The Great Divide

With a border running through the center of Nicosia—and politicians squabbling—architects and planners on the opposing sides prepare for the city’s eventual reunification.

At the Ledra Palace checkpoint in the UN buffer zone—the one place where it’s currently possible to walk back and forth between the northern and southern sides of Nicosia—two Turkish Cypriot teenagers salute passersby from behind a barbed-wire fence. It’s a good game for Cyprus. By some estimates, one in every 12 inhabitants of the island is a soldier, making it the most militarized part of the world after the Korean peninsula. Ever since the 1974 Turkish invasion, during which more than 165,000 Greek Cypriots were expelled from the north and at least 10,000 Turkish Cypriots from the south, Nicosia has been in effect the capital of two countries: the Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (though the north is not recognized by any government except Turkey).

Nicosia is the last divided capital in the world, and both the nationalistic Greek Cypriot government and the occupying Turkish army seem intent on keeping it that way. But until last November, when a municipal attempt to open a pedestrian crossing through the heart of the Old City produced a national crisis, the city’s two mayors and their respective planning departments were quietly collaborating on a “Vision for the Future of Nicosia” to pave the way for restoration of the city’s continuity. “In 2003 we walked together through the buffer zone, and we have seen our history and our heritage falling down,” says Michael Zampelas, a businessman who was elected mayor of Nicosia’s Greek side in 2002. “The problems of a divided city are huge. This buffer zone is the center of Cyprus and the most beautiful part of Nicosia, but it is in the process of being destroyed.”

Nicosia’s Old City is enclosed in a perfectly preserved circular wall built by the Venetians in the sixteenth century—a manifestation of High Renaissance city planning that makes a mockery of the city’s current state. The iconic structure is divided down the middle by another set of walls and barricades erected in 1964 by the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) to prevent fighting between Greek militants and Turks, which resulted in an almost total abandon-ment of the historic center. Between them is a 65-foot-wide buffer zone—known inside the city as the Green Line—which became an unofficial border after a Greek nationalist coup spurred the 1974 Turkish invasion. This “dead zone” is augmented by a 148-foot area patrolled by Turkish Cypriot troops. The buffer zone extends 112 miles from the Old City to either coast, and it has been only three years since the Turkish army has allowed inhabitants to cross from one side to the other.

To the south, dozens of tourists line up in front of a viewing platform at the end of Ledra Street to gaze over the barrier into the buffer zone, a no-man’s-land surrounded by weathered propaganda and filled with collapsing buildings and overgrown brush. The platform is a bit of political theater that reveals little about the nature of the city’s division: it has been more than four decades since any real fighting has taken place across the barricades; and on the municipal level, the two sides have been working to bridge the gap since practically the beginning of the Turkish occupation, driven by the necessities of a shared topography.

Everyone points to the modern sewage system, begun before 1974 in the south and extended to the north after the city’s division, as the origin of the cooperation. “The water flows from south to north,” says Ali Güralp, head of north Nicosia’s master-plan projects unit (NMP-North). “You couldn’t stop that, so both sides had to cooperate. Because the Greek side had an advantage in contacting people and getting funds, they prepared this project, and now sixty-five to seventy percent of north Nicosia is connected to the sewage system.”

Nicosia’s long tradition of cooperation didn’t stop at bare necessities. As early as 1981 the two municipal governments had already begun working on a common master plan that presumed the walls and barricades would eventually be removed. “The cooperation started because of the needs,” says Simavi Asik, deputy mayor of the Turkish Municipality of Nicosia, speaking on behalf of north Nicosia’s mayor. “But the master plan was because of the will. The two mayors decided that there had to be a master plan for the city. It’s like two halves of an apple: you cannot have one plan on one side and a different plan on the other. If there is reunification, it doesn’t match.”

