So today we headed west to the divided capital city of Nicosia. As I have alluded to in prior blogs, Cyprus is a country divided. In 1974, Turkey invaded Cyprus and split the country into Cyprus and the occupied Turkish region of Cyprus. “Northern Cyprus” is divided from Cyprus by walls, barbed wire, checkpoints and military surveillance as well as a UN controlled neutral zone. My guide, Lenia, became a refugee in her own country when the Turks invaded and took over her town of Famagusta (which I am visiting on Saturday). Lots of resentment and hostilities towards the Turks.
Anyway, we set off around 8:30 a.m. for the one hour drive west to Nicosia. Unfortunately, I had done something to my back bending down to pick up my bag this morning so I was in a bit of pain on the drive and spent most of the trip doing what I could to try and stretch it out. As it would turn out, I was going to have to keep stretching after every time I sat down as my back kept seizing up. Once I got moving I was fine, but once I sat for a bit, my back would stiffen up again.
Despite the back issue, I was able to sit upright for the trip and as we drove Lenia presented me with a couple items she had crocheted. A small Christmas potholder and … a Christmas tree ornament. I was speechless (which most of you know is virtually impossible). It was an incredibly kind, thoughtful gift and the ornament will have a place of honour on my tree.
Now the drive to Nicosia was not particularly noteworthy … no vineyards or quaint little villages. It wasn’t until we reached the outskirts of Nicosia that Lenia pointed out the first landmark: the Latsia refugee settlement where some 40,000 displaced Cypriots were resettled from the north after the 1974 invasion. YIKES.
Anyway, by 9:45 Lenia and I were being dropped off at the Cyprus Museum (also known as the Cyprus Archaeological Museum), which is the oldest and largest archaeological museum in Cyprus. The museum houses artifacts discovered during numerous excavations on the island dating back to the 2nd century BC right through the Roman and Byzantine period.
Once I crawled out of the car and stretched for a couple minutes, I was mobile and able to make my way into the museum. (And once moving I was fine, it was the first few minutes that are the killer.).
Anyway, Lenia and I made our way through the various rooms in the museum passing ancient works of pottery, huge statutes of Apollo, Aphrodite and various Roman emperors, small figurines, coin collections, cooking utensils, including early barbecue skewers not unlike what they use today and small weapons.
The collection was absolutely amazing given that everything in the museum had been excavated in Cyprus. And I guess I should not have been so surprised given that Nicosia had been continuously inhabited for over 4,000 years!
So after we wandered through the museum we drove to the end of the street where I caught my first look at what it means to be a city divided. On top of the old Nicosia city walls was barbed wire where the Cypriot city of Nicosia ended and the occupied city of Nicosia began. It was a rather start reminder of what these folks have been through and continue to go through in this part of the world.
We continued following the old city walls before passing the Famagusta Gate (one of three original entrances into the old city of Nicosia) and eventually stopped in front of the Liberty Monument, a monument to the freedom of Cyprus, its prisoners of war and reunification of the nation. It has not been officially dedicated and will not be officially dedicated until the Turkish army leaves the occupied areas.
After visiting the monument, we walked across the street and past the remains of a Roman aqueduct (history is everywhere in this country) before entering a small residential neighborhood finally reaching the Archbishop complex, home to the Archbiship of Cyprus and the Cathedral of St. John. By the way, it was once again blazing hot.
We walked into the Cathedral of St. John, which had a VERY strict protocol. NO PICTURES. NO HATS. The keeper of the church was militant about the rules. I saw him tell a woman to take off her sun hat and shortly before that scold a man for taking pictures with his phone and ordered him to immediately delete them or he would take his phone. YIKES.
Anyway, the point of the visit was to see the church frescos, which covered the ceiling and dated to 1731. Now the frescos, while lovely, were not what I considered to be of the same quality I had seen in the Trodoos Mountains. Nice to see, but not stunning. Lots of paintings of the crucifixion of Christ and Mary’s suffering whereas the other frescos I had seen had more of a variety and were visually more impressive.
Perhaps the most unique feature of the church was the myriad of bullet holes riddling the building (like a lot of buildings in Nicosia). The entire façade of the church had been a target during the 1974 invasion. If you look closely at the picture of the church you can see the bullet holes.
