We returned almost a month ago from two weeks on Cyprus after a rich tour of Egypt’s ancient sites. As we flew over the Mediterranean from Cairo to Larnaca, Cyprus, we left a land where people have known for thousands of years that they are the people of the Nile. Since the union of Lower and Upper Egypt some 5000 years ago, they have known who they were—Egyptians. Even when they were ruled by outsiders in the Christian and Muslim eras, they remained a people with an unbroken identity. We flew to an island whose inhabitants had hardly known independence until 1960, and, since 1974 have lived with a division across their land based on a struggle between Turkish- and Greek-speaking Cypriots. The question they face continually is whether the identity of being a “Cypriot” can find full flower in some kind of political unity.
My own life is now intertwined more deeply with the people of Cyprus, ever since my mother began telling me about the two years of her childhood at the Skouriotissa mine, where her father was the engineer who helped re-establish the ancient copper works there. Now I was back, for the second time, to try to preserve the written and photographic record of that experience so that Cypriots as well as my own family could claim yet another piece of their history. While we were there we visited places in northern Cyprus where my mother and her parents had been—the coast at Xeros, Kyrenia, Salamis, and Famagusta. Here’s a picture of me (the weather was chilly and damp!) against the backdrop of the Gothic cathedral built by French rulers of Cyprus in the 14th century. You can see a minaret that was attached to the cathedral when it became a mosque under the Ottomans in the 16th century. Now, under Turkish control as part of the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, it is cared for as an active mosque, with a beautiful copy of a Qu’ran on display at the entrance. And then there is me, an American grandson of a mining engineer. Somehow, this picture brings together both the richness of Cypriot history and the conflicts that divide it today.
As I contributed copies of my documentation to the Hellenic Copper Mines Company, which continues the work my grandfather was engaged in, I was even more deeply aware that I was part of the extended family of people whose lives have been shaped by this part of Earth. As I also gave copies of these archives to the Center for Visual Artistic Research in Nicosia, I was aware that this was a tiny part of the effort to claim and reclaim a Cypriot identity that might overcome the divisions of the island. The pictures, as records of a time “before division,” even if under colonial rule, might contribute to that goal.
Just as Germany was reunited by a deep identity that broke down the walls established by outside powers, so must the people of Cyprus claim an identity more powerful than the lines that divide them. And indeed, because of the divisions of language, culture, religion, and historical memory on the island the task is much more difficult here. I began to think that it is finally the island itself that must be the source of its inhabitants’ identity. And at the core of this island has always been the mine, rooted in the peculiar geological features of the Troodos Mountains, and which has bound its copper to the island’s very name. (Check out the fascinating documentary about the island’s geological history, Troodos: The Birth of Cyprus on YouTube.)
As an American I have grown up with an identity that is shaped by being a citizen of a conglomeration of earlier nationalities. Immigration, though hotly contested, is the story of America. Its Constitution, binding people in a common law, appeals only to this voluntary assent to be citizens of a commonwealth, calling out common endeavor from the particularities of the religions, languages, customs, and memories of a pluralistic people. We continue to experience sometimes traumatic conflict over identity—the children of enslaved Africans and of European settlers, of Asians and Hispanics, of original Natives and conquering Colonials—but it is taken for granted that we shall always be a plurality in a constitutional unity.
But this specific history itself always raises the deeper question of what does constitute our collective identities. Is it simply the genealogy of our birth (our “natus,” the source of “nationality” as a concept)? Is it our beliefs and rituals? Is it our culture of language, art, and common memory? Is it allegiance to a Constitution? Certainly at the core of identity is some sort of common memory, which is why history is so important and why the efforts to re-cast history, erase history, and control its telling are so fraught with conflict. And, indeed, as I drove through the northern part of Cyprus, presently under Turkish control, I saw ample evidence of the effort to rename the land to claim a history separate from its Greek memories. Would it be possible, in a time and place of such colliding histories, that the ecology of the island itself could become the core of Cypriot identity?
Cyprus can be seen in some sense as a laboratory of the Earthling Hypothesis: that we might be joined at the deepest level in our love of the land that holds us in common. While the European Union, Russia, a resurgent Ottomanism in Turkey, as well as the residue of the British Empire all contest for control of Cyprus’s unity, is it also possible that the island itself, born of the collision of the Eurasian and African plates, might cultivate an identity as a bridge, as a unique condensation of contesting cultures? Might it then claim a kind of vocation to be a bridge place, where division, indeed seemingly intractable division, becomes a unique meeting place of peoples? Might it become, in the name of one organization struggling to forge this identity, a true “Home for Cooperation”? These are the more visionary questions that have been raised as I reflect on the meaning of Cyprus in my own family’s life and in the wider public of the “nations” of Earth. It’s a question I carry into my work on this book about life in Cyprus in the 1920s.