Hershel Shanks is the editor of Biblical Archaeology Review.
Biblical Archaeology Review is the world’s largest biblical archaeology magazine. We try hard to stay out of politics, although our sympathy for Israel is apparent. Yet the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and divisions within Israeli society, are all around us. We would not find it surprising to be attacked by Israel’s right or left.
We were surprised when an attack came from elsewhere — Cyprus. Indeed, the animosity between Greek Cyprus and Turkish Cyprus seems more intense than even that between Israel and the Palestinians or between the religious and secular in Israel.
The Cypriot dispute goes back decades. Since 1974, northern Cyprus, with Turkish military support, has been occupied by Turkish Cypriots. They created the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is recognized by no country other than Turkey. The remaining two-thirds of the island is governed by the Republic of Cyprus, the island’s only legally recognized government.
When I first visited Cyprus years ago, it was a major deal to go through the Nicosia checkpoint from south to north. Only a few people did so each day. Cypriots could not.
Today, traffic from one side to the other is brisk and open to all, in both directions. The island is peaceful, despite intense animosity.
We got involved in this animosity quite accidentally. For several years a fine, reputable Turkish tourist agency has handled some tours for Biblical Archaeology Society, the publisher of Biblical Archaeology Review. This summer, one of these tours follows in Paul’s footsteps. And Paul went to Cyprus (Acts 13:4). Ten people signed up for the tour, and they were included with other archaeological tour groups in Turkey.
From Antalya, Turkey, they were scheduled to fly to Ercan, the airport in northern Cyprus. From there, they would visit sites in northern and southern Cyprus.
I am uninvolved with our tours and was completely unaware of the looming crisis — until I received a letter from the Cypriot Embassy in Washington, saying its officials wanted to see me. I replied that I would be glad to see them, provided someone from the Turkish Embassy could also attend. When I found I could not get the two into the same room, I saw them separately.
Each was friendly, civil and informative. Officials from the Cypriot Embassy, unhappy about potential implications of the tour, emphasized that no government except Turkey recognizes the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Moreover, only Turkish airlines use the airport at Ercan to enter Cyprus — and Ercan is not recognized by the International Civil Aviation Organization. Numerous U.N. resolutions condemn the occupation of northern Cyprus by Turkish Cypriots.
The Turkish Embassy emphasized other things. Northern Cyprus operates as a de facto state. More than 100 scheduled Turkish flights use Ercan airport each week. Non-Turkish charter flights from elsewhere also use it. Virtually all flights to Cyprus from Turkey, including archaeological tours, use this airport to enter the island. Thousands of archaeological tourists from Turkey enter Cyprus this way every year — without problems. It is the only practical way to enter Cyprus from Turkey. The alternative is to fly to Athens or Amman, Jordan, and then fly to southern Cyprus, which adds days and cost to the trip. Material from the U.S. State Department contains nothing advising Americans not to enter Cyprus via Ercan.
The two parties also had very different stories about the history of the conflict and its division from 1974 to today.
I eventually decided that we would go ahead with the tour as planned, as the departure date loomed, but I emphasized that we would reconsider the matter when planning next season’s tours. I naively assumed that the embassy officials would simply accept my decision.
I did not realize this was not the end of the matter but the beginning.
The Embassy of Cyprus issued a news release condemning the decision of Biblical Archaeology Society, although thousands of tourists from Turkey regularly enter from northern Cyprus. Faculty members of the University of Cyprus protested our decision. A Greek Cypriot newspaper reported on the “pressure against the Biblical Archaeology Society.” The American Hellenic Institute organized a letter-writing campaign and a protest petition signed by more than 2,000 people. The Embassy of Greece wrote of its chagrin that Biblical Archaeology Society, “a renowned and well respected organization,” would do this. We were warned that if we proceeded, we might be met with “hostility” at Paphos, a popular archaeological site in the south. Then we received reports that our bus would be blocked shortly after it entered southern Cyprus. Another e-mail advised us that the bus would be released after being held for a day.
Naturally, we reported this to our tour company. The company’s officials seemed not to worry and decided to go south a day earlier than planned. Nothing on the bus identified its passengers. Moreover, the bus driver took care to enter the south from a different entry point than usual. At Paphos, our people mingled easily with the crowds of tourists.
I guess the fact that everybody does it is no excuse. I guess, as Biblical Archaeology Society, we should be purer than Caesar’s wife. Nor should we comment on the fact that Greek Cyprus would rather have us not come than come through northern Cyprus — despite the fact that Cyprus, and Greece, are in financial crisis.
Next year, we will make sure that our Turkish tours do not go to Cyprus.
Or, put another way, if you want to go to Cyprus from Turkey, go with anyone but the Biblical Archaeology Society.