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City profile

1. The ‘uniqueness’ of the city            

While the Cyprus Problem is a complex one, involving the Cypriots as well as international actors, many aspects of this conflict have become encapsulated into a very small space - the 3 mile circumference of Nicosia's walled city.  The UN administered Buffer Zone divides the island's two republics, at the same time neatly bisecting Nicosia's historic city centre and its encircling 16th century Venetian Walls.  What is remarkable about Nicosia is the manner in which its urban form offers such a compelling graphic representation of the conflict.  The image of the perfect circle of the Venetian Walls divided by the chasm of the buffer zone, a violent rupture of this pure geometry, gives perfect expression to the bounded and divergent national narratives of the two republics. The riverbed streets where the two communities once came together are now encased within the Buffer Zone. Once the symbol of unity and multiculturalism, they have now become the very frontier of the division. Still symbolically important yet effectively underused, the centre has become the edge, given over into the keeping of an international force, and kept in an indefinite liminal state.  As Nicosia is the capital city of two peoples, divided through its historic centre by a swath of inaccessible land, the use of space in this fractured heart has incredible resonance. 

 2. Origins as an ethno/nationally/religious divided city in its imperialist/nationalist contexts

Nicosia has a long history as a capital city, serving as the seat of power of the Lusignans, Venetians, Ottomans, and the British.  This long history has been amplified as today it is concurrently the capital of two republics, the Republic of Cyprus (ROC) in the Greek Cypriot south, and the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus (TRNC).  Ottoman rule, established in 1570, was eventually ceded to the British Empire after the Russo-Turkish War in 1878.  Cyprus was officially declared a Crown colony in 1925, and it remained so up until the declaration of the independent Republic of Cyprus (ROC) in 1960. 

Due to the untenable constitution that the Cypriots were stuck with, as well as escalating tensions between the two main ethnic groups, the new republic dissolved into conflict and physical separation of the communities in 1963.  Throughout the British period, the two ethnic groups were administered separately under a continuation of the British interpretation of the Ottoman millet system, most importantly resulting in completely separate systems of education which perpetuated ethnic differences over generations. The Greek education system stressed Hellenism, and facilitated a desire for Enosis, or union with Greece, which was actively pursued in Cyprus with an anti-colonial movement from 1955-59 with Archbishop Makarios as the political figurehead of the movement, and EOKA, the National Organization of Cypriot fighters, its military force.  The Turkish minority, only 18% of the island’s population, fearful of what their future would be like as Greek subjects, forwarded the option of taksim, partition of the island, to offset the threat of Enosis.  Turkey provided support in terms of arms and training of the Türk Mukavemet Teşkilatı, Turkish Resistance Organization (TMT). 

After independence in 1960, diplomatic negotiations left the Cypriots with a constitution that was essentially unworkable and unalterable.  The legislative branch consisted of a house of representatives and two communal chambers, independent bodies elected by the two communities, each with exclusive legal power regarding religious, educational, and cultural matters in their communities.  The constitution stipulated a Greek Cypriot president and a Turkish Cypriot vice-president, each with veto power that was exercised frequently, immobilizing the government.  Because of this deadlock, a Cypriot Army could not be established, resulting in each side maintaining a small private army, reviving old fears and suspicions between the two groups, which eventually escalated to open violence in Kanlı Noel, Bloody Christmas, in December 1963.  The period of time from 1963 to 1974 was one of intercommunal strife, violence, and murder.  During this period of insecurity most Turkish Cypriots gathered together in enclaves, the largest one being in northern Nicosia, Lefkoşa in Turkish.  Those living in the enclaves faced especially difficult times after Makarios, now president of the ROC, imposed a blockade in 1964, limiting the delivery of food and supplies.  

The division of Nicosia, in effect since as early as 1956, became permanent with the Turkish invasion of the island in 1974.  This occurred after a right wing military junta government in Greece staged a coup in Cyprus and overthrew long-time leader Archbishop Makarios in the attempt to install a pro-Enosis puppet regime.  Nicos Sampson, an EOKA fighter known to be an ardent enemy of the Turks and the head of his own private militia, was installed as the new president.  Turkey reacted by invading the island, and eventually occupying 37% of the island, coming up to the Green Line, which divides the walled city of Nicosia in half. In 1983 the Turkish Cypriot president, Rauf Denktaş, in a surprise move declared this territory a sovereign republic, the TRNC, which has never been officially recognized by any country other than Turkey.

