All along the watchtowers

Barbed wire

Perhaps no where is the rift between the Republic of Cyprus and Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus more obvious than in Lefkosia, the only divided capital in the world. (Turkish-Cypriots call the city Lefkoşa. Many call it Nicosia, thanks to the French-speaking Crusaders.) Its population is 340,000.

In 1963 the city was split in half, after continuing violence between the two communities. The boundary is called the Green Line, due to the color of the crayon used on a military map by a British officer. Greek-Cypriots to the south; Turkish-Cypriots to the north. Barricades went up, blocking north-south through-streets. Barbed wire was strung.

Watchtowers were erected. The Turkish invasion of the island in 1974 cemented the division. An area called the buffer zone was cleared and is patrolled by the UN. Lefkosia is Cold War Berlin.


I found it jarring to stroll a bright, busy street, turn a corner, and encounter a barricade of stacked barrels painted UN blue and white, and soldiers with automatic weapons manning guard booths.

And yet the city center of Greek-Cypriot Lefkosia is everything a traveler wants in an old town—narrow cobblestone streets, quaint colorful houses, historical buildings, archaeology museums, art galleries, bustling shops, and trendy restaurants. I enjoyed it all, but regularly walked the streets nearest the line, drawn to the juxtaposition of hospitality and harshness.

Lefkosia's walls
The star-shaped Venician walls around Lefkosia’s Old Town

Inside the walls

After spending a week in Girne (also known as Keryneia and Kyrenia) with my daughter (Please see previous post, “The other side.”), I recrossed the Green Line into the Greek-Cypriot side of the capital city. Lefkosia has been continuously inhabited since around 2500 BCE. Over the centuries, many empires have occupied it. In 1567 CE the Venetians built a massive fortification around the capital, one that is still standing strong. The walls form a perfect eleven-pointed star, three miles in circumference, each point a bastion named after an aristocratic Italian family. The walls have three gates, the most famous being Famagusta Gate to the east. The gate’s vaulted passage is now a cultural center.

The Old Town begins to wake up arround 10 a.m. Café workers sweep the floors. Shop owners scrub the paving stones in front of their stores. Vendors walk the streets with bags of fresh-picked strawberries and asparagus, selling to the restaurants. Feral cats laze in the sun. At the table next to me, three German couples order from a Greek waiter—in English.

Hookah room
Hookah room in the mansion of Dragoman Kornesios

The buildings in the Old Town date from the 1700s and 1800s, their architecture a mix of Greek, French, Venetian, and Turkish influences.

I toured the former mansion of Hatzigeorgakis Kornesios, the dragoman of Cyprus from 1779 to 1809. A dragoman was the official interpreter between the Turkish Ottoman and Greek Orthodox authorities. Kornesios accumulated much wealth and power, which may have led to his untimely demise. He was beheaded in Istanbul.

I joined a free walking tour. The Italian guide, Fabio, led us through the maze of streets, stopping along the way to peak into historical churches. We started in Laika Geitania, the touristy neighborhood on the south side of the Old City, jam-packed with souvenir shops and restaurants. From there, we visited:

  • Church of Archangel Michael Trypiotis, buit in 1695
  • Faneromeni Church, built in 1872
  • A mausoleum containing the remains of bishops and priests executed by the Ottomans in 1821
  • Faneromeni School, the first secondary-school building in Lefkosia
  • Stavros tou Missirikou, a medieval Orthodox church converted into a mosque
  • Archbishop’s Palace, the seat of the Cyprus Orthodox Church, built in 1960
  • Agios Ionnis Cathedral, originally a Benedictine chapel dedicated to Saint John the Evangelist in the 1300s, then an Orthodox monastery, now a cathedral
  • Tayt-el-Kafa Mosque
  • Panagia Chrysaliniotissa Church, built in 1450, the oldest Byzantine church in Lefkosia
Panagia Chrysaliniotissa Church
Panagia Chrysaliniotissa Church

On my own, I toured the Cyprus Folk Art Museum, housed in the former Archbishop’s Palace since 1961. The building dates to the 1400s. On display are weaving, pottery, embroidery, lace, costumes, metalwork, woodcarving, basketry, leatherwork, and jewelry.

