, For Planetary Governance

Hidden Forms of Sovereignty on the Divided Island of Cyprus

Author: Savia Palate

The island of Cyprus is a site of nested, overlapping realities where various forms of sovereignty and jurisdiction cast one other in relief. Buckminster Fuller’s plan for a UN World Man Center in the early 1970s, dedicated to world unity, is an ironic footnote among the fractured logics, fictions, and principles of inclusion and exclusion that came to dominate instead.

In 1970, the first president of the young Republic of Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios III, sent a letter to the General Secretary of the United Nations offering “an area in Cyprus to be known as the World Man Center,” which would host meetings “in pursuance of matters directly related to world unity and peace.” His offer was complemented by a donation of US$200,000 from the nation’s treasury—matching another donation raised by the American art patron Caresse Crosby, who mobilized several artists to sell work for the benefit of the project, including Salvador Dali, Henry Moore, and Isamu Noguchi.

The architect of the project was Buckminster Fuller, a designer who prided himself on “worldmaking”: thinking, envisioning, and making at planetary scale. In the 1960s, plans like the World Man Center proliferated as several newly independent nations joined the UN and the published image of the Blue Planet seen from space seemed to reveal a borderless community—a united, whole Earth. Both the counterculture and people in key governmental positions rallied around an expanded UN that was increasingly concerned with world management above conflict and security: to improve the “habitats” on that shared “spaceship.” Architecture was one means of projecting this tendency. Indeed, the World Man Center would take the shape of one of Fuller’s geodesic domes, a microcosm of the planetary, where people could speak earnestly on pressing questions related to world unity.

Read within the local circumstances on the island of Cyprus during that time, the project of a World Man Center seems ironic. Cyprus gained its independence from Great Britain in 1960, and it was not long after that internal strife between Greek and Turkish Cypriots threatened the nation’s future. While Greek Cypriots desired enosis (meaning integration with Greece), Turkish Cypriots supported taksim (or, the partition of Cyprus) and turmoil began to culminate as early as 1963. Was the Archbishop Makarios deliberately neglecting the ongoing local crisis in an effort to deal with a larger cause, or was the World Man project perceived as a force of peace—externally imposed but with the potential to stall an internal dilemma?

His project for unity was never implemented. Instead, the plan for peace that would surge forth from the small island of Cyprus was interrupted by the 1974 Turkish invasion, and the division of the island along ethnic and territorial lines. Instead of land being “desovereignized” from the Republic of Cyprus and transformed into UN ground for the World Man Center, the harsh reality of state power and authority returned from 1974 onwards. Several areas across the island of Cyprus remain “desovereignized” and treated as UN grounds—only now as symbols of division and contestation with political, ethnic, and financial dimensions.

Traces of former military bases in old Nicosia—close to the UN Buffer Zone.


How many forms of sovereignty fit in an area of 9,251km²?

Since 1974 the island of Cyprus has been divided by an ongoing process—forty-seven years and counting—negotiating what the Republic of Cyprus should be. The existence of that republic has been consistently rejected by Turkey, which would prefer to recognize the self-declared nation that claims 36 percent of the northern part of the island as the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.” James R. Crawford reminds us in his book The Creation of States in International Law that an “entity is not a state because it is recognized; it is recognized because it is a state.” Each side prefers to neglect the existence of the other, causing a profound gap between legal absence and territorial presence. This essay addresses key episodes that took place on the island of Cyprus as a model of broader global challenges in conflict and grey zones as they complicate familiar notions of “sovereignty.”


Lines in the Sand

The Venetian walls in Nicosia. The street level is part of the Republic of Cyprus, while the upper level is fenced off to mark occupied territory.

What came to shape the island was a line: setting out the borders of each community on the ground and causing the displacement of around 150,000 Greek Cypriots (who were forced to move from the north to the south) and 45,000 Turkish Cypriots (who moved from the south to the north), creating the conditions where one might be “a refugee in one’s own home.”

The UN did indeed receive land in Cyprus: the UN Buffer Zone, a demilitarized area controlled by the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNPFC) that cuts the island horizontally in two and situates the UN as mediator among the parties.

Ruins close to the Buffer Zone.

While those refugees were not stateless, their condition persists today due to the sedimentation of the dispute. In 2009, checkpoints opened for the first time, enabling people to cross and visit their former homes, facing other “refugees in one’s own home,” or Turkish immigrants who settled in them or witnessing their dereliction.

While for decades after 1974 refugee housing was established for the poor and displaced local population, by the early 2000s the paradox of “citizenship for sale” unfolded, granting citizenship rights to foreigners wealthy enough to buy a property of €2 million. The conflicted landscape of Cyprus, confronted with the upsurge of economic crises, blurs identity, belonging, and citizenship, as well as state and stateless entities. As a country that has historically been dependent on money arriving from elsewhere, the island’s location and characteristics have been capitalized upon by players in various sectors. Cyprus has lured conquerors from antiquity to modern times and is a prominent connection between Europe and the Middle East. Even after its independence in 1960, it remained a military zone as the country retained two UK-sovereignty bases. Likewise, Cyprus’s idyllic vistas and its core assets—sea, sun, and sand—have marked the island on the world map as a must-visit holiday destination. However, not every area across the island had “tourism potential” and actions taken since the 1970s have turned areas like Limassol into thriving business hubs, utilizing the island’s scenery in the interests of property and real estate agents. (Fig. 5)

High-rise buildings under construction—offering both views and passports.

