Why is Cyprus divided? From the Mediterranean island’s ancient origins to the 1974 Turkish invasion and occupation, here’s everything you need to know about the divides between north and south.

In the early morning hours of July 15, 1974, the island of Cyprus was shaken by a sudden and audacious coup d’état. Orchestrated by Greek Cypriot nationalists and backed by the ruling military junta in Greece, the coup aimed to overthrow President Makarios III, who was seen as an obstacle to the dream of Enosis, or union with Greece.

Makarios, narrowly escaping an attack on the presidential palace, fled to Paphos and then to London, where he denounced the coup at the United Nations. On the island, a new president, Nikos Sampson, was installed, symbolising a triumph for the hardliners.

The coup’s shockwaves reached across the Aegean Sea to Turkey, which saw the events as a grave threat to the Turkish Cypriot minority on the island. Citing its role as a guarantor power under the 1960 Zurich and London Agreements, Turkey acted swiftly.

Five days after the coup, on July 20, Turkish forces landed near Kyrenia in the north. Tanks rolled onto the beaches as paratroopers descended from the sky. The Turkish invasion’s first phase had begun, sparking a series of battles and causing casualties and displacement.

A fragile ceasefire was brokered, and a period of intense negotiations followed. The Greek junta, beleaguered by the Cyprus crisis, collapsed, signalling a return to democracy in Greece. On the island, Sampson was replaced by Glafcos Clerides as acting president. Yet, the negotiations stumbled and broke down. The island’s future hung in the balance, the spectre of division looming ever larger.

On August 14, Turkish forces launched a second military action, advancing further south. The island’s fate was being redrawn, its communities torn apart by new boundaries. In the aftermath, a buffer zone known as the Green Line emerged, patrolled by UN peacekeepers. A mass movement of people ensued, Greek Cypriots heading south, and Turkish Cypriots north, each community seeking safety among its own.

The events of 1974 left an indelible mark on Cyprus, solidifying a division that persists to this day. The dreams of Enosis were shattered, replaced by a complex reality of two separate entities on one island. Years later, in 1983, the north declared independence as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognised only by Turkey.

The echoes of 1974 continue to resonate in the political dialogues, the stories passed down through generations, and the landscape itself, where the Green Line stands as a silent witness to a tumultuous chapter in the island’s history. If you’re interested in learning more, then keep reading, as I explain why Cyprus is divided.

Why is Cyprus divided?

Cyprus has been effectively partitioned since 1974, following the Turkish invasion in response to a coup aimed at uniting Cyprus with Greece.

The northern part of the island, referred to as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, is controlled by the Turkish Cypriots and is recognised only by Turkey. The southern part, the Republic of Cyprus, is internationally recognised and is predominantly inhabited by Greek Cypriots.

The United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) maintains a buffer zone, known as the ‘Green Line’, that separates the two regions, and several checkpoints allow controlled movement between the north and south. Efforts to negotiate a reunification have been ongoing but have not yet resulted in a resolution.

This divide is primarily due to the complex interplay of historical, cultural, and political factors. Under Ottoman rule in the 16th century, the population of Cyprus began to include both Greek Orthodox Christians and Turkish Muslims. As the centuries progressed, these two communities developed distinct national aspirations, with the Greeks seeking union with Greece, and the Turks seeking autonomy or integration with Turkey.

The situation was further complicated during the British administration, which began in 1878. During this period, nationalistic sentiments among both Greek and Turkish Cypriots grew, setting the stage for future tensions. Upon gaining independence from Britain in 1960, Cyprus established a government designed to represent both communities. However, divisions between the two sides soon escalated into violence, reflecting deeper issues of identity, representation, and desired political affiliations.

The climax of this unrest came in 1974 when a coup backed by the Greek military junta aimed to unite Cyprus with Greece. Turkey, as one of the guarantors of Cyprus’s independence, responded by invading the northern part of the island. The Turkish invasion resulted in a de facto partition of Cyprus, separating Turkish Cypriots in the north and Greek Cypriots in the south. This division was further entrenched when the north declared itself the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognized only by Turkey. The southern part became the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus. It’s a situation that continues to this day.