We then went back to the car, drove past more of the old Nicosia gates before being dropped off in old town where we walked the old alleyways past shops and in a lot of cases, deserted buildings. Covid had been hard on the old town without tourists.
At one point, we stopped in a shop where elderly ladies were still partaking in the old tradition of making lace, which the ladies of Nicosia are famous for. Unfortunately, as the women told me, it is a dying art as young people do not care about the tradition, which requires patience and a keen eye.
We continued on through the old quarter and even passed an old mail box dating to King Edward’s reign when Cyprus was part of the British Empire. I am not sure why the mailbox has not been replaced, but it was pretty cool to see with King Edward’s insignia on the box.
Anyway, we eventually reached what is billed as the longest street in Nicosia, which is one big shopping district, but now effectively ends at the checkpoint to enter the occupied part of Nicosia. We ended up making a quick detour at the Leventis Municipal Museum of Nicosia dedicated to historical finds in the area. We did a very short walk through the museum, stopped for quick bite to eat (Lenia did not want to eat on the occupied side … no point giving the Turks her money) before we walked to the checkpoint.
Now here is where the dance began. The Turks make any Cypriot guide pay for a local to accompany them around the occupied area, but Lenia was having none of that. So she went through the checkpoint first and I followed a few minutes later where we were to meet up on the other side, a block or two from the checkpoint.
Now crossing the checkpoint turned out to be rather easy, which surprised Lenia as the lines can back up and take up to an hour. Today … less than 5 minutes. I walked up to the Cypriot checkpoint, presented my passport and then walked through the UN neutral area, a covered walkway about a block long, before reaching an identical checkpoint where I presented my passport to the Turkish guards. And just like that, I was in the occupied city of Nicosia or as the Turks call it … Turkey.
I quickly found Lenia and we were off to visit the rest of what was the old city of Nicosia. Unfortunately, two of the three most important sites were being refurbished to no enty. The first was what is now called the Bedestan, a building that was originally constructed as a church around the 6th century and expanded and rebuilt between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, dedicated to Saint Nicholas. The building was then converted to a bedestan, a type of covered market, during the period of Ottoman rule and is now used as a cultural centre.
We then walked around the completely covered Selimye Mosque aka the St. Sophia Church, which was in process of a massive restoration project, past old Cypriot homes and more kebab restaurants than I could count before arriving back at the Bedestan.
We then crossed over to the Arasta Shopping Bazaar, but I have to say that it was nothing like a true Turkish bazaar. Nothing authentic about this place, which was filled with cheap knockoffs and Chinese trinkets. The only exception was a spice and candy shop that looked similar to what I had seen in Turkey. All in all, I got the distinct impression that they were just trying too hard to recreate the Turkish atmosphere in what was most assuredly not a true Turkish bazaar.
I did spot one sign, that I found incredibly interesting. An advertisement for a show to see the “Whirling Dervish … the Dance of Cyprus”. Now this is where the relationship between the Turks and Cypriots becomes complicated. While the Whirling Dervish (a religious sect) was founded in Konya, Turkey in the 13th century, there was a dervish compound built in Nicosia in 1593 by Arab Ahmed Pasha. See what I mean by complicated. The relationship between Turks and Cypriots go back centuries and in this area of the world, history is relied up for occupation.
Anyway, from the Arasta Bazarr we doubled back down the Main Street (part of what was the longest street in Nicosia) before turning down a street to what was in my opinion, the most impressive structure on the occupied side of Nicosia, a 1572 Caravanserai (aka Buyuk Han or Big Inn), which also contained an Ottoman mesjid (prayer room) in the centre of the courtyard.
Today, the Caravanserai contains a lot of little restaurants and artisan shops and souvenir stands. Lenia took a seat in the shade while I wandered around. I ended up finding a lovely handmade Christmas ornament, which I felt a little guilty about purchasing since Lenia was so opposed to spending any money in the occupied areas, but I really wanted an ornament from “the other side”.
Anyway, after wandering around Lenia and I headed back to the border crossing, did the same dance and by 3:00 were enjoying ice cream on the Cypriot side of Nicosia. The trip had been interesting to say the least …. Tomorrow is a free day, so I plan to find a spa where I can get a massage and hopefully mend my back before we head north to Famagusta, yet another occupied city for what will be my last day in Cyprus.