From any high point in Nicosia, the capital and the largest city on the island of Cyprus, one can see a giant flag of Turkey-occupied Northern Cyprus painted on the slopes of Kyrenia Mountains. Beside this flag is another large flag of Turkey and a legendary quote in Turkish made by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. It says “Ne Mutlu Türküm Diyene” which translates to “How happy is the one who can say ‘I’m a Turk!”
Each of these flags is about 450 meters wide—large enough to be seen clearly in satellite images, and impossible to miss from the south side of the divided city. Many Nicosia residents grew up seeing the flag every day of their lives, and as much as they hated it, people eventually became numb to the sight.
The flag of Northern Cyprus as visible from Nicosia. Photo credit: A.Savin/Wikimedia
The Republic of Cyprus, you might recall, is politically and geographically divided since the Turkish invasion of 1974. The northern part of the island was renamed by Turkey as “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus”—a status recognized by no other nation, including the Republic of Cyprus itself. They consider the Turkish occupation illegal.
Cyprus’s strained relationships with Turkey dates all the way back to 1571, since the violent invasion by the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent massacre of the island’s many Greek and Armenian inhabitants. For the next three centuries that the Turks ruled over Cyprus, there was widespread poverty among the people. This fueled a strong sense of Greek nationalism among the island’s Greek population who viewed the island as historically part of Greece, and there was a longing to unite Cyprus with Greece.
In 1878, after the Turks were defeated by the Russians in the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878), the Ottomans handed Cyprus over to the British in exchange for protection against future Russian aggression. However, when the Ottoman Turks joined the German side in the First World War, the British formally annexed Cyprus and made it a part of its Empire.
By then, Cyprus had a healthy population of Turks as well as Greeks, both of which showed a strange loyalty towards their respective countries. The Turkish Cypriots were happy under the British but the Greek Cypriots were still hopeful of what they called enosis—the political union of Cyprus and Greece. The enmity between the two groups were taken full advantage of by the British who adopted their time-tested policy of “divide and rule” which they successfully used to rule over India. For instance, when the Greek Cypriots rose up in revolt, the British stirred up the Turks to crush the Greek agitation.
In the early 1950s, a guerrilla organization called the Ethniki Organosis Kyprion Agoniston (EOKA), or the National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters was born, whose idea was to remove British rule and annex the island with Greece. In alarm, the Turks created their own organization called the Turkish Resistance Organization (TMT), and started waging war on Greek Cypriot rebels.
In 1960, an agreement was reached between Britain, Greece and Turkey, and the Republic of Cyrus was born—an independent nation which was under no foreign power. You might think that it was an amiable decision, but neither the Turkish nor the Greek Cypriots were too happy about it.
In 1974, the EOKA with support from the Greek military junta staged a military coup and overthrew the president. The Turks reacted swiftly by invading the island. More than 150,000 Greek Cypriots were displaced from their homes as Turkish forced occupied the north of the island. The capital Nicosia was divided into Greek and Turkish Cypriot quarters by the so-called Green Line. To this day, Turkey occupies the northern end of the island amounting to about a third of the island’s total area.
Sometime in the 1980s, Turkish Cypriots drew a huge map of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus along with the map of Turkey on the southern slopes of Kyrenia Mountains so that it’s visible from most of Nicosia. On special occasions and national days the flag is lit up by thousand of bulbs at night. Greek Cypriots protest that the flag was made to provoke and taunt them, while Turkish Cypriot maintain it’s a memorial to the massacre of Turkish men carried out by the Greek Cypriots.
In 2010 the Greek Cypriot side officially complained about the flag to the EU Commission, framing it as an environmental hazard because of toxic paints used to transpose it into the mountain side.
“How can it permit the existence of such a flag which, apart from the catastrophic environmental damage it causes, the use of chemical substances and the brutal abuse of the environment, involves an absurd waste of electricity at a time of economic crisis?”, Greek Cypriot politician Antigoni Papadopoulou wrote to the European Parliament. “Does Turkey show sufficient respect towards the environment to justify its desire to open the relevant chapter of accession negotiations?”
The flag of Northern Cyprus visible on Google Maps.
A wall of oil drums mark the Green Line dividing the capital of Nicosia. Photo credit: MatthiasKabel/Wikimedia
A wall of oil drums and sand bags mark the Green Line dividing the capital of Nicosia. Photo credit: Marco Fieber/Flickr