Riding with the guide on his motorbike, across Nicosia, the only divided capital in the world today, to explore the social and political situation on the island
It was incongruous. Less than 10ft away from a crowd of noisy-happy diners was a pair of bored guardsmen, one of them sporting a UN blue helmet, standing lazily but sharp-eyed in the soft-warm glow of orange-neon lights. They carried no weapons. No one was even paying attention to them, except for me. Every few minutes, as I munched on popular local food souvlaki and sheftalia (looked and tasted like seekh kebabs and naan to me!), they would cross the 15ft street together as if to maintain circulation in their legs. A couple of times they even disappeared into a side lane for a few minutes, perhaps to have a smoke. An occasional visitor would cross an unmarked line beside a blue sign, wave a card to someone inside a white cabin on their left and saunter towards us and beyond.
It was around 8pm and I was just a few feet away from this bizarre crossing point on a shopping street between what are seen by some as two countries and others as just one but divided republic. This was Ledra Street, the central shopping thoroughfare that is predominantly pedestrian and runs smack in the middle of Nicosia, the shared capital of Cyprus, which links North Nicosia, the part of the city under the control of the de facto Northern Cyprus supported by Turkey, and south Nicosia of the ‘free Republic of Cyprus’.
The small ‘inter-country checkpost’ cabin sits on what is called the Green Line, a buffer zone, established across the city and the island of Cyprus, running from east to west. Like other crossing points across the city, this barricade serves as a visual reminder of the division of Cyprus, and is no hindrance in casual crossing into each other’s territories by residents and tourists of the ‘other’ side. A line of control that does not control, really!
I myself had crossed the Green Line from south to north a day earlier to explore the beautiful Turkish northern third of this Mediterranean island (and the northern part of Nicosia) and was almost disappointed at not being challenged about something! Clearly the lovely Cypriots don’t know much about how to ‘manage’ a line of control from Pakistan and India in the equally lovely but more unfortunate Kashmir.
The name of the street refers to the ancient city-kingdom of Ledra founded nearly a thousand years ago. It is one of the main destinations of visitors being a shopper’s haven with its mix of high-end retain establishments, traditional craft outlets and antique shops selling all manner of lovely Byzantine curios. My guide Theo, a lanky but shy and ambient man in his early 30s, said, as we had our dinner, that Ledra Street has been the main shopping street of Nicosia but "in recent years is being superseded by more accessible streets further out from the centre".
Properties on the street are largely for commercial use and command some of the highest real estate prices in Cyprus. There was a time before the island became divided in the late 1970s, he said, that the street was nicknamed "The Murder Mile" for the frequent targeting of British military personnel by nationalist fighters along its course.
Ledra Street hosts the former tallest building in Nicosia, Shacolas Tower, and is linked to three arcades that include shops and cafes. Like in all downtown areas, its where the hip merges with the plebs.
Earlier in the day, I had hired Theo to show me the fabled wall art of South Nicosia. This also appealed to me because the tour would be on his motorbike. He had recently opened up a tour operators’ collective with two of his friends who aimed to provide more offbeat tours for visitors than the run-of-the-mill schemes that tourists subscribe. I ended up keeping him for the whole day during which he helped me make the most of the Greek-heritage of South Nicosia and its outskirts.
Riding with him on his bike, Theo showed me that beyond the museums and picturesque bazaars of the busy Ledras and adjacent Onasagorou streets of the city, there lies hiding in plain sight a treasure trove of local street art. Although most of it rests quietly on the capital’s walls, it often makes a firm statement -- a lot of it reflects politics of the decades that hangs heavy in the air. Though the politics is not as oppressive in its non-settlement as it is in the Indo-Pak subcontinent. The wall art trail in Nicosia is displayed publicly and encouraged by the city administration. Theo showed that following the trail of street art leads to a unique exploration of the Old Town in particular.
The street art scene is spread out mainly across the old walled town carrying cultural and socio-political messages while also showcasing Nicosia’s edgier avatar. Near the Stasinou Street, for example, is a large blue-and-green piece of a girl with her hair forming into trees which brings to life the tall white buildings that surround it. Though nearby streets have been filled with roadworks, this wall art brings more colour into the area.
There’s another one near the eastern Green Line where a tall side of a building looms over the barbed border. On it a grandfatherly man is shown looking over north Cyprus and melancholically exclaiming, in Greek, "Time is running out!" Another one nearby shows a woman’s face with her eyes on each side of a wall across the border, shedding a tear -- hinting at the pain of division that bridged only by tears. The common graffiti - in English - in many places proclaims, "No Thought Control - Tear Down the Wall!" ostensibly a reference from prog rock music band Pink Floyd’s album The Wall.
My favourite was one of two women in striking red and blue -- representing both divided parts of Cyprus -- reaching out across a ring of barbed wire jointly holding a white flower, representing a hostage union, and joining their other hands outside the circle, representing freedom to reject their historic condition.
After about 90-minutes of discovering people’s art across the city, Theo took me walking along the Green Line. This was a hodge-podge wall of concrete, barbed wire and sand-bagged barriers, hidden in many places by busy street-lined shops selling anything you can imagine. Just beyond dividing a compact historical core, this line is easy to navigate on foot and is filled with Gothic cathedrals, Venetian-style buildings and Ottoman-era monuments and mosques. On its either side are north and south Nicosia and Cyprus, an unpopulated buffer zone of overgrown weeds and abandoned homes and businesses guarded by United Nations peacekeepers and Greek and Turkish Cypriot soldiers.
The Green Line represents the failure of diplomacy and the inability of bureaucracies to simply materialise the political consensus for unity and social unity that is already in place. Tens of thousands of people from both sides traverse the crossing points without much ado and yet the state doesn’t simply make away with the system.
Most of the city’s best places to see are in or lead from the Old City along the Green Line. Simply take a walk to see the picturesque star-shaped wall that surrounds the city with its 11 ramparts. The fact that many buildings are dilapidated and crumbling only adds to the ‘old’ feel that highlights the city’s ancient history.
Nicosia is, of course, the only divided capital in the world today, and visiting the city’s Green Line is a great way for visitors to explore the social and political situation on the island, as well as its fascinating history. Visiting some of Nicosia’s greatest museums and collection galleries is a fantastic way to gain insight into the island’s art scene and ancient traditions. These include, which I went to, the Cyprus Museum and the Byzantine Museum. There’s also the lovely Nicosia Arts Center and Cyprus Classic Motorcycles Museum showcasing dozens of some of the best old motorbike specimens that I ever saw.
Also read: Can Kashmir become Cyprus?
Theo insisted I see this - and it seemed a travesty not to since our day was spent on his motorcycle. He told me the first thing he did with his saved money in high school was buy one because that’s the first promise he made to himself when he first came to the museum when a small boy.
As we had munched on our dinner together on a street with a border point between a divided nation, Theo told me the restaurant was owned by a northerner Cypriot. He also told me he was booked to take a tourist from Malta to north Cyprus in the morning. As he kickstarted his motorcycle and I sat behind him so he could drop me off at my hotel, my mind struggled to make sense of this strange division among a people that unites them and helps them defeat history on a daily basis.