Nicosia is the last divided capital. A city cut in two by intransigence and political jockeying. For 40 years it was literally impossible to cross the Green Line, the border of conflict established by the Brits in 1963. No passage existed between these two parts of the city and relatives could see each other at only one bastion of the fortified wall that completely surrounds the city since medieval times. About 10 years ago a numbers of passages were opened and people stream across the border from both side treating each other with civility. But the border stay enforced by Turkish forces that refuse to leave in an island that was received in the EU as a whole. Cyprus political status may sound confusing. The south is the Republic of Cyprus recognized by entire world as the only ruling entity of the island. On the north is a self declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), established at the invasion of July 20, 1974 that got its first civil government in 1983, recognized only by Turkey. From the European Union point of view the entire island is part of the EU with funds allocated for development for both South and North. However, because the TRNC government is not recognized the funds for the North are withheld till times will change. The TRNC citizens who were inhabitants of the island at the time of the partition carry EU passports but none of the newcomers from Turkey, Middle East and Central Asia who settled there with the Turkey’s blessing increasing the number of Muslim population and with it changing the proportion between Christians and Muslims.
Walking around the border on either side but mainly on the Greek side is an eerie experience. Imploded buildings have renovated facades with impeccable painted storage doors; behind, there are no roofs. Right near it a checkpoint with large “No Photo” signs shows behind the devastation from the riots that happened more than 50 years ago, everything covered in weeds and barbed wire. Collapsed building everywhere. Machine gun holes lets you peek to the other side among the rubble where soldiers once standing there created. At Ledra checkpoint a wall of sandbags and barrels sit right near the tables of a trendy café where people sip their frapes. If it were not for the guard who could be seen in the watchtower nearby you may think that this was a show for the tourists.
The lack of funds is obvious when you cross into North Nicosia. You feel that times stopped in a city that is full of men roaming the streets like in the Northern Africa. Even the physiognomy of people is slightly different many having a darker complexion and dressed obviously less affluent than their southerner counterparts. One of the things that stroke me was the fact that all these men are in restaurants drinking beer while the ones in the South are mainly in coffee places around frapes, Greek Coffee and more recently Starbucks and Gloria Jean’s. While the streets look definitely poorer not the same you can tell about the monuments that are well maintained and extremely well marked and directed, way better that in the Southern part.
The striking Selimiye Mosque, the two-minaret-mosque visible and audible from the South was converted spectacularly by the Ottomans in 1500s from the city cathedral Agia Sophia. It was the first converted Gothic cathedral I saw and the interior is striking. The huge Gothic structure built like any other cathedral of the West was striped of any statues, symbols and crosses on its façade. Inside the entire nave covered in dark red rugs is painted white, the stained glass windows being replaced by lattices that let the draft come in in the sultry summer days. Its bare and in a way unexpected interior slightly resembles Oude Kerk in Amsterdam. The south has also an Augustine Monastery converted during the Ottoman rule that houses now Omeriye Mosque.
Large and small caravanserai, hammams built in old churches, oriental bazaar, a dervish museum, bastions and large squares devoid of the life that you see in the South complete a tour in a city side that tries to cope with its identity. The rest of many buildings sit in disrepair, empty stores, fallen walls, men mulling the street purposeless. And everywhere you hear the call for the prayers in a way more tolerant form of Islam than the one mediated nowadays in the news. In all mosques are displayed quotes in English from Quran stating the deep respect for all prophets of various religions that came before Mohamed. All this under the watchful eyes of a large border police that stamps your passports when you go in and out. When we got back on the Ledra Street at the Greek checkpoint they waved us through just by saying that we are Americans. We crossed back into Europe.