had already controlled for several years, in 1895, overrunning much of the country. However, running short of supplies, following a defeat at Ethiopian hands at the Battle of Amba Alagi in December, the Italians retreated to Adwa, close to the Eritrean border. Pressed by the Italian government to advance again, the Italian commander, General Oreste Baratieri, went on the offensive on 1 March 1896. The Italian forces, among them Eritrean colonial troops, were far outnumbered by their Ethiopian adversaries, the majority of whom were armed with modern rifles, as well as artillery pieces. Possessing inadequate maps, the Italians quickly became confused in the unfamiliar terrain, and were overwhelmed by the Ethiopians. By the afternoon, the Italians were in full retreat, losing around 6,000 dead and 1,500 wounded, as well as 3,000 taken prisoner out of their original force of nearly 18,000. The Ethiopians lost an estimated 4,000-5,000 dead and 8,000 wounded.

Emperor Menelik II, who, expanding from the Kingdom of Shewa, united Ethiopia and defeated the Italians at Adwa, built the Cathedral of St George in the centre of Addis Ababa, to commemorate his victory. The banner of St George had been carried into battle at Adwa. Menelik’s statue, seated on a horse, stands in the square in front of the church. The Cathedral, echoing the traditional Ethiopian circular church, is octagonal, but constructed in stone. As with other traditional churches, inside a circular gallery encloses the inner sanctum. The iconography on the walls of the sanctuary is, however, quite unlike the traditional Ethiopian style, most of the paintings appearing more European, in some cases baroque. Most unusual of all, a series of paintings commemorates the resistance of Emperor Haile Selassie to the invasion of fascist Italy, and his speech to the League of Nations in 1936, protesting against the subjugation of his country and the use of chemical weapons by the invaders. My guide acknowledged that these paintings, with their political theme, were not usual in a place of worship.

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Dejezmach Geneme and his followers

The Battle of Adwa is also commemorated at the Addis Ababa Museum, housed in one of the capital’s earliest buildings, an elegant, partly wooden palace, once inhabited by Ethiopian royalty. The museum contains a wonderful collection of photographs of Addis Ababa’s history, including one of Menelik inspecting the first automobile to be imported into Ethiopia. Menelik was a keen moderniser, introducing electricity as well as the telephone to Addis Ababa, and initiating the building of the first railway. He also instituted the country’s first modern bank, a postal service, and a taxation system. And he imported the modern weaponry that proved so important at Adwa. There are also photographs of the Ethiopian victors of Adwa, including one of Dejazmach (general) Geneme and his followers, dressed in traditional costumes and magnificent headdresses, but armed with rifles. A painting depicting the battle shows St George on his steed, hovering above the battle, the colours of the Ethiopian flag surrounding him like a halo.

Mussolini’s fascist Italy invaded the country again in 1935. Despite spirited Ethiopian resistance, which continued until 1937, this time the weight of Italy’s modern armaments, including air power and heavy artillery, as well as poisoned gas, was more than the Ethiopian army, lacking even radio communications, could withstand. The Italian occupation was traumatic for Ethiopia. The attempted assassination of Marshal Rudolfo Graziani in February 1937 was followed by a wholesale massacre in Addis Ababa of thousands of Ethiopians. The massacre is commemorated by the Yekatit 12 monument, referring to the date in the Ethiopian calendar, an obelisk adorned with the Lion of Judah. The Italian occupation was ended in 1941 by a British counter-offensive following the Italian invasion of British Somaliland, involving South African and Indian forces, as well as troops from other British possessions in eastern and southern Africa, and coordinated with the Ethiopian resistance. Photographs in the Addis Ababa museum show British troops celebrating in the city, and the restored Emperor Haile Selassie parading past an honour guard of Ethiopian and British troops.

