Victoria Hislop: Setting The Sunrise in Famagusta, Cyprus

Victoria Hislop: Setting The Sunrise in Famagusta, Cyprus

The places I describe are also real. The story mostly takes place in Famagusta (known as Ammohostos to the Greeks). I wanted to share some images of this place, firstly some postcards that show the city as it was, and then a series of photographs which I took last summer.

These postcards are originals from 1972 (before the Turkish invasion), when the city of Famagusta was a kind of paradise. These were the early days of tourism as we know it now, when people discovered the joys of flying to a Mediterranean country and enjoying a vacation. At the time of the invasion, in August 1974, there were 40,000 inhabitants (mostly Greek Cypriots) and the number was swelled in the summer by the thousands of holidaymakers who came from all round the world to enjoy the warm climate, stunning beach and clear, azure sea.

Famagusta not only offered daytime recreation, but also a nightlife that was second to none in the Mediterranean. It had many fine restaurants and nightclubs where visitors and locals enjoyed live music. The rich and famous went to Famagusta, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, for example, as well as other international stars.

The sand on the beach at Famagusta is fine and pale, and the sea is literally turquoise. It’s a beautiful and safe place to swim. Superficially, the beach looks the same in this picture as it would have done in the early 1970s but if you take a closer look, there is a dark strip on the skyline (on the right of the photograph). This is the barrier that divides the beach. It is a strip of plastic netting, held together with lengths of rusting barbed wire. The whole city of Famagusta is now in the area occupied by Turkey – and the huge section of it which is sealed off (and a no-go area) is known as Varosha.

We are looking at the same buildings as we saw in the postcards, but there is a big difference. They are empty and abandoned, and their windows are dark. Famagusta is now a ghost town. Once a thriving city, it is sealed off and totally empty. Nobody is allowed to go there and the inhabitants who fled, within a few hours once they heard of the approaching Turkish army, have never been allowed to return.

The plastic and barbed wire that has been wrapped around this city is more clearly visible here. I walked right next to it to take these pictures of some derelict hotels. It’s not hard to imagine what an idyllic place this must have been to stay – hotel residents could step from the foyer directly onto the sand. And with soft sand such as this, it must have seemed like paradise. The beach faces due east so they would have woken to the most spectacular sunrise each day visible from those windows. This was what inspired me to call my imaginary hotel (which also gives the novel its name) ‘The Sunrise’.

Some of the hotels were bombed by Turkish planes during the invasion. This hotel was one of the most luxurious in the resort. When I see it, it feels as if the events of 1974 just happened a few moments ago, as though the bombers have just passed over and done their damage. The war was brief and violent (lasting only a few days in all), but the damage was catastrophic to this island. The occupation has now lasted more than forty years.

I took this photo from the office of the Turkish mayor of Famagusta. In the picture, we see some of the older buildings of the city, including one of the original hotels of the city, The Savoy. It’s clear here how nature has taken over, with weeds growing up into the middle of the streets and a general state of dilapidation. And the picture also gives an idea of the scale of the city.

Turkish soldiers man this watchtower. I think they spend most of the time surveying women in bikinis on the beach, but they are officially there to ensure that nobody goes beyond the barbed wire fence into the ghost town. There are signs saying ‘No Photographs’ everywhere (even painted on the walls of the abandoned hotels), so another part of their job is to shout aggressively at people who take pictures, including me of course.

I find this image the most evocative of all, showing the beach and the abandoned hotels through a torn piece of netting. It is very tantalising to be so near and yet so far from what was once such a desirable place. It is as if one is looking at a painting, framed by barbed wire. And it is here that I often speculate about what still lies in these abandoned buildings. The inhabitants who fled imagined that they would be returning, and in their haste they left all their possessions behind. Much was looted, but I imagine that many of the buildings still contain personal items and possessions. It is as if the bricks and mortar themselves are still waiting for the owners to return.

The Sunrise by Victoria Hislop is available to order online today as a Hardback, Paperback or eBook.

Victoria’s pictures are available now to view on our Pinterest board.