The World Without Us - Alan Weisman (2007)

Part II

Chapter 7. What Falls Apart

I

N THE SUMMER of 1976, Allan Cavinder got a call he wasn’t expecting. The Constantia Hotel in Varosha was reopening under a new name after standing vacant for nearly two years. A lot of electrical work was needed—was he available?

This was a surprise. Varosha, a resort on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, had been off-limits to everyone since war fractured the country two years earlier. The actual fighting had lasted only a month before the United Nations stepped in to broker a messy truce between Turkish and Greek Cypriots. A no-man’s zone called the Green Line was drawn wherever opposing troops found themselves at the exact moment of the cease-fire. In the capital, Nicosia, the Green Line wandered like a drunk among bullet-scarred avenues and houses. On narrow streets where hand-to-hand combat had been underway between enemies jabbing bayonets from facing balconies, it was little more than 10 feet wide. In the country, it broadened to five miles. Turks now lived to the north and Greeks to the south of a weedy UN-patrolled strip, refuge to hares and partridges.

When the war broke out in 1974, much of Varosha was barely two years old. Strung along a sand crescent south of the deep-water port of Famagusta, a walled city dating to 2000 BC, Varosha had been developed by Greek Cypriots as Cyprus’s Riviera. By 1972, tall hotels extended three uninterrupted miles along Varosha’s golden beach, backed by blocks of shops, restaurants, cinemas, vacation bungalows, and employee housing. The location had been chosen for the gentle, warm waters on the island’s wind-sheltered eastern coast. The sole flaw was the decision, repeated by nearly every beachfront high-rise, to build as close to shore as possible. Too late, they realized that once the sun peaked at noon, the beach would lie in a shadow cast by the palisade of hotels.

There wasn’t much time to worry about that, though. In the summer of 1974, war flared, and when it halted a month later, Varosha’s Greek Cypriots saw their grand investment end up on the Turkish side of the Green Line. They and all Varosha’s residents had to flee south, to the Greek side of the island.

About the size of Connecticut, mountainous Cyprus floats in a placid aquamarine sea ringed by several countries whose genetically intertwined peoples often detest each other. Ethnic Greeks arrived on Cyprus some 4,000 years ago, and subsequently lived under a parade of conquering Assyrians, Phoenicians, Persians, Romans, Arabs, Byzantines, English crusaders, French, and Venetians. The year 1570 brought yet another conqueror, the Ottoman Empire. With it came Turkish settlers, who by the 20th century would comprise slightly less than one-fifth of the island’s population.

After World War I finished off the Ottomans, Cyprus ended up as a British colony. The island’s Greeks, Orthodox Christians who had periodically revolted against the Ottoman Turks, weren’t thrilled to have British rulers instead, and clamored for unification with Greece. The Turkish Cypriot Muslim minority protested. Tensions boiled for decades and erupted viciously several times during the 1950s. A 1960 compromise resulted in the independent Republic of Cyprus, with power shared between Greeks and Turks.

Ethnic hatred, however, had by then become a habit: Greeks massacred entire Turkish families, and Turks ferociously avenged them. A military takeover in Greece detonated a coup on the island, midwifed by the American CIA in honor of Greece’s new anticommunist rulers. That prompted Turkey in July 1974 to send troops to protect Turkish Cypriots from being annexed by Greece. During the ensuing brief war, each side was accused of inflicting atrocities on the other’s civilians. When the Greeks placed anti-aircraft guns atop a high-rise in the seaside resort of Varosha, Turkish bombers attacked in American-made jets, and Varosha’s Greeks ran for their lives.

Allan Cavinder, a British electrical engineer, had arrived on the island two years earlier, in 1972. He had been taking assignments with a London firm throughout the Middle East, and when he saw Cyprus, he decided to stay. Except for torrid July and August, the island’s weather was mostly mild and spotless. He settled on the northern shore, below mountains where yellow limestone villages lived off the harvests of olive and carob trees, which they exported from an inlet harbor at his town, Kyrenia.

