Within the old city walls of Lefkosa, the present day capital of Northern Cyprus, many civilisations have left their indelible footprints
Among others, Lusignan, Venetian, Ottoman and British influences can be found here, often within metres of one another. Archaeological finds have shown that modern Nicosia was inhabited as far back as 500BC and it has been the capital of Cyprus since the 10th century. The city is believed to be built upon the ancient settlement of Ledra, which was likely to have been a settlement of little importance until foreign raids in the 7th and 8th centuries AD led the local population to move inland, away from embattled coastal cities. Over the centuries the city and island has had many rulers. The Ptolemy, Romans, Byzantines, Franks, Venetians, Ottoman, British and Cypriots have governed the island from this city, and each has left its mark. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Lefkosa (Nicosia in Greek) remains Europe’s only divided city, with a border between the Turkish Cypriot and Greek parts of Cyprus. Holders of EU passports are nowadays free to cross the border and witness the stark contrast between the two countries.
With such a long and tumultuous history, it should come as no surprise that evidence of the past is everywhere you go. From churches to mosques, from imposing fortifications to packed museums, the past co-exists with modern daily life in this bustling city. The overwhelming impression left by Lefkosa is of a place from the middle ages. The city, which has witnessed the passing of several civilizations, auspicious events and great people, has succeeded in bringing the past into the present and has been host to Lusignan royalty, noble Venetian merchants, and grand Ottoman families. The pride of Lefkosa's great restored ancient buildings is the heart of the capital. The St. Sofia Cathedral is where Lusignan kings were crowned and was later converted to a mosque. It was here that the conqueror of Cyprus, Lala Mustafa Pasha, first performed the Friday prayers after conquest. The Arabahmet district is the area where the Ottoman elites had their mansions, whilst nearby Samanbahce is a unique neighbourhood with very defined geometric narrow roads and single storey mud-brick houses with red tile roofs.
Take a walk through the old walled city starting at the Girne Gate. Along the signposted route, take in the Girne Gate, The Mevlevi Tekke, the Venetian column, Arasta Street, the Buyuk Han, the Bedesten and the Selimiye Mosque for an introduction to the city.
Main places to visit
Originally built as the Agia Sofia Cathedral, construction of this monumental piece of architecture commenced around the 12th century. Work was continually delayed due to various factors, not least the sheer scale of the place, and although the cathedral was officially opened in the early 1300s, it was still many years before it was completed. When Lefkosa came under Ottoman rule in the late 1500s, the cathedral was turned into a mosque, with the removal of many frescos and the impressive stained glass depicting the testaments. At this time, minarets were added to the structure. The building remains a substantial and impressive piece of architectural history.
This rectangular Mosque, built in 1904, was constructed from cut stones on the site of a smaller mosque, dating from 1895. On the southern wall, opposite the doorway, is a mihrab (a niche in the wall that faces Mecca) nearby is a wooden mimbar (Pulpit).
The ‘Great Inn’ is the most important ottoman Period building in Lefkosa. Now beautifully restored, it is a magnificent example of a han, a travellers inn, where the sleeping quarters and stables of history have now been turned over to the artists and craftsmen of today to exhibit traditional and modern Cyprus Culture. However, it is not only arts and crafts; you can also taste wonderful examples of traditional Cypriot cuisine here and relax over a coffee or a cold drink.
The museum is dedicated to the Whirling Dervishes and offers a fascinating insight into this famous, but little known religious sect. Located close to Girne Gate, it houses various costumes, displays, religious and day-to-day artefacts and plenty of information. The sema, the religious dance, was said to lead to a way of forgetting the self and becoming one with God.
St. Nicholas Church (Bedestan) served as the main market in Lefkosa. It has now been restored as a preserved building and is worth a visit. Opposite the church is the entrance to the Bandabuliya (covered market). Although of little architectural merit, the market is certainly worth a visit. Here your senses will be all but overloaded. The scents of exotic spices fill the air and the whole place is a riot of colour.
In the square stands a Venetian column where the words, "The people of this place see themselves not in terms of beauty and wealth but of uncorrupted belief" are inscribed in Latin. This square was first called Konak Square, then Sarayonu. In the present day it is known as Ataturk Square. It has continued to be an important square since the middle ages. The column is made of grey granite and was brought from the ruins of Salamis to stand in the courtyard of the Sarayonu Mosque as a symbol of Venetian domination of the island. In 1915, the British placed a copper globe on top of the column to replace the lost St. Mark Lion (Venetian Lion). Around the column's base, coats of arms of the Venetian nobles are displayed. In the northern part of the square there is a fountain which was constructed during the Ottoman period.
Ali Ruhi Fountain
A former Ottoman governor, Ali Ruhi Effendi, built this fountain with the Great Madrasah in 1829 while he was constructing the library of Mahmud II. During this period, madrasahs and libraries were considered to be complementary to each other. The fountain, which is located at the northern side of the library, fell into disuse and was damaged when the Selimiye Square was rebuilt in the 1930's it was moved to its current location to the north of the Selimiye Mosque in the 1980s.
Built in the 18th century, the ancient aqueduct formed part of the old water supply system of Nicosia. A stone-built arched construction, it ran from Kyrenia Gate in the north, to Famagusta Gate in the east, and supplied water to several fountains in the inner quarters of the city. During the demolition of a private building close to Podocodaro Bastion, eleven of the arches of this old aqueduct were revealed, hidden within structure of an adjoining modern building. This section of the aqueduct is known as the Silihtar Aqueduct, after the Ottoman governor of the time.
Arabahmet Culture and Arts Centre
This listed building retains features dating back to Lusignan period. Over the centuries, it has had many restorations, including its magnificent wooden ceiling from the Ottoman period. The theatre hall was originally built by the British. More recently, the building has been restored as a cultural centre for the area, and houses a theatre with a stage and changing rooms, together with an exhibition hall and offices. The building is of an L-shaped layout and is partly two storey. There are three main entrances, one of which is from the car park area at the rear of the complex. The restoration of this building was aimed at improving the social and cultural aspects of the Arabahmet district and has proved to be one of the most successful of the Arabahmet Rehabilitation project.
These are just a few of the best places to visit. In addition, and if you can spare the time, there are many more churches, mosques, monuments and museums. Lefkosa has enough to be a holiday all of its own, but even for half or a full day, it repays visitors with new surprises at every turn.
How to get there
A1 Cyprus Holidays organise daily tours to Nicosia, accompanied by experienced guides. Contact us for details, or book with your representative in resort