Building Nicosia: The Space Between

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The original divide dates back to 1956, when British colonial officials etched out the “Mason-Dixon line” under the pretext of Greek and Turkish inter-communal violence. (Photo: Alia Haju)

By: Leah Caldwell

Published Monday, February 13, 2012

For decades, urban planners in Cyprus’s capital Nicosia worked under the assumption that one day their city would be unified. Instead, the line drawn between the city’s Turkish and Greek halves remains one of the most vexing features facing Cypriot planners.

Only 10 kilometers of the 185 kilometer Green Line that officially divides the country’s Turkish north and Greek south passes through the urban core of Nicosia, but its presence is pronounced.

Streets on both the Greek and Turkish sides dead end abruptly in official barriers, like the miniature military encampments fortified with sand bags or the crumbling concrete walls topped with barbed wire. On a cold January night, two soldiers bundled in winter clothes sat atop a pile of sandbags on the Greek half of the city. The metal wall behind the soldiers divides a derelict house in two, with one window on the Greek side, and another left untouchable in the UN buffer zone, also known as the dead zone or no man’s land.

Photo Blog | Cyprus: A Tale of Two Cities by Alia Haju

“Let’s face it, as a whole, Nicosia remains totally functionally divided and just a tragic kind of sh*t hole – a beautiful one and one that I love, but it’s just been trashed and thrown in a dumpster,” said Jon Calame, co-author of Divided Cities.

The original divide dates back to 1956, when British colonial officials etched out the “Mason-Dixon line” under the pretext of Greek and Turkish inter-communal violence. After Cyprus attained independence from Britain in 1960, the UN later drew the official Green Line in 1963. In 1974, when Turkey invaded following a coup by a Greek military junta that sought to unite Cyprus with Greece, the once porous dividing line became nearly impenetrable for ordinary citizens. Despite the relative relaxation of border crossings in 2003, the two halves of Nicosia are markedly different, with each respective side stamping their Greek and Turkish identities on physical spaces.

On the north Turkish side, an Ataturk statue stands in a central downtown square and Turkish Cypriot flags hang from buildings. A Sunday afternoon brought out large crowds of mostly young men to a commercial arcade selling military gear where they ate doner kebab and drank tea.

The Greek downtown hosts small cafes, some Western chains, and courtyards facing churches, not to mention loads of radical, anti-establishment graffiti. A bustling Sunday crowd in the downtown consisted of huge groups of mostly female Southeast Asians who had set up an informal market in a park, as well as a group of Brits participating in a scavenger hunt. The most obvious shared feature of both sides is the derelict structures that border the UN buffer zone – an area that has been off limits to the public since 1974.

The once-hyped Nicosia Master Plan sought to transcend these inevitable divisions and prepare Nicosia’s urban grid for a hypothetical, seamless reunification, but the plan has since lost its original luster. Initiated in 1981 with UN support, the master plan first brought together Greek and Turkish Cypriot urban planners, architects, and engineers to build a shared sewage system and demonstrate that the two sides could envision and plan for a unified city. As years passed, the planners saw the reunification of other divided cities like Berlin, but Nicosia didn’t budge.

A Minor Pawn in a Chess Game

Decades later, the united master plan is still in effect, but the international support that bolstered its activities has waned. The US, which trumpets reunification and provides support for rehabilitation of historic buildings in Nicosia, is quietly pulling its funding from Cyprus.

A source close to the project said that it is possible the US government’s development wing USAID will shut down its Cyprus office soon. If true, this would be in line with the group’s decreased funding requests for Cyprus. In 2011, they requested US$11 million for Cyprus projects, but in 2012, they requested a mere US$3.5 million. Elizabeth Kassinis, a senior program advisor for USAID in Nicosia, said that the cuts were a result of “competing global priorities,” but that the Cyprus office would remain open.

“Cyprus has been such a shill – a minor pawn in a chess game that has moved on,” said Calame, referring to the declining lack of US and international interest in the country.

