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Owen Hatherley’s Eurovisionaries: Nicosia

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The capital of Cyprus is divided between the Republic of Cyprus in the south and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, and is the only place you can cross the EU border within one city

As the minibus makes its way across a long, wide, clean motorway to the capital of the Republic of Cyprus, two unexpected things become apparent. One of them is the fact that, just as if you were on the M1, everyone is driving on the left-hand side. The other suddenly flashes up at you, as its lights twinkle on and off: an enormous illuminated Turkish flag, on a mountain. These two contributions by occupying powers, encountered as you glide along a very smooth and modern piece of infrastructure, are a good introduction to Nicosia. ‘The last divided capital city in Europe’ only if you don’t count Belfast as a capital city (which it is, of Northern Ireland), Nicosia has been sliced in two by the UN-monitored Green Line since 1974. Accordingly, it is one of the places where the EU ends and something else begins.

Geographically, it’s disputable whether the island of Cyprus is even in Europe, lying closer to Damascus and Beirut than Athens and Istanbul. However, the Republic of Cyprus – not including occupied North Cyprus, recognised only by Turkey – is not just in the EU but in the Eurozone, and was one of the first countries to be bailed out in the financial crisis. Only in Nicosia can you cross the EU border within one city.

Nicosia vernacular in centre

South Nicosia city centre

Source: Owen Hatherley

South Nicosia city centre

Even by 20th-century standards, recent history in Nicosia (Lefkosia to Greeks, Lefkoşa to Turks) is complex. Occupied by, chronologically, French Crusaders, Venetians, Ottomans and the British Empire, mostly Greek with a large Turkish minority, it was heavily repressed by the British, especially after an uprising in 1931. In the 50s this came to a head, with an armed campaign to join with Greece following an unrecognised referendum. Reluctantly, the UK pulled out, keeping two very large bases, but left its car-driving habits, electrical plugs and a toxic legacy of imperial divide-and-rule. A non-aligned government under Orthodox archbishop Makarios III dealt not altogether impartially with both Greek and Turkish paramilitaries (both with a tendency to assassinate members of the only non-confessional political organisation, the Communists of AKEL, Cyprus’s largest party since the war), until in 1974 Greek far-rightists mounted a coup with at least tacit support from the US. This was swiftly followed by a Turkish invasion and mutual ethnic cleansing. Makarios returned to power when the coup collapsed, but Turkish troops never withdrew, a stalemate that was reinforced when Greek Cypriots rejected power-sharing in a 2004 referendum. There is talk of another referendum soon, but everyone I spoke to expects the division to be final. Since the 50s, one of the main dividing lines has been within the capital itself, a line that became fully militarised in 1974.

Nicosia is as pleasant a city as has ever been crossed by a line of barbed wire and machine guns

This is the sort of bloody post-imperial history you’d expect in the countries further inland, which makes it perhaps surprising that Nicosia comes across very much as an affluent, relaxed, ‘normal’ city, in both halves – but for the scar that runs right across it. Although local architects inform me that Limassol is where the money and the new building is mostly to be found, Nicosia is as pleasant a city as has ever been crossed by a line of barbed wire and machine guns – handsome, small-scale, modern. The nearest thing to a centre is Eleftheria Square, which is currently undergoing heavy engineering in order to remould it to a design by Zaha Hadid. The resultant building site stood as a symbol of the financial crisis here, a crash so sudden and sharp the AKEL government was forced to raid private bank accounts. It marks roughly the start of the perfectly round, planned, walled city built by the Venetians, of which mostly only the walls and a few churches survive. The Zaha scheme, for a landscaped, multi-level sunken square with much parametric billowing and swooping, is actually now being carried out, albeit slowly; you can peek into it from a temporary bridge, alongside the Neoclassical town hall.

