Attempt to fully explore the old town’s alleyway wriggle, or trace the line of its snowflake-shaped ramparts, and you’ll run into one major problem. Narrow lanes abruptly dead-end in cement bunkers and oil-barrel barricades, and a no man’s land of abandoned buildings lies beyond barbed-wire fencing.
The UN Buffer Zone (commonly called the Green Line) was marked out in 1964 as a temporary measure to restore peace after a decade of inter-communal fighting in the fledgling independent nation of Cyprus. The barrier has instead stood in place ever since, expanding to slice through the entire island after the 1974 Turkish invasion and today separating Nicosia (Lefkosia; capital of the Republic of Cyprus) from North Nicosia (Lefkoşa; capital of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognised only by Turkey).
These days most visitors can easily hop between both sides, thanks to the loosening of crossing restrictions in the early 2000s. This means both Nicosia’s clutch of museums, which piece together the jigsaw puzzle of the city’s past, and the monuments of North Nicosia that highlight the city’s many Ottoman faces, can be experienced during the same visit.
The city’s complicated history is encapsulated best by one building. The Church of Agia Sofia was consecrated under Lusignan rule in the 14th century, then put at the forefront of city planning after the Venetians made a Cyprus land grab, building their fortifications around Nicosia so that the Agia Sofia stood in the centre. But those walls failed to halt the Ottoman advance and the church was transformed into the Selimiye Mosque in the 16th century.
Today its twin minarets tower over North Nicosia’s old town. In bustling Arasta Sokak below, stalls vie for business with knock-off designer sweatpants and leggings, kebab vendors fire up the grills to tempt tour groups who have crossed over from the South, and a handful of new cafes are popping up within the fray, adding a dusting of cosmopolitan cafe culture to an area which had been left to go to seed for decades. Enter the mosque, though, and a timeless calm prevails. The plain whitewashed interior (keeping in with the religious requirements of Islam) highlights the soaring ribbed vaulting, fusing together Gothic splendour and the meditative minimalism of Islam.
Ermou St was once the thriving hub of the old town, but the Buffer Zone put paid to that when its blockades slashed it in two. However, these days this long-neglected area is slowly regenerating and the CVAR museum is spearheading that revival. For anyone interested in Cypriot life under British rule and in the early years of independence, the galleries here are chock-full of documents, artworks and memorabilia which bring alive the Cyprus story, the daily life of previous eras and the political tug of war which led to the division of the island.
Head to the old city’s residential neighbourhoods to capture a sense of life before the division. From Ermou St, eerily quiet lanes splay out into the Chrysaliniotissa quarter where cottage rows back directly onto the Green Line. This was once a lively community of both Greek and Turkish Cypriots, with only a few alleys between the diminutive Tahtakale Mosque and Panagia Chrysaliniotissa. Today the mosque still stands but the area’s Turkish Cypriot residents fled north during the eruption of violence in 1963.
In North Nicosia, much of the Arabahmet quarter’s well-to-do Ottoman architecture has long since sunk into a state of teetering dilapidation. Sandwiched into a wedge of the old town rubbing up against the curve of the Venetian walls to the west and the ragtag barricades of the Green Line to the south, the tall townhouses here were once home to a mix of high-up Ottoman officials and Armenian traders. The Armenian community was ousted (fleeing for the southern half of the city) in 1963, but vestiges of its tenure are easily picked out by spying crosses carved into door lintels and visiting Arabahmet’s recently restored Armenian Church, the community’s main place of worship until the separation.
Nearby, Zahra Sokak runs along the edge of the old town’s walls with vistas across the empty moat. At the end of the road, the scruffy park atop the Roccas Bastion hosts the oddest geopolitical view in town. Through the barbed-wire fencing you can peer down into Nicosia, which is in the European Union, while you – just a few metres above – are not. Weird enough to get your head around now, it’s worse when you remember that until 2003 (when crossing the Green Line was normalised) this was one of the few places where Greek and Turkish Cypriots could see and speak to each other up close.
Crossing over the Green Line back into Nicosia via the main Ledra St guard post, you’re swept into modern city life. Lined with boutiques and major European brands, this is where the action moved after the island’s division. Side streets buzz with bars and cafes, where customers spill out onto pavement seating until the wee hours, while buskers brandishing guitars and accordions crank out competing tunes. Head here for slap-up souvlaki feasting at Piatsa Gourounaki after you’re done sightseeing, then head on to Brew Fellas or Pivo Microbrewery for nightcaps.
Make it happen
Bring your passport when crossing the Green Line pedestrian checkpoints (Ledra St and Ledra Palace) between Nicosia and North Nicosia. Both are open 24 hours a day and there are no restrictions on the number of times you can cross. Non-EU passport holders wanting to explore both sides of the city should arrive on the island within the Republic of Cyprus (at either Larnaka or Pafos airports). Greek Cypriot authorities can officially disallow entry to non-EU citizens if your arrival was in the North.
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