Nicosia is the capital and largest city of Cyprus. It lies roughly at the centre of the island. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Nicosia is currently the only divided capital city across the world, with the southern (Greek) and northern (Turkish) portions divided by the "Green Line", a demilitarized zone maintained by the United Nations. Today, Nicosia blends its brilliant historic past with the bustle of a modern city. The nucleus of the city, enclosed by the Venetian walls, includes plenty of museums, ancient churches and medieval buildings. The part of the city developed outside the walls has become a modern business and cultural centre. According to the latest census (end of 2008) the population of the part of Nicosia under the control of the Republic of Cyprus is 313,400 people.

During the Hellenistic period, Nicosia was known as Ledra. In the Ptolemaic period, the name was changed to Lefkothea. In the first years of Christianity in Cyprus, around 350 A.D., the city was known as Lefkousia or Ledri. Among others, the city was also called Lefkotheon. Until the Middle Ages the city was mostly called by its Greek name: Lefkosia, which probably came from Lefkos, son of Ptolemy I of Egypt, who rebuilt the city in 280 B.C. When Cyprus came under Latin rule it was renamed Nicosia. The Crusaders conquerors possibly could not –or did not even try to– pronounce the name "Kallinikesis" [Κάλλι Νίκησις], as the city was called at that time, and they tended to call the city Nicosia. However the Greek population continued referring to the city as Lefkosia. Now let us wander across Nicosia's history from the beginning.


Nicosia during Ancient Times

The myth of the birth of Aphrodite, emerging through the foam of the sea waves, can be compared to the geological birth of Cyprus; in the fact that the island rose from the ocean.

The mountain range of Troodos (92 million years old) is the heart of the phenomenon. Its rocks which were created from the ancient oceanic bark, started rising from the sea 10 million years ago. First to emerge from the sea was the Troodos massif on to which limestone sediment began to attach gradually leading to a drop in the depth of the seas. The final to become attached was the Pendadactylos range to the north of the Troodos massif. Nicosia emerged from the sea 1,8-5 million years ago. The emergence of Nicosia joined the Troodos and Pendadactylos mountain ranges and created the Mesaoria plain. Greater Nicosia is probably the only area in Cyprus that has been inhabited continuously since the beginning of the Bronze Age 2,500years B.C., when the first residents settled in the fertile plain of Mesaoria. The fact that settlements in Nicosia thrived and developed, while others ceased to exist, makes Nicosia unique among Cyprus' Bronze Age sites.

Findings from the Ayia Paraskevi necropolis, dating from the early Bronze Age (around 2,000 B.C.) revealed the people and their occupations, as well as their religious and cultural influences from powerful neighbours. The tombs of Ayia Paraskevi, located

On the southern hills of Nicosia, gave us authentic Cypriot artifacts from the 16th century B.C. and imported offerings that testify to the relationship of the first Nicosians with the world surrounding them.

During the first millennium B.C., when Cyprus was divided into city-kingdoms, Nicosia was not as prominent as other kingdoms, like Paphos and Salamis, most of which laid on the coastline.

The Kingdom of Ledra or Ledrae is recorded around 672 B.C., when it was ruled by King Onasagoras, appearing ninth in a list of kingdoms that paid tribute to the Assyrian King Esarhaddon. The Kingdom of Ledra remained firmly under the political will of its neighbours until the Roman period, passing successively into the hands of Egyptians, Persians and Macedonian successors of Alexander the Great. During these centuries Nicosia was nothing more than a small town. In the first quarter of the 4th century B.C. a number of Cypriot soldiers engraved their names on the temple of Ahori in Karnak in Egypt. Some of the inscriptions bear the names of soldiers from Ledra. It was not until the dissolution of the city kingdoms at the end of the 4th century A.D. that Nicosia managed to exploit its natural resources and geographical location, in the centre of the island. In those years, the King of Pafos, Nikoklis, had a temple built for the people of Ledra dedicated to the Paphian Aphrodite. Archaeological finds in the area have been limited mainly to cemeteries, discovered in the areas of the "Old Town hall", Koupati, Ayioi Omologites and Acropolis. However, excavations at St George Hill brought to light a complex of buildings, ceramic and textile workshops and other rooms that prove that an important nucleus existed in this area during the Iron era.

In the Roman age and until the 4th century A.D. the Kingdom of Ledra remained a small village. However during this era, Lefkotheon or Kallinikesis was referred to as an "episcopal seat". Its first Bishop (348 A.D.) was Trifillios. According to the tradition, he was pupil of Ayios Spyridon, Bishop of Tremithus. Trifillios was declared a Saint in 448 A.D.

