Nicosia – north and south

Sunday 17 March to Tuesday 19 March

Our next destination was Nicosia – and more memories.

Bruce does a great job of driving and easily swaps from European driving on the right to British driving on the left, which is the case in Cyprus. The only thing that bothers him is negotiating the narrow city streets looking for parking at our next destination. To navigate we use our trusty TomTom. Admittedly the maps are nearly three years old so one way streets and pedestrian streets are sometimes not shown. We supplement the TomTom, or Jane as we affectionately call it, with MapsME on the travel phone. It is more up to date and updatable but Mary Lou’s harsh American accent grates in us. In fact we had treated Mary Lou to her own device mount so that Bruce can watch where we are going on a larger scale.

It was not a good idea to drive into old Nicosia in a Sunday afternoon. The normally orderly Cypriot drivers were impatient and erratic. As usual, we drove around in circles homing in on our hotel. The car was finally parked and not touched again for our two day stay.

We were amazed to see a mix of cultures in the city. Around our hotel were Filipinos, mostly women. Further down the street we came across Indian and Pakistani men and there were a large number of African people.

Our hotel host explained that the Greek Cypriots love to be waited on and the Filipino’s work very hard Monday to Saturday. Sunday is their day off.

She also told us that Cyprus has a very generous education system and many of the men we saw are enrolled in courses that cost €4,000 per year. They don’t attend but get certificates at the end. This might be a somewhat ruthless description of education offerings to foreign students in Cyprus, but our host insisted that the government turns a blind eye.

We explored Ledras Street, the pedestrian street that runs into North Nicosia. Bruce’s parking anxieties were relieved with a decent beer and a Greek Cypriot grill.

My research led me to believe that North Nicosia, also known as Lefkoşa was a more interesting destination to explore.

In 1974, three years after my visit, a war broke out between the Turkish Cypriots who claimed the north of the island and the Greek Cypriots who claimed the south. Turkey invaded Cyprus, following a failed Cypriot coup d’état. It became known as the Cyprus dispute. In 1983 a truce line was drawn across the country, separating the Turkish north and the Greek south with a United Nations controlled Green Zone. The only country that recognises the status of Northern Cyprus is Turkey. It is now known as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus or TRNC. InTurkish it is Kuzey Kıbrıs Türk Cumhuriyeti)

The green line cuts Nicosia in half from east to west. Any travel information about Cyprus notes the northern Cyprus part as ‘Under control of TRNC’.

From our hotel window we could see a massive sign on the mountains with the Turkish Cypriot flag.

Crossing was easy, two passport controls but no stamps.

Our first stop was the Büyük Han or ‘Big Inn’ Caravanserai. It is Cyprus’ best-preserved example of Ottoman caravanserai architecture. Built in 1572 by the first Ottoman governor of Cyprus, Lala Mustafa Pasha, it was renovated in the early 1990s. Caravanserais were inns, typically about every 30km or a camel’s travel day, that dotted the trading routes between the Far East and Europe. We had seen many of them in our travels but this large one was particularly nice in shape and style.

We visited the Selimiye Mosque which was initially built as St. Sophia Cathedral and completed in 1228. It has survived a number of earthquakes since then. The cathedral was converted into a mosque in 1570 and the two minarets added at the same time are visible over Nicosia. The Muslim religion is welcoming and we were able to wander in, without shoes but with headscarf and look around and take photos. Cathedrals were not built to accommodate Islam so the first thing you notice is the alignment of the carpet, so that the prayers can face Mecca, which was at a 45° angle to the front of the church.

In contrast to the decorations you’d expect to find in a cathedral, a mosque is stark with perhaps some stripes of colour and some Arabic script. You will not find images of people or animals. Flowers, if any, are stylised.

When you see houses in the street they appear to abut each other and it is not until you go inside that you realise there is so much open space in courtyards. We visited the Eaved House, an Ottoman house from the Middle Ages. It was free entry, as was everything we visited in North Nicosia – encouraging the tourists?

The eaved house has a typically Turkish overhanging room which softens the look from the street. This was a sitting room with windows on both sides, it was very light and really beautiful.

We had lunch outside a second inn known as Kumarcilar Han or Gamblers’ Inn. It was probably built at the end of the 17th century as a caravanserai. It is smaller and more modest than the larger Büyük Han

We found the Armenian Church & Nunnery. This church and nunnery are first thought to have been established in the 13th century as the Abbey of Our Lady of Tyre, and was handed over to the island’s Armenian community in the 15th century, when the Ottomans conquered the island and brought Armenian craftsmen in. It became an important way-station for Armenian and other pilgrims en route to the Holy Land.

There was little to see – the church was stark, perhaps under renovation.

From there our journey took us to the court houses, beautifully styled colonial buildings which once housed the British Colonial Law Courts. The post office was opposite and Atatürk Square with the Venetian Column beside it.

Turkey was resurrected from the collapsed Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. He has long been a hero of Turkey. We were made so welcome when we toured the Turkey in 2012 and it was clear that Australia and Turkey had forged a very special relationship out of the Gallipoli campaign. It is worrying that President Tayyip Erdogan is today trying to diminish Atatürk’s memory and the advances he made in creating a secular and harmonious country. The situation is worsened by comments Erdogan made following the Christchurch massacre in New Zealand, which happened this week.

Our next stop was the historical houses of Samanbaçhe which was an Ottoman council housing project between 1918 – 1925. The houses are tiny but well kept with lots of greenery and cats around.

We continued on to see the Kyrenia Gate at the north of the city. Nicosia was a completely walled city and there are two of the original three Venetian gates remaining. This gate, originally constructed by the Venetians in 1562, had interesting inscriptions in it, commemorating King George V in 1931 and an Arabic inscription that would have been more recent.

Kyrenia is a city in Northern Cyprus but when I visited in 1971 it was a popular beach resort for the Greek Cypriots, however the Turkish enclave was between Nicosia and the coast. We travelled in a UN convoy with the distinctive white vehicles displaying the blue United Nations flag at the front and rear of the convoy – it was quite an experience.

Turkey took control of that coastline and caused a lot of damage to the upmarket Greek villas. I don’t know if the city has been restored since the 1970s.

We returned to the Greek Nicosia and continued our journey around the ancient wall. We stopped at the Liberty Monument (1973) which seemed a little absurd in a divided Nicosia, then found the Famagusta Gate which was built in 1557.

I enjoyed meandering around the streets of Nicosia, but I couldn’t recognize any landmarks from my 1971 stay there.