Another poignant memorial to the Italian occupation stands in front of Ethnological museum, which had been the palace of Haile Selassie, and which now stands in the grounds of the main university campus. A set of stone steps spirals upwards, leading nowhere, one for each year of fascist rule at the time of the conquest of Ethiopia. But on the top step sits the Lion of Judah, signifying Ethiopia’s ultimate triumph and deliverance. Inside the museum, the bedchambers of the late Emperor and his wife, the Empress Menen Asfaw, are preserved. While I was there, an elderly Jamaican couple reverently took photographs of everything. Known as Ras Tafari Makonnen before he was crowned Emperor in 1930, Haile Selassie is revered by the Rastafarian movement. For the two Jamaicans, it appeared their visit was akin to a pilgrimage to a shrine. The Imperial couple are buried in the Holy trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa. The Emperor was deposed by a group of army officers in 1974, amid his government’s faltering response to a famine in the north of the country. He died the following year, many believe at the hands of the communist Derg regime that replaced him.

Terror and Famine in Ethiopia

For anyone who can remember the 1980s, the tragedy of the Ethiopian famine was one of the most unforgettable episodes. It was something new and shocking to be confronted with human suffering on such a scale in our living rooms, on our TV screens. The disbelief of a horrified world was expressed by Bob Geldoff when he asked how could we stand by and watch this happen in the latter part of the 20th century? Well, he didn’t. The Live Aid concerts were iconic events of the age. The awfulness of the famine and the uplifting response of Live Aid helped change our consciousness of the world. The calamities of countries a continent away were immediate and present in our lives in a new way. In a globalising world, we could not sit back.

Yet visiting Ethiopia three and a half decades later, I was struck by how little I had actually known of those events, beyond the pitiable pictures of starving children on our TV screens. I had known practically nothing about the history or contemporary politics of Ethiopia. My understanding was warped by the stereotype of a poor African country, starving children with distended bellies, and dependence on the largesse of the rich world. It was a grossly distorted picture.

Ethiopia was, and still is, indeed a poor country. Droughts, famines and hunger were all too familiar. But the awfulness of the 1983-85 famine was amplified by the fact that it was to a considerable extent manmade. There was a drought, but its tragic effects were compounded by the actions of the Derg communist government that had seized power a decade earlier, in 1974. These included mismanaged land reform and the forced resettlement of people, in part in reaction to a rebel insurgency, especially in the north of the country. As with collectivisation the Soviet Union in the 1930s and in Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward in China in the 1950s, ideology driven reforms and the callousness disregard of dictatorial regimes towards the sufferings of their own people led to the deaths on an enormous scale.

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Mengistu: out for blood

Ethiopians had already experienced the brutality of the Derg regime. Its ruthless suppression of opponents, including rival Marxist groups, following its seizure of power is now known as the “Red Terror”. Thousands were rounded up, in many cases tortured, and slaughtered in mass executions. Most notably, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) carried out assassinations of Derg supporters. Rivals among the faction-riven Derg were also killed as Mengistu Haile Mariam established himself as the undisputed Derg leader. Organised squads of civilians carried out house-to-house searches, often using the cover of the Terror to pursue their own agendas.

I visited the Red Terror Martyr’s Memorial Museum in Addis Ababa. The museum is located on a corner of Meskel Square, at the time known as Revolution Square, where in 1977 Mengistu announced the escalation of the Terror, shouting “Death to counterrevolutionaries, death to the EPRP”, and dramatically smashing what appeared to be three bottles of blood on the ground. The museum contains a large photograph of the incident. It is a moving and shocking museum, with displays of torture instruments, letters and, around the walls, photographs of hundreds of victims, as well as the bones of some of them. It is an intense representation of the injustice and suffering, the pictures and personal effects of victims bringing home the individual grief behind the numbers. The museum was opened in 2010 by the mother of four sons, all killed in one day by the Derg.

The end of the Soviet Union’s support for Mengistu’s regime led to its downfall in 1991. Mengistu was granted asylum in Zimbabwe. Tried for his crimes, he was sentenced to life in prison for genocide in 2007, but Zimbabwe refused to extradite him. Yet despite the bloodshed and famine that disfigured the period of their rule, the Derg still have their supporters in Ethiopia.

