The city of Lefkosia (still widely called Nicosia by locals, on signposts and on maps) is by far the largest settlement on Cyprus, though by international standards it is still pretty small, with a total population of little more than 250,000. Until 1974 Nicosia was the capital of the unified island; now the southern half, Lefkosia, forms the capital of the republic while the northern half, known as Lefkoşa is the capital of the Turkish occupied, self-styled TRNC – when the Berlin Wall fell, Nicosia became the last divided capital in the world.
A political and financial centre, not just for the republic and the Eastern Mediterranean, but for the whole of the Middle East, Lefkosia is less dependent on tourism than anywhere else on the island. Yet there is still a great deal to see and do in the southern, republic-controlled half of the city. Within the forbidding Venetian Walls of the old city are the excellent Cyprus Museum, the Leventis City Museum, as well as the Shacolas Tower which offers unparalleled views to the north. You’ll also find some of Cyprus’s best restaurants and its most sophisticated shopping. Much of interest also exists in the newer parts of the city and beyond – especially the Police and Coinage museums and the Cyprus Handicrafts Centre in the suburbs, and the ancient city of Tamassos, a short drive to the south.
While the capital remains divided, the opening of checkpoints between the republic and the occupied north (the most accessible being Ledra Street) enables you to sample two cultures in a single day. The division is still “in your face”, particularly in the derelict areas of the Buffer Zone, and a journey between south and north offers you a real perspective on the Cyprus Problem. For coverage of the Turkish-controlled northern half of the city, as well as other areas of north Cyprus within striking distance of Lefkosia.
Thought to have originated in a small town (Ledra) established by Lefkonas, son of Ptolemy I in 300 BC, Nicosia grew significantly under the Byzantines. Its inland position, protected by the island’s two main mountain ranges, kept it safe from attack from the sea, and well placed for the political and religious administration of the country. The Lusignans fortified the city and it was under them that Nicosia experienced a “golden age” during which numerous palaces, churches and monasteries were built. This has left an impressive, if patchy, legacy of Gothic Crusader remains. Lusignan prosperity, however, ended with a series of attacks – by the Genoese in 1372 and the Mamelukes in 1426, and finally, after the Venetians had hastily thrown up the massive walls you see today, by the Ottomans who sacked the city in 1570. There then followed a period of three centuries when, although the population were better off financially than they had been under the Venetians, the city settled into a kind of quiet decrepitude, interspersed with bouts of extreme violence – in 1764 Turkish riots against rule from Constantinople led to the death of a particularly hated governor; in 1821 the authorities indulged in mass executions of leading Greek citizens to discourage support for the Greek War of Independence.
In 1870 the British took over the island and continued with Lefkosia as capital. It was during their watch that the city finally burst out of the Venetian battlements, especially after World War II when colonial administrative offices moved outside the walls. During the fight for independence the city’s Pancyprian Gymnasium was a hotbed of EOKA involvement and sympathy among teachers and students. While the fight against the British intensified, intercommunal violence built up to such an extent that even before the Turkish invasion of 1974, de facto partition was well under way, with the north of the city becoming mainly Turkish, the south mainly Greek. In 1963 the British bowed to the inevitable and made the division official – a line (in green pencil, hence the name) was drawn on the map of the city, dividing it into Greek and Turkish areas. The 1974 invasion simply confirmed the division and caused an influx of refugees from the north. As a result, there was extensive further development of the area outside the walls to house displaced Greek Cypriots.
Over the years various practical initiatives have tried to cope with the fact that the city is split in half. In 1979 a joint sewerage plan was drawn up, followed in the 1980s by the Lefkosia Master Plan, promoted by both the UN and the EU, under which planners from both sides have started to cooperate on such things as renovating buildings along the Green Line and pedestrianizing streets in the city centre. Much of this is based on the assumption of the eventual reunification of the city; and the opening of the Ledra Street crossing in 2008 has gone at least some way towards achieving this.