Textbook Narratives in Cyprus

I wanted to briefly talk about the presentation of recent Cypriot history in Turkish and Greek textbooks. This subject was treated very adroitly in the volume edited by Rebecca Bryant and Yannis Papadakis entitled Cyprus and the Politics of Memory, and I don’t want to beat a dead horse. But there’s a few interesting observations I’d like to make towards the end of this post.

Historical context

Cyprus is an island in the Mediterranean with a long documented history, including Mycenean settlement in the second millennium BCE and a Greek presence since. In the past four thousand years, the island has been governed by many major powers, including – in chronological order – Egyptians, Romans, Venetians, Ottomans, and the British. In July 1878, the British Empire assumed control of the island from the Ottoman Empire. This short background is necessary to understand the context for the narratives I discuss here.

A demonstration for enosis in the 1930s.

Tracing the evolution of the ‘Cyprus problem’ is fraught with historiographical issues and involves many deeply interconnected events, organizations, and people. I will therefore concentrate on what is most relevant to my subsequent analysis. On 1 April 1955, the Ethniki Organosis Kyprion Agoniston (National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters, or EOKA for short) declared that it would begin a military campaign with the goal of “the liberation of Cyprus from the British yoke.” This organization was led by Georgios Grivas – known by his nom de guerre ‘Digenis’ – and Makarios III, current archbishop and future first president of Cyprus. In December 1959, EOKA agreed to a ceasefire. Through negotiations in London and Zurich over the following year, “a compromise was found that nobody had wished for: independence.” After 1960, ethnic tensions continued to plague the Republic. Many Turkish Cypriots called for taksim (partition) and some joined the Türk Mukavemet Teşkilatı (Turkish Resistance Organization, TMT). Digenis, frustrated by the disavowal of enosis by President Makarios, formed EOKA B, a far-right paramilitary organization. On 15 July 1974, Makarios was ousted by a coup d’état supported by EOKA B and the Greek military junta – a group of colonels who ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974. Five days later, Turkey invaded Cyprus and occupied the northern third of the island. This de facto partition of Cyprus persists to the present day.

Nicosia in 1956.

What I have attempted to present in this section is the ‘undisputed history.’ Yet subjectivity is inherent in historiography, a phenomenon that is accentuated in contexts fraught with sectarianism and ethnic tensions. The intractability of the ‘Cyprus problem’ means that histories of the island are particularly susceptible to the imposition of teleology and the fetishization of particular narratives. In the words of Mete Hatay and Yiannis Papadakis, Cypriot historiography “may say more about the (desired) future than the past.” I will now turn to two examples drawn from this book.

Two narratives

The first narrative I’d like to present is from Cyprus History, a Turkish-Cypriot textbook written by David Serter in 1979.

During the operations in the East and West, the Greek and Greek Cypriot gangs were brought to their knees, dispersed, and made wretched before the bayonet of the MEHMETÇIK (Turkish soldier). These were the gangs of cowardly and faint-hearted Levantines that that Grivas character [sc. Digenis], who had seen the defenceless Turkish community as worthy of unprecedented torment, and the anarchist and murderer Makarios had called ‘the grandchildren of Hellenism’ (!) and that they had believed were undefeatable(!).1

The second narrative is from a Greek-Cypriot geography textbook published by the Ministry of Education and Culture in 2002.

Archaeological research and findings provide evidence of the incorporation of Cyprus to the Greek world which continued from those Classical times, to the Byzantine period and today. The Greek element, despite Ottoman occupation and rule for 300 years, comprises 80% of the population. … Cyprus since 1960 is an independent state. During the last decades, Cyprus has, despite obstacles and the brutal Turkish invasion in 1974, done miracles. … Conquerors come and go. Nobody succeeded in changing [the island’s] Greek and European character. 2

What should we make of this? I think much has been said about the dynamics of nationalism and by Papadakis, Philippou, Hatay, Bryant, and others. What I want to talk about is the juxtaposition of these two stories. To give some context: I was asked to prepare a presentation using the template of a “stock story” and “counterstory,” as exemplified in Aja Martinez’s article “A Plea for Critical Race Theory Counterstory: Stock Story versus Counterstory Dialogues Concerning Alejandra’s ‘Fit’ in the Academy.” My classmates prepared many interesting presentations for which I think this model was particularly useful. Indeed, I think that notions of a hegemonic narrative of white supremacy and alternative stories of resistance are appropriate for many situations in the US today. But I feel that the Cypriot narratives I’ve presented here chafe against this typology. Whose story is hegemonic? Whose is a story of resistance? The answer depends entirely on context. Although this is a generalization, members of each community would generally see the narrative represented by the textbook published by their respective authorities as hegemonic, and any kind of resistance as a counterstory. To some of my classmates, there is no story: if you’ve never heard of the Cyprus conflict before, in what sense is any narrative hegemonic? In sum, I think it’s important to keep in mind how rooted our models of hegemony and resistance can be in our particular circumstances.


  1. Cited in Hatay and Papadakis, “A Critical Comparison of Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot Official Historiographies (1940s to the Present),” 43.
  2. Cited in Philippou, “Beyond the History Textbook Debate: Official Histories in Greek Cypriot Geography and Civics Curricula,” 58.

Let me know what you think!