Nicosia, or Lefkoşa (pronounced Lefkosha) as it is called by the Cypriots, is the divided capital of Cyprus and comprises the northern half of the old walled city in addition to the northern suburbs. It lies in the centre of the dry and dusty Mesaoria plain and whilst a river runs through it, it is mostly dry apart from when the spring melt from the Troodos Mountains sends a trickle running down through the capital.
Most of what is interesting and worth seeing lies within the ancient walls, including the impressive walls themselves. Originally built by the Lusignans in the 13th century, they were entirely rebuilt by the Venetians in the sixteenth-century to protect the city from the Ottomans. Today they are mostly intact and very well-preserved. This was the short-lived heyday of Nicosia as a cosmopolitan Levantine capital, though the origins of the city stretch far back into pre-history. It was an important Byzantine city, but it was in early medieval times and the age of the Crusades that it grew in importance and wealth.
There is not so much to show for this sparkling period in Nicosia’s history. Much of the ancient city was torn down, either to make way for the new walls or to be used as building material for them.
A notable exception is the Selimiye Mosque which totally dominates the skyline of the old city. This was originally the Lusignan cathedral of St. Sophia and it remains today, one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in the Middle East. In time-honoured Ottoman tradition, it was immediately converted into a mosque upon the conquest of the city and minarets were added.
This is a good place to set as the centre of your Nicosia exploring. Much of what there is to see here is within a stone’s throw:-the Bedesten, once a church, then a grain store, then a cloth market and now restored as a performance venue, is right next door. The beautifully restored sixteenth-century Büyük Han or ‘Great Inn’-a travelling merchants’ inn where the merchants stayed upstairs while the camels and horses munched hay below, is a thriving arts and craft centre. Nearby is the slightly younger Kumarcılar Han – ‘Gamblers’ Inn’ . Two museums in the Selimiye Square by the mosque are well worth visiting. The Sultan Paşa Library and the Lapidary Museum are treasure troves of historical curiosities from Nicosia’s past including a beautiful Gothic windowş the sole remaining trace of the Lusignan Palace demolished by the British in 1901.
A few years ago a visit to the Arabahmet Quarter would have been a sad affair as the area had fallen into disrepair and dilapidation. The Nicosia Master Plan, a bi-communal effort to restore and renovate the ancient centre of the city has gone a long way to sprucing up this evocative and charming area.
Recent years have seen a fundamental change in attitudes to the historical heart. Once forgotten and almost despised, today it abounds with chic cafés and gourmet eateries. This combined with the truly remarkable array of historical sights means that north Nicosia today is far more deserving of the visitors time (say, two or even three days) than was the case a few years ago.
A more fashionable way to spend some time would be on Dereboyu – ‘the Riverbank’ which follows a long straight course of the mostly dried up Kanlıdere (Pedieos) River and is fast becoming North Cyprus’s Oxford Street. International and the larger Turkish chains are fast moving in and there are excellent coffee-shops, cafés and restaurants. All this gives you the chance to see what the bright young things of Turkish Cypriot society are getting up to these days.