Peering through tiny gaps in part of the barricaded wall that divides Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus and the last divided city in Europe, and apprehensive of being reprimanded by UN security police, I was left aghast by the desolate scene in front of me. Marking a moment in time and reminiscent of an eerie and sinister movie set, a deserted street lay just the other side of the wall. Bullet holes riddled the long-abandoned buildings, and discarded personal possessions lay rusting and sun-faded in the street. A long-abandoned car, a child’s doll, an iron on its board: overwhelming evidence of a population that must have fled in terror and a visual, stark and hard-hitting testimony of the devastation that divided this ancient city in the 70s. These deserted everyday scenes side-by-side with devastation, leave visitors to this day with an enduring, poignant memory.
And so when the United Nations buffer zone, colloquially known as the Green Line, that runs through Ledra Street in Nicosia was opened just a few months later, in April 2008, I was pleased that, as I lived in Cyprus, I could easily explore the northern part of Nicosia during this important and promising moment in history. Making this the sixth crossing point between the North and the South, removing the blockades to re-open Ledra Street held significant emotional value for residents and provides pedestrian access to the north part of the city and indeed the island, which has been divided for nearly half a century.
Walking away from the modern and affluent commercial department stores and art cafes of South Nicosia, we waited in line with our passports; to be issued with a paper visa allowing us to walk into Northern Cyprus. And it was mind-blowing: within a very short distance you leave behind the familiar sights of Cyprus and the desolate no-go streets imbetween and enter – metaphorically -Turkey. Strolling through the back streets, which now mainly house small workshops or are derelict ruins evoking reminders of what befell this city, within a few minutes the atmosphere and sights become starkly and culturally different. From Turkish baths, children running around barefoot and countless small shops selling beautifully-ornate Turkish cushion covers, tablecloths and hand-decorated plates and bowls, you really do feel like you have stepped into a different country; a feeling that is enhanced by the Muezzin’s Call to Prayer. Then there is the amazing, beautiful and imposing architecture that you stumble across within minutes of each other.The Buyuk Han (the Great Inn), built by the Ottomans in 1572, has a mosque with a fountain for pre-prayer ablutions in the centre of its open courtyard.
Restored in the 1990s, the Inn is now a thriving arts centre; consisting of several galleries and workshops, courtyard cafes and souvenir shops.
Dominating the landscape and emphasising the cultural differences within the city is Cyprus’s largest and oldest gothic building, the Selimiye Mosque. Originally Cathédrale Sainte Sophia, which was built in the 1200s, this was turned into a mosque in 1570; with the addition of two minarets and a complete change to the interior of the building. Deceptively, from certain angles, the Selimiye Mosque still looks like a Cathedral; until you get close and see the shoes lined up outside or peer into the whitewashed interior.
With Turkish Lira jostling for space with Euros in your wallet; Turkish street signs metres away from Greek ones; smells of middle-east delicacies streets away from contemporary mediterranean cafes; and luxury goods on one side to beautiful hand-decorated items on the other, entering northern Nicosia from southern Nicosia is an extraordinary experience that assaults all your senses. If you visit Cyprus, do take time out to visit this beautiful, starkly-different, emotional and unforgettably thought-provoking divided city.