During the Byzantine era it is said that Nicosia was surrounded by a circular wall, though this has never been confirmed by archaeological research. After the Arab raids in the 7th century A.D. and the pillage that followed in the coastal cities, people moved to the centre of the island in the Mesaoria plain and the mountainous areas. During the 9th and 10th century Nicosia was the administrative centre of the island and was also referred to as the capital of Cyprus. Therefore it acquired a castle and became the seat of the Byzantine governor of the island. Cyprus proved to be extremely useful to Byzantine governors in order to defend the neighbouring districts of the Empire. The last Byzantine governor of the island was Isaac Komnenos who declared himself Emperor of the island and ruled Cyprus from 1183-1191.


Crusades and the Medieval Kingdom of Nicosia

Richard the Lionheart organized the Third Crusade. He and his fleet were on the way to the Holy Land when one of his ships put into Limassol and his fiancée Berengaria of Navarre was taken prisoner by Isaac Comnenos, known for his hatred of the Latins. Richard landed his army on the island in order to take revenge on the governor of Cyprus. Having looted whatever he found on his way, Richard laid siege to Nicosia. He finally met and defeated Isaac at Tremetousia, a village mid-way between Nicosia and Famagusta. Isaac was taken prisoner and the Byzantine sovereignty on Cyprus ended. Richard the Lionheart became ruler of the island and shortly after he sold it to the Templars for 100.000 gold byzantiums.

The Templars seat was the castle of Nicosia. Their domination soon proved to be oppressive and on Easter day on the 11th of April 1192, the people of Nicosia revolted in a bloody battle. Finally the Nicosians managed to drive the Templars off the city, but for fear of their potential return they demolished the castle of the city almost to its foundations.

Guy de Lusignan, King of Jerusalem who belonged to a noble family from Poitou in France, bought Cyprus from the Templars and brought many noble men and other adventurers, from France, Jerusalem, Tripoli, the Principality of Antioch and Kingdom of Armenia, to the island. Guy shared the land among them and Nicosia was proclaimed the capital of the Kingdom of the Lusignans. The princes and kings of Cyprus lived in Nicosia and a new community was formed of French knights and aristocrats with new laws and institutions. Guy imposed harsh feudal system and the vast majority of Cypriots were reduced to the status of serfs. However, under Lusignans' rule Nicosia was developed architecturally: a lot of palaces, mansions, churches and monasteries were built. The Latin Church organized itself and in order to impose its authority more forcefully on the island's inhabitants built the marvelous Gothic monuments we see even today. Nicosia became the seat of Latin Church in Cyprus.

After the destruction and desertation of Salamis and Famagusta, the Archbishop obtained the Pope's permission to move to Nicosia. Thus, Nicosia became established as the capital of the Kingdom. At that time, the city had a perimeter of three leagues or approximately nine miles, and was adorned with beautiful, large buildings, including palaces, churches and the old castle, which had been erected during the reign of Constantine the Great. The first Lusignan castle was built by King Henry I, in 1211. On seals of the King and his mother Alix in 1234, a castle with one or two towers is depicted surrounded with the inscription "CIVITAS NICOSIE". In 1368, under the reign of Peter I, a large tower named Margarita was constructed. In its upper part a church was erected, which was called Misericordia; and below the surface of the ground it was a prison, which was also called Margarita. Peter II demolished Margarita tower and fortified the entire city.

The new walls had many gates. Among them were: The Gate of St Andrew, The Gate of Sainte Venerande or Sainte Paraskevi, The Gate of the Armenians and The Gate of the market of Paphos. Visitors of that era were amazed by the gardens of the city with their lemon trees, vines, pomegranates and palm trees. Nicosia was dotted by wide streets and narrow ones around the squares and palaces, as well as many markets.

The following years were extremely difficult: wars with the Genoeses (1373-4) and the Mamelukes (1424), swarms of locusts and plague. A bright moment in this period was the arrival of Helena Palaiologina, daughter of Theodore, ruler of the Morea. The first Greek Queen of Cyprus was a woman with strong personality. The Orthodox Church of the island knew some relief during her reign.

In 1468, James II became King and chose Caterina for a wife and Queen of the Kingdom of Cyprus. The King's choice had greatly pleased the Republic of Venice as it could henceforth secure the commercial and other privileges of Venice in Cyprus. In 1473, after sudden illness, James II died and according to the wishes in his will the Queen, who at the time was pregnant, acted as Regent. A few months later, a son and heir was born but unfortunately James III died before he was even a year old. Caterina Cornaro ruled Cyprus from 1474 to 1489 but was forced to cede the administration of the country to the Republic of Venice. Finally, she was obliged to leave the island on the 14th of May 1489. Upon her return to Venice she was led to the town of Asolo where she lived until her death in 1510. This was the end of the medieval kingdom of Cyprus.