A United Nations map showing the political divide of Cyprus, between North and South, with the Green Line in the middle.

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A Brief History of the division of Cyprus

Cyprus carries a complex history that led to its division into two parts. Understanding this division requires looking back into the intricate web of cultural, political and historical factors that gave rise to the situation. Here’s a brief historical overview:

Ancient Roots

Cyprus’ story begins in antiquity. Various civilizations have left their mark on the island, including the Greeks, Phoenicians and Romans. By the late medieval period, the island was ruled by various powers such as the Byzantines, Venetians and the Lusignan dynasty.

Ottoman Rule

In 1571, the Ottoman Empire took control of Cyprus, which brought significant changes to the island’s administration and population. Many Greek Orthodox Christians remained, but a substantial number of Turkish Muslims also settled on the island, giving rise to two distinct communities.

British Administration

The British acquired Cyprus in 1878 and later annexed it during World War I. The time under British rule saw the growth of nationalism among both Greek Cypriots, who desired union with Greece, and Turkish Cypriots, who sought either full autonomy or integration with Turkey.

Independence and Conflict

Cyprus gained independence from Britain in 1960, with a power-sharing government designed to represent both communities. However, tensions soon escalated, leading to intercommunal violence. Greek Cypriots were the majority and sought closer ties with Greece, while Turkish Cypriots preferred a more balanced representation and a closer relationship with Turkey.

The situation reached a turning point in 1974 when a coup, backed by the Greek military junta, attempted to unite Cyprus with Greece. In response, Turkey, citing its role as a guarantor of the island’s constitution, invaded the northern part of Cyprus. This intervention led to a de facto partition, with Turkish Cypriots in the north and Greek Cypriots in the south.

Ongoing Division

Since the 1974 Turkish invasion, the northern part of Cyprus has declared itself the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognised only by Turkey. The southern part is the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus. Several negotiation attempts have taken place to reunify the island, but disagreements over governance, property rights, and security have kept the island divided.

The United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) has maintained a buffer zone, often referred to as the ‘Green Line’, that runs across the island. This area is a stark symbol of the division, with buildings frozen in time since the 1970s.

The division of Cyprus is not simply a matter of geographical lines but a profound reflection of historical complexities, political manoeuvring and cultural differences. The situation in Cyprus remains a poignant reminder of how historical wounds can persist, and the path towards healing and reconciliation can be fraught with obstacles. While the future of this beautiful island remains uncertain, the will of its people to find common ground may yet forge a path towards a unified future.

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A crusader castle in Northern Cyprus.

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What is the Republic of Cyprus?

The Republic of Cyprus is the internationally recognised sovereign state that governs the southern part of the island of Cyprus. Established in 1960, it emerged as an independent country following decolonisation from British rule. The republic was formed as a partnership between Greek Cypriots, who make up the majority of the population, and Turkish Cypriots, a significant minority. Nicosia is the capital and largest city.

Under the terms of the 1960 Zurich and London Agreements, Cyprus became independent with a power-sharing constitution. Greece, Turkey and the United Kingdom were designated as ‘guarantor powers’, vested with the responsibility to ensure the constitution’s implementation and the island’s independence.

However, intercommunal tensions between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots escalated in the years following independence, leading to internal strife and culminating in the 1974 crisis. A coup by Greek Cypriots seeking union with Greece prompted a Turkish military intervention, resulting in the island’s division.

The Republic of Cyprus controls the southern part of the island, which is about 63% of its territory. It has been a member of the United Nations since its independence and joined the European Union in 2004. However, the application of EU law is suspended in the northern area due to the lack of control by the Republic of Cyprus government.

Today, the Republic of Cyprus is a presidential republic, with a multi-party political system and a president who serves both as head of state and government. Its economy is diverse, including sectors such as tourism, finance, shipping, and real estate. Despite its political complexities and the unresolved issue of division, it remains a popular tourist destination, known for its Mediterranean climate, archaeological sites and cultural richness.

The flag of the Republic of Cyprus.

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What is the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus?

