FAMAGUSTA, Cyprus – Greek and Turkish Cypriot politicians on Wednesday pledged to preserve Cyprus' rich cultural heritage after hailing the restoration of a 14th century seaside garrison that is the fictional setting of Shakespeare's play "Othello."
The promise came amid renewed hopes that the east Mediterranean island nation's ethnic divisions can be healed.
Seizing on the strong positive vibe from peace talks that resumed last month after months of stalemate, politicians from both sides of the divide inspected the completed restoration work of the Othello Tower and Citadel during a visit to the sandstone structure in the city of Famagusta. It reopens next month.
"Restoration of this monument is proof that when Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots cooperate, we can create miracles," said Christos Christofides, from the Greek Cypriot left-wing AKEL party. "We need a solution like the desert needs water."
Turkish Cypriot Turfan Erhurman from the left-wing CTP party said that culture should rise above politics to bind the two communities, which until a decade ago had virtually no contact with each other.
"I believe that the cultural position of Famagusta is very rich and we have to protect it together," Erhurman said.
Cyprus was split in 1974 when Turkey invaded after a coup aiming to unite the island with Greece. Turkish Cypriots declared independence nearly a decade later, but only Turkey recognizes their breakaway state in the island's northern third and keeps 35,000 troops there. Situated in the breakaway north, Famagusta was for centuries Cyprus' main port.
Initially built by Cyprus' Lusignan masters, the 14th century citadel was fortified in 1492 to thwart potential invaders by the Venetians who had taken ownership of the island. Shakespeare vaulted the structure to international fame by making it the scene of his tragedy's denouement in which Othello kills his love Desdemona in a fit of jealous rage. One of the remaining four towers of the structure's original eight has since been christened Othello's own.
At a cost of just over 1 million euros ($1.13 million), restoration work was carried out by a joint Greek and Turkish Cypriot committee that was set up in 2008 to restore damaged or derelict places of worship and other monuments across the island.
"We regard these monuments as our common heritage and we hope to build a common future," said Committee member Glafkos Constantinides
Project manager Fatma Terlik said only sandstone blocks found within Famagusta's Venetian-build walls were used in the restoration. A key component of the restoration work was to channel rain water off roofs into cisterns that carried it outside the structure.
The tour included a stop at the monastery of Saint Barnabas, one of Jesus Christ's earliest followers and the founder of the island's Orthodox Christian Church. The monastery, which dates back to the 15th century, has since been converted into an icon museum, but occasional services are held there.