By Alper Ali Riza
THE star and crescent is revered with a passion by Turks and no one can begrudge them the occasional pleasure of seeing it replicated in the sky at night just before a crescent moon begins to obscure one of the big stars behind it.
But in Cyprus no such planetary alignment is necessary because the sky is lit up every night by the star and crescent on the Pentadactilos range north of Nicosia to the intense displeasure of Greek Cypriots who have learnt to grin and bear it. There is no respite in daytime either because it is conspicuously embossed on the mountain-side on a white painted background the size of four stadiums visible from the land and from the air for miles around.
The raison d’être of the flag on the mountain – the assertion of Turkish Cypriot statehood – is based on the idea that the exclusively Greek Cypriot administration of the Republic of Cyprus does not represent the Turkish Cypriots, which of course is true. The other side of the coin is that the flag would have no place in a federal Cyprus in which the Turkish Cypriots are represented and participate fully in its governance.
Presumably the Turkish Cypriot side accepts the flag would have to go in the event of a settlement although the topic needs to be broached carefully. People need to be cajoled into accepting that as a political compromise is now on the cards, it may be an opportune time to begin discussing replacing the flag on the mountain giving as little ammunition to the rejectionistas on the Turkish side to foment disaffection as possible. A thankless task but one that needs to be done on the principle that if we are going to build a new country there can be no taboo topics. Provided there is some kind of reciprocity from the Greek Cypriot side the rejectionistas can be neutralised.
But the fact is that the flag on Pentadactilos dominates the Nicosia skyline too much. After all it is just a protest flag that asserts a state without inspiring its realisation and fails as a flag. It offends Greek Cypriots viscerally and grates with nature-lovers across the divide aesthetically. Truth to tell the flag flaunts an attitude of a bygone zeitgeist and the sooner it is replaced by one that captures the present mood the better the chances of a political settlement.
A national park of olive trees in the shape of a huge olive wreath crowning the Nicosia skyline against a background of evergreen palm and pine would be my preference. It would be environmentally friendly – it might even help cool down Nicosia in the summer – and attract EU sponsorship. It would also adorn the slopes of the Pentadactilos range and restore the reputation of the man behind the myth associated with its name.
The Pentadactilos range – Besparmak in Turkish – derives its name from the myth of Digenis Akritas who according to legend left marks from the knuckles of his five fingers on the mountain as he leapt into Asia Minor, which is obviously apocryphal but which explains its appeal to nationalists like George Grivas who used Digenis as his nom de guerre and Tasos Papadopoulos whose nefarious plan against the Turkish Cypriots was called Akritas.
But the person of Digenis Akritas himself was a lot more complex and had nothing to do with nationalism – the reverse in fact. His first name means a person of mixed ethnicity – ‘of two genes,’ – not to be confused with the ancient cynic Diogenis – ‘of the god Zeus’ – who used to sunbathe naked outside his tub and famously mocked Alexander the Great.
Digenis Akritas was of mixed Muslim and Christian parentage. His father was an Arab emir – a Muslim military leader who owes allegiance to the Caliph. His mother was the daughter of a Byzantine general. According to the Byzantine epic his father converted to marry his mother and Digenis Akritas’ exploits on the edges of Byzantium against other frontier war lords are the stuff of legend, though it has to be said that he was comfortable mixing with borderland people regardless of religion. The correct pronunciation of his surname is Akritis which means of the borderlands – Akritas is a Cypriot mispronunciation.
Speaking of legends according to one legend the crimson colour of the Turkish flag was inspired by the reflection of a star and crescent onto the blood of Turkish soldiers killed in the field of battle. In Ottoman times the star and crescent was the naval ensign. The Ottoman flag of the Caliphate was originally green with three white crescents in triangular formation. The star and crescent came into prominence as the Ottoman flag after the Tanzimat reforms in the Ottoman Empire in 1844. The present five-pointed star is of recent vintage. Originally the star had eight points and was embraced by the crescent rather than its present geometric configuration.