The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) is a self-declared state that controls the northern part of the island of Cyprus. Established on November 15, 1983, the TRNC came into being nine years after Turkey’s military intervention in Cyprus in 1974. The intervention was triggered by a coup aimed at uniting the island with Greece, and it effectively divided the island along ethnic lines, with Turkish Cypriots in the north and Greek Cypriots in the south.

The international community, with the exception of Turkey, does not recognise the TRNC as a sovereign state. Instead, it recognises the Republic of Cyprus as the sole legitimate government for the entire island. The TRNC’s status has led to its economic and political isolation, with no direct flights to and from the territory except through Turkey. Its institutions and administration function separately from those of the Republic of Cyprus, with its own president, parliament and judiciary.

Lefkoşa (Nicosia in English) serves as the capital of the TRNC, and the city remains divided, with a Turkish Cypriot north and a Greek Cypriot south separated by the UN-administered Green Line. The economy in the north is less diversified than in the Republic of Cyprus, largely due to its political status affecting trade, tourism, and investment. Nonetheless, it still maintains sectors such as higher education, which attracts international students, and tourism, albeit at a smaller scale than the south.

The TRNC and the Republic of Cyprus have engaged in numerous talks aimed at reunification, often under UN auspices. Despite some close calls, no agreement has been reached. A host of complex issues, including property rights, governance, security and the presence of Turkish troops make negotiations particularly challenging.

The unresolved status of the TRNC also has implications for Cyprus’s relations with the European Union. Though Cyprus joined the EU in 2004, the acquis communautaire (the body of EU law) is suspended in the area controlled by the TRNC due to the lack of control by the Republic of Cyprus government.

The division remains a subject of international diplomatic efforts, as well as an ongoing source of tension between Greece and Turkey, both of which are NATO members but have a history of strained relations, partly due to the Cyprus issue.

The flag of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus

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What is the ‘Green Line’?

The Green Line is the demarcation line that separates the northern and southern parts of Cyprus. It was established in 1963 following intercommunal violence between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities, and it was solidified in 1974 after Turkey’s military intervention in the northern part of the island.

The Green Line runs across the entire island, cutting through the capital city of Nicosia, and serves as a buffer zone that is controlled and patrolled by the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP). The line is not an official international border, but it functions as a de facto separation between the two sides.

Over time, the Green Line has become a symbolic representation of the island’s division and the ongoing political and ethnic tensions between the two communities. In some areas, it’s physically marked by barriers and checkpoints, while in others, it’s simply a patrolled line with UN signage.

Since Cyprus’s accession to the European Union in 2004, certain crossing points have been opened along the Green Line, allowing people to move between the north and south with relative ease. However, the situation along the line can vary, depending on political circumstances and ongoing negotiations regarding the future of Cyprus.

The term ‘Green Line’ originates from the colour of the ink used by a British officer to draw the line on a map during the initial establishment of the ceasefire line. Over the decades, it has become a significant aspect of the political and cultural landscape of Cyprus, reflecting the complex history and challenges of the island’s division.

The UN Buffer Zone is in Blue. Map by Golbez from Wikipedia.

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Is Cyprus in the EU?

Cyprus is a member of the European Union (EU). The country joined the EU on May 1, 2004, as part of the organisation’s fifth enlargement.

However, it’s important to note that the application of EU law is suspended in the northern part of the island, which is controlled by the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). The TRNC is recognized only by Turkey, and the division of the island has led to complications in the full implementation of EU regulations and benefits across the entire territory of Cyprus.

The ongoing division of the island and the associated political challenges continue to be subjects of concern within the EU, and various efforts have been made to support reunification talks and to bring the entire island under the framework of EU law.

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Is reunification possible?

Reunification in Cyprus is certainly a possibility, and it has been a focus of negotiations and diplomatic efforts for many years. However, the process is complicated, and several key obstacles must be overcome to make reunification a reality. Here are some aspects to consider:

1. Political Will: Both sides must demonstrate the political will to compromise and work together. This can be challenging, given the different visions for the future of the island and the political pressures from various groups within each community.

2. Key Issues: Negotiations must address several contentious issues, such as governance, property rights, territorial adjustments, and security arrangements. Finding common ground on these matters has proven difficult in past talks.

