This is the latest installment of Public Streets, an urban observation series created by Ellis Avery and curated by Abigail Struhl.
After the color and clatter of fireworks on Epiphany, a quiet melancholy settles over Limassol. The cool, overcast days of winter seem to deflate this small city, a seaside resort on Cyprus. Grand hotels stand half empty. Cafes and shops roll back their hours, or shutter for weeks. Souvenir kiosks await the creation of new memories.
So much of Limassol exists to gratify visitors. But when tourists fail to resort to a resort, the city suffers an identity crisis. Spaces intended for amusement hang in suspense, haunted by their lack of pleasure. Across the most central areas, deserted buildings make visible the specter of absent bodies. Shakespeare’s Prospero knew something of this malaise, this yearning for vanished delights: “Our revels now are ended. These our actors, / As I foretold you, were all spirits and / Are melted into air, into thin air.”
Prospero was no stranger to islands; or rather, he was a stranger who made himself king. By imposing a “rough magic” that included staging “revels,” Prospero sought to control his daughter, Miranda, and a native “monster,” Caliban. This power struggle between colonizer and colonized echoes through Cypriot history. While many consider Othello Shakespeare’s “Cyprus play,” The Tempest more cannily evokes the island’s politics.
Since antiquity, waves of outsiders have shaped Cyprus. A short distance from Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, the island has always prospered as a center of trade and travel. Yet this prime location also means a vulnerability to attacks from every direction. Indeed, for much of its history, Cyprus passed from one empire to another: Greek, Assyrian, Egyptian, Persian, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian, Ottoman, British. Cyprus finally became a sovereign country in 1960, but it could not undo its colonial past. After three centuries of Ottoman rule, the historically Greek population now included a sizable Turkish minority. Ethnic conflicts soon exploded into a perfect storm.
Both Caliban and Prospero, outcast and ruler, Limassol’s cats subvert the binaries that confine their human subjects.
In 1974, a Greek-supported coup overthrew the Cypriot government. Citing a need to prevent Greece from annexing Cyprus, Turkey invaded and occupied the island’s northern region. These opposing threats to Cypriot autonomy triggered a massive refugee crisis. Greek Cypriots poured south, leaving behind homes and other assets; Turkish Cypriots took flight in the reverse direction, fearing reprisal from Greek Cypriots around them. With bewildering speed, the country found itself segregated by language and religion, barrier walls and military troops. A buffer zone, policed by UN forces, became a de facto border dividing two newly created states.
The details of Cypriot politics are too complex to rehearse here. But living in a partitioned country means an intimate familiarity with the difficulty, even the trauma, of drawing a line between insider and outsider. The collective memory still bears the scars of compatriots suddenly “turn’d Turk,” as Othello might say: neighbors displaced from their homes, isolated behind hastily erected barriers, classified as aliens (whether Turkish, Greek, or any other group). Yet despite a legacy of imperialist aggressors and occupiers, Cyprus requires a constant infusion of outsiders to sustain its economy and secure its future. Situated in the Greek-majority south, Limassol relies heavily on tourism and shipping—industries that court a foreign presence.
The city’s built spaces embody this complex history of external contact. In Limassol’s Old Town, the 16th-century Grand Mosque rises where a 10th-century church once stood. A fortified castle, erected by the Ottomans circa 1590, replaces an earlier version razed by the Venetians, which, in turn, was built over structures dating back to Byzantine and early Christian times. Inside the castle, now a museum and tourist attraction, every glass case reveals a new aesthetic brought to Cyprus by outsiders: German flasks meet Hispano-Moresque ceramics meet Arabic wares. Along the winding streets outside, British colonial buildings flake and crumble, their decline a mirror of the empire’s fate.
While colonizers once used “rough magic” to rewrite the urban palimpsest, tourists now generate their own spatial and cultural layers. Take the popular Sigma Bakery, for instance. Above this modest building, a towering retro sign announces the “Silk & Velvet Gentlemen’s Club.” Has some wacky entrepreneur lumped these businesses together? Is there debauchery amid the baklava? A survey of the exterior reveals a stylish, porch-like entry jutting from Sigma’s façade. Rather than open into the bakery, however, this covered structure leads to the basement, where Silk & Velvet operates; a plain glass door on street level gives access to Sigma. The architecture thus separates and funnels customers to their proper stratum—allowing the baked goods to escape being molested.
Language helps reinforce this Jekyll-and-Hyde split between upstairs and downstairs. The “gentlemen’s club” uses English to attract a foreign clientele, while the bakery welcomes a more inclusive crowd with Greek and English. In a country partitioned along ethnic lines, how could matters of space and language not become entwined? Shakespeare’s Tempest famously made clear how power manifests itself through language. As Caliban bitterly observes, Prospero exerts authority over the island by dictating how others speak: “You taught me language; and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse.”
While Limassol often displays a well-honed sensitivity to linguistic and spatial codes, the landscape turns cryptic when meanings are lost in translation. Along the coastal road, a topless club advertises a “drive-thru” option. The mind boggles: is there really a bored woman staffing a drive-thru window, handing over pricy drinks while pulling up her shirt? (Not quite. The club has a circular driveway for pick-up and drop-off.) Across the roof of a mid-rise building, a large sign bears a single ominous word: “Pigeon.” Is this a warning to those walking below? (Luckily, it’s just the name of a hotel.)
Beyond the standard Greek and English, a third layer of writing now inflects the cityscape: Cyrillic. Since the USSR’s demise, Cyprus has become a popular haven for Russians seeking a weekend getaway, or even a second home (and EU passport). Among the residents of Limassol today, almost one in five speaks Russian. This demographic sea change has earned Limassol the nickname “Moscow in the Mediterranean.” Fur-coat shops abound despite the balmy climate. Luxury condos and villas cater to wealthy investors. O brave new world, so lavishly blessed with Russian karaoke bars! On this island, Shakespeare’s Miranda would marry not a prince, but an oligarch’s son.
Every season brings new actors to Cyprus, new players vying for power and status. Though people ebb and flow across the sands, Limassol remains under the supreme control of one enduring group: cats. Indeed, packs of feral cats roam the city fearlessly, claiming an empire from beachfront mansions to refugee estates. (Given the cats’ rapacity, the “Pigeon” sign could well lament the dearth of birds.) Both Caliban and Prospero, outcast and ruler, Limassol’s cats subvert the binaries that confine their human subjects.
On this island, Shakespeare’s Miranda would marry not a prince, but an oligarch’s son.
During the winter I spent in Limassol, I noticed a handful of felines that gathered daily, just after dusk. One by one, they rested on their haunches before a boutique selling fur coats. Why did the cats stare so raptly through the glass? Were they horrified by the sight of their martyred comrades, or just window shopping?
Curious, I walked over to the cats one day. A closer look soon explained their interest: near the back of the store, staff members (likely a family) were seated around a table, sharing a meal. The cats had learned to wait for scraps. For me, this scene brought into relief the most crucial aspects of Limassol: the fragile border dividing outsider from insider. The fraught step from consumer to commodity, from eating to being eaten. On both sides of the glass, a fierce instinct to adapt and survive, to find a common language.
In a short while, the door will swing open. A certain narrative will play out—perhaps the expected one, perhaps not. But during these moments of suspense, anything seems possible on the streets of Limassol. Who, like Caliban, will learn to curse, and who will sing karaoke? Assured of their superiority, the cats will be amused whatever happens.