SELIMIYE MOSQUE (ST SOPHIA CATHEDRAL)

The Selimiye Mosque, with its towering twin minarets, dominates the old walled city of Nicosia. So central is it that almost all of the historical monuments that a visitor would wish to see in the old city are within a few minute’s stroll.

Construction began in 1208 and, although it was built as a Roman Catholic church, it was given the Greek name of Haghia Sophia, meaning “Divine Wisdom,” possibly after an earlier Byzantine cathedral which stood on the same site. Although within twenty years the building was largely completed, nonetheless, in line with many of the construction sagas of great mediaeval churches, it would not be fully completed for well over another hundred years.

In fact, the cathedral was not consecrated until 1326, almost one hundred and twenty years after construction began and, even then, it was still unfinished. Matters were not helped by significant earthquakes in 1267 and 1303, which greatly hindered the building process, and the planned bell towers were, in fact, never completed.

In 1359, the cathedral witnessed the attempted forced conversion by a Papal envoy from Rome of the Orthodox bishops of Cyprus, who were locked into the building during the attempt. Riots and an attempt by the populace to burn down the cathedral ensued. This episode reminds us that the Frankish rulers of Cyprus were an often unpopular ruling class imposed on the Cypriot population.

During the Venetian period, in 1491, the church was again severely damaged by an earthquake, but the extensive repairs ran in conjunction with the construction of the massive city walls which were to completely encircle the town placing the cathedral right at its epicentre.

In 1570 came the fifty day Ottoman siege of Nicosia and the final days of the building as a Christian church. The end, when it came, was violent and thorough:-all those who took refuge in the church, including the bishops and frightened populace, were killed and all symbols of Christianity were destroyed, removed or painted over. On the first Friday after the conquest, it was available to the victors as a mosque. Two minarets were immediately added, but interestingly it was allowed to keep the same name, only now the Haghia Sophia Mosque.

In 1954, during the British period, this was changed by the Mufti of Cyprus, to its current name, the Selimiye Mosque, in honour of Sultan Selim II, the Ottoman Sultan at the time of the conquest.