3. External Influences: The involvement of external actors, such as Turkey, Greece, and the UK (as guarantor powers of Cyprus’s independence), as well as the European Union, can either facilitate or complicate the process, depending on their interests and positions.

4. Economic Considerations: Economic disparities between the north and south, along with the potential economic benefits and challenges of reunification, must be addressed.

5. International Support: Continued support from international organisations, such as the United Nations, is crucial in facilitating dialogue and providing a framework for negotiations.

Reunification in Cyprus is a complex and delicate process that requires careful negotiation, compromise and the alignment of various interests. While it remains a possibility, and there is a broad international desire to see the island reunified, the path to achieving this goal is fraught with challenges.

Nicosia the world's last divided capital city
Barricades divide Nicosia, the world’s last divided capital city.

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Is Cyprus safe to visit?

Despite the divisions, government advisories like the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office generally consider Cyprus to be a safe destination for tourists. Both the Republic of Cyprus in the south and the Turkish-controlled north maintain a low crime rate, and visitors typically encounter a friendly and welcoming atmosphere.

However, like any travel destination, it’s wise to take standard precautions. Here are some general tips for safety:

  • Awareness of the Political Situation: Understanding the political context, including the division of the island, can help visitors navigate social and cultural sensitivities.

  • Local Laws and Regulations: Familiarising yourself with local laws and customs can prevent misunderstandings or inadvertent offences.

  • Health Precautions: Following local health advisories and being aware of any required or recommended vaccinations is essential. Also, consider taking out travel insurance that covers health emergencies.

  • Driving: If renting a car, be mindful that driving is on the left side of the road in the Republic of Cyprus and on the right in Northern Cyprus. Road conditions and driving practices may vary from what you’re used to.

  • Crossing the Border: If planning to cross between the north and south, be aware of the specific requirements for crossing, including necessary identification. Be mindful of the official crossing points.

  • Weather Conditions: Cyprus has a hot Mediterranean climate, so staying hydrated and protected from the sun is essential, especially in the summer months.
Along the Cyprus buffer zone
Guard posts along the Green Line, near Famagusta.

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What difficulties does the division of Cyprus cause?

The division of Cyprus into the Turkish Cypriot-controlled north and the Greek Cypriot-controlled south has resulted in various difficulties and challenges that affect different aspects of life on the island. Travel between north and south, and these difficulties become readily apparent:

  • Governance: The divided administration creates complexities in governance and international representation.

  • Diplomatic Relations: The lack of international recognition for Northern Cyprus affects its international relations and creates diplomatic challenges.

  • Trade Barriers: The division leads to trade barriers between the two parts, hindering economic integration.

  • Investment and Development: The lack of recognition for Northern Cyprus limits foreign investment, leading to disparities in economic development.

  • Family Separation: The division has resulted in families being separated, affecting social bonds.

  • Cultural Division: Differences in educational systems, media, and cultural influences have led to divergent cultural identities and understandings.

  • Property Rights: Disputes over property left behind by individuals who fled their homes during periods of conflict remain unresolved.

  • Legal Complexity: Different legal systems in the north and south can create challenges for residents and businesses operating across the line.
  • Travel Restrictions: Though there are crossing points, the division still places restrictions on movement, affecting daily life and business.

  • Access to Services: Differential access to services, such as healthcare and education, exists between the two parts.
  • Military Presence: The significant military presence, especially Turkish troops in the north, creates security concerns and tensions.

  • Buffer Zone: The UN-controlled buffer zone (Green Line) itself is a manifestation of the division, impacting land use and creating a physical barrier.
  • Trust and Reconciliation: Years of division and conflict have sown mistrust between the two communities, hindering reconciliation efforts.
Along the Cyprus buffer zone
A Turkish military warning sign in Northern Cyprus.

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Can I cross the border between north and south?

It’s generally easy for individuals to cross the border between the northern and southern parts of Cyprus. Since the early 2000s, several crossing points have been opened along the Green Line that divides the island, allowing for movement between the two sides.

However, there are some important considerations:

  • Checkpoints: When crossing, you will generally need to pass through checkpoints where identification may be checked. For tourists, a passport is typically acceptable, while local residents may use identity cards.

