Same mahalle or neighbourhood, two different worlds. Yet behind the barbed wire on either side of the Ayios Kassianos divide in Nicosia’s old city, lingering memories intertwine and overlap
By Agnieszka Rakoczy
ON JULY 29, 1958, 85-year-old Konstantinos Hadjikyriakou, woke up early in his son’s house just outside the southern rim of Nicosia’s Venetian Walls.
Tanti, as he was widely known, owner of the popular hamam in the mixed neighbourhood of Ayios Kassianos in old Nicosia, set off for Ledra street. There, he drank coffee with the staff of two shops belonging to his family, chatted with some people and then disappeared into the crowd at the end of the street.
Later, a young woman employee of one of Ledra’s Greek Cypriot shops recalled how the tall old man’s sleeve got snagged on the hook of one of the fishing rods on display at the shop front as he passed by.
“Wherever you are going, stop and think twice, because you shouldn’t be going there,” she admonished him. But Tanti did not listen and continued on his way, leaning heavily on his walking stick.
He was in a hurry to get to a business meeting in his old house on the corner of Konstantinou tou Megalo Street in Ayios Kassianos, or Kafesli as it is known in Turkish. He was thinking of selling the house as his family had been forced to relocate outside the city walls after the outbreak of intercommunal troubles.
The young woman’s premonition proved right though. Twenty minutes later, at about 8.45 am, Konstantinos Hadjikyriakou was shot dead in his own dwelling by a member of a Turkish semi-military group named Kara Cete, one of the forerunners of TMT.
“He was waiting for the man who killed him in his old house because he thought the man was a buyer,” his granddaughter Androulla Michaelidou, who was 17 at the time, tells the Sunday Mail. “He went there without telling anybody. Had we known he was going there we would have stopped him.”
Even though he was almost blind, her grandfather had tried to fight off his assailant, Michaelidou says. When police found him, he was clutching his walking stick in a manner than suggested he had been trying to defend himself.
On either side of what became known as the Green Line, which by early 1964 was to slash Kafesli-Ayios Kassianos in two and separate the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities, there are older residents who well remember the day Tanti was killed.
“When news of his death came, everybody said the same thing: ‘why did he go there, he was so rich; he didn’t need the money’. Everyone was shocked. People kept on asking,” Eleftheria Philippides recalls. Her family house in Arahovas street, not far from the hamam, is in the last row of houses of what became the Greek side of the divide, right alongside the UN patrolled area.
As a small child, she would go with her mother to the Tanti hamam. “All the women from the neighbourhood used to go there – Greek and Turkish Cypriots.” Looking back, her eyes light up as she remembers “this very big Turkish Cypriot masseuse, she was huge.”
Throughout the late 50s and early 60s, the Philippides’ family tried to cling on in the neighbourhood, but by the mid-sixties, worn down by the constant violence and uncertainty, they opted to move and built a house elsewhere.
“We left in summer of 1958, came back in October, then left again in December 1963,” says Philippides. “Then we came back again in 1964 but not to our house. For two years we lived with my aunt, and then moved for good, to a new place in Aglandjia.”
From 1974 onwards, Eleftheria’s family home, like many other buildings in the same street, was used by the National Guard, which built a complex system of trenches running through them. Abandoned by the early 90s, it is now in ruins.
Philippides’ brother still comes back to Ayios Kassianos every day because he runs his business from a small shop in the area.
On the other side of the Green Line, Turkish Cypriots have their own stories about the hamam and its owner. The neighbourhood of Kafesli may be run down, but the extensive Tanti imprint is still visible in roads such as Konstantinou tou Megalo Street, Atilla Street and Ioannou Tsimiski Street and elsewhere.
Tanti first came to Kafesli-Ayios Kassianos from Tymbou at the beginning of the 20th century and staked his claim by selling everything in Tymbou and buying any available land in the neighbourhood. Over the next six decades, he built and ran a small, but flourishing business consisting of the Turkish baths (Tanti Hamam) and several rows of tiny housing units that he used to rent out. The hamam was built on a section of Atilla Street that was once known as Cukur Bahce (the Sunken Garden).
“They say he was a good man, good both to the Turks and Greeks,” says historian Tuncer Huseyin Bagiskan, an expert on old Nicosia, who back in the 1960s also lived in the area.
“He employed Turks and was renting houses to them. He never pushed for rent if somebody had problems. But then the news came that Greek Cypriot militia burnt alive a hoca at Kirklar Turebesi (the Tomb of 40 Martyrs) in Tymbou and somebody had to pay for it. Kara Cete chose Tanti.”
Kafesli’s Turkish Cypriot mukhtar Huseyin Eminoglu and his wife Kezban used to go to the baths as children. The large Turkish Cypriot woman who worked there, and so vividly remembered by Eleftheria Philippides, was Pembe Simar. She, along with her daughter Fatma, continued to run the hamam for several years after Tanti’s killing.
“But then, in 1963, we had to build a barricade,” the 60-year-old mukhtar, recalls looking down Atilla Street, which before the division intersected directly with Ioannou Tsimiski Street. “They used stones from part of the hamam to build it so from that time the building has not been used.”
The Eminoglus reminisce freely about what happened in the neighbourhood over the years. Pointing to an empty space where only an old palm tree now stands (site of one of the family houses, according to Tanti’s granddaughter Michaelidou), the mukhtar relates what happened: “there was a house but a small boy stole a home-made bomb from his father and brought it here to play with. When it exploded nothing was left, only blood everywhere.”
Mukhtar Eminoglu wants to see the hamam restored as a cultural centre. He has been patiently knocking on doors since 2000 seeking the funds to achieve this goal, but so far unsuccessfully. But he is not giving up.
Michaelidou says she too would be happy to see the hamam restored and even being used again. “But how can we do that?” she says. “We are here, the hamam is there. If only somehow things could change.”
Ayios Kassianos lies in the eastern part of Nicosia’s old town. Its name comes from Ayios Kassianos church, which is located there. It is the only surviving church in Cyprus dedicated to St Kassianos.
The church is said to have in its possession the bones and scull of the Saint. The relics are kept in a golden box along with his silver helmet. They are believed to have miraculous powers and are recommended especially for those suffering from headaches.
The Turkish name of the mahalle Kafesli means “caged” or “lattice” and might relate to the old Ottoman houses of the neighbourhood that usually had kiosks enclosed in gilded lattices, on their upper floor.