Famagusta is ‘a world without us’

By Nathan Morley
6 December 2009

Award-winning science journalist and author Alan Weisman tells the Sunday Mail that there is little chance the decaying buildings of Varosha could ever be used again)

THOSE who have read The World Without Us, a New York Times bestseller, will know it is a chilling book dealing with a macabre subject: if every person on earth died tomorrow what would happen to the works of man?

The book, which has sold more than 50 million copies worldwide since it was published in 2007, uses Varosha, the fenced off quarter of Famagusta, as one of the primary examples of an earth without humans.

Within its pages, author Alan Weisman, who had unhindered access to Varosha, details the slow, inevitable destruction of buildings, infrastructure and the return of forests and animals.

Even more disturbing reading is that in the book Famagusta is an example as important as the nuclear disaster zone of Chernobyl in this detailed study of places that have been left, unhindered by man, to literally crumble into the ground.

“Getting to [that part of] Famagusta was not easy, it took three months of careful negotiations with various authorities and the UN,” Weisman told the Sunday Mail, “but it was well worth the effort. I had to negotiate with Turkey and the administration in northern Cyprus, which took a lot of time.

“When I was there, I managed to locate people who lived there, who had clear recall of the city and I tried to cobble together a more accurate picture. The situation in Famagusta was perfect for my book, but it did not fall into my lap.”

More horrifying for Weisman, who had only been in the town for a few days, was that in the walled part of old Famagusta, the buildings and walls constructed during the Venetian period still stood rock-steady, in stark comparison to the abandoned concrete hotels and apartment blocks which shot up in the sixties.

“Seeing that solid historical architecture juxtaposed against the reinforced concrete and glass structures of a typical seaside resort, all built relatively cheaply was really the biggest surprise I had when I arrived there.”

Those who might still hold out hope for a swift return to Varosha, if the Cyprus problem is ever solved, are set to be disappointed.

There is no way a quick clean up with paint and plaster, which could have sufficed even until the mid 1980s, will ever work now.

Weisman says the general consensus of experts he interviewed is that Varosha will probably need to be bulldozed rather than brought back to life, due to factors such as mould, metal fatigue and severe exposure to the elements.

“I’m not an engineer, I can only go by what the experts and people I spoke to say, including UN engineers who have been in there and looked at these buildings.”

The analysis they gave Weisman makes for grim reading. Few people he spoke to thought any of the buildings are structurally trustworthy anymore.

“The place is in pretty bad shape, one of the things I didn’t mention in the book, is the simple issue of mould,” he says.

“Even in an arid climate like Cyprus, any rooms or basements that were sealed off have to be filled with mould – that stuff is almost impossible to clean out.”

With failing roofs, water leaks and the wear of weather, one can only imagine that Varosha’s fate is sealed – it will be reduced to dust, with or without a solution.

Anyone who has stood on the beach in Famagusta just before the barbed wire barrier and looked at the bleak crumbling edifices of Varosha can see the truth of Weisman’s words.

Looking closely at some hotel windows with binoculars on a recent trip there, I could see bushes and even in some cases trees peeking from within the buildings.

Parts of balconies and roofs have disintegrated and light fittings are encrusted with stalagmites.

Although in some cases the book can be over poetic, it does manage to capture the scene in Varosha today.

“Flame trees, chinaberries, and thickets of hibiscus, oleander, and passion lilac sprout from nooks where indoors and outdoors now blend. Houses disappear under magenta mounds of bougainvillaea. Lizards and whip snakes skitter through stands of wild asparagus, prickly pear, and six-foot grasses. A spreading ground cover of lemon grass now sweetens the air. At night, the darkened beachfront, free of moonlight bathers, crawls with nesting loggerhead and green sea turtles”

Returning to the old part of Famagusta and meeting an old acquaintance Ali, an antiques shop owner who has lived here all his life, I’m starkly reminded that the town has not seen repairs or human life in 35 years.

From the courtyard of his shop, Ali points into the distance at crumbling towering hotels on Varosha beach, the once bright exterior paintwork now all but faded to grey.

“Do you think things should be looking better?” He pulls out his trusty calculator and suddenly announces, “12,700 days and no people, what do you expect Mr Nathan?”

Aside from Cyprus, Weismans book takes a worldwide journey, and throws in a few rather disturbing tidbits.

* If humans disappeared, the average house would last about 100 years before toppling over due to decay. But if you cut a one-foot diameter hole in the roof, the same house would crumble in about 10 years. This is the power of nature once it gets inside and gets to work.

* Except for a small amount that’s been incinerated… every bit of plastic manufactured in the world for the last 50 years or so still remains. It’s somewhere in the environment.”

* If people vanished, the 441 nuclear power plants currently in operation would run on autopilot for several months and then begin to overheat. The resulting deadly radioactive damage to the environment would poison the areas around the plants for a very, very long time – we’re talking geological time of hundreds of thousands of years.

Oh, and plastics are wreaking havoc. Please use fewer plastics -every little plastic water bottle you throw away, will be around years after you are gone.

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