The Turkish flag reflects the Turkish character as if by force of its colour and content. It is a conspicuously powerful flag not to be trifled with, not even by imitation! Flags and their appearance are of course matters of taste but broadly speaking people love their national flags. The Greek flag is Greece! The blue and white stripes symbolising love of freedom, the cross in the corner, and the idea of Greece – her language, history, and geography – are inseparable in the Greek psyche.
The British wrap themselves in the Union Jack – when they are not wearing it as underwear – although personally I prefer the Royal Ensign. The French tricolour with the Marseillaise defy nationality. They speak to universal values, as indeed did the old Soviet hammer and sickle with the Internationale. Would that we could have them both back without the regime! The Americans identify body and soul with the Stars and Stripes as they place their hand on their breast and sing the Star-Spangled Banner. The confederate flag has not fared so well and may disappear altogether as it offends African Americans viscerally.
The Cyprus flag is minimalist and uninspiring as befits a small island state. It is a copper coloured geographical shape of the island with two green olive branches against a white background. I would have preferred blue myself as a show of respect for the sea. If the worry was that blue is a Greek colour, that sort of thinking is very previous century. Neither the Greeks nor the Turks have a monopoly of the colours of their flags. In any case the flag of the ancient Turkic Uyghur people in China is the star and crescent but against a blue rather than a red background.
The source of inspiration for the flag of Cyprus was apparently the last Governor of Cyprus Sir Hugh Foot although it was designed by a Turkish Cypriot, Ismet Guney. It is safe to assume that the Turkish Cypriot flag was designed by a Turkish Cypriot also. It reverses the colours of the Turkish flag in a way that to my mind trifles with the power and beauty of the crimson original.
Turks respect their flag as well those of others. Mustafa Kemal famously refused to step over the Greek flag out of respect for the symbol of the Greek nation he had just vanquished in the war of independence in 1922, but for whose people he retained a genuine affection from his days as a young boy in Salonica where he was born and raised. The people of Salonica reciprocated by preserving his home as a museum with a huge collection of photographs and video clips of the great man.
It is not disrespectful to give up a flag when it no longer reflects the prevailing zeitgeist. The British have been taking the Union Jack down in ceremonies across the globe to mark their retreat from empire an embarrassing number of times and even began to enjoy it after the ‘winds of change’ swept Africa.
The last Union Jack to be taken down was in Hong Kong in 1997 when the sun finally set on the British Empire – it was not supposed to at all – fifty years after the process began in India in 1947. Compare and contrast the speed and ease with which Soviet Russia gave up its empire and the hammer and sickle just one year after the velvet revolution of 1989.
But I digress. The point here is that if Ottoman Turkey, Great Britain, Soviet Russia and America one way or another took down flags to reflect new realities, you would think the Turkish Cypriots would be prepared to do likewise with the painted flag on the mountain if it helps promote a federation – a solution to the Cyprus problem the Turkish side has favoured for a long time.
It should be possible for the flag on Pentadactilos to be phased out gradually in the twilight period after a political settlement but timed to help deliver a double-yes in the referendums that will ensue if and when a settlement is agreed. Inshallah!
The night flag can then gradually flicker less frequently and fade away imperceptibly as the closing chapter ushers in the new state of affairs quietly without any fanfare like the lowering of the Union Jack on independence in 1960.
What we do not need in these delicate times is meddling from the likes of the Cypriot American, Philip Christopher, who talks as if he is contemplating to have the flag removed by force – from a safe distance of thousands of miles away in America! This trigger-happy cowboy wants to get into bed with the Kurds, the Israelis, and the Egyptians and fight the Turks in Cyprus and transform our little island into a battlefield of death and destruction. Kyrie Eleison!
Incidentally the Union Jack lowered by the British in 1960 has been saved to posterity by the Costas & Rita Severis Foundation and can be viewed at the Centre of Visual Arts and Research in Nicosia.
This article was written with advice on Byzantine and Ottoman history and culture from Dr Yorgos Dedes PhD of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) University of London. The opinions are the author’s as are any mistakes or errors of interpretation.