National Geographic : 1952 May
Cyprus, Idyllic Island in a Troubled Sea Britain's Eastern Mediterranean Base Has Known the Tramp of Many Armies, but Its Countryside Is Changeless BY JEAN AND FRANC SHOR With Illustrations from Photographs by the Authors ROYAL AIR FORCE jet fighters roared low over gnarled olive groves near ancient Nicosia, capital of the sun drenched island of Cyprus. In quiet contrast, farmers and their women folk sickle-harvested golden fields. Stolid oxen dragged wooden sledges around thresh ing floors of hand-hewn stone. Men in home spun winnowed the grain by tossing it against the sky. Jean and I pulled our British sports car off the highway to photograph a lanky shep herd tending a flock of fat-tailed sheep. With goatskin pouch and cloak of many colors, he seemed a character straight out of the Old Testament. Then the whistling roar of a jet plane shat tered the illusion and scattered his sheep. His burro kicked, brayed strident protest, and took off across the fields. "It's nothing," said the shepherd after he had reassembled the wild-eyed animals. "Al ways Cyprus has been a base for other men's armies. My grandfather sold sheep to feed British sailors, and his father sold meat to the Turks. Now my flock feeds English parachutists. "Soldiers pass on the highway or fly over head, but they don't change the way we live." Strategic Cyprus Key to Near East Jet planes are only the latest war gear in the long and troubled history of Cyprus. Since the dawn of time its strategic location, only 45 miles south of Turkey and 65 miles west of Syria, has made it a coveted prize of warring nations (map, page 631).* Egyptian warriors first conquered Cyprus about 1500 B.c., and nearly a dozen empires ruled it before the island became an important British dependency 74 years ago. Today it is Britain's key to control of the Near and Middle East. During last year's disturbances in Iran, British planes and troops stood poised on Cyprus, ready for action if British lives were threatened (page 657). When violence flared in Egypt over the Suez Canal, the crack 16th Independent Parachute Brigade flew from Cyprus to the trouble spot.f Jean and I reached Cyprus by ship from Beirut. From the captain we learned that the island is many things to many people. "We have honeymooners from Cairo head ing for a secluded hotel 6,000 feet up in the mountains," he said. "An American oil man and his wife, sta tioned in Damascus, are looking forward to a vacation of swimming and sailing at Ky renia. "A Greek archeologist plans to study exca vations at ancient Curium. "The Roman artist you see there in the beret is going to copy 12th-century Byzantine frescoes. "A professor from Beirut's American Uni versity is on his way to study medieval castles and Gothic churches on Cyprus. "There's a retired British Army officer with us who is moving to the island because living costs are lower in Cyprus. And the American exporter you met is planning to set up an office in Nicosia." Cities Booming, Country Unchanged Cyprus, we found, has felt the touch of progress. In booming cities, glass-bricked modern homes rise in the shadows of ruined medieval palaces. Gleaming shops offer the latest British and American products. Smooth highways crisscross the island. But outside the cities, off the main roads, live people like the shepherd near Nicosia who cling to the old ways. About 65,000 of the half-million people of Cyprus are farmers. From their lands come citrus fruits, wine, vegetables, grain, seeds, and carobs, a bean used as fodder. Farm products account for more than a quarter of the island's exports, which total some $30, 000,000 a year. Except for about 80,000 islanders of Turk ish descent, and other small minorities, the people of Cyprus are Greek in heritage, lan guage, and religion. Their traditions survive from classic times; a Greek of the Golden Age would feel at home in the mountain vil lages and small farms of Cyprus in 1952. A Greek festival took us first to Famagusta, busy seaport on the island's eastern coast. * See "American Fighters Visit Bible Lands," by Maynard Owen Williams, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, March, 1946. t See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE: "Journey into Troubled Iran," by George W. Long, October, 1951, and "The Spotlight Swings to Suez," by W. Robert Moore, January, 1952.