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The Derg monument, Addis Ababa

I was surprised that a monument the Derg erected in central Addis Ababa, the “Our Struggle” monument, also known as the Derg monument, is still there. An obelisk crowned by a red five-pointed star, adorned with the hammer and sickle. Walls to the left and right of the obelisk feature reliefs depicting the revolutionaries as they wished to be seen, as saviours and heroes of their people. On one side, the last Emperor, Haile Selassie, who died in mysterious circumstances shortly after the Derg takeover (many suspect at their hands), is seen on horseback, ignoring his hungry, suffering people. The tableau moves on to the overthrow of the Emperor and the leader of the revolution, Mengistu, leading his people to a glorious future. The tableau on the other side of the obelisk is a classic Marxist depiction of happy, healthy workers and peasants guided by their leader to the brave new world. Young Ethiopians posed for selfies in front of the monument. The events that the monument and the Red Terror Museum marked in their very different ways took place before their births. What it meant to them, I could not guess.

Southern Lebanon

I boarded a minivan for the short journey down to Sidon, Lebanon’s third city. Southern Lebanon must be one of the least secure regions in the world, repeatedly buffeted by the conflicts of its neighbours, flooded by refugees, pummelled by civil war. The threat of future conflict forever hangs over it. The most recent serious clash in Sidon was in 2013, when fighting broke out between Hezbollah and followers of a firebrand Sunni cleric, mirroring the bloody war over the border in Syria. The fighting was put down by the Lebanese army in a short conflict that killed dozens of people. Sidon has a significant Sunni majority, as well as smaller Shia Muslim and Christian populations.

Yet when I arrived, all appeared calm and normal in the bustling streets of Sidon. Once again I was struck by the resilience of the Lebanese people, who always seem to bounce back from whatever the world throws at them. Sidon’s central historical district is beautiful. The stone buildings lining the narrow streets of the Souks were in a good state of repair. Whatever damage the town had suffered, the renovation had been carried out sensitively. It might have helped that the late prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005, came from Sidon. The Hariri family have continued to be powerful in Lebanese business and politics, Rafiq Hariri’s son Saad also becoming prime minister. The Hariri foundation has been actively involved in renovating Sidon.

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Sea Castle, Sidon

Among the fine old buildings of Sidon is the Khan el Franj, Khan of the French, built in the 17th century to accommodate French merchants. It is a fine example of a typical khan, a courtyard surrounded by an arched gallery. The beautiful, and wonderfully renovated Debbané Palace is as fine an example of Arab-Ottoman architecture as you could hope to find, with its arches intricately decorated with geometric patterns, and its magnificent carved wooden ceiling. The Sea Castle, built by Crusaders in the 13th Century, stands like a dreamy ruin in the bay, a wonderful backdrop for a delicious seafood lunch by the sea. But there is poverty in Sidon too. I visited another khan, tumbledown and overgrown. Yet people lived there in squalid makeshift homes with corrugated iron roofs, with rubbish strewn around.

From Sidon, I continued south to Tyre. Tyre, or Sour in Arabic, is another ancient Phoenician city, and had also seen periods of rule by Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Crusaders and Ottomans. Its archaeological remains are among the most impressive in Lebanon, though not on the grand scale of Baalbek. There are two main sites, including collonaded streets, a triumphal Roman arch, an enormous hippodrome, and a necropolis with dozens of stone tombs, the finest of which have been moved to the National Museum in Beirut.

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Triumphal arch, Tyre

Like Sidon, Tyre has suffered terribly from repeated warfare. The population is predominantly Shia, with a Christian minority and a large Palestinian refugee camp. The town, together with a slice of territory in southern Lebanon, was occupied by Israel after its 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and then by the Christian-dominated and Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army. In 2006, Tyre again suffered serious damage during the war with Israel. The war damage in the old city centre is in places more evident than in Sidon. It was not possible to enter the sprawling Palestinian camp, but from the outside the shabby poverty of the place, with its makeshift buildings, was evident.

Yet despite its repeated trials, life has picked up in Tyre. The old town, divided between Muslim and Christian districts, bustles with life. I enjoyed drinking Turkish coffee outside a little café on the Christian side of the picturesque little harbour. Like other seafront cafés in Tyre, the interior, with its vaulted ceiling, may once have been a warehouse. I tried to ask the owners what the building had been in the past, but they replied that it had been a café. Tyre has glorious sandy beaches. Even in March I was able to enjoy swimming in the sea. There are rough-and-ready seaside restaurants, in one of which I spent a delightful sunny afternoon eating fried fish and green beans.

