LEFKOŞA (the northern half of what was, before 1974, Nicosia) is the capital city of north Cyprus. As with its southern counterpart, the old town is hemmed by Venetian walls, with the majority of Lefkoşa’s modern buildings and administrative machinery located outside the walls, and most tourist attractions to be found in the old town within the walls. Compared to the southern part of the city, Lefkoşa has noticeably less vitality, with the air more of a sleepy provincial town than a national capital. While the city feels safe, wandering in areas away from the centre is best avoided at night.
Foreign tourists usually enter from the south through the Ledra Street crossing. Once across, you’re faced with an attractively pedestrianized area packed with shops, cafés and restaurants. Clear signposts indicate where the nearest attractions lie. Beyond here the main street – Girne Caddesi – leads north to the Girne Gate, the best place to start a walking tour of North Lefkoşa. If you’re short of time, though, it’s probably worth heading straight to the Büyük Han, a beautifully renovated sixteenth-century merchants’ inn. Museums to look out for include the Mevlevî Tekke and Lapidary museums and the Dervis Paşa Mansion, each worth an hour or so of your time. Other places of interest include the Samanbahçe Quarter, an early experiment in social housing, and the dishevelled but improving Arabhmet Quarter. Religious sites include the huge Selimiye Mosque, visible north and south of the Green Line. Beside it is the ornately Gothic Bedestan, once a Christian church, now a performance venue. Other sights, among them the National Struggle Museum, the Museum of Barbarism and of course the giant flags looming on the hillside behind the city, provide uncomfortable reminders of the island’s division.
Of the various entrances into the walled city on the northern side, the Girne (Kyrenia) Gate is the best preserved, and has been used by the Venetians, the Ottomans and the British, all of whom have left inscriptions that adorn its exterior. In 1931 the British demolished parts of the wall on either side to allow traffic into the city. As a result, the gate is now stranded in the middle of a dual carriageway, with worthy statues to the north (Ataturk) and south (Dr Küçük, with adoring little girl), and an open space on all sides – Inonu Square – which now sometimes becomes the focus of political rallies and demonstrations.
Housed in a 1920s-era building, the Dr Fazil Küçük Museum, on Girne Caddesi,gives an insight into one of the key figures in Cypriot politics. Dr Küçük is held in the same respect by Turkish Cypriots as Archbishop Makarios is by Greek Cypriots, and his home and surgery have been converted into a diverting museum containing plenty of photographs and personal possessions which help to bring the man to life.
In contrast to many of the leaders of both north and south Cyprus, Dr Fazıl Küçük was an engaging, larger than life figure, a journalist and bon viveur much given to bad language, carousing with friends, and playing practical jokes. Born in Nicosia in 1906, he trained as a doctor in Turkey, Switzerland and France, returning to practise in Cyprus in 1938. As friction between Greek and Turkish Cypriots developed, he emerged as a leader of the Turkish Cypriot community, setting up his own political party, establishing the first Turkish trade union and launching a newspaper – Halkin Sesi – which is still published today. He led the Turkish Cypriot faction during talks leading up to independence, and became the first vice president of the republic. He was increasingly eclipsed by Rauf Denktaş as the intercommunal strife of the 1960s progressed, and was replaced by him as the leader of the Turkish Cypriots in 1973. He died in London in 1984. True to character, his last request was that a glass of his favourite tipple be regularly poured onto his grave.
Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktaş was born in 1924 in Pafos. He studied law in England and returned to practise as a solicitor in 1947. He quickly became involved in politics, helping to found the Turkish resistance movement the TMT during the 1950s. He rose to further prominence during the troubles that followed independence in 1960, became known for strong-arm tactics, even against fellow Turkish Cypriots with whom he disagreed, and finally replaced his mentor Dr Fazil Küçük as the leader of the Turkish Cypriots in 1973.
In 1974 he welcomed the Turkish invasion, became head of the “Turkish Federated State of Cyprus” and oversaw the foundation of the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus in 1983. His uncompromising support for a “two-state solution” (he once claimed that there were no such things as Greek and Turkish Cypriots, saying that the only true Cypriots were the island’s donkeys) made him the darling of the Turkish military and the Turkish Cypriot community and the bane of a succession of Greek Cypriot, UN and US negotiators (he became known as “Mr No” for his intransigence). However, during the early years of the twenty-first century his unchanging views began to look outdated, with Turkish Cypriots in the north becoming increasingly frustrated by their isolation from the rest of the world, a situation only exacerbated by the republic’s accession to the European Union. Even Turkey began to find his inflexible views difficult as the north started to experience serious economic problems, and as Turkey began to nurture their own hopes of joining the EU. Though Denktaş reluctantly presided over the easing of restrictions on crossing the Green Line, he looked more and more out of touch, and finally left politics in 2005. He died in January 2012.
