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Page last updated at 15:12 GMT, Wednesday, 3 September 2008 16:12 UK

A crumbling symbol of a divided isle

The cathedral-mosque of Famagusta

By Malcolm Brabant
Famagusta, Turkish-controlled Northern Cyprus

Nikos Karoullas stands on the crenellated ramparts of Famagusta's stout stone walls and gazes wistfully towards a unique, medieval masterpiece which has become a crucial component in the Cyprus peace process.

In common with the other 364 churches within Famagusta's old town, the Cathedral of Saint Nicholas - the traditional protector of sailors and merchants - is decaying rapidly because of centuries of neglect.

But Mr Karoullas, a Greek-Cypriot councillor - who was born in Famagusta and driven from the city during the Turkish invasion in 1974 - is working with his former enemies to try to preserve the crumbling Unesco World Heritage site.

Nikos Karoullas
We have to restore our past. We have to reconcile with whatever happened in this area, the losses, the conflict, the killing, and the destruction
Nikos Karoullas, Greek-Cypriot councillor
By extending the hand of friendship, Mr Karoullas is helping to heal a schism which has been insoluble for 34 years.

Diplomats believe the new round of peace negotiations, which formally began in Nicosia on Wednesday, represent the best chance ever of dissolving the Green Line that divides Cyprus between the Turkish north and Greek south.

Mr Karoullas hopes the talks will succeed because it will boost the chances of restoring Old Famagusta, one of the most important medieval sites in the Mediterranean, and also allow him and fellow Greek Famagustians to return to their ancestral homes.

"My vision is a united country where we can live together without barriers or passport controls. I want free circulation - people who can live as neighbours and respect each other," says Mr Karoullas.

Common heritage

Mr Karoullas, who is in his early fifties, sees St Nicholas as a symbol of a common heritage, while uncompromising Greek Cypriots regard the minaret-adorned building, converted to a mosque after the Ottoman Empire conquered the Venetians, as the embodiment of Turkish oppression.

Cyprus map

"We have to restore our past. We have to reconcile with whatever happened in this area, the losses, the conflict, the killing, and the destruction," he said.

"If we go through this path, we will manage to survive as a united country. Neglecting everything is not a solution.

"We have to think about our kids. If we don't set a good example and show them that this is their past, it's finished and they are not going to think about it."

Every week for the past year, ever since restrictions on inter-communal travel were eased, Mr Karoullas has been driving into the Turkish occupied north to meet his counterparts in the council headquarters at Magusa, as the Turks call it.

The discussions over how to raise funds and awareness take place in offices with a splendid view of the ghostly Greek Cypriot quarter of Famagusta, which has been sealed off since the invasion.

If the peace talks succeed, then this once thriving part of the island could enjoy a rebirth.

Bad vibrations

Cim Seroydas, the spokeswoman for Magusa council, says: "We have a very beautiful historical heritage here which we have to preserve and hand over to future generations. It's a symbol to show that people can co-operate.

"It's a symbol to show that if you have the goodwill and you have the commitment, you can cooperate. Where there is a will there is a way."

The Greek and Turkish members of the cultural working party have had to overcome opposition from intransigent elements within their own communities.

Detail of the cathedral mosque of Famagusta
The ancient city is beautiful, but fragile

Oktay Kayalp, the mayor of Magusa says, "Of course, the fanatical ones who were opposing reconciliation came up with a reaction. But if you compare it to the rest of the community, it was a weak sound, I can say. And the rest of the people, who were willing to reconcile, were very supportive."

Although local government officials are willing to talk about raising awareness and sponsorship for restoration, it is more difficult to get the Turkish army to stop offloading tanks at the port of Famagusta.

The vibrations as they drive next to the medieval battlements are damaging the fabric of the walled city.

But the elements and centuries of abandonment are causing damage as well. The corrosive sea air is eating into the masonry of many of the churches.

Others without roofs are collapsing in on themselves. An international team of academics is currently trying to calculate the total cost of saving the walled city and is due to report back later this year.

Coffee diplomacy

The cause is being helped by a documentary called "The Stones of Famagusta," exquisitely filmed by an expatriate British director, Dan Frodsham, who lives in the old town, and narrated by Allan Langdale, a Canadian producer and historian.

With the soaring tones of Faure's Requiem in the background, Mr Langdale laments: "These ancient stones speak not only of a rise and fall not only of a city, but of great empires. The remarkable structures of Famagusta are in great need of repair and the attention of professional conservation.

"Architectural history does not repeat itself. Once gone, these treasures of the world's artistic heritage will be lost forever."

Beneath an umbrella in the square next to St Nicholas', Mr Karoullas shares a weekly cup of coffee with primary school headmaster Yindirim Hasoglu.

If the peace talks succeed, the coffee could become a daily ritual.

"There is always goodwill between the ordinary people of Cyprus," says Mr Hasoglu.

"But I can't say the same about the politicians to be honest with you."




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