Nicosia, Cyprus: A Journey Through the World’s Last Divided Capital

Nicosia, Cyprus: A Journey Through the World’s Last Divided Capital

Part European, part Middle Eastern; part Greek, part Turkish, Cyprus’s capital is scarred by half a century political and ethnic division. Yet amid stop-start peace talks, we venture across the Green Line and find that there’s more that unites these two communities than separates them.

have always found Nicosia, with its boisterous cafés and
lively squares, to have the most eventful mornings in all of
Cyprus. In gardens across the ancient walled city, mandarin trees
heave under the warm, sharp light of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Shopkeepers throw open their doors to the steady hum of locals as
church bells toll the time for breakfast. In the northern distance,
the minarets of mosques peek over military barricades and
checkpoints, over the infamous Green Line that now defines the
world’s last divided capital.

The island of Cyprus has reluctantly held this distinction for
over 45 years. The southeasternmost member of the European Union,
Cyprus and its capital have been partitioned since 1974, when a
Turkish invasion split the island and separated its two ethnic
majorities. Greek-Cypriots have since been allotted the south of
the island while Turkish-Cypriots remain in the Turkish Republic of
Northern Cyprus, recognised as an independent state by
alone. The two communities are divided by a UN-patrolled
buffer zone that spans the country lengthwise from east to west,
severing miles of sun-bleached hills (and the occasional hamlet)
that would otherwise stretch uninterrupted to the sea.

Today, Nicosia remains a patchwork town, a rare cultural
experiment on an island accustomed to slow living. Yet it is often
overlooked by tourists who favour the island’s less complicated,
more scenic offerings: the bay of Kyrenia and the Blue Lagoon; the
seaside promenades and turquoise harbours of Limassol and Protaras;
Greco-Roman ruins in fig and olive groves; stone-walled villages on
lush mountaintops. As a native to the port town of Larnaca on the
southern coast, I understand the irresistible, often romantic tug
of the sea (Aphrodite herself was born off the rocky coast of
Paphos, as the legend goes). But farther from the beach, the life
force of the country pulses inland towards the capital. It is the
heart of a modernising nation that no longer lingers on the lure of
its antiquity, and is far more than just the casualty of an ongoing

South of the Green Line, Greek-Cypriots are often found among
the bustle of Nicosia’s Old Town. The tangle of historic buildings,
weather-beaten to a pale yellow by centuries of scorching sun, now
houses some of the country’s most accomplished restaurants. Outdoor
cafés and wine bars (stocked with bottles sourced from the vines of
Omodos, Arsos, Inia) are scattered among contemporary art galleries
and fashion megachains; a reminder of our proximity to continental
Europe. Here, days begin and end in the taverna. At local
favourites such as Piatsa Gourounaki (Piazza of the
Little Pig), tables are piled high with seared halloumi and
herb-stuffed meats while grill-smoke gathers under the palms. Just
steps away, at Mousiko Kafenio (Musical Café), friends meet to
dribble water in their ouzos, downing one after the other to the
sound of the mandolin. When the last of the tzatziki is devoured,
well-heeled crowds amble towards newly restored Eleftheria
(Liberty) Square, the last work of architect Zaha Hadid.

One day, I meet my Aunt Anna for coffee in the Old Town on Ledra
Street, the area’s busiest pedestrian walkway. Ledra Street winds
through the two halves of the city and is home to one of several
checkpoints that allow access to North Nicosia. We meet at Giagia
Victoria, a café with the homely charm of my grandmother’s kitchen
but whose eastern courtyard is comprised of the barrels and barbed
wire fence of the border – a fitting illustration of how Cypriots
make the most with what’s at hand. Around the corner, the
checkpoint protrudes ahead of us like a thorn, absurd and
blistering among the brunching families and flower-rimmed balconies
of Ledras. Astoundingly, the border was impenetrable to Cypriots
until it was partially opened in 2004, after years of bitter
dispute. Now, my aunt and I sit and watch locals cross on foot with
passports at the ready.