The master plan—completed in 1984 and revised twice in the south in the following decades—prepared the way for rehabilitation of historic structures in the two halves of the Old City with funds from the European Union, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the UN Development Program (UNDP). Their cooperation has prevented the most important buildings from being lost and is slowly bringing signs of life back into the center. Last September the municipalities celebrated a major milestone in the process when they jointly inaugurated a walking tour highlighting their shared cultural heritage. The accompanying guidebook features renovated sites such as the Buyuk Khan, an Ottoman “great inn” filled with cafes and shops; the Famagusta Gate, one of the three gates to the Old City; the Arabahmet residential district, which combines Ottoman, Venetian, and Lusignan architecture; and the beautifully restored Omeriye Turkish baths.

Ideally the walking tour would have been a circular route, but for now it consists of two semicircles that end abruptly at the Green Line. “Our wish is that Nicosia will be reunited soon, and we are working toward this goal,” Zampelas says. “A city that has a history of 8,000 years, which has its own character and heritage, must be protected at all costs. We work together silently to preserve the city.”

That silence has been maintained in the absence of a national political consensus about reunification. Two years ago both sides of the island voted on a treaty brokered by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan that would have united the island under a federal government and addressed unresolved issues such as the return of refugees and confiscated property, the ongoing presence of the Turkish army, and the rights of Turkish immigrants since 1974. But while a wide majority approved the plan on the Turkish side, the Greek Cypriots overwhelmingly rejected it with the encouragement of the Cypriot president, who gave a speech two weeks before the referendum, harshly criticizing the agreement and expressing mistrust for Turkey’s willingness to fulfill its part. The municipal plans for reunification went on, however, despite the failure of the peace process.

“Everything that is done and planned at the municipal level is with the assumption that on some blessed day the walls and barriers will come down,” says Theo David, a prominent Cypriot-American architect and professor at the Pratt Institute who helped establish the recently founded architecture department at the University of Cyprus—the first in the island’s history—and lobbied successfully for it to be located in the Old City. “At the grassroots and professional level, which includes architects and planners, we put aside the politics and leave that to the politicians. We are simply working together because the vision is that Nicosia is one entity, one city.”

The Greek Cypriot mayor acknowledges that reunification of the Old City is only one part of a larger strategy for the redevelopment of Nicosia. “We have joined the European Union,” Zampelas says, “so we cannot ignore the fact that we wish Nicosia to be a modern European capital.” Under a building program by the Greek Cypriot national government, a new high court and a soon-to-be-constructed parliament building are giving the southern metropolitan area a more contemporary aspect, and a new campus for the University of Cyprus on the city’s outskirts is testing the limits of local contractors with ambitious projects by young native talents. The municipal government is also doing its part with a plan to build a new town hall in a prime location in the historic center, and Zaha Hadid has been chosen for an urban-design project for Eleftheria (“Freedom”) Square that would fluidly connect the walled city to the districts that stretch out to the south. That’s where the common interest of the city and state seems to end, however: the Greek Cypriot national government and the Turkish army have repeatedly placed roadblocks in the way of municipal gestures toward reunification, forcing the mayors to continue working behind the scenes.

One of the more uncanny aspects of meeting with government officials on the two sides of Nicosia is the recurring image of the Old City’s Venetian wall. Both sides use its circle with 11 bastions as an emblem on business cards, stationery, flags, and plaques. Both include the entirety of the walled city on their maps. But none of the maps shows the street names on the other half. Instead the opposite side is always left empty; on Greek Cypriot maps it is customarily stamped “Area inaccessible because of the Turkish occupation.” As part of the walking tour, the planners collaborated on the first official map in several decades, identifying the street names on both sides. But just as they were getting ready to print the map, the Greek Cypriot national government objected to some of the names and canceled the project. The Turkish Cypriot planners decided to produce and distribute it on their own.