  • Visa and Entry Regulations: The Republic of Cyprus, which controls the south and is recognized internationally, has standard entry requirements aligned with the European Union. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, in the north, has its own entry regulations, which might differ.

  • Vehicle Insurance: If you are driving, you may need to purchase additional insurance at the border to cover your vehicle in the north, as standard policies from the south may not be recognised there.

  • Political Sensitivities: Keep in mind that political sensitivities can affect travel between the two parts of the island. Always follow the guidance of local authorities and be aware of any special instructions or regulations.

Crossing the border has become relatively routine for many residents and visitors, but the process reflects the complex political situation on the island, and it’s essential to approach it with understanding and respect for the local context.

The Ledra Street Border Crossing In Cyprus
The border between north and south, at Ledra Street.

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Where can I cross the border?

There are several official crossing points where you can cross the border between the northern and southern parts of Cyprus. These crossing points are established along the Green Line, and they include pedestrian, vehicle and commercial crossing points.

Some of the key crossing points are:

  • Ledra Street (Nicosia): This is a pedestrian-only crossing point in the heart of Nicosia, the divided capital city. It connects the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot parts of the old city.
  • Astromeritis (also known as Zodeia or Beyarmudu): Located in the west, this crossing point allows for vehicles, pedestrians and goods.
  • Agios Dometios (also known as Metehan or Kermia): Situated in Nicosia, this is one of the main vehicle crossing points, connecting the two parts of the capital city.
  • Strovilia (also known as Akyar): Near the eastern coast and close to Famagusta, this crossing point is used by vehicles and pedestrians.
  • Ledra Palace: This crossing point is near the old Ledra Palace Hotel in Nicosia and is often used by UN personnel, diplomats and others.
  • Deryneia (also known as Dherynia or Yesilirmak): Located in the east, near Famagusta, this is a crossing point for vehicles and pedestrians.
  • Lefka (also known as Limnitis or Yesilirmak): This crossing point is in the northwest of the island and allows vehicles, pedestrians and goods.

Keep in mind that regulations, operating hours, and procedures may vary between different crossing points. It’s advisable to check with local authorities or official websites for the most up-to-date information and any specific requirements for crossing. Also, be aware that the situation could change due to political developments or other factors, such as health and safety concerns.

The Ledra Street Border Crossing In Cyprus
A peace sign outside the border crossing in Nicosia.

Places to visit in Cyprus to learn more about the divisions

Why is Cyprus divided? The divide in Cyprus is a complex issue with deep historical roots. If you’re interested in learning more about this subject, several places and institutions on the island provide valuable insights:

  • The Cyprus Museum (Nicosia): Exhibits Cypriot archaeology and history, including periods of conflict.
  • Leventis Municipal Museum (Nicosia): Focuses on the history of Nicosia, the divided capital, and offers insights into the city’s past and the impact of the divide.
  • The Home for Cooperation (Nicosia): Located in the buffer zone, this community centre fosters dialogue between the two communities and offers exhibitions, talks, and other events.
  • Ledra Street Crossing Point (Nicosia): Walk across this pedestrian-only crossing to experience the divide firsthand.
  • The Museum of Barbarism (Nicosia): This museum in the north tells the Turkish Cypriot perspective of the conflict.
  • Famagusta: Visit the old city walls and the ‘ghost town’ of Varosha, which remains under military control and symbolizes the ongoing division.
  • UN Buffer Zone: Touring parts of the buffer zone can provide an understanding of the physical division. Some areas may be accessible with guided tours, often led by NGOs or UN personnel.

Visiting these places and engaging with both communities can provide a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding of the Cyprus divide. It’s essential to approach the subject with sensitivity and respect, as it remains a deeply emotional and political issue for many Cypriots. Connecting with local guides or organisations specializing in peacebuilding and reconciliation can also enhance your learning experience.

Along the Cyprus buffer zone
A concrete guard post somewhere by the Buffer Zone.

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What’s the difference between Greek and Turkish Cypriots?

Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots are the two main ethnic communities in Cyprus, and while they share many commonalities as Cypriots, they also have distinct cultural, linguistic, and religious characteristics. Here’s a breakdown of some of the key differences:

1. Language

  • Greek Cypriots: Primarily speak Greek and often use the Cypriot Greek dialect.
  • Turkish Cypriots: Primarily speak Turkish and may use the Cypriot Turkish dialect.

2. Religion

  • Greek Cypriots: Predominantly adhere to Greek Orthodox Christianity.
  • Turkish Cypriots: Mostly follow Sunni Islam.

3. Cultural Influences

  • Greek Cypriots: Influenced by Greek culture, including customs, traditions, music, and cuisine.
  • Turkish Cypriots: Influenced by Turkish culture, reflecting similar customs, traditions, and culinary practices.

4. Historical and Political Affiliations

  • Greek Cypriots: Historically aligned with Greece, and some sought union with Greece during the 20th century.
  • Turkish Cypriots: Historically aligned with Turkey, and some advocated for partition or closer ties with Turkey.

5. Geographical Distribution

  • Greek Cypriots: Primarily reside in the southern part of the island, controlled by the Republic of Cyprus.
  • Turkish Cypriots: Mainly live in the northern part, governed by the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (recognized only by Turkey).

6. Political Representation

  • Greek Cypriots: Represented by the internationally recognised government of the Republic of Cyprus.
  • Turkish Cypriots: Governed by the authorities in Northern Cyprus, which lacks broad international recognition.

While these differences exist, it’s essential to recognise that the two communities also share common elements of Cypriot culture, history, and identity. Efforts at reconciliation and peacebuilding often emphasise these commonalities and seek to bridge divisions through dialogue, cooperation and mutual understanding. The Cyprus problem’s complexity arises from the interplay of these differences and commonalities, as well as the broader regional and international context.

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Turkish (left) and TRNC (right) flags fly in Northern Cyprus.

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FAQ: Why is Cyprus divided? 

Here’s an FAQ exploring the question, ‘Why is Cyprus divided?’:

Q1: When did Cyprus become divided?

A: Cyprus became physically divided in 1974 following a coup by Greek Cypriot nationalists seeking union with Greece and a subsequent Turkish military intervention.

Q2: What led to the 1974 crisis?

A: The 1974 crisis stemmed from longstanding intercommunal tensions between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, political disagreements, foreign intervention, and competing nationalisms, including the movement for union with Greece (Enosis) and resistance from Turkish Cypriots.

Q3: What is the Green Line?

A: The Green Line is a demilitarised buffer zone supervised by the United Nations that physically separates the northern and southern parts of Cyprus. It was first established in 1964 but solidified in its current form after 1974.

Q4: Who controls the two parts of Cyprus?

A: The Republic of Cyprus controls the southern part and is the internationally recognised government. The northern part is governed by the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), recognised only by Turkey.

Q5: What are the main differences between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots?

A: Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots differ primarily in language, religion, and cultural affiliations, with Greek Cypriots identifying with Greek culture and Orthodox Christianity, and Turkish Cypriots with Turkish culture and Sunni Islam.

Q6: Why haven’t reunification efforts succeeded?

A: Reunification efforts have been hampered by deep-seated mistrust, disagreements over governance, property rights, security arrangements, and differing interpretations of the past. International and regional politics have also played a role.

Q7: What is the role of the United Nations in Cyprus?

A: The UN has played a significant role in peacekeeping and mediation efforts in Cyprus, overseeing the Green Line and facilitating negotiations between the two communities.

Q8: How does the division affect ordinary Cypriots?

A: The division impacts everyday life, from crossing restrictions to economic disparities between the north and south. It also affects identity, social relations, and emotions for many Cypriots.

Q9: Can tourists and residents cross between the north and south?

A: Yes, there are several official crossing points along the Green Line, allowing for movement between the two sides. Proper identification and adherence to regulations are required.

Q10: How does Cyprus’s status as an EU member impact the situation?

A: Cyprus joined the EU in 2004, but the acquis communautaire (EU law) is suspended in the north due to the lack of control by the Republic of Cyprus. The EU supports reunification under a bizonal, bicommunal federation.