Under Venetian Administration 

The Venetians ruled the island from 1489 to 1571. Nicosia was their administrative centre and the seat of the Venetian governor. Venice was much more advanced in maritime achievements and the techniques of commerce than neighbouring states. Cyprus became the most important port of call for the Venetians galleys and the centre of their commercial transactions in the East.

At this time, Nicosia had a population of 56,000 people, though the city was sparsely populated. The Venetians kept Nicosia as a capital because of its abundance of water and mild climate and mostly due to its strategic location at the centre of the island (thus, at an almost equal distance from Paphos and Famagusta), between the two mountain ranges and far from the sea. The Venetians, in their attempt to safeguard against foreign invasions and retain trade control in the Eastern Mediterranean, estimated that the old fashioned Lusignans walls had to be demolished and replaced. Since the threat from the Ottomans was visible, the Venetian governors of Nicosia emphasized in their letters the need for all the cities of Cyprus to be fortified. In 1562, Venice sent Ascanio Savorgnano to the island to prepare a general description of the cities and their prospects for their fortifications. In his report Ascanio claimed that the distance between the sea and Nicosia presented a serious supply problem for the city and that Nicosia did not need to be fortified because of the extreme difficulties that would arise if the walls had to be altered.

However, in 1567, when Selim II came to the throne, the need to activate the defence of the island and its capital was obvious. Thus, the Venetians decided to begin Nicosia's fortification at once.

This time Giulio Savorgnano, brother of Ascanio, arrived on the island. Savorgnano was an architect and engineer and he had just completed the Candia walls in Crete. He stayed on the island for about nine months and designed new fortifications for the city according to con-temporary defense methods. The new walls had the shape of a star with eleven bastions – pentagonal-shaped with round orillons that covered retired flanks. They stood about 280 meters apart, had a perimeter of 325 metres, a face and gorge of about 125 metres and rose 80 metres above the curtain walls. The heart shape design of the bastion was more suitable for the new artillery and offered a better control to the defenders. The eleven bastions were named after the eleven families from Nicosia's Italian aristocracy who had contributed financially to their construction. The walls had only three gates; to the North: Kyrenia Gate; to the west: Paphos Gate; and to the east: Famagusta Gate which was the largest and also named Porta Giulia in honour of the architect. The new walls of Nicosia were considered as the prototype of the renaissance military architecture.

1.jpg Nicosia  - Old town The D’Avilla moat at the Venetian walls of Nicosia

For their erection, several workmen and slaves came to Nicosia. In order to build the walls on a much reduced size, the Venetians destroyed all the buildings outside the new perimeter (3 miles), including monasteries and churches and used the material in the construction of the new fortifications. Around the walls were deep ditches about 80 meters wide which originally were filled with water. In principle, this was an effective idea, but in practice it was a failure, since the water came from the River Pedieos, whose flow the Turks were able to control and divert the supply before starting their siege in 1570.


The Siege of Nicosia

On July 1st 1570, about 60,000 Ottoman troops, including cavalry and artillery, arrived on the island. Having conquered with almost no resistance the southern coast from Paphos to Limassol, Mustafa Pasha and his army landed in Larnaca and on the 22nd of July marched towards Nicosia. On 25th July the Ottomans camped outside the city.

They raised four earthen forts with which protected themselves against the artillery of Nicosia and annoyed its defenders. One was on the hill of St Marina, 270 paces from the Podocataro bastion; the second one was at St Giorgio di Magnana; the third on the little hill called Margariti; and the fourth on the chain of hills of Mandia. Seeing that these forts were too far away to do anything but injure a few habitants of the higher houses, the Ottomans more wisely moved up to the ditches and trenches of the old city, and there by entrenchments got close to the bastions Podocataro, Costanza, D' Avila, and Tripoli. Opposite to each of these they raised at once a royal fort, 80 paces from the ditches, and began the bombardment.