The conflict between local reunification efforts and national politics reached a climax last November, when the NMP-North moved forward with plans to open a pedestrian crossing on Ledra Street—the main commercial corridor of the Old City. “Ledra is in the middle of Nicosia, and the city will change completely in the future with its opening,” says Tiziana Zennaro, program manager for the UNDP in Cyprus, which has assisted bicommunal projects since 1964. “The historical center has been upgraded and revitalized a lot, but the opening of Ledra is the best project in order to revitalize the walled city.”

Asik agrees, adding that the site is significant because it is the spot where the British colonial government first put up barbed-wire barricades to prevent fighting in 1958—two years before they declared the island independent and retreated to their coastal military bases. “It was a symbol of division,” he explains. “We could open another gate somewhere else, but we insisted on this point to show that we don’t want any symbols of division; we want to reunify the island.”

The Ledra Street difficulties began with objections by the Turkish army, which is believed to have anywhere from 30,000 to 40,000 soldiers stationed in Northern Cyprus and still dominates Turkish Cypriot politics. Along the northern side of the buffer zone Turkish Cypriot troops patrol the Green Line in armored vehicles, concealed by a second wall that enables soldiers to drive back and forth without being seen by the public. Unable to persuade the army to abandon the patrol route and make way for a street-level crossing at Ledra Street, the Turkish Cypriot master planners negotiated an alternative that would allow pedestrians to pass over the military vehicles on a small bridge.

“When we decided to open the Ledra gate, we discussed this with all authorities of the Turkish Cypriot government and found out what the needs are,” Asik says. “Our army told us that it’s early to cut that road and stop the army personnel crossing from one side to the other. So we decided to build a pedestrian crossing. Although it is in our side, we told the Greek municipality’s engineers about it. Nobody objected.”

But that’s not what the Greek Cypriots say. After the Turkish army began tearing down the walls on the northern side of the buffer zone in the middle of the night and building a bridge, the Greek Cypriot planners found themselves in the middle of a national uproar: the politicians would not allow their citizens to walk above an area patrolled by Turkish troops. “Talks were taking place in order to make a street-level connection at the end of Ledra Street,” says Athina Papadopoulou, an architect in the Greek Cypriot municipality’s master-planning office (NMP-South). “Then the Turkish army arbitrarily built a bridge that would force the pedestrians to climb up and then climb down instead of crossing at street level.”

Güralp, of the NMP-North, says his office discussed the bridge in the meetings with the UNDP and the NMP-South and that both initially approved the project. “We believe that it was a political thing,” he says of the national Greek Cypriot reaction. “They didn’t want the checkpoint to open.”

From the Ledra Street viewing platform, a baby blue overpass is now visible at the other end of the no-man’s-land. Before the project was completed in December, the UNDP was prepared to clear a path through the buffer zone and stabilize buildings along the route to facilitate the street-level crossing. But until the political issues are resolved, they won’t begin the work. For now it’s a bridge to nowhere. “The bridge is an initiative of the Turkish Cypriot community,” Zennaro says. “It doesn’t have anything to do with the Nicosia master plan. We hope that the opening of Ledra Street will happen. We were very close.”

Meanwhile the first phase of the “Vision for the Future of Nicosia” has been completed but is not being released to the public. The ideal of a reunited city is on hold; but within the dual municipal governments, officials are still hoping that before long the Venetian walled city will be made whole again. Up to this point the master planners have at least prevented its built environment from becoming a permanent manifestation of separation. “There’s a danger of it being politically unified but permanently divided historically and culturally, which would be terrible,” David says. “At the moment the division is literally just a few feet of stone and concrete.”

Until the political impasse is resolved the city will remain divided, but the history of cooperation between Nicosia’s city officials, architects, and planners suggests that the only thing required would be for national leaders and the Turkish army to find a common interest. “You have a community north and south with shared needs living in this beautiful Venetian old town,” UNFICYP spokesperson Brian Kelly says. “The Nicosia master plan evolved out of that spirit of cooperation. It’s sort of the perfect example of how things could go if people got beyond the politics.”

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