The Palestinian refugee camps in Tyre and elsewhere in Lebanon are long-established, with new generations born and raised in them. Now there are hundreds of thousands of new refugees from the war in Syria. Many live in rented accommodation. I was told it is often very poor and inadequate, in unfinished houses, garages and warehouses. Others live in camps made up of temporary buildings built out of thick plastic sheets spread over wooden or metal frames. They usually have concrete bases, but the facilities are very meagre. The Lebanese government does not allow anything more substantial to be built, as it does not want to acknowledge that these Syrian refugees may have any long-term, let alone permanent presence in Lebanon. It does not want them to become settled. Their reluctance is understandable. This small country has over decades accepted numbers of refugees that would horrify any European country. It has been deluged and destabilised by refugees, and driven into civil war by refugees. Amid all the controversy over refugees and asylum seekers in Europe, people might think of the enormous burden with which Lebanon has been encumbered.

I visited three of the camps, all in the restricted zone in the south of the country, close to the Israeli border. We stopped at a viewing point overlooking the border fences into Israel. UN troops from Indonesia stood around chatting to one another. Over the fences, on the Israeli side, were trimly planted fields and neat little settlements. I was told that Palestinian refugees sometimes came to this viewing point to gaze longingly at their lost land.

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Refugee camp, southern Lebanon

The camps I visited all consisted of similar plastic homes, made with materials provided by the UN. Simple outside toilets had been provided. In one smaller camp, the residents had tried to make their homes as homely as possible, planting flower and vegetable beds. A larger camp was more depressing, with piles of burnt rubbish. Disposal of rubbish was a problem, I was told. The UN was not paying for its removal, and the authorities were not taking responsibility. Hence residents were turning to bonfires. Other problems included the difficulty for children to access schools from these remote camps, given that parents could not afford transportation. We spoke with a couple of families. A lady from a village near Raqqa offered us delicious herbal tea. Even in such circumstances, norms of hospitality were observed. One of her concerns was the registration of newly born children. If they wanted them registered in Syria, someone had to make the journey back, despite the dangers.

We were invited into one of the homes. Inside it was surprisingly cosy. The home was sub-divided into different rooms. There were mats and cushions around the walls. They had a refrigerator and a television set. There was a stove with a chimney to provide warmth in winter. I was told that conditions in such temporary shelters were often better than in the rented accommodation that many other families endured. But the hopelessness of the people was depressing. Nothing to do, the lack of any future perspective either here in Lebanon or back home in Syria. This is the lot of refugees. Those that had the means might risk the journey to Europe. These people were stuck, nowhere to go, in a country that did not want them. They were not taking to boats for Europe or streaming across European borders. As a result, few people really cared about them.

Faded glory in Baalbek

I wanted to go to Baalbek, in northern Lebanon. Some of the most impressive Roman ruins anywhere are situated there. The modern town is interesting too, a stronghold of the Shia Hezbollah party and militia. But there was a lot of discouragement. The UK Foreign Office website recommended against going there, except on essential business. Baalbek is close to the Syrian frontier, and there had been fears that the civil war there might spread across the border. The annual Baalbek cultural festival had been moved elsewhere in 2013, due to the perceived security threat, although it had subsequently returned. I had hoped to travel directly from Tripoli, over the mountains. That proved impossible, as snowfall had blocked the mountain road. So instead I travelled south, along the coast, to Beirut, and then took a minivan up to Baalbek. The road from Beirut rises steeply up over Mount Lebanon, and then follows the Bekaa Valley, actually a high plateau to the east of the Mount Lebanon range. The region had been under Syrian occupation until 2005. Now Baalbek enjoys an uneasy peace while next-door Syria burns.


Temple of Bacchus, Baalbek

I arrived in Baalbek in the middle of a warm, sunny March day. Snow still capped the mountains to the west of the town. I quickly made for the Roman remains, which are indeed magnificent. The scale is astounding. The site of the Temple of Jupiter is vast, and must have awed visitors in its day. The smaller, but still immense Temple of Bacchus is much better preserved, and impresses also due to the exquisite detail of its craftmanship. I found it baffling that the Romans chose to build on such a vast scale, bigger by far than anything in Rome, and with such quality, in this of all places? What was it about this region that they felt the need to impress so?

