Varosha (Maraş), a suburb of Famagusta, was abandoned when its inhabitants fled in 1974 and remains under military control

Operation Antila – The Turkish Invasion of Cyprus in 1974

Legend claims that Cyprus was the home of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, and it could be said that, throughout its history, a succession of amorous empires including the Assyrians, the Persians, the Egyptians, and the Romans lusted after the Mediterranean jewel. However, by 1570, the Ottoman Empire, more familiar to us as Turkey, won the fair isle’s hand and ruled for three centuries. By the nineteenth century, there was a new suitor, Great Britain, casting a fond eye upon the island. The British reached an agreement with Turkey in 1878: while Cyprus would remain under the sovereignty of Turkey, it would be administered by the British government, whose covetous eye had noted its strategic importance as a base in the eastern Mediterranean. However, the accord was shattered when Turkey allied itself with the losing Central Powers in World War I and by 1925, Cyprus was a British crown colony.

This was fine with the Greek Cypriots and since almost four-fifths of the population of Cyprus had hailed from Greece beginning around 1200 B.C., they assumed that Great Britain would support their long-cherished dream of enosis, or union with Greece. This longing to return to their ancestral home did not sit so well with the Turkish Cypriots, who, although a minority making up only one-fifth of the population of Cyprus, regarded Turkey, only 40 miles away, as their motherland.

As the nation of Turkey moved into a modern secular government under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the nationalist yearnings of Turkish Cypriots, matched by the Greek Cypriot craving for enosis which had never been quelled, the divisions between the two factions became more marked on Cyprus. Greek nationalism was also rising, making it convenient for the British to allow the two opposing factions to regard each other with hostility in order to prevent them from joining forces to overthrow British colonial rule.

Archibishop Makarios III
Archibishop Makarios III (Credits: CC License Wikimedia)

By the 1950s, with colonialism waning and the British Empire shrinking, Greek Cypriots were more aggressive in driving out the British and seeking union with Greece. The EOKA, or Ethniki Organosis Kyprion Agoniston, was determined to accomplish this goal, with violence if necessary. One of their leaders was Archibishop Makarios III, whose clerical role did not prevent him from becoming a forceful political leader who espoused enosis. By 1954, weapons were being shipped in secret to Cyprus, in preparation for the campaign to drive out the British. The two Cypriot factions, however, were not yet isolated by their ethnicity although Turkish Cypriots, aware of their status as a minority, perceived their vulnerability, fearing that if Cyprus were part of Greece, they would face persecution. They supported taksim, or partition, rather than enosis or union with Greece and preferred the presence of the British, or the sovereignty of Turkey, in order to be assured of their own safety.

Ethnic distribution map of Cyprus in 1973 (Credits: Wikimedia) Drawn by a map from the “Issues of the Middle East”, CIA publication, at the Perry Castaneda colletion, Link: [1]. The yellow colour shows land with predominantly greek-cypriot population, while purple shows predominantly turkish-cypriot population (known in greece as “turkish-cypriot pockets”). British military bases are displayed in red colour.

Archbishop Makarios became the first elected president of Cyprus in March, 1959. Makarios realized that enosis was not the future for Cyprus and as he began to support Cypriot independence instead, his politics became more moderate, cultivating peaceful relations with both Turkey and Greece. But this was not the flavor of the month in Greek nationalist circles and his own political future turned precarious.

In 1960, the Republic of Cyprus became independent through a compromise between the Turkish and the Greek Cypriots. Governing did not go smoothly; there were disputes over the share of power given to the Turkish Cypriots, which the Greek Cypriots saw as excessive, considering their minority population. The Greek Cypriots sought more power in their government, although that would have meant depriving Turkish Cypriots of their rights. By the end of 1963, with their fledgling Constitution tattered, Cyprus was surging with violence, so much so that the Greeks, Turks, and British favored sending in NATO troops to bring order.

As the violence flared, the Turkish army seized a strategic section of the road from Nicosia to Kyrenia. Greek Cypriots who needed to use the road had to be accompanied by a United Nations convoy in order to do so. The death toll saw nearly 133 Greek and 193 Turkish Cypriots lose their lives. There were more than 200 Turkish Cypriots missing and presumed dead. Women and children were among the 700 Turkish Cypriot hostages taken from Nicosia’s northern suburbs. Villages were destroyed and more than 25,000 Turkish Cypriots were displaced. A Greek nationalist named Nikos Sampson, who would later figure prominently in Cyprus’ political turmoil, was the leader of a group of Greek Cypriot irregulars who initiated a massacre against Turkish Cypriots in a section of the capital that would be nicknamed “Murder Mile.”

