War Museums by PETER SAVVIDES
Battlefield museology in Cyprus an unintentional reminiscent of a bitter past
Since antiquity, the pivotal position of the island of Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean and its importance for geopolitical domination in the region of the Middle East had a catalytic influence in transforming this strategic land1 into a nucleus of rivalry among foreign powers. In the last thirty centuries, its people had suffered the oppressive rule of consecutive foreign rulers and conquerors, the national interests and geopolitical ambitions of which, most often, dictated the destiny of the island. Since the Hellenization2 of the island by the beginning of the Iron Age (1050 BC), the flourishing Greek civilization produced affluent settlements
in various parts of the island as well as abundant archeological artefacts that, during the 20th Century, were institutionally protected under the Department of Antiquities of the Republic of Cyprus and the Orthodox Church of Cyprus. But a critical event in 1974 had a devastating effect on the historical and cultural heritage of the island. The Turkish invasion of Cyprus abruptly uprooted the institutional preservation of the historical past3 and unintentionally provided the circumstances for the creation of an unorthodox notion of historical conservation, that of battlefield museology.4
While traditional military or war museology preserves various historical themes that relate to the application and development of military science in warfare – such as the weaponology and armaments of the opponents, the military prestige and code of honor of the forces, as well as military tactics, operations and maneuvers in warfare, the conception of battlefield museology is rather different. It focuses on the actual situation and condition of the battle and not on the reconstruction of it, and deals with non-institutional parameters of the armed struggle such as field fortifications,
destruction, suffering and loss of life.
Today, the existence of battlefield sites offer to the unsuspected visitor the opportunity to grasp a part of contemporary history that is almost impossible to preserve in a formal institution. The sites, mostly found in remote locations on the Pendatactylos Range in the occupied part of the island, appeared initially in 1964 during the first inter-communal clashes, and developed in the following years as confrontation defensive lines between the Ethniki Froura [National Guard] forces of the Republic of Cyprus and the Turk Mukavemet Teskilati [Turkish Resistance Organization] forces of the Turkish Cypriot administration. The relative tranquility that prevailed for almost ten years in those military sites – located among picturesque steep rocky mountain tops covered with pine and cypress trees and wild flora – was not meant to be long-lasting. The Turkish invasion of July 1974 turned the locations into extremely catastrophic battlefield sites among the invaders and the government forces, with serious fatal casualties from both sides.
The recognition of these unidentified locations is not easy to the unsuspected viewer. The ambiguous fatal nature still attached to them – particularly regarding the missing – and the difficult access to the sites through mountainous rocky routes and footpaths have left them almost untouched, their historical importance forgotten in the oblivion of time. Concrete pillboxes on mountain tops and tens of collapsed-ceiling defensive positions, along numerous long rocky trenches and scattered barbed wire, spread in the steep picturesque wilderness of mountainous sites such as Aspri Moutti,5 Aetofolia,6 Kocakaya,7 and Latchin.8
The visitor wondering through the deserted fortifications of the defensive line, quite often discovers in his path remains of the battle such as rusted ammunition cases, used rifle cartridge shells, exploded shells, perished uniforms and military boots, and eroded military utensils. The visit of such locations offers the opportunity to the viewer to silently grasp the distant echoes of war and touch the loss of human life. Careful exploration by the military historian provides invaluable information regarding the military maneuvers of the opponents, the defensive or offensive tactics utilized, the
scale of destruction of supportive fire, and the development of the battle that led to the eventual outcome. Similarly, the anthropologist and the forensics expert will search the location with scrutiny to discover minute ground irregularities or unusual accumulations of rocks, in their scientific investigation for the discovery of suspicious points that hide today mass graves or traces of the missing.
Scattered anti-tank rocket shells, exploded mortar shell parts
and other explosive ammunition constitute today a bitter reminder of the Death Artefacts that contributed to the loss of human life. The broken glass bottle of a Molotov cocktail
– a Desperation Artefact – found in Aspri Moutti reveals the tragic condition of the defenders. An unusual concentration of soil covered by piles of rocks, equally insinuates the possibility of a mass grave. The abandoned field fortifications and the eroded military debris found on the steep slopes of the defensive lines silently describe the fatal conditions that prevailed during the forceful hours of the battle.
Petros Savvides, M.Phil. History (Glasgow) is a military historianliving in Cyprus; his research interests focus on themilitary history of the island between 1950 and 1974.