When the war began, he decided to wait it out, figuring correctly that there would be demand for his expertise when it ended. He wouldn’t have predicted the call from the hotel, however. After the Greeks abandoned Varosha, the Turkish Cypriots, rather than let squatters colonize it, decided that the fancy resort would be more valuable as a bargaining chip when negotiations for a permanent reconciliation got underway. So they built a chain-link fence around it, strung barbed wire across the beach, stationed Turkish soldiers to guard it, and posted signs warning everyone else away.

After two years, however, an old Ottoman foundation that owned property that included the northernmost Varosha hotel requested permission to refurbish and reopen it. It was a sensible idea, Cavinder could see. The four-story hotel, to be renamed the Palm Beach, sat far enough back on a shoreline bend that its terrace and beachfront remained sunny through the afternoon. The hotel tower next-door, which had briefly held a Greek machine-gun placement, had collapsed during the Turkish bombing raid, but aside from its rubble everything else Allan Cavinder found when he first entered the zone seemed intact.

Eerily so: he was struck by how quickly humans had abandoned it. The hotel registry was still open to August 1974, when business had suddenly halted. Room keys lay where they’d been tossed on the front desk. Windows facing the sea had been left open, and blowing sand had formed small dunes in the lobby. Flowers had dried in vases; Turkish coffee demitasses and breakfast dishes licked clean by mice were still in place on the table linens.

His task was to bring the air-conditioning system back into service. However, this routine job was proving difficult. The southern, Greek portion of the island had UN recognition as the legitimate Cyprus government, but a separate Turkish state in the north was recognized only by Turkey. With no access to spare parts, an arrangement was made with Turkish troops guarding Varosha to allow Cavinder to quietly cannibalize whatever he needed from the other vacant hotels.

Abandoned hotel, Varosha, Cyprus.

PHOTO BY PETER YATES—IMAGE REPRODUCTION BY ’SOLE STUDIO.

He wandered through the deserted town. About 20,000 people had lived or worked in Varosha. Asphalt and pavement had cracked; he wasn’t surprised to see weeds growing in the deserted streets, but hadn’t expected to see trees already. Australian wattles, a fast-growing acacia species used by hotels for landscaping, were popping out midstreet, some nearly three feet high. Creepers from ornamental succulents snaked out of hotel gardens, crossing roads and climbing tree trunks. Shops still displayed souvenirs and tanning lotion; a Toyota dealership was showing 1974 Corollas and Celicas. Concussions from Turkish air force bombs, Cavinder saw, had exploded plate-glass store windows. Boutique mannequins were half-clothed, their imported fabrics flapping in tattered strips, the dress racks behind them full but deeply dust coated. The canvas of baby prams was likewise torn—he hadn’t expected to see so many left behind. And bicycles.

The honeycombed facades of empty hotels, 10 stories of shattered sliding glass doors opening to seaview balconies now exposed to the elements, had become giant pigeon roosts. Pigeon droppings coated everything. Carob rats nested in hotel rooms, living off Yaffa oranges and lemons from former citrus groves that had been absorbed into Varosha’s landscaping. The bell towers of Greek churches were spattered with the blood and feces of hanging bats.

Sheets of sand blew across avenues and covered floors. What surprised him at first was the general absence of smell, except for a mysterious stench that emanated from hotel swimming pools, most of which were inexplicably drained yet reeked as though filled with cadavers. Around them, the upturned tables and chairs, torn beach umbrellas, and glasses knocked on their sides all spoke of some revelry gone terribly wrong. Cleaning all this up was going to be expensive.

For six months, as he dismantled and rescued air conditioners, industrial washers and dryers, and entire kitchens full of ovens, grills, refrigerators, and freezers, silence pounded at him. It actually hurt his ears, he told his wife. During the year before the war, he’d worked at a British naval base south of town, and would often leave her at a hotel to enjoy a day at the beach. When he picked her up afterward, a dance band would be playing for the German and British tourists. Now, no bands, just the incessant kneading of the sea that no longer soothed. The wind sighing through open windows became a whine. The cooing of pigeons grew deafening. The sheer absence of human voices bouncing off walls was unnerving. He kept listening for Turkish soldiers, who were under instructions to shoot looters. He wasn’t certain how many assigned to patrol knew that he was there legally, or would give him a chance to prove it.

It turned out not to be a problem. He seldom saw any guards. He understood why they would avoid entering such a tomb.

