July 20, 2022

The Turkish Invasion of Cyprus

The Turkish Invasion of Cyprus

July 20, 1974. After a coup d'etat by the Greek military, Turkish forces launch an invasion of Cyprus, dividing the country in two.


Cold Open  

It’s 5:30 in the morning on July 20th, 1974, in a small village in Northern Cyprus.

A teenage girl named Sofia lies in bed, drifting in and out of sleep. But all of a sudden… the room is filled with a high-pitched wailing. Sofia sits up and rubs her eyes. She’s unsure if she’s dreaming, but then… the bedroom door flies open, Sofia’s mother rushes in, her eyes wide with panic. She grabs her daughter’s shoulders whispering urgently, “quickly Sofia, we must leave now.” 

Soon enough, Sofia bursts out of the front door of the house with her mother and father close behind. Terrified villagers hurry past them in the street, clutching suitcases and pulling crying children by their arms. Sofia stops for just a moment turning her gaze toward the nearby sea.

The normally quiet harbor swarmed with military landing crafts. Green-uniformed soldiers wade through waist-deep water, rifles held above their heads. There’s a mechanical whirring as a ramp is lowered and tanks begin to roll onto the white pebble beach.

Speechless with terror, Sofia runs and catches up with her parents. Unlike many locals in this poor fishing village, Sofia’s family owns a car – a rusty old Fiat 500.

They pile inside and Sofia’s father turns the key in the ignition.

But the engine won’t start. He tries several more times without luck. And in the rear-view mirror, Sofia can see the tanks closing in. Sofia’s father shuts his eyes tight, bites his lip, and twists the key one last time… the engine sputters into life. They screech away from the curb and join the exodus of vehicles heading south.

But there is too many of them, a sea of traffic. The lanes are congested with honking vehicles, and Sofia and her parents are forced to come to a stop. Sofia checks the rearview mirror again. And for a moment, it’s all clear... until... a tank emerges over a hill, warped and shimmering through the summer heat. Sofia’s blood runs cold. She and her parents sit, trapped inside the car, as the tanks advance.

Soon, a soldier approaches their car.

He taps the window with the muzzle of his machine gun, motioning for the family to get out. Sofia trembles as she opens the car door, noticing the Turkish flag on the soldier’s uniform. The soldier shouts at her father, who has a look of terror Sofia has never seen. The shouting continues until the soldier begins shoving Sofia’s father with the butt of his gun, forcing him forward, hands on his head, as Sofia and her mother do the same. Sofia has no idea where they’re marching to. 

For centuries, the Mediterranean island of Cyprus has been home to two ethnic groups, Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots. Since 1878, Cyprus was a British colony, but after Britain granted Cyprus independence in 1960, tensions between the two ethnic groups flared up, as the Greek Cypriots expressed their desire for Cyprus to become part of Greece. Then in 1974, violence broke out when a Greek-sponsored coup d’état overthrew the government, prompting Turkey to invade the north of the island, and forcing many Greek Cypriots, from their homes, like Sofia and her family. Today, Cyprus remains splintered and divided, a legacy of the Turkish invasion that began on July 20th, 1974.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is July 20th, 1974: The Turkish Invasion of Cyprus.

Act One: Enosis

It’s September 18th, 1950; twenty-four years before Turkey invades the island country of Cyprus. 

A religious ceremony is taking place inside a church in Nicosia, the capital city of Cyprus. Assembled in the lofty chapel are all the leading figures of the Greek Orthodox Church – the religion followed by over eighty percent of the island’s population. In their black robes and clerical headdress, the bearded patriarchs watch somberly as their new leader, Archbishop Makarios III, kneels to accept his consecration.

At just thirty-seven years old, Makarios is younger than many of the senior clergymen gathered here today. His rise to prominence within the Church happened quickly and suddenly. A brilliant scholar and commanding speaker, Makarios’ leadership qualities drew the attention of the older clerics, who identified him as Archbishop material. When he was offered the prestigious role, Makarios was surprised. He wondered if there wasn’t someone more suitable. But the decision to elect him as Archbishop was not entirely ecclesiastical. It was also political.

In 1950, Cyprus still belongs to the British Empire. And all positions of political power on the island are filled with British administrators. One area of society in which the British have no power is the Church. And in recent years, a movement for Cypriot independence from Great Britain has gathered steam, and the Church has become a focal point for nationalist pride. With his youth, charisma, and intelligence, many of the older clerics believed Makarios was the perfect man to champion the cause of independence. 

Today, as the organ launches into a rousing hymnal, Archbishop Makarios III processes through the chapel and out onto the churchyard. There, he greets crowds of cheering supporters. Many Greek Cypriots are delighted to see Makarios installed as Archbishop. They hope he will help them achieve not only independence from Britain, but also unification with Greece, the country to which many feel ethnically, culturally, and historically tied.

