A City Divided: Nicosia, Cyprus

Evidence of a culture gap: barbed-wire barricade near Greek Orthodox church, Nicosia.
  • Evidence of a culture gap: barbed-wire barricade near Greek Orthodox church, Nicosia.

Dusk. Empty street. Barbed wire. Bombed-out buildings. These are my first memories of Nicosia, Cyprus.

Cassie and I came to Cyprus for the week of Kurban Bayramı, a religious holiday. We were both English teachers in Turkey and had the week off.

The island of Cyprus is currently split between Greek and Turkish “authority.” Because of past conflict and present hostilities, the area between is controlled by the U.N. We arrived in the Northern Cyprus city of Lefkosha, and made our way to Nicosia. It is the only current divided capital in the world.

It was a chilly November evening, and few tourists were passing through. All we could hear was the sound of our footsteps. It seemed forlorn, and we felt guilty for speaking above a whisper.

We entered passport control from Northern Cyprus. They didn’t stamp our passport (as they’re not recognized as an official country). They asked us to write our name on paper, and then they signed and stamped that.

We continued through the buffer zone. Suddenly, the call to prayer radiated through the air. A moment later, church bells chimed. Not in many places can you experience the distinct sounds of two religions, two cultures, in stark contrast with one another.

There were “no photos” signs everywhere. Brick structures that had been hit by bombs lay in ruins surrounded by barbed wire. A large old rundown hotel is still in operation, presumably for U.N. workers. The only sign of life seemed to come from a closed bakery fittingly called “House of Co-Operation.”

Eventually, we made it to civilization. Hotels were expensive, so we chose an alternative lodging source: Couchsurfing. We met up with our hosts, a guy from Holland and another guy from France. Both were professionals working in the city.

They took us to a small restaurant in the old part of Nicosia. Like so many other ancient cities, the old Nicosia has curved cobblestone streets. A plump older woman greeted and seated us. Art immortalizing the culture hung on walls illuminated by candles in blue mosaic holders. Over wine and mezzes, complemented by traditional Greek folk songs, the lute and pithiavli, we exchanged various travel stories.

The next morning, Cassie and I strolled through the old town. It had a different feeling during the day: one that imbued a history of bloodshed, but also carried a pleading hope for potential.

We walked through the abandoned areas, contemplating how it may look in a few years once investors get wind of how beautiful it could be. On one street, we saw two old ladies meet by a restored house, probably to discuss the latest neighborhood gossip. They looked at us with curious indifference.

Somehow, I know that somewhere in this town, among its ruins, there is a secret garden. That mysterious feeling sums up Nicosia. Don’t take my word for it. Hop on a plane and go.

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