“For Cypriots, crossing the border is now taken as a matter of
course,” says Anna who, like the rest of my father’s side of the
family, lost her home during the war and now lives in Larnaca. She
is part of an estimated 250,000 refugees who were displaced during
the invasion. “There was a strong reluctance to cross at first
because seeing the homes and villages we lost was too devastating.
But we are getting used to it now, and we go to the other side and
we speak to each other.” Anna sometimes browses the northern
markets for textiles and has made friends with shopkeepers, many of
whom speak a bit of
and always look happy to see her. “Now being able to
spend time on the other side has eased the fear of what lies beyond
the divide, and Nicosia is the more cheerful for it,” she adds.

Today, locals are crossing to see more than what was left behind
years ago. Monastic grandmothers go north to light candles in the
Apostolos Andreas Monastery, one
of the North’s few remaining Greek Orthodox churches, with handbags
full of cheese and olive pies for the journey. Turkish-Cypriots
make the pilgrimage south to the mosques of Hala Sultan Tekke, the third
most important holy site in Islam, after Mecca in Saudi Arabia and
Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem.

As my aunt and I cross to the Turkish-Cypriot side, the wide
road narrows towards covered bazaars and beautifully aged
buildings, seemingly untouched since they were first built by
empires past – the British and the Ottomans before them, all the
way back to the Venetians and French Lusignans. An air of decay
hovers over rundown grocery stores and uneven pavements. Past a few
cafés where sun-drunk cats hunt for shade, markets unfold in a haze
of dust and colours, cluttered and inviting, like the inside of a
trunk of toys. As we walk, the road narrows further as labyrinths
of thinner alleyways splinter from its core – a world apart from
the sprawling commercial centres and high rises of the south.

The cobbles eventually pass the markets of Büyük Han (Great
Inn), where local artisans greet shoppers with handcrafted goods
and rosewater pastries. The Han is still one of the main
establishments where Greek and Turkish-Cypriots rub shoulders
regularly, shouting over each other like large families over a
roast dinner. In the distance, the call to prayer sounds from the
Selimiye Mosque, formerly the Cathedral of Saint Sophia. Beyond its
gates, shoppers idle towards food markets to scoop up cumin,
cinnamon and mint that will later become piping hot plates of köfte
or moussaka.

The Han began life in 1572 as a lodging for traders and
merchants, and today it houses boutiques, restaurants, cafés and a
bookshop. The two-storied fortress is imposing yet warm, with
honey-coloured walls of layered stone portioned into 68 rooms, each
adorned with low-arched porticos framed in crimson bougainvillea.
Once the Inn’s bedrooms, the renovated shops look onto a courtyard
where an Islamic prayer room stands on six marbled pillars with an
ablutions fountain at its centre. Overhead, enormous white sails
are draped from buttresses for shade, glimmering golden-orange in
the afternoon sun.

Outside of the bookshop, we meet Erkan, a Turkish-Cypriot
teacher who lives near the Han and pops in for a coffee and a chat
on weekends. “The opening of the border has made the city better,”
he tells me as we discuss our governments’ ongoing efforts to find
a permanent solution to the border situation. Some citizens are
even calling for the reunification of the island. “We are the two
sides of the same coin. Peace talks stop and start, but the
residents of Nicosia want the same thing: to live peacefully and
enjoy our island. We don’t want to go back to closed borders.”

As night falls, we head back through the checkpoint to a cosy
taverna on the
side of Ledras for more wine and grilled octopus. It is
in such places that evenings always feel the warmest in Cyprus,
places where generations of a family gather for hours over an
enormous meal. On the radio, old folk songs praise the hidden
footpaths and moonlit bays of home. We think of what Erkan said and
decide we very much agree. The way forward for Nicosia, and for
Cyprus as a whole, will be paved by its inhabitants, both of Greek
and Turkish descent.

Far from a towering border wall, what divides Nicosia now is
nothing more than a crumbling fence of barbed wire. On both sides
of the Green Line, unhurried mornings unfold much the same: capped
old men sit for the first coffee of the day, unfurling their
newspapers and grimacing. Children kick their footballs back and
forth under the same vast, cloudless sky. The city may take its
influence from different mainlands, but it doesn’t quite mirror
either – not quite European, not quite Middle Eastern, but instead
a shared place between.

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