Outside the church, Makarios declares his intention to liberate Cyprus from British colonial rule, and to finally unite the island with Greece, something known as enosis. However, even as Makarios drinks in the joyful smiles and cheers from the crowd, he knows that achieving enosis will not be easy. Not everybody on Cyprus supports unification with Greece. The country’s minority Turkish population vehemently opposes it. One of the problems is that Turkish Cypriots are, by and large, Muslims, while the Greeks largely follow the Greek-Orthodox Christian religion. Many Turks fear that if Cyprus became a Greek state, they will suffer religious and political persecution. Still, Makarios knows there will be plenty of time to deal with the Turkish Cypriots. For now, the main obstacle to enosis isn’t the Turks – but the British.

And the government in London has no intention of giving up Cyprus without a fight. Cyprus occupies a crucial strategic location close to the Suez  Canal – a vital shipping route in the Middle East. At a time when independence movements are succeeding across the British Empire, holding onto this small island in the Mediterranean takes on a whole new significance.

But soon, Makarios enters into negotiations with the British Governor of Cyprus, Sir John Harding. The talks prove fruitless. Harding is a toughened veteran of both World Wars, and he is unwilling to yield any British territory – especially one of such strategic importance. So Makarios leaves their meetings feeling increasingly frustrated. He sends appeals to the United Nations. But these requests too fall on deaf ears.

Eventually, many Greek Cypriots grow tired of what they see as Britain’s intransigence; some decide to organize and take matters into their own hands. On April 1st, 1955, explosions shake the British government headquarters in Nicosia. Nobody is killed in the blasts, but the message behind the attack is clear: Greek Cypriots are no longer willing to wait.

Responsibility for the attack is claimed by a newly-formed militant group, the National Organization of Cypriot Fighters, also known as EOKA. EOKA is dedicated to achieving enosis whatever the cost. And over the next few months, EOKA launches a guerrilla campaign against the British Army. Following a string of violent skirmishes, Governor John Harding declares a state of emergency.

Desperate to restore order, he appeals to Makarios to intervene, but the Archbishop refuses to publicly condemn the violence. Rumors start to swirl that Makarios is in league with EOKA and that he actually endorses the attacks. Governor Harding fears Cyprus could descend into chaos, and he feels Makarios is to blame. So Harding sets out to solve his Makarios problem by force.

Act Two: An Uneasy Compromise

It’s March 9th, 1956, eighteen years before the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. 

On a sunny spring morning, Archbishop Makarios is crossing the tarmac of Nicosia airport, about to board a plane. But then, out of nowhere, a fleet of British Army jeeps screeches to a halt all around him. Military officers step out and one of them approaches Makarios calmly showing him a piece of paper signed by Governor Harding. It’s a warrant for the Archbishop’s arrest on charges of terrorism.

Makarios is flown to the Seychelles – a remote British colony in the Indian Ocean. There, the Archbishop is held in exile, closely guarded by the British authorities. Harding and his colleagues hope that with Makarios out of the picture, the Cypriot independence movement will crumble.

But Harding’s decision will have unintended consequences. The movement will not fail. In fact, the cries for independence will only grow louder. The movement will adopt a new figurehead, a man whose methods are extreme and violent. 

Georgios Grivas is a grizzled military veteran with a bristling black mustache and a gruff demeanor. Georgios came out of retirement last year to lead EOKA, the militant group agitating for Cypriot independence and unification with Greece. Georgios is well-acquainted with Makarios – although the two differ in their approaches. Where Makarios favors a legal, constitutional route to independence, Georgios is far more radical.

Over the course of the next few years, with Makarios in exile, Georgios and his foot soldiers wage a guerrilla war against the British Army. From his hide-out in the mountains of central Cyprus, Georgios orchestrates a violent campaign of attacks and bombings.

Meanwhile, a sense of unease hangs over the island’s Turkish population. For the Turkish Cypriots, the prospect of an independent Cyprus is deeply troubling. Under the British, their civil liberties are safeguarded. But if the country becomes independent, it will be dominated by Greek Cypriots. And many Turkish Cypriots fear they will be marginalized and persecuted.

Among the concerned citizens is a 34-year-old lawyer named Rauf Denktas. Rauf can see how EOKA is advancing the cause of independence and enosis - the unification of Cyprus with Greece. So he decides to form his own organization to fight for the interests of Turkish Cypriots. In 1958, Rauf establishes the Turkish Resistance Organization or TMT. As a counterpoint to enosis, TMT advocates for the partition of Cyprus into two parts: a Greek half, and a Turkish half – a process known by the Turkish word -Taksim.

Many Greek Cypriots refuse to consider partition as a viable solution; they want all of Cyprus to unify with Greece – not just a part of it. And on both sides, many refuse to give any ground.

Meanwhile, the British government anxiously watches as guerrilla war with EOKA continues to escalate. The violent conflict claims the lives of hundreds of British servicemen – as well as hundreds more civilians. Eventually, Britain’s Prime Minister Harold MacMillan decides that Cyprus is not worth the cost in blood. So MacMillan gives in and offers Cyprus its independence.