In the 1970s Cyprus launched an offshore sector aimed at enticing international companies with low tax rates and low levels of regulation, including those related to workers’ rights. By the early 2000s, the country was home to an expanding banking sector that, perhaps unsurprisingly, required a €10 billion international bailout in 2013. With the country in need of financial stimulus, the citizenship-by-investment scheme, originally launched in 2007, was considered a panacea in the face of economic recession.

Both the offshore sector and the citizenship-by-investment scheme required rooms with views to operate smoothly, using architecture to auspiciously mediate monetization and the legal rights that come with a passport. The sociologist and historian John Torpey’s writes in The Invention of the Passport (2000) that citizenship has been associated with “related controls on movement” since its genesis and has been “an essential aspect of the ‘state-ness’ of states” in monitoring the country’s security. Today, regulations on security and immigration can be negotiated depending on one’s financial status. While physical borders are proliferating—separating and creating new states, as well as protecting old ones by constructing walls, fences, or military zones—the world’s wealthiest are openly encouraged to “buy” their rights, not only to one but to multiple states, despite their criminal records, a demonstration of how border “reinforcement” can be utterly selective and withheld from people who have been stigmatized for racial, ethnic, political, or cultural anxieties of the “other.”


The Slow Ruination of Varosha

Abandoned buildings in the UN Buffer Zone with a view of Varosha.

On October 12, 2020, an exposé by Al Jazeera on the “Cyprus Papers” uncovered multiple levels of corruption related to the Cypriot government’s commercialization of its citizenship-by-investment scheme, leading to its abolishment. A few days earlier, Turkey unilaterally decided to open an area that had remained fenced-off and prohibited to enter for forty-six years. Varosha was the greatest tourist hub on the island after Cyprus’s independence and has essentially been suspended in time for forty-six years, evolving, inevitably, into a decaying “ghost-town.”

UN base in the Buffer Zone near Varosha.

Buildings that reflected modernization, nation-building, and prosperity became, almost overnight, subsumed within a militarized zone, and a strategic asset in political negotiations between the two communities in Cyprus. Allegedly protected by a UN resolution that “considers attempts to settle any part of Varosha by people other than its inhabitants as inadmissible and calls for the transfer of this area to the administration of the United Nations,” the area has been used by the Turkish government as a bargaining chip. To great surprise, the ghost town was injudiciously opened by the Turkish government, transgressing resolutions that appear powerless before the physical and territorial act of occupation.

Before the opening of checkpoints in 2009, houses in the Buffer Zone would offer their rooftops to tourists hoping to look towards the “other” side.

The reactions were not purely legal and political. The image of Varosha as a place in ruins, an image which endured for almost half a century, was also threatened. Surrounded by bulldozers tasked with removing dirt from the decaying territory, the high-rise hotels that remained were facing tangible loss, even though the area’s slow process of ruination simultaneously stood for hope of reconciliation, reclamation, and recovery on both sides of the UN buffer zone. The reopening was celebrated in the presence of the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who flew in especially for the occasion, the raising of flags, and picnics scheduled to take place in the ruins: a celebration in the midst of decay as the Varosha’s previous inhabitants went there to mourn for the first time since 1974.


Infrastructures Below the Line

Visible parts of the sewage system in old Nicosia.

The 2009 China Miéville novel The City & the City narrates the story of two city-states which occupy the same space while their inhabitants neglect the existence of each other, a paradoxical reality that seems to manifest in the convoluted reality of a conflict landscape. While the novel’s two city-states overlap physically, they choose to remain separate in every other way, yet in Cyprus there is one instance where cooperation has continued to take place. In 1974, the practical issue of an incomplete sewage system pushed the establishment of a bicommunal collaboration that led to the inception of the Nicosia Master Plan, supported by the United Nations Development Program. This semi-invisible infrastructure, the sewage system, stands in stark contrast to Fuller’s geodesic dome, a physical, visible structure on the ground for people to find unity and peace inside.

On inspection, Cyprus reveals itself as a site of multiple, overlapping, and nested realities which contemplate forms of sovereignty and jurisdiction across differing aspects of the island’s geographic location and characteristics. Punctuated by heterotopic potential, the landscape of Cyprus exists not as one world, but multiple worlds, each operating with its own logic, fictions, and principles of inclusion or exclusion. Such representations have been increasingly overshadowed by an operative global system—a political, economic, legal, and cultural system—that is inherently allied with configurations of domination, discrimination, and inequality. If “the world is a plural condition,” as Keller Easterling claims, these singular configurations can only exist as an exception, suggesting the possibility for the system to operate in contrasting manners, where any “other” world can rise and prevail.

Cover image: Abandoned buildings in Varosha. © All images by the author

Savia Palate

Savia Palate has recently completed her PhD in Architecture at the University of Cambridge (UK). She holds degrees from the Architectural Association School of Architecture with Distinction; the Pennsylvania State University as Fulbright Scholar; and the University of Cyprus where she graduated as top of her class. She has been the co-editor of Scroope 28: The Cambridge Architecture Journal and convenor of the Martin Centre Seminar Series, while most recently she was one of the organizers of the SAHGB Symposium 2021 on Architectural Histories and Climate Emergency.

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