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The physical setting for life on the island is dominated by the mountain masses and the central plain they encompass, the Mesaoria. The Troodos Mountains cover most of the southern and western portions of the island and account for roughly half its area. The narrow Kyrenia Range, extending along the northern coastline, occupies substantially less area, and elevations are lower. The two mountain systems run generally parallel to the Taurus Mountains on the Turkish mainland, whose silhouette is visible from northern Cyprus. Coastal lowlands, varying in width, surround the island.
The rugged Troodos Mountains, whose principal range stretches from Pomos Point in the northwest almost to Larnaca Bay on the east, are the single most conspicuous feature of the landscape. Intensive uplifting and folding in the formative period left the area highly fragmented, so that subordinate ranges and spurs veer off at many angles, their slopes incised by steep-sided valleys. In the southwest, the mountains descend in a series of stepped foothills to the coastal plain.
While the Troodos Mountains are a massif formed of molten igneous rock, the Kyrenia Range is a narrow limestone ridge that rises suddenly from the plains. Its easternmost extension becomes a series of foothills on the Karpas Peninsula. That peninsula points toward Asia Minor, to which Cyprus belongs geologically.
Even the highest peaks of the Kyrenia Range are hardly more than half the height of the great dome of the Troodos massif, Mount Olympus (1,952 meters), but their seemingly inaccessible, jagged slopes make them considerably more spectacular. British writer Lawrence Durrell, in Bitter Lemons, wrote of the Troodos as "an unlovely jumble of crags and heavyweight rocks" and of the Kyrenia Range as belonging to "the world of Gothic Europe, its lofty crags studded with crusader castles."
Rich copper deposits were discovered in antiquity on the slopes of the Troodos. Geologists speculate that these deposits may have originally formed under the Mediterranean Sea, as a consequence of the upwelling of hot, mineral-laded water through a zone where plates that formed the ocean floor were pulling apart.
Deforestation over the centuries has damaged the island's drainage system and made access to a year-round supply of water difficult. A network of winter rivers rises in the Troodos Mountains and flows out from them in all directions. The Yialias River and the Pedhieos River flow eastward across the Mesaoria into Famagusta Bay; the Serraghis River flows northwest through the Morphou plain. All of the island's rivers, however, are dry in the summer. An extensive system of dams and waterways has been constructed to bring water to farming areas.
The Mesaoria is the agricultural heartland of the island, but its productiveness for wheat and barley depends very much on winter rainfall; other crops are grown under irrigation. Little evidence remains that this broad, central plain, open to the sea at either end, was once covered with rich forests whose timber was coveted by ancient conquerors for their sailing vessels. The now-divided capital of the island, Nicosia, lies in the middle of this central plain.
The Mediterranean climate, warm and rather dry, with rainfall mainly between November and March, favors agriculture. In general, the island experiences mild wet winters and dry hot summers. Variations in temperature and rainfall are governed by altitude and, to a lesser extent, distance from the coast.
The higher mountain areas are cooler and moister than the rest of the island. They receive the heaviest annual rainfall, which may be as much as 1,000 millimeters. Sharp frost also occurs in the higher districts, which are usually blanketed with snow during the first months of the year. Plains along the northern coast and in the Karpas Peninsula area average 400 to 450 millimeters of annual rainfall. The least rainfall occurs in the Mesaoria, with 300 to 400 millimeters a year. Variability in annual rainfall is characteristic for the island, however, and droughts are frequent and sometimes severe. Earthquakes, usually not destructive, occur from time to time.
Summer temperatures are high in the lowlands, even near the sea, and reach particularly uncomfortable readings in the Mesaoria. Because of the scorching heat of the lowlands, some of the villages in the Troodos have developed as resort areas, with summer as well as winter seasons. The mean annual temperature for the island as a whole is about 20° C. The amount of sunshine the island enjoys enhances the tourist industry. On the Mesaoria in the eastern lowland, for example, there is bright sunshine 75 percent of the time. During the four summer months, there is an average of eleven and one-half hours of sunshine each day, and in the cloudiest winter months there is an average of five and one-half hours per day.
SOURCES: Library of Congress Country Studies/Area Handbook