In charge of Nicosia's defense was the governor Nicolo Dandolo who numbered out not more than 11,000 men. Internal conflict, as well as Dandolo's inability to govern his small army led to the disastrous outcome of the Sunday 9th September. At dawn of that day, the Ottomans made a brisk attack on the bastions. The defenders met the charge with great bravery and repulsed the enemy before they could get over the parapet. At last, after a long struggle on the Podocataro bastion, by some mishap many of the enemies got in and captured the platform and the redoubt. As soon as Colonel Palazzo and other gentlemen heard noise and outcry, they ran to help of that bastion, but they were too late. Then followed the sad and terrible spectacle: the savage slaughter of the poor soldiers who had defended the city, and the nobles who made a brave stand. There was confused fighting in every quarter of the city and in the squares. Chaos prevailed and there was no one to take the lead. The massacre lasted till the sixth hour. Those who defended themselves were killed; those who surrendered were made prisoners. At last Mustafa Pasha entered the city, and saw the frightful slaughter. The woeful sack of the ill-fated Nicosia was over. Before leaving, Mustafa installed in the fortress a garrison of 4,000- foot soldiers and a cavalry force of 1,000 people. Approximately 20,000 residents died as a result of the Ottoman siege.


The Ottoman Period

After its siege by the Ottomans the city was deserted. The foreign travellers that visited it referred that its great walls were ruined. Few inhabitants remained in the city and the houses had been deserted. The Turks took possession of everything that belonged to the Latins including their places of worship – the main Latin churches were converted into mosques. Moving into the Latin quarters, the Turks latticed the windows of houses for religious reasons. In the streets, instead of Roman Catholic nuns, monks and priests in their distinctive garb, there appeared veiled women and turbaned Hodjas.

There were gardens with citrus and palm trees, and the three gates through which one could enter the city opened at sunrise and closed at sunset. Nicosia's inhabitants were reduced to 20,000. Surviving wealthy Greek and foreign citizens abandoned the capital to settle in Venice, Spain and other more liberal European states. The living conditions for the people were narrow and difficult. However there was one bright spot in this period. The Ottomans reinstated the Orthodox Archbishop and the legitimate Orthodox Church. The Christians could observe their religious practices.

In parallel, Nicosia was the seat of the Pasha, the Greek Archbishop, the Dragoman and the Cadi; the guardian of the Islamic faith. From 1572 to 1668 there were twenty-eight unsuccessful revolts on the island all of which had a bitter end. In 1821, many Cypriots supported the Greek Independence War which had just begun. Members of the "Filiki Etairia" visited Cyprus and persuaded leading Cypriots to revolt. This led to severe reprisals by the Ottoman Empire. With the Sultan's consent, the Ottoman administration in the island executed 486 Greek Cypriots on 9th July 1821, accusing them of conspiring with the rebellious Greeks. Among the victims of this hideous action were included three Bishops (Chrysanthos of Paphos, Meletios of Kitium and Lavrentios of Kyrenia), notables, clergymen and common people who were beheaded in the central square of Nicosia, while Archbishop Kyprianos was also hanged. During these difficult years for the survival of Hellenism, the Orthodox Church played an important role. Among others, it founded the first Greek schools in Nicosia.

In 1835, cholera hit the city and in 1857 a fire destroyed large parts of Nicosia. Nicosia revived its old splendour around the mid nineteenth century, when the administration of the island became generally more tolerant.


Under the British Rule

On 5th July 1878, the administration of the island was officially transferred to Great Britain. One week later, the Union Jack was raised in the yard of the Turkish Barracks (Kishla) on Tripoli bastion, attached to the buildings over the Paphos Gate.

On 31 July 1878, Lt. General Sir Garnet Wolseley, the first High Commissioner, arrived in Nicosia. He immediately established a skeletal administration by sending officers to each district to supervise the administration of justice and obtain all possible information about the area. Wolseley also established a Post Office at his camp at Kykko Metochi monastery outside Nicosia. He lived at the "Monastery Camp" until a prefabricated residence had been built for him near Strovolos on the site of today's Presidential Palace.

In September 1878, Kitchener, then a young Lieutenant, was transferred from Palestine to Cyprus to head a land survey. An accurate map was required for the efficient administration οf the island and especially for the assessment of land tax to replace the unsatisfactory Ottoman tithe on produce. The project was abandoned in May 1979 after differences with the High Commissioner and a shortage of funds. Wοlseley's successor, Sir Robert Biddulph, however, requested Kitchener to resume his work "on the triangulation of the island and special surveys".

By 1885 he had completed a one-inch map in fifteen sheets which was in use for many years and on which larger scale maps were later based. While on the island, Kitchener made a major contribution to efforts to establish the Cyprus Museum.