Just south of the Girne Gate on Girne Caddesi is the Mevlevî Tekke Museum, devoted to the Muslim sect widely known as the Whirling Dervishes and housed in what is left of a seventeenth-century dervish monastery. The Mevlevî Order was founded in Konya in Turkey by the Mevlana Jelal al-Din Rumi (1207–1273) and quickly spread through Asia Minor. Central to their beliefs was the sema – the characteristic whirling dance, thought to achieve a transcendental forgetting of the self and communion with God, a process that UNESCO has declared to be a “masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity”. The museum depicts the sema in its central hall where a set of mannequins in traditional dress are frozen in time spinning to a mannequin band above. Beyond here are the tombs of past Mevlevî Sheiks, archive photographs, prayer beads and other ephemera as well as a few gnomic quotations that give you pause for thought: “A stingy Vizier is forced to pay a high price to a poor potter” or “The candle Mevlana lights is smaller, but keeps burning long after the others have melted away”. One sums up the whole point of the dervishes – “Mevlana whirls in humble reverence”.
South of Ataturk Square, and north of the pedestrianized shopping streets that greet you on passing through the Lokmaci Gate (that is, the Ledra Street crossing from the south), is an area of busy traffic and impressive buildings, survivals from the city’s Byzantine, Lusignan and Ottoman past which have seen many changes of function over the years.
It’s easy to identify the Büyük Hammam (Great Baths) – it’s a fine stone building that looks as if it has sunk into the ground (whereas, of course, it’s the ground that has risen up from its original medieval level as successive layers of building have taken place). The baths were converted by the Ottomans from a Lusignan church, St George of the Latins, whose front portal is still the main entrance, and is approached down one of two flights of stone steps. After a period of closure it’s now thoroughly restored and fully operational. Not cheap, but an intriguing experience.
A minute's walk east of the Büyük Hammam is the Kumarkilar Han, or “Gamblers’ Inn”. Also called “The inn for merchants using donkeys” and “the inn for travelling musicians”, the Kumarkilar Han, until recently in a sad state of neglect, is now approaching full renovation, though still boarded off in parts and surrounded by rubble. Built around 1700, with 44 of its original 56 rooms surviving, its likely use after renovation is not clear – proposals that it become a casino have been rejected, while other suggested uses have been (in keeping with its original function) as a hotel, or as a mixed shopping and restaurant attraction.
The Büyük Han (Great Inn) is a graceful and harmonious building which is somehow more affecting because it was built not to glorify God or the power of princes, but as practical lodgings for traders and merchants. Appropriately, this is not a frozen-in-time relic, but a vibrant collection of shops, restaurants and small businesses that do its origins proud. It was built on the orders of the first Ottoman governor general of Cyprus, Mustafa Paşa, in 1572, just after the conquest. Used by the British as a prison, and later to house destitute families, it was sensitively restored between 1992 and 2002.
The two-storey building consists of 68 rooms on two vaulted galleries looking onto a courtyard, and ten shops which open outwards to the street. In the centre of the courtyard a mesjid (miniature mosque) stands on columns under which is a sadirvan (fountain), used for ritual ablutions. There are two entrance gates to the east (the main one) and west, and inside the courtyard stone stairways lead to the upper floor (once used for accommodation and now housing, among other things, the “Traditional Cyprus Turkish Shadow Theatre”, a sort of Middle Eastern Punch and Judy featuring its main character, “Karagoz”). The courtyard of the Büyük Han is an ideal place to sit in the shade, have a drink or a meal and, on Tuesday or Friday evenings, listen to live music.
From the Shacolas Tower in Lefkosia or the Saray Hotel in Lefkoşa (and indeed, from any other vantage point which has a clear view north) you can’t help but see two enormous flags on the nearest south-facing hillside. One represents the TRNC (red crescent and star on a white background with red bar above and below), the other Turkey (white crescent and star on red background). The story behind them is rather dispiriting for those who would like to see the island reunited. Officially created to honour the great Turkish leader Ataturk (the slogan below the Turkish flag – “How happy is he who can say he is a Turk” – is attributed to him), the position of the flags seems to indicate that this explanation is disingenuous. A more believable version says that the Turks created the flags by painting boulders at night, turning them face down during the day then, on the eve of August 15, a national holiday in the Greek Cypriot calendar but also the anniversary of the 1974 Tochni massacre of Turkish Cypriots, turned them face up so that they could be seen in the south. In other words, a taunt or a memorial, depending on your point of view.