Illustrative of the country’s current minor league status, a desperate letter from a lobbyist working for the Republic of Cyprus to the White House in 2010 had the southern Cyprus head of state Demetris Christofias nearly begging for a meeting with Barack Obama. After stating that a US president hadn’t met a Cypriot head of state in 15 years, the last line of the letter, filed with the US government and obtained by Al-Ahkbar, reads: “However, as noted above, he [Christofias] is willing to travel to Washington any time before then to meet with President Obama.” It appears that Christofias never got a meeting, but there were a few photo ops between him and Obama in New York in 2010.

“If people could see a light at the end of the tunnel in the [UN] talks between the two sides, then I think the situation would improve,” said Fatih Rifki, one of the original members of the master plan team and a professor of architecture at Montana State University. “The talks that have been going on since the 1960s haven’t resulted in any agreement.”

In 2004, Greek and Turkish Cypriots turned out to vote for or against the UN’s Annan Plan, which would’ve reunited the two sides as the “United Cyprus Republic.” Though over 60 percent of Turks voted for the plan, 75 percent of Greeks voted against it. One month later, southern Cyprus was admitted to the EU; the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus remains recognized as a state only by Turkey.

An Imaginary City for Imaginary People

As political realities suggest that reunification might be a distant fantasy, the implemented projects of the Nicosia Master Plan, however minor, sit like puzzle pieces waiting to be connected on the Greek and Turkish sides. Several pedestrian corridors on either side of the dead zone are carefully aligned, so that upon reunification a sidewalk would meet another sidewalk, as opposed to a freeway. The plan regulates details such as curb sizes, so that there would be few indicators that Nicosia was once divided in two.

Lellos Demetriades, the former mayor of southern Nicosia and community representative for the master plan, once boasted in 1998 that, “If someone tomorrow tells me that a solution has been reached and that Nicosia has been reunited, in as little as 48 hours, I can remove the obstacles and barriers and there will be a smooth integration of Nicosia in terms of the movement of people and traffic.”

Yet the planning for Nicosia post-divide has somewhat overshadowed the city’s current planning needs. “You could say it’s a responsibility to deal with the actual people living in the actual place as opposed to the imaginary people living in the imaginary place,” said Calame. “Let’s deal with the ball where it lies as opposed to endlessly waiting and dreaming about this magical day when it’s all going to come back together.”

Calame describes urban Nicosia near the Green Line as a “weird, total low-rent district for the people who are almost uniformly the servants, or domestic help, of the well-to-do Cypriots.” The city is undergoing demographic changes – like the increase of Southeast Asians coming here for work – and, according to Calame, urban planners have largely not been able to keep up.

“There’s this very nice historical facade, but then there’s all these social issues, because whether it’s the north or south, there are issues with ‘the other’ or immigrants,” said Anna Grichting, an architect whose work focuses on divided cities. “I’m a bit concerned that reunification will also be based on a new common enemy, which is ‘the other,’ the immigrant, or the settler.”

Despite the Green Line’s possible irrelevance to urban planning, the divide is still a specter that continues to haunt many Cypriots.

Yiannis Papadakis, a social anthropologist at the University of Cyprus, said, “I believe that neither Greek Cypriots nor Turkish Cypriots want a federation. My understanding is that neither wants to actually live with the other, since living with the other will create interdependence and both see this as very negative and are fearful of the outcome due to the high level of mutual mistrust.”

Rifki, who grew up in northern Nicosia, has hopes for a “common future” in Cyprus, but even he relents, “We don’t feel any ownership of the south, neither do they feel ownership of the north.” On a recent trip back to Nicosia, he observed, “The city functions as two. As long as there is that border, however porous it is now, it will remain so.”


The article echoes western propaganda about Cyprus when it talks about the referendum to reunite the island in 2004....It fails to mention that the Annan plan would HAVE ALLOWED THE TURKISH OCCUPATION TO CONTINUE and would not have dismantled the Turkish colonies set up under occupation or restituted the houses stolen from tens of thousands of Greeks who were expelled from the turkish occupied zone. Don't you think it should be said WHY the Greeks voted 75% against the plan when a vast majority are for reunification??
It's like saying the Palestinians are at fault for the Israeli occupation because they voted against that occupation...

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