Outside of the museum is a bust of Archbishop Kyprianos. He was forcibly removed from his room in the palace (now the museum) in 1921 and hanged by the Turks.

Walking the line

Bust of Kyprianos
Bust of Archbishop Kyprianos in front of Agios Ionnis Cathedral

Each morning I walked through the Pafos Gate below the Roccas Bastion, under Turkish-Cypriot control. One morning a young couple hugged playfully behind the barbed wire. The bastion is a park now, but once Turkish- and Greek-Cypriots passed messages to each other over the fence at this location. Like elsewhere along the zone, a flag-waving contest is underway. The Greek and Cyprus flags on one side; the Turkish and northern Cyprus colors on the other.

The facade of the Holy Cross Catholic Church faces the Greek-Cypriot side. The entire structure, however, sits within the buffer zone, its back door exiting to the Turkish-controlled sector. The church was allowed to remain open with the condition that the back door be closed permanently.

I walked the backstreets along the Green Line, passing several barricades and young soldiers in fatigues. Houses within no-man’s-land are decaying shells with trees growing through caved roofs.

Dome, Faneromeni Church
God looking down from inside the dome of Faneromeni Church

Much of the grafitti seems political in nature, apparently supporting reunification. UN and Greek-Cypriot bunkers punctuate the skyline. It is forbidden to approach them too closely.

Fabio, the tour guide, said the Greek-Cypriots don’t call the Green Line a “border” as that validates it as a national boundary. (I recalled that the hotel manager in Girne did not refer to the Republic of Cyprus. Instead, he asked if I was visiting “the South.”)

Words are chosen carefully here.

Ledra Street is the busiest shopping street in the city. During the struggle between the Cypriot factions in 1955–1959, Ledra Street acquired the nickname, “Murder Mile,” in reference to the killings that took place along its course. I ate lunch at a sidewalk café on Ledra and watched UN soldiers in powder-blue berets shop at a mobile-phone store across the street.

Ledra Street
Ledra Street, formerly “Murder Mile”

I visited Liberty Monument along with, coincidentally, a busload of British tourists. It portrays Cyprus’s liberation from Britain, with the figures of Greek-Cypriot patriots being released from prison in 1959. Lady Liberty watches from above. The monument does not include any figures of Turkish-Cypriots.

Toured the Byzantine Museum and Art Galleries, which display a huge collection of religious icons dating from the 400s to the 1800s. The museum does not hold back regarding its position on the impact of the Turkish invasion on religious art.

” . . . from very early on, the occupying regime has made a concerted and organised effort to loot and plunder archaeological sites, museums and libraries. Over five hundred churches have been looted and vandalised and put to all sorts of inappropriate uses. (Fifteen to twenty thousand) icons, sacred vessels, vestments, manuscripts, and scores of wall paintings were stolen, as well as mosaics which were broken up and sold abroad, while others . . . were utterly destroyed.”

Famagusta Gate
Famagusta Gate

The museum maintains that Turkish troops supported and participated in the looting. An exhibit outlines the case against a Turkish dealer in illegal antiquities who sold internationally. Interpol and the German police recovered over two hundred Cypriot icons from his possession, looted from over fifty churches. Most notable are the Kanakaria mosaics, frescos from the 500s, that were trafficked to the US and offered for sale to a museum for twenty million dollars. Some of the recovered mosaics are on display at the museum.

Opening gates slowly

Yet, some locals manage to muster a sense of humor. One shop near the zone is named No Border Underwear. Another is the Berlin Wall No. 2 Kebab House.

No Border Underwear
Store near the Green Line

In 2003, the Ledra Palace checkpoint through the Green Line was opened, the first time crossing was allowed since 1974. This was followed by the opening of the Ayios Dometios (Metehan and Kermia) crossing in 2003, and the Ledra Street crossing in 2008. Greek- and Turkish-Cypriots stream through the crossings everyday. The two communities have begun working together in areas of common interest, such as restoring historical sites and searching for individuals MIA since the violence. Occasionally, reunification talks are reopened.

Despite these small steps, interest in reunification seems low, especially among Greek-Cypriots. As with any bad break-up, views are fixed. Both parties feel victimized and anger lies just below the surface. Cyprus, the incomplete country, and northern Cyprus, the wanna-be country, seem to be going their separate ways.

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