The Ghost Town of Varosha

Once a playground for the rich and famous, the empty beachfront hotels of Varosha are the most enduring symbol of the island’s division. Today, this desolate resort can be witnessed only through barbed wire fencing, closed to all but the military and the occasional official visitor. It is a far cry from the golden beaches and plush hotels that lay at the heart of Famagusta’s tourist trade in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Following years of political and ethnic conflict in Cyprus, in 1974 the fate of Varosha was sealed for the next four decades.  A Greek-staged military coup led to Turkish intervention and military occupation of the northern third of the island, and Famagusta fell within the Turkish north. As a predominantly Greek-Cypriot community, the inhabitants of the Varosha quarter fled south, intending to return when the impasse had been resolved. Yet forty years on, this modern day ghost town remains fenced off and frozen in time.

As part of the militarised zone between northern and southern Cyprus, today Varosha is still off limits. The fence erected following the 1974 conflict, made up of barbed wire, corrugated iron, cacti, oil drums and signs warning off intruders, remains a formidable barrier to any intrepid explorers.

Behind the fence, heavily patrolled by Turkish and UN soldiers, few have ventured inside the six square kilometres of this forbidden zone. Those that have describe extraordinary sights. A car dealership still stocked with 1974 cars, window displays of mannequins dressed in retro fashion, crumbling villas redecorated with lush vegetation. There is, literally, street upon street where nature has reclaimed Varosha for its own. Yet the energy of this once thriving resort remains palpable. It also remains one of the most heated topics of Cypriot political debate.

For the Turkish, Varosha is perceived as an important bargaining chip in any potential negotiations with the south for a fully functional and officially recognised independent north. For the Greek, it remains a fly in the ‘peace process’ ointment, not to mention a source of resentment for the Greek-Cypriot refugee community who lost their homes. There are, of course, arguments on both sides. Needless to say, an abandoned settlement of this scale will necessarily fuel any political agenda, as well as the imagination of many.

One creative proposal for Varosha that has recently gained momentum is the ‘Famagusta Ecocity Project’ ( Underpinned by the concept of an integrated eco-town, the project looks at creating a blueprint for peaceful coexistence, environmental sustainability, and, in turn, economic prosperity.  It is hoped that any reopening or resettlement of Varosha, if and when that occurs, will present a unique opportunity to learn from past mistakes and to rebuild a better future. Indeed, it is hard to ignore the sentiments expressed by Vasia Markides, co-founder of the Famagusta Ecocity Project:- “To take a symbol of war, neglect, hatred and abandonment, and turn it into a model for the rest of the world, that’s a success story, even if we only bring awareness, a plan for other communities”.

Whilst Varosha remains a pawn in a greater political struggle, it is hoped by many that its days as a ghost town are now numbered. This forlorn derelict resort that once attracted the likes of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, may thrive again yet. This time, hopefully, for the benefit of everyone.