On February 19th, 1959.

Inside a government building in London, representatives from Britain, Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus are preparing to sign a diplomatic agreement that outlines the terms of the new constitution for an independent Cyprus.

Among the representatives is Archbishop Makarios III, recently released from exile. During his time in the Seychelles, Makarios’ political outlook changed. After hearing reports of the chaos and violence unfolding in his homeland, he decided compromise was necessary. The island’s Turkish population vehemently opposes enosisand Makarios knows the international community was never going to allow it, for fear of a war breaking out on the island. So when the British approached him with proposals for a Cypriot constitution that guaranteed independence but prohibited enosis, Makarios reluctantly agreed. He realized that abandoning his dream for enosis was the only way for Cyprus to achieve peace. And after accenting to the compromise, he was released from exile and flown to London.

Now, Makarios reads through the terms of the agreement. The constitution tries to please both Greek and Turkish Cypriots. It prohibits enosis but it also prohibits Taksim -the partition of the island into Turkish and Greek halves. The nation is to be governed by an elected Greek-Cypriot president, with a Turkish-Cypriot vice-president. And in this way, both ethnic groups will be represented in government. All parties sign the agreement, hoping it will usher in a bright new dawn for Cyprus.

And for a short time, harmony is achieved on the island. Makarios runs for president and is elected, alongside a Turkish-Cypriot vice-president and Dr. Fazil Kucuk. But soon, it will become apparent that the two sides cannot get along. Neither the Greek nor Turkish Cypriots are happy with the compromise or the new constitution. Tensions will simmer throughout the 1960s. And finally, in 1974, a new outbreak of violence will spread across Cyprus, resulting in the fall of Makarios, and a military invasion that will send shockwaves across the world.

Act Three: The Coup

It’s 8:15 AM on July 15th, 1974.

Inside the Presidential Palace in Nicosia, Makarios is looking through the morning’s briefing notes. The last fourteen years have taken a toll on the sixty-year-old president. His long beard is graying; his eyes are ringed by dark circles.

Lately, tensions have been high in Cyprus amid the growing resurgence of the para-military organization, EOKA. The group faded away after Cyprus achieved independence in 1960. But now, EOKA has returned. For its members, independence is not enough; they want unification for Greece – enosis.

Makarios sighs. For almost twenty-five years, he’s been at the troubled heart of Cypriot politics, trying to navigate the conflicting interests of both Turks and Greeks. He knows that the Turkish government will vociferously oppose enosis. Many Turks fear they will suffer persecution if Cyprus becomes a part of Greece. And with the enosis movement once again rearing its head… the conflicts between Greek and Turkish Cypriots have boiled over into violence.

As Makarios tries once again to forge a path forward, his thoughts are interrupted by a loud explosion, followed by the crackle of gunfire.

Makarios jumps from his seat and runs to the window. The palace gates have been forced open by armed soldiers; a convoy of tanks is rolling into the compound. Makarios recognizes the uniforms of the Cyprus National Guard – the official security force of the island. The leadership of the National Guard is closely aligned with the right-wing government of Greece. Its members have been outspoken in their desire for enosis. Now, it seems, they’re willing to resort to drastic measures to achieve their goal.

As the soldiers surround the palace, Makarios is smuggled through a back door by his personal security detail. The President ducks inside an armored car that tears away from the palace, where National Guardsmen are already storming through the halls.

And shortly after this coup d’état, a new right-wing nationalist government is established, intent on unifying Cyprus with Greece. The Turkish population of the island watches on, horrified, as a Greek flag is hoisted above the presidential palace.

But then, just five days after the coup, Turkey invades Cyprus with a force of over 40,000 troops. The vastly outnumbered Cyprus National Guard attempts to resist the invasion but can not. The Turks force thousands of Greek-Cypriots from their homes and establish an ethnically Turkish region in the north of the island calling it the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. In the invasion, 7,000 soldiers die and thousands of innocent Cypriots – both Greek and Turkish – will be slaughtered or taken prisoner. The human rights violations committed by both sides are still being reckoned with today.

As for Makarios, he will return to Cyprus five months later. By then, the right-wing nationalist government will have lost popular support following the failed resistance of the Turkish invasion. Makarios will be reinstated as President, before spending the remaining 3 years of his life trying to unite the island. He will not be successful.

Today, Cyprus remains divided. A UN buffer zone separates the Republic of Cyprus from the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. And while diplomatic efforts are ongoing to unify the island, there is still a deep sense of bitterness and hostility that holds back such efforts – the regrettable legacy of decades of turbulence, which culminated in the Turkish invasion of Cyprus on July 20th, 1974.


Next onHistory Daily.July 21st, 1969. American astronaut Neil Armstrong becomes the first person to walk on the moon.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.