_________

By the time Metin Münir saw Varosha, four years after Allan Cavinder’s reclamation job ended, roofs had collapsed and trees were growing straight out of houses. Münir, one of Turkey’s best-known newspaper columnists, is a Turkish Cypriot who went to Istanbul to study, came home to fight when the troubles began, then returned to Turkey when the troubles kept going on, and on. In 1980, he was the first journalist allowed to enter Varosha for a few hours.

The first thing he noticed was shredded laundry still hanging from clotheslines. What struck him most, though, wasn’t the absence of life but its vibrant presence. With the humans who built Varosha gone, nature was intently recouping it. Varosha, merely 60 miles from Syria and Lebanon, is too balmy for a freeze-thaw cycle, but its pavement was tossed asunder anyway. The wrecking crews weren’t just trees, Münir marveled, but also flowers. Tiny seeds of wild Cyprus cyclamen had wedged into cracks, germinated, and heaved aside entire slabs of cement. Streets now rippled with white cyclamen combs and their pretty, variegated leaves.

“You understand,” Münir wrote his readers back in Turkey, “just what the Taoists mean when say they say that soft is stronger than hard.”

Two more decades passed. The millennium turned, and kept going. Once, Turkish Cypriots had bet that Varosha, too valuable to lose, would force the Greeks to the bargaining table. Neither side had dreamed that, 30-plus years later, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus would still exist, severed not only from the Greek Republic of Cyprus but from the world, still a pariah nation to all except Turkey. Even the UN Peacekeeping Force was exactly where it was in 1974, still listlessly patrolling the Green Line, occasionally waxing a pair of still-impounded, still-new 1974 Toyotas.

Nothing has changed except Varosha, which is entering advanced stages of decay. Its encircling fence and barbed wire are now uniformly rusted, but there is nothing left to protect but ghosts. An occasional Coca Cola sign and broadsides posting nightclubs’ cover charges hang on doorways that haven’t seen customers in more than three decades, and now never will again. Casement windows have flapped and stayed open, their pocked frames empty of glass. Fallen limestone facing lies in pieces. Hunks of wall have dropped from buildings to reveal empty rooms, their furniture long ago somehow spirited away. Paint has dulled; the underlying plaster, where it remains, has yellowed to muted patinas. Where it doesn’t, brick-shaped gaps show where mortar has already dissolved.

Other than the back-and-forth of pigeons, all that moves is the creaky rotor of one last functioning windmill. Hotels—mute and windowless, some with balconies that have fallen, precipitating cascades of damage below—still line the riviera that once aspired to be Cannes or Acapulco. At this point, all parties agree, none is salvageable. Nothing is. To someday once again lure tourists, Varosha will have to be bulldozed and begun anew.

In the meantime, nature continues its reclamation project. Feral geraniums and philodendrons emerge from missing roofs and pour down exterior walls. Flame trees, chinaberries, and thickets of hibiscus, oleander, and passion lilac sprout from nooks where indoors and outdoors now blend. Houses disappear under magenta mounds of bougainvillaea. Lizards and whip snakes skitter through stands of wild asparagus, prickly pear, and six-foot grasses. A spreading ground cover of lemon grass sweetens the air. At night, the darkened beachfront, free of moonlight bathers, crawls with nesting loggerhead and green sea turtles.

THE ISLAND OF Cyprus is shaped like a skillet, with its long handle extended toward the Syrian shore. Its pan is gridded with two mountain ranges oriented east-west and divided by a wide central basin—and by the Green Line, with one sierra on each side. The mountains were once covered with Aleppo and Corsican pines, oaks, and cedars. A cypress and juniper forest filled the entire central plain between the two ranges. Olive, almond, and carob trees grew on the arid seaward slopes. At the end of the Pleistocene, dwarf elephants the size of cows and pygmy hippopotamuses no bigger than farmyard swine roamed among these trees. Since Cyprus originally rose from the sea, unconnected to the three continents that surround it, both species apparently arrived by swimming. They were followed by humans about 10,000 years ago. At least one archaeological site suggests that the last pygmy hippo was killed and cooked by Homo sapiens hunters.