Nicosia FCBS and Nouvel

Nicosia FCBS and Nouvel

Source: Owen Hatherley

AC Leventis Apartments and Art Gallery by Feilden Clegg Bradley and Tower 25 by Jean Nouvel

Two recent towers look over it, both of them expensive and high quality. One of them, the AG Leventis Apartments and Art Gallery by Feilden Clegg Bradley, is a less controversial British contribution to the city than, for instance, the Anglo-Levantine style of the Government House, designed by Maurice Webb, architect of Kingston Guildhall, which still has the imperial coat of arms on the facade. Feilden Clegg Bradley’s tower is clad in the local limestone, which you soon notice is one of the best things about the city’s architecture. Heavily rectilinear and angular, after you walk around for a while you realise it’s the local interwar Modernist vernacular extruded upwards; simple and confident. The function – luxury flats and an oligarch art gallery – is given a very swish finish.

As monuments to avarice go, Nouvel and Feilden Clegg Bradley’s towers are of a good standard

Jean Nouvel’s Tower 25 is similarly ‘inspired’ by the city’s texture, with the idea for the perforated, thick concrete curved side-walls taken from the bulging buttressing of the Venetian walls. These enclose 17 storeys of luxury flats and offices, in the city’s tallest building. It has been criticised for the gleaming white paint job, when concrete would actually fit better with the local stone, but it is sensitive by the standards of Nouvel’s recent work (as Londoners could attest). Both buildings were finished just before the bubble inflated by Cyprus’s ‘relaxed’ financial services industry burst, and as monuments to avarice go, they’re of a good standard.

Morality and architecture part company elsewhere, given that the most interesting architecture in central Nicosia is actually from the colonial interwar years, when British occupiers wouldn’t even allow Cyprus a university, lest it sow sedition. There are streets after streets of small houses and apartment buildings, with delicate Moderne details in honeyed limestone, metal screens and decorative doors; sometimes sleek and streamlined, sometimes 20s Neoclassical, sometimes Ottoman vernacular with cantilevered wooden bays, but all of it bright, imaginative and mostly in good repair.

Walking these streets is a great pleasure – cafés, junk shops and repair stores with only one central strip of international chains. Neoclassical civic structures and religious buildings from various denominations – Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Catholic, Sunni Muslim – are scattered around the squares, with small gardens around them. The Renaissance gateways of the Venetian walls lead to what ought to be a continuous public space but is more often a series of sunken car parks, although you can suddenly find yourself on a raised park, with oranges falling and rotting from the trees around you, and a view of mid-rise apartment blocks stepping off towards the mountains, with offices and low-rise factories along the ring road. As you go deeper into the city you find that increasingly the houses are boarded-up, and that just beyond them is piled-up rubble and barbed wire.

As you go deeper into the city, the houses are increasingly boarded-up, and beyond them is rubble and barbed wire

On the main shopping zone along Ledra Street, you can find an explanation. Amid the parade of fine Classical, Moderne and post-war Modernist department stores is, of all things, a multi-storey Debenhams, leading upwards to a public viewing platform. This is the Shacolas Tower, a simple high-rise, which was opened in the mid-1990s but looks a few decades older. For a long time, this was the only way to see over the other side to North Nicosia, on the 10th storey, where you could survey the minarets and towers of the capital of the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, and see where that flashing Turkish flag comes from (it’s draped across the mountain that overlooks the city, and features the words: How fortunate is the person who can say ‘I’m a Turk’). It officially commemorates Turkish Cypriots massacred in a nearby village in 1974, but nobody in their right mind thinks it’s anything other than a daily provocation. In fact, it feels a great deal more aggressive than the actual main border crossing in Ledra Street – at least, for the EU citizens and Turkish Cypriots who are allowed to cross it, which excludes many people in North Cyprus.

