Describing somewhere as a ‘city of contrasts’ has to be one of the cheesiest clichés a travel writer can use. Oh, well, what the hell, Nicosia really is one. The Cypriot capital is split physically and ethnically into two very distinct communities by the militarised ‘green line’.
Since 1974, this small Mediterranean island has been partitioned between the Greek-Cypriots in the south and the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). The split occurred after ethnic and political tensions came to a head three decades ago, resulting in a brief but violent military conflict. It claimed many lives and sent several hundred thousand Cypriots fleeing from their homes for the safety of their own respective ethnic zones. The UN intervened and a political stalemate has ensued for three decades.
Nowhere is this divide felt more intensely than within the chunky 16th century Venetian ramparts of Nicosia’s old circular, walled city. Yet arriving in the Greek sector, I encounter a picture of normality. The fashionable boutiques and trendy pavement cafés around Ledras Street bustle with unconcerned shoppers. Old moustachioed Greek-Cypriots frequent traditional kafenios, playing backgammon and stringing strong coffees out for hours while domed Orthodox churches with gilded gold interiors loom attractively above the skyline.
On reaching the hub of the old centre, I find the scars of conflict: sandbags, razor-wire, concrete blocks and manned sentry posts striped blue and white in the Greek colours. The green line dissects the historic old city. Walking along it is both fascinating and unthreatening – although being propositioned by an elderly prostitute hissing ‘jiggy, jiggy’ through her false teeth had me running for my life. Otherwise, the walk through the twisting, sometimes abandoned, backstreets takes me through a conflict zone almost completely unchanged since 1974. Bullet and shell-holes riddle decaying facades of what would otherwise be strikingly beautiful townhouses dating back to the 19th century.
The military presence is strong but the young Greek-Cypriot conscripts are relaxed, texting on their mobiles and keen to chat. One tells me he’s bored with sentry duties and wants to go and study music in England. They seem unconcerned that the so-called ‘enemy’ is close at hand – I can see Turkish soldiers at one point just across the line. It’s a strange stand-off as Turkish flags and minarets poke above no-man’s land – some 20m across the divide – and eerie calls to prayer from Muslim clerics drift across the barricades.
Following the line westwards, I pause at Minoos Street to peek down a break in the barriers along no-man’s land. It follows an avenue of shattered facades along the off-limits Ermou Street. Shop shutters are rusted shut, unopened since they last closed 30 years ago. I can also see the blue berets of the UN troops at checkpoint D244.
After a cold Keo beer at the cheekily named Berlin No.2 Café (whose owner displays a picture of the Brandenburg Gate), I bump into Sister Adeline, an Irish-born Catholic nun, at a convent backing onto no-man’s land. It was very frightening back in 1974 with bullets raining over the convent’s roof,” she tells me. “Nowadays there’s never any trouble, although the Turkish soldiers sometimes get bored and throw stones at the windows.”
It’s time to find out who this ‘enemy’ is. I surrender dolmades for doner kebabs and head across the green line into the Turkish sector. You can currently only cross into the TRNC at the Ledra Palace checkpoint just west of the old city ramparts. The crossing reopened a few years ago. Flourishing my passport, I pass a fading Greek sign offering some sarcastic advice to ‘enjoy yourself in the land of racial purity and true apartheid’ and continue into no-man’s land. There are tall watchtowers and the bullet-ridden Ledra Palace hotel, and UN troops who are largely ignored by a steady flow of Cypriots swapping sides. Fashionable young Greek girls head back from bargain-hunting in the cheaper Turkish emporiums, and daily migrant workers return from the more affluent Greek sector.
The difference a long-standing international trade embargo has made economically to the TRNC is immediately obvious. Lacking investment, there’s a whiff of greater decay about this side. The upside of this is that redevelopment hasn’t swamped the sector’s superb Ottoman architecture. An almost medieval air lingers.
Continuing along the Turkish side of the green line, many of the buildings are likewise derelict. Almost backing onto Sister Adeline’s convent are the shattered remains of what once must have been an elaborate Armenian church. The line leads me to Cyprus’ biggest Christian icon – albeit one which underwent a radical conversion to Islam – Selimiye Mosque.
Dwarfing the town centre, this monumental building was converted from cathedral to mosque in 1571 when the Ottomans first invaded Cyprus. Adding minarets resembling ballistic missiles to the 13th century cathedral’s Gothic arches and flying buttresses has created a bizarre yet spectacular fusion of styles.
Inside, the cool whitewashed interior of the pews has long gone, replaced by colourful carpets. I squat down on one for a peaceful hour listening to echoes of prayer bounce around the mighty walls. Nearby is Buyuk Han, an old caravanserai. Its interior is now filled with small cafés and craft shops. I seek out a few culinary bargains in the indoor market. Dried figs, pistachios, Turkish delight and strips of halloumi cheese sell for a fraction of the price you’d pay in the UK.
It’s getting dark when I emerge from the market, so I head back across the border to my hotel on the Greek side. A lot of bad blood has flowed under the bridge between these two communities. This showed last year when reunification was rejected in a dual referendum (despite Turks voting for it). But when reunification eventually arrives, as it surely must, Nicosia will take its place among Europe’s most beautiful cities. Two fascinating cultures for the price of one air ticket might just be another cliché which could stick around.”