The trees of Cyprus were prized by Assyrian, Phoenician, and Roman boat builders; during the Crusades, most of them disappeared into the warships of Richard the Lionhearted. By then, the goat population was so large that the plains remained treeless. During the 20th century, plantations of umbrella pines were introduced to try to resuscitate former springs. However, in 1995, following a long drought, nearly all of them and the remaining native forests in the northern mountains exploded in a lightning inferno.

Journalist Metin Münir was too grieved to return again from Istanbul to face his native island in ashes, until a Turkish Cypriot horticulturist, Hikmet Uluçan, convinced him he needed to see what was happening. Once again, Münir found that flowers were renewing a Cyprus landscape: the burnt hillsides were blanketed with crimson poppies. Some poppy seeds, Uluçan told him, live 1,000 years or more, waiting for fire to clear trees away so they can bloom.

In the village of Lapta, high above the northern coastline, Hikmet Uluçan grows figs, cyclamens, cacti, and grapes, and reverently tends the oldest weeping mulberry in all Cyprus. His moustache, Vandyke beard, and remaining tufts of hair have whitened since he was forced to leave the South as a young man, where his father had a vineyard and raised sheep, almonds, olives, and lemons. Until the senseless feud that tore apart his island, 20 generations of Greeks and Turks had shared their valley. Then neighbors were clubbed to death. They found the smashed body of an old Turkish woman who had been grazing her goat, the bleating animal still tied to her wrist. It was barbaric, but Turks were also slaying Greeks. Murderous, mutual loathing between tribes was no more explicable, or complicated, than the genocidal urges of chimpanzees—a fact of nature that we humans, vainly or disingenuously, pretend our codes of civilization transcend.

From his garden, Hikmet can see down to the harbor at Kyrenia, guarded by a seventh-century Byzantine castle built atop Roman fortifications that preceded it. Crusaders and Venetians subsequently took it; then came Ottomans, then British, and now Turks were having a turn again. Today a museum, the castle holds one of the world’s rarest relics, a complete Greek merchant ship discovered in 1965, scuttled a mile off Kyrenia. When it went down, its hold was filled with millstones and hundreds of ceramic urns containing wine, olives, and almonds. Its cargo was heavy enough to mire it where currents buried it in mud. Carbon dating of the almonds it carried, likely picked in Cyprus only days earlier, shows that it sank about 2,300 years ago.

Shielded from oxygen, the ship’s Aleppo pine hull and timbers remained intact, although they had to be injected with polyethylene resins to keep from disintegrating once exposed to air. The boat builders had used nails of copper, also once plentiful on Cyprus, also impervious to rust. Equally well preserved are lead fishing weights and the ceramic urns whose varied styles reveal the Aegean ports of their origin.

The 10-foot-thick walls and curved towers of the castle where the ship is now displayed are of limestone quarried from the surrounding cliffs, bearing tiny fossils deposited when Cyprus was beneath the Mediterranean. Since the island was divided, however, the castle and the fine old stone carob warehouses of Kyrenia’s waterfront have all but disappeared behind unlovely infestations of casino hotels—gambling and loose currency laws being among the limited economic options open to a pariah nation.

Hikmet Uluçan drives east along Cyprus’s north coast, passing three more castles of native limestone rising from the jagged mountains that parallel the narrow road. Along the headlands and promontories overlooking the topaz Mediterranean are remains of stone villages, some of them 6,000 years old. Until recently, their terraces, half-buried walls, and jetties were also visible. Since 2003, however, yet another foreign incursion has assaulted the island’s profile. “The only consolation,” mourns Uluçan, “is that this one can’t last.”

Not crusaders, this time, but elderly British seeking the warmest retirement a middle-class pension can buy, led by a frenzy of developers who discovered in the quasi-country of Northern Cyprus the last cheap, untouched seafront property left anywhere north of Libya, with pliable zoning codes to match. Suddenly, bulldozers were scattering 500-year-old olive trees to scrape roads across hillsides. Waves of red-tiled roofs soon oscillated across the landscape, atop floor plans cloned repeatedly in poured concrete. Upon a tsunami of cash payoffs, properly agents surfed to shore astride English-language billboards that appended terms like “Estates,” “Hillside Villas,” “Seaside Villas,” and “Luxury Villas” to ancient Mediterranean place-names.