 3.  Internal structuring of the city itself.

Venetian and Ottoman Nicosia
Once contained entirely within its 16th century Venetian Walls, the city of Nicosia now sprawls with suburbs that seep into Cyprus’ Mesaoria plain.  After the Venetians were overthrown by the Ottomans in 1571, the city remained ensconced within these walls, with the newly settled Turkish population generally living in the north of the old riverbed, and the Greek population settling into the southern part.  Other ethnic minority groups such as the Armenians and Latins came to be settled near the western entry into the city at Paphos Gate.  While the last several decades have seen a lot of rhetoric about “reunifying” the city, it is important to clarify that Nicosia has historically been divided into a Turkish north, and a Greek south.  This division was largely the rule in Nicosia, with the exceptions being a Turkish enclave to the south, and one Greek enclave in the north.  Greek Cypriot, Turkish Cypriot, and mixed villages were scattered throughout the rest of Cyprus, both in the north as well as the south of the island.  When the Ottomans arrived, they settled into the old Lusignan palace in the north of the city, which became their administrative centre, saray, and the north was settled mainly by Turkish settlers.  The Greek Cypriots remained concentrated in the south, where the Archbishopric of the Orthodox Church was built.  These two communities were divided by the riverbed of the Pedieos River, which had flowed through the center of the city until diverted by Venetians.  Under the Ottomans this riverbed was open until covered over by the British for hygienic reasons.  These riverbed streets formed the backbone of the east-west route through the city, connecting Paphos Gate in the west with Famagusta Gate to the east.  It is along these streets that the Cypriots from both sides of the city historically came together, streets that contained a mixture of Greek, Turkish, and Armenian businesses.  Incredibly enough, this historical urban topography has endured, with most of these riverbed streets falling within the Buffer Zone – radically transformed from spaces of cooperation to lines of division – partitioning the city from west to east. 

British Nicosia 1878 - 1960
With the arrival of the British in 1878, the development of the city began to extend outside of the walls when they built their colonial administrative buildings and new residences to the south and the west of the old city.  It was during this period that the Venetian walls began to be punctured, first with a new opening to the south by the building of a narrow wooden bridge, which became Eleftheria Square, to link the new city to the old.  Nicosia remained largely concentrated within the walls until the process of suburbanization, starting in the 1950s but gaining an additional impetus from the conflict and the division of the city, led to the development of new areas outside of the city.  When the British connected the new city to the old with the creation of Eleftheria Square in 1882, a north-south commercial corridor began to take shape along Ledra Street and up to the northern gate in the walls, Kyrenia Gate.  This corridor still exists today, and at its midpoint lies the Lokmaci Checkpoint, the only crossing point in the old city, which opened in the Spring of 2008.  

Divided City, 1958 – Present Day
The division of Nicosia, first instituted in 1958 with a wire fence termed the Mason-Dixon Line, was consolidated in 1963, and became permanent with the Turkish invasion of the island in 1974 when the two sides of the city were completely separated.  With the building of the Venetian Walls in 1567 the city of Nicosia was based on an ideal form, a geometrical abstraction, but division distorted its natural geometries and the center became instead two peripheries, and the periphery splintered off into several fragmented centres.  The urban form of the city today, the uses and residents in the walled city, are obviously the result of this dramatic rupture.  The division of the city and concerns about security served to add fuel to the fire of suburbanization as Cypriots to the north and the south left the old city.  While Ledra Street remains popular, the more popular neighborhoods are in the new parts of the city, and few residents have been enticed to move back into the old city despite extensive rehabilitation of several neighborhoods.  Attitudes toward the old city appear to be changing, however, as the last few years have seen in increase in popularity of some parts of the walled city, especially in the Greek Cypriot south. The old city is populated mostly by migrants, with 80% of the population in the north coming from Turkey.  In the south the 55% migrant population comes mainly from countries in Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe.  The largest presence along the buffer zone is that of a variety of light industrial workshops, on both sides of the city.  Carpenters, furniture makers, car mechanics, and a variety of other trades have moved in to the center of the city and occupied abandoned buildings for their workshops.  The opening of the checkpoint at Ledra Street has made a profound impact, shrinking the de facto Buffer Zone in the center of the city by providing a linkage between existing commercial areas in the north and the south.