While the Cypriots at first welcomed British rule hoping that they would gradually achieve prosperity, democracy and national liberation, they became disillusioned. Though Britain gave the Cypriot people a Constitution and the Legislative Council started to work in Nicosia, the British government retained absolute power. Among others, it imposed heavy taxes to cover the compensation which they were paying to the Sultan for having conceded Cyprus to them. Moreover, the people were not given the right to participate in the administration of the island, since all powers were reserved to the High Commissioner and to London. A few years later the system was reformed and some members of the Legislative Council were elected by the Cypriots, but in reality their participation was very marginal. Cyprus' status as a protectorate of the British Empire ended in 1914 when the Ottoman Empire declared war against the Entente powers, which included Britain. Cyprus was then annexed by the British Empire on November the 2nd. During the course of the First World War Britain offered to cede Cyprus to Greece if they would fulfill treaty obligations to attack Bulgaria, but Greece declined. As a result of this, Britain proclaimed Cyprus a Crown Colony in 1925 under an undemocratic constitution. In the years that followed Greek Cypriots' demands for union with Greece, which Turkish Cypriots and the British opposed, developed rapidly from the 1930s. The Government House in Nicosia was burnt down in Greek Cypriot riots of 1931. This is the start of the uprising against the British rule and of the British officials' hostile attitude towards the Cypriots.

At the time of the British occupation, Nicosia was still contained entirely within its Venetian walls. Although full of private gardens and amply supplied with water carried to public fountains in aqueducts, the streets remained unpaved and just wide enough for a loaded pack animal. In 1881, macadamized roads through the town were completed to connect with the main roads to the coastal towns but no roads were asphalted until after World War I. The narrow streets with overhanging kiosks were made darker by the awnings rigged up by the shopkeepers against the sun and rain.

A series of openings in the walls provided direct access to areas beyond the walls as they grew in importance. The first opening was cut in the Paphos Gate in 1879. The most famous opening across a wooden bridge at the top of Ledra Street, the Limassol or Hadjisavva opening, now Eleftheria (Freedom) Square, linked the city to the government offices in 1882. In June of the same year, the municipal limits were extended to "a circle drawn at a distance of five hundred yards beyond the salient angles of the bastions of the fortifications." An opening was made at the Kyrenia Gate in 1931 after one of Nicosia's first buses proved too high to go through the original gate. Many more openings followed.

The prosperous 1920s resulted in the erection of elegant villas lining the main roads out of the old city alongside the colonial residences already built there. During the postwar period the villages around Nicosia began to expand. By 1958 they had been engulfed in suburbia. Only Strovolos and Aglandja maintained separate physical identities, mainly because of intervening state-owned land. By this time, the old city was increasingly given over to shops and workshops. In residential terms it had become a lower income area.


Capital of the Republic of Cyprus

On April 1st 1955, the EOKA Liberation Struggle against the British rule started. Nicosia as the seat of government and Ethnarchy constituted the main stage of political conflicts. Discussions between the governor Sir John Harding and the Archbishop Makarios began at the Hotel Ledra Fights in October 1955 and were completed in March of the following year. In November 1955, the declaration of emergency changed Nicosia into a fighting capital with armed forces of safety. In December 1958, the idea of an independent Cyprus began to form, followed by the relevant negotiations.

The signing of the Zurich and London Agreements in February 1959 inaugurated a period of transition. On 1st March 1959, Archbishop Makarios returned to the island after three years of exile. Thousands of people lined the road from the airport to the Archbishopric in the old city of Nicosia to greet him. From its balcony he addressed the huge crowd by sending a message of friendship and cooperation, wishing to unite and not divide the opposing powers.

During the following months, Nicosia was at the heart of the administrative and constitutional preparations for Independence. On 13th of December 1959, Makarios was elected President of the Republic of Cyprus and in 1960 Cyprus became an independent sovereign republic after centuries of foreign rule. Nicosia officially became the capital of the Republic.

In the first years after Independence there was a constitutional crisis in Cyprus. After a brief intercommunal conflict, Nicosia was divided into Greek and Turkish quarters. The dividing line, which cut through the city, was named "Green" because the pen used by the UN Major-General Peter Young to draw the line on a city map was green.

On 20th July 1974, Turkish troops, using the pretext of a coup orchestrated by the Greek dictatorship against the lawful Cypriot government, invaded the island. On 14th August 1974, the second phase of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus began and led to disastrous consequences; among others, the occupation of 36,2% of Cypriot territory despite repeated UN and other international resolutions calling for the respect of independence and territorial sovereignty of the Republic of Cyprus. Since 1974 people of Nicosia have been experiencing not only the tragedy of a divided country, but also of their own city, with the "Green Line" running through Nicosia which remains the only divided capital in the world.


"Cyprus Τoday" Magazine, January – March 2010

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