Prices from £40,000 to £100,000 ($75,000 to $185,000 U.S.) touched off a land rush that overwhelmed trifles such as title disputes by Greek Cypriots who still claimed to own much of the land. A Northern Cyprus environmental-protection trust vainly protested a new golf course by reminding people that they now had to import water from Turkey in giant vinyl bags; that municipal garbage tips were full; that the total lack of sewage treatment meant five times as much effluent would pour into the transparent sea.

Each month more steam shovels gobble coastline like famished brontosaurs, spitting out olive and carob trees along a widening blacktop now 30 miles east of Kyrenia, with no sign of stopping. The English language marches down the shore, dragging embarrassing architecture with it, one sign after another announcing the latest subdivision with a trust-inspiring British name, even as the seaside villas grow trashier: concrete painted, not stuccoed; fake-ceramic roof tiles made of tacky polymer; cornices and windows trimmed with faux stenciled stonework. When Hikmet Uluçan sees a pile of traditional yellow tiles lying in front of naked town house frames awaiting walls, he realizes that someone is ripping stone facing from local bridges and selling it to contractors.

Something about these limestone squares lying at the base of skeletal buildings looks familiar. After a while, he figures it out. “It is like Varosha.” The half-finished buildings going up, surrounded by construction rubble, exactly recall the half-ruins of Varosha coming down.

But if anything, quality has sunk even further. Each billboard touting Northern Cyprus’s sunny new dream homes includes, near the bottom, notification of the construction guarantee: 10 years. Given rumors of developers not bothering to wash the sea salt from the beach sand they mine for concrete, 10 years may be all they get.

Beyond the new golf course, the road finally narrows again. Past one-lane bridges stripped of their limestone ornaments, and a small canyon filled with myrtle and pink orchids, it enters the Karpaz Peninsula, the long tendril that reaches east toward the Levant. Along it are empty Greek churches, gutted but going nowhere, testaments to the tenacity of stone architecture. Stone structures were among the first things that distinguished sedentary humans from nomadic hunter-gatherers, whose temporary mud-and-wattle huts were no more permanent than the season’s grass. Stone buildings will be among the last to disappear when we’re gone. As the fleeting materials of modern construction decompose, the world will retrace our steps back to the Stone Age as it gradually erodes away all memory of us.

As the road follows the peninsula, the landscape gets biblical, with old walls turning back to hills as gravity tugs on the underlying clay. The island ends in sand dunes covered by salt scrub and pistachio trees. The beach is smoothed by the belly tracks of mama sea turtles.

A small limestone hill is topped by a lone, branching umbrella pine. Shadows on the rock face turn out to be caves. Closer, the soft parabola of a low-arched portal reveals that it’s been carved. At this windblown land’s end, less than 40 miles across the water to Turkey and only 20 miles more to Syria, the Stone Age began in Cyprus. Humans arrived around the same time that the oldest known building on Earth, a stone tower, was rising in the world’s oldest city that is still inhabited, Jericho. However primitive this Cyprus dwelling is by comparison, it represented a momentous step, albeit one taken some 40,000 years earlier by Southeast Asians who reached Australia—seafarers venturing beyond the horizon, out of sight of the shore, and finding another one waiting.

The cave is shallow, perhaps 20 feet deep, and surprisingly warm. A charcoal-smudged hearth, two benches, and sleeping niches were fashioned by cutting into the sedimentary walls. A second room, smaller than the first, is almost square, with a squared doorway arch.

Remains of Australopithecus in South Africa suggest that we were cavemen at least 1 million years ago. In a river bluff grotto at Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc in France, Cro-Magnons not only occupied caves 32,000 years ago, but also turned them into our first art galleries, depicting the European megafauna they sought, or whose strength they wished to channel.

There are no such artifacts here: these first inhabitants of Cyprus were struggling pioneers, their time for aesthetic reflection still ahead. But their bones are buried beneath the floor. Long after all our buildings and what’s left of the tower at Jericho are reduced to sand and soil, caves where we took shelter and first learned the notion of walls—including that they begged for art—will remain. In a world without us, they await the next occupant.