American and international representatives intervened, but neither the Turkish nor the Greek Cypriots were pleased with the final results.  The so-called Green Line divided the capital of Nicosia. The United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus was sent to the island to restore order. Fearing the threat of ethnic cleansing by the Greek Cypriots, Turkey threatened to invade in 1967. Compromise resulted in some restrictions being lifted so that the Turkish population could have access to needed supplies. But the city remained divided.

The political situation in Greece at this time was by no means serene. A military coup in 1967 left Greece with a ruling government which regarded President Makarios as expendable because he did not support enosis. When Makarios ordered Greece to remove its Greek officers from the Cypriot National Guard, the Greek government decided to overthrow Makarios. Makarios barely survived the July 14, 1974 coup and fled to the British. Enosis-supporter Nikos Sampson was named provisional president of Cyprus.

Turkey demanded the removal of Sampson, who had a reputation for acting on his anti-Turkish beliefs; they also sought equal rights for both Greek and Turkish Cypriots; the removal of 650 Greek officers from the National Guard of Cyprus, and access to the sea for Turkish Cypriots from the northern coast.

When the peace talks in Athens failed, Turkey sent 33 ships, 30 tanks and small landing craft and thousands of troops to the northern coast of Cyprus. The Greek Navy set sail from Salamis. On July 20, 1974, under codename Operation Atila, Turkish troops, landing at Kyrenia before dawn, were met by Greek Cypriot forces as well as soldiers from Greece. But most of the fighting took place in and around Nicosia, the capital, as the Turkish forces sought to gain control of the airport. Turkey occupied more than a third of Cyprus in the northeastern part of the island.

Operation Atila: Location of Turkish forces during the late hours of 20 July 1974.
Operation Atila: Location of Turkish forces during the late hours of 20 July 1974. (Credits: CC-BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia)

By July 22, the United Nations Security Council had brokered a ceasefire. Unable to withstand the events on Cyprus, the military junta in Greece collapsed and political leaders who had been in exile began to return. Konstantinos Karamanlis, returning from Paris, was named prime minister. Turkey sought to have a transfer of population as part of its plan to form a federal state for Turkish Cypriots. The Greeks were denied time to consult with other Greek Cypriot leaders. The negotiating ended and the Turks attacked again, occupying more than thirty-six percent of the island. Eighty-two percent of the population in the north was made up of Greek Cypriots and suddenly, these 200,000 people were forced from their homes as refugees when they learned that the Turkish army was getting near.

The 10,000 residents of Limassol, a Turkish Cypriot enclave, surrendered to the Cypriot National Guard on July 20. A prison camp held 1,300 Turkish Cypriots.

Fleeing residents saw their peaceful, prosperous lives suddenly disrupted as they tried to escape to the countryside. Turkish Cypriots fled north. Greek Cypriots, learning that the Turks were approaching, fled south, and an estimated 160,000 became refugees.

Various crimes and atrocities were committed by both sides during the years. Victims of almost all of these crimes and atrocities were women and teenage girls from various villages and peninsulas. Many of them were (repeatedly) raped, impregnated and, or massacred. One of the cases even involved 2 week old babies.

Varosha (Maraş), a suburb of Famagusta, was abandoned when its inhabitants fled in 1974 and remains under military control
Varosha (Maraş), a suburb of Famagusta, was abandoned when its inhabitants fled in 1974 and remains under military control. (Credits: TomasNY via Wikimedia)

Cyprus is a divided nation today, but one with a peculiar identity. The United Nations continues to maintain peacekeeping forces and the ceasefire line set in 1974, known as the Green Line, divides the Turkish and Greek Cypriots on their island. In 1983, the Turkish Cypriot authorities declared that the northern part of Cyprus was independent and renamed as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. The United Nations Security Council declared the action invalid.

The only country which recognizes the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus as an independent nation is Turkey. The island which was once desired by the emperors of the ancient world is a severed nation and a casualty of the unresolved strife between two factions.