There are some quirks about international borders that just make you shake your head in confusion, like that part of Russia that sits on the other side of Lithuania, or how part of Azerbaijan is separated from the rest of Azerbaijan by an entire Armenia. But while weird borders can sometimes result in armed conflict, as in the case of, picking completely at random… Azerbaijan and Armenia, sometimes they have more subtle consequences. Here, we have for you one such consequence – when the splitting of an island resulted in the creation of a ghost town. This is the story of Varosha, the Cypriot tourist city that was left abandoned when an age-old rivalry split an island in two.
Varosha is, or was, rather, a suburb of the city of Famagusta, which is just a delightful name to say out loud. The name Varosha comes from the Turkish word Varoş, which literally means suburb, a remnant of when Cyprus was a part of the Ottoman Empire. Before that, however, Famagusta spent much of its existence as a small fishing village before it was transformed by, who else, the French.
Many French people had travelled to the Eastern Mediterranean because of the Crusades, and some of those crusaders ended up in Cyprus, where through sheer pretentiousness they managed to install themselves as rulers of the island. Under their rule, Famagusta began to develop into a sizeable port, and then in 1291 a massive number of Christians were expelled from the Levant by the Islamic Mamluk Sultanate. Almost all of those refugees ended up in Famagusta, turning it into one of the most prosperous cities in the Christian world at the time.
The next several centuries saw Cyprus ping-ponged around between various states and empires, before it came under the aforementioned Ottoman Empire in 1571. At this point, the island was controlled by the Venetians, a fact you may vaguely remember from that time your English teacher forced you to read Othello. And now you’re here, learning about history your way. Good on you.
The Venetians put up quite a fight to keep the city; the Ottomans lost over 50,000 soldiers in the siege, which may explain why they proceeded to flay the Venetian commander alive afterwards. Yeah, remember how far we’ve come, people. Anyways, following the imposition of Ottoman rule, many of the Latin (read: French) residents of Famagusta left the island. The Greek natives were initially given legal protections, but were eventually told that they would have to settle outside the city – in the same area that would later become Varosha.
Fast forward a few centuries, and Cyprus is leased by the Ottomans to the British, who develop Famagusta into a world-class port and military base. Fast forward again to 1960, and Cyprus is granted independence in a complicated agreement between Britain, Greece, and Turkey. It’s at this point that Famagusta and its tourist quarter, Varosha, begin to shine.
Cyprus, obviously, is a Mediterranean Island, which is practically a synonym for summer paradise, and post-independence Famagusta immediately began burnishing its credentials as a tourist heaven. And what does a tourist heaven have, exactly? Well – beaches, bars, and booze, for the most part. Picture everything a Caribbean tourist town has, like Miami, or the Bahamas, or Havana pre-Fidel Castro, and transplant it to the Mediterranean. You have old historical buildings such as churches for the casual history buffs, and then the parties that go all night for the more extroverted types. And, of course, world-class beaches in a warm-water sea. A little something for everyone.
The 1960s and 70s saw some of the most famous celebrities of the time devoting their summer vacations to the city of Famagusta, and the quarter of Varosha in particular. Given that TikTok didn’t exist half a century ago, you’d probably never recognize their names, but a few of them were people like Elizabeth Taylor and Brigitte Bardot. Really import people, believe me. It’s even speculated that the Swedish band ABBA played their first concert there. The story goes that what started out as singing for fun turned into an impromptu live performance in front of, what else, a group of UN soldiers stationed on the island.
Those stories aside, Varosha and Famagusta more broadly made their impact on Cyprus known. By some measures, Famagusta represented anywhere from one tenth to one fifth of the Cypriot economy, and its population of 39,000 would swell to more than 100,000 in the peak summer tourist season. And that’s honestly how things could have continued, had our old friend politics not intervened and ruined everything.
Politics Doesn’t Take Vacations
For reasons far too complex and long-winded to explain right now, and given the fact that we’ve already explained them in another video, Turkey invaded the island of Cyprus in July and August of 1974. Famagusta was in their path, and prior to the opposing armies engaging each other, more or less the entire population of Famagusta fled the city out of fears of a massacre.
A ceasefire was called not long after the city was taken, and the Green Line was established, dividing Cyprus in two. Famagusta ended up on the Turkish side of the line. Beyond that, however, the Turkish army proceeded to fence off the suburb of Varosha, primarily because the properties there were primarily owned by Greek Cypriots. They, obviously, were not allowed to return. Over the years, various cases have been lodged with international organizations over their lost property, to little avail.
The Turkish Cypriots began to call Varosha “Maras”, because they didn’t want anything on “their” side of the island to be associated with the Greek Cypriots. And so it has remained, for close to fifty years, with the once vibrant hotels and restaurants decaying with time, from a tourist town to a ghost town. That is, until in the late 2010s when the Turkish Cypriot government opened the area for the first time to visitors – specifically, only Turkish ones. The more things change, the more they stay the same.