Baalbek also boasts fine buildings of more recent provenance, including tall, square Ottoman-era buildings with high arched windows and balconies. But the greatest gem is the Palmyra Hotel. Built in the 1870s by a Greek merchant from Istanbul, The Palmyra has in its day hosted kings, presidents, writers, artists and musicians. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany visited in 1898, when he planned an excavation of the archaeological site. Other heads of state who visited included Ataturk, King Faisal of Iraq, King Abdullah I of Jordan and Charles de Gaulle. One of the staff showed me the room where de Gaulle stayed.

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Inside the Palmyra Hotel, Baalbek

Today the hotel is a shadow of what it once was. The rooms are plain, the bathrooms shabby. It is no luxury hotel. But having been left largely alone, not renovated for decades, it preserves the atmosphere, the elegance of another era. In the chilly evenings (the temperature drops significantly in Baalbek in March, given its altitude), I sat in the upstairs vestibule, outside de Gaulle’s room, surrounded by period furniture, enjoying the warmth of the oil fire that an elderly staff member lit for me. Most of the rooms were unoccupied, and few staff remain. I was mostly looked after by two elderly gentlemen who had probably been there for decades. I had initially thought they were one man, for they looked like they might have been brothers. I spoke with one of them in French, and only realised they were two different men when the other, who spoke to me in English, informed me that he could not speak French. Probably the time will come when someone will renovate the place, and turn it into the luxury hotel it could be and which probably its pedigree merits. For myself, I was very happy to have stayed there in its current, slightly shabby but enormously atmospheric state. I don’t think I have ever stayed in a more special hotel.

Baalbek is a predominantly Shia town, although there are also Sunni and Christian minorities. It had been afflicted by war. During the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Baalbek, as a Hezbollah stronghold, was bombed by the Israelis, destroying much important infrastructure. Israeli troops carried out a raid on the town, apparently in the belief that two captured Israeli soldiers were being held there.

With an election approaching, the town was filled with party political banners and flags. Hezbollah, the Party of God, is said to be dominant here, but I also saw many flags of Amal, a rival Shia outfit. Amal also formed one of the civil-war militias, but it is now in alliance with Hezbollah. Outside the entrance to the archaeological site, souvenir stalls offered Hezbollah T-shirts, featuring the Hezbollah flag, with a figure holding a rifle in the air. I chatted with a young Hezbollah-supporting shopkeeper. Times were hard, he said. Because of the conflict in Syria, few tourists were coming to Baalbek. He had been anxious about the close proximity of IS terrorists just a few kilometres away. But thankfully there had been no attacks in Baalbek.

Among the mosques in Baalbek is a relatively new Shia one, very much in the style of Hezbollah’s Iranian patron, with a wide entrance arch, and covered with blue and green tiles and Arabic calligraphy. The worrisome security situation is indicated by the metal fence surrounding the mosque, and the iron-girder tank traps. It was the only sign I saw in Baalbek that all was not quite normal. Otherwise, the atmosphere appeared reasonably relaxed. On a warm Sunday afternoon, at a park on the edge of town, people sat outside cafes and smoked hookahs, while children ate candyfloss and took rides in the toy motor cars.

That Sunday morning there was a political rally in the town, for Hezbollah and its allies. Chairs were set up before the Temple of Bacchus, surely the most dramatic backdrop for a rally I had ever seen. It was a polite affair, as people sat quietly and listened to the speeches. Particularly striking was that men and women were all jumbled up, not segregated, and that not all the women present were wearing hijab. I chatted with a couple of men who happily pointed out which parties the different banners belonged to. It all seemed very normal, apart from the backdrop, much like political rallies I have attended in many countries in Europe. The atmosphere was in stark contrast to the march I had seen in Tripoli, with its strict segregation of the sexes, the women all with billowing abayas, their faces covered.

I enjoyed my short stay in Baalbek. Everywhere I went, I was treated kindly, from the delightful staff at the Palmyra Hotel, to the pastry shopkeepers who would not accept payment for their delicious sweet cakes (I think it was normal to buy them by the dozen rather than singly). As in Beirut, I was struck by the resilience of people who have come through repeated wars, and yet carry on, surviving, and even smiling.