The Green Line barrier, as seen on the south side of Nicosia

The Green Line barrier, as seen on the south side of Nicosia

Source: Owen Hatherley

The Green Line barrier, as seen on the south side of Nicosia

There are few transitions quite so sharp as the way this ordinary and very attractive street suddenly becomes a militarised border. Sandbags, armed guards, barbed wire, concrete and steel walls can all be found around it, making sure you don’t wander off the main drag. But the Ledra Street crossing itself looks almost flimsy, comprising booths with passport control staff and a small fence, though one suspects that someone trying to run through it would be dealt with quickly. Once past that and into North Nicosia, the first thing you notice is the much more aggressive commerce – lots and lots of shops selling tax-free goods to wealthier tourists coming from the other side, which immediately makes you realise how signage and advertisements in South Nicosia have an almost Dutch level of order and politeness. Beyond that, it soon becomes obvious that you’re in exactly the same city. The Art Deco limestone blocks of the 30s, with their sweeping curves, the Ottoman houses painted white with their wooden projections, they’re all there, just a fair bit more dilapidated, and the population visibly poorer. But around the cafés, and in the central Atatürk Square, around a Venetian column, men and women sit around and chat and bicker exactly as they do on the other side of the wall.

Some wag of a kebab shop owner on the south side of the border has called his stall by the Green Line ‘Berlin Wall’. Much as poorer East Berlin included the actual city centre around Unter den Linden and Museumsinsel, the obvious civic and historic heart of the city lies in North Nicosia, around the Selimiye Mosque, the municipal market and the Büyük Han, the largest and most impressive buildings within the city walls. The mosque’s limestone minarets are a monument in most of the city, especially in the view from the Shacolas Tower, but on the ground, you realise that they’re additions to a French Gothic cathedral, built by the French Lusignan kings in the 13th century, and recognisable as such with its delicate tracery and tall arches. Inside, the structure is still visible, but has been made clear and bright through whitewash. After the Ottoman conquest in the 15th century, minarets were added in the same stone as the bulk of the cathedral, in the place reserved for unbuilt Gothic towers.

Nicosia OH Selimiye Mosque

Nicosia OH Selimiye Mosque

Source: Owen Hatherley

Selimiye Mosque

The disjunction between the two styles is obvious. They really do look like two very different forms of architecture bolted together, whereas Byzantine and Ottoman buildings tend to complement each other. The minarets’ tapering cylinders and the mosque’s filed-flat skyline are a strange fit, and stranger too at the smaller Haydar Pasha Mosque, where typically Gothic figures of dragons stand over the entrance to a high-windowed flamboyant church/mosque with a single minaret.

The Büyük Han and the municipal market are much less uneasy structures. The latter is a delightful two-level inn, with delicate arched galleries around a central dome, designed by Ottoman architects in the late 16th century, close in style to a Renaissance square, only enclosed. The market, meanwhile, is British iron and glass – an Edwardian arcade on the Med. It stands right next to the Green Line, so that if you take the wrong entrance out, you’re at a dead end of barbed wire and signs reminding you that men with machine guns are watching. 

Nicosia Airport is in the Green Line, untouched since 1974, so the way out is by Larnaca Airport, where a Modernist ceramic relief has been taken from the derelict airport and remounted there as a marker, until the Republic of Cyprus gets its airport back. On the day I was left Larnaca Airport, ‘WHO WILL SPEAK FOR BRITAIN?’ was yelling at passengers from the cover of the Daily Mail. It referred to the apparently poor deal Britain was receiving from the EU, but here it was, in an EU country with a very large quantity of British migrants. I wonder what elegant, pleasant, but inescapably depressing divided Nicosia might say if it got to speak of Britain.


  • Nicosia population 116,000 (North 61,000; South 55,000)
  • Mayor of Nicosia Municipality Constantinos Yiorkadjis (independent)
  • Mayor of Nicosia Turkish Municipality Mehmet Harmancı (TDP)

Republic of Cyprus

  • Date entered EU 2004
  • Currency Euro
  • Population 1.1 million
  • GDP $27.5 billion
  • National debt (percentage of GDP) 112%
  • Unemployment rate 15.6%
  • Life expectancy 79.6 years
  • Political leader president Nicos Anastasiades (Democratic Rally)

Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus

  • Currency Turkish lira
  • Population 314,000
  • GDP $4.27 billion
  • National debt (percentage of GDP) 150%
  • Unemployment rate 8.3%
  • Life expectancy 75 years
  • Political leader president Mustafa Akıncı (Communal Democracy Party)

Data source: Wikipedia

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