4.  Recent/contemporary nature and stage of the ethno-national conflict.
Ever since 1964, in the longest peace-keeping mission in history, the United Nations has retained control of the Buffer Zone which divides the island, and runs through the center of Nicosia’s historic center.  International agencies such as UNDP and USAID have been funding a number of programs that have contributed to the improvement of the lived division on the ground in Cyprus by funding projects such as the Nicosia Master Plan (NMP), a bicommunal project aimed at reintegrating the city, as well as the de-mining of the buffer zone.  After 2004, the south has been the recipient of EU structural funds, some of which have been funneled into continuing the work of the NMP in the south.

The economy of the TRNC is heavily subsidized by Turkey, which maintains a strong military presence on the island; estimates place somewhere between 30,000 – 40,000 Turkish troops in north Cyprus today.  The presence of the military and of migrant workers from Turkey can be strongly felt in the walled city.  New construction projects in the north resulted in an increased demand for construction workers, whom contractors began to bring in mainly from south-east Turkey, housing them in empty buildings in the old city.  Fearing a perceived “colonization” by Turkey, and an eventual loss of demographic majority as a voting group, there is a sense of resentment on the part of the Turkish Cypriots towards these migrants who have “taken over” the old city.

The borders between the two republics remained largely closed for years, with few residents ever able to cross over to the other side of the city, until TRNC president Rauf Denktaş, in another surprise move, opened them in 2003.   After a contentious process, and through the steadfast efforts of the NMP, Nicosia’s symbolically important Ledra Street crossing opened up in 2008.  While this seems promising, it is important to note that 38% of Greek Cypriots and 31.2% of Turkish Cypriots have never once made the short journey across the border, and some who did cross did so only once or twice.  While it is possible to cross the border at other points in the island, recent research has demonstrated the greatest opportunity and potential for contact is in Nicosia.

5.  Prospects/expectations/scenarios for the future

It is important to note that the Cyprus Problem involves more players than just the Greek and Turkish Cypriots.  The role of Britain and the USA did not end with the encouragement of international negotiations, hoped to ameliorate tensions between rival NATO powers Greece and Turkey.  The external influence of these powers is ongoing through the presence of the British Sovereign Bases (SBAs), two of which are located on the island.  The strategic location and military importance of Cyprus continue to make it a concern for international powers, and ultimately these interests impact the potential for any future settlement.

The Greek Cypriot south of the island became an EU member state in 2004, after a referendum on the Annan Plan was defeated.  While 65% of Turkish Cypriots voted yes, only 24% of Greek Cypriots were in favor of the plan, which would have brought both sides of the island into the EU together.  This dealt a heavy blow to the bicommunal movement and marked the end of a period of optimism regarding the future of the island.  While the island is still divided, many Turkish Cypriots have applied for and received Republic of Cyprus passports, and there are a significant number who daily go south of the border to work.  This optimism has been reignited somewhat, with latest round of peace talks, started in September 2008, between the presidents Christofias and Talat.  Many Cypriots believe any chance for peace and unification of the island lies with these two leaders; as this small window of opportunity may quickly close with the re-emergence and re-election of strong nationalist political parties.

6. References  

M. Attalides (1981)  Social Change and Urbanization in Cyprus : A Study of Nicosia, Nicosia :Social Research Center. 

A. Borowiec (2000) Cyprus A Troubled Island.  Westport: Praeger Publishers. 

R. Bryant (2004)  Imagining the Modern: The Cultures of Nationalism in Cyprus.  I.B. Tauris. 

R. Bryant and M. Hatay.  (2008) The Jasmine Scent of Nicosia: Of Returns, Revolutions, and the Longing for Forbidden Pasts.  Journal of Modern Greek Studies 26(2), pp. 423-449. 

D. Demi (1997) The Walled City of Nicosia : Typology Study. Nicosia: The United Nations Development Program. 

P. Hocknell (2001) Boundaries of Cooperation: Cyprus de facto Partition, and the Delimitation of Transboundary Resource Management.  The Hague: Kluwer Law International. 

J. Joseph (1997) Cyprus: Ethnic Conflict and International Politics. New York: St. Martin's Press. 

Y. Papdakis (2005) Echoes from the Dead Zone: Across the Cyprus Divide. I.B. Taurus.