By Hossein Sadri
The oldest and the most valuable part of the last divided capital city of Europe with thousands of monuments is now under three different legal and administrative authorities. With Nicosia the first divided settlement on the island, yet also the subject of Cyprus’ first bi-communal project as developed by the municipalities of this city, could it now play a special role in the re-unification of the island by hosting the first re-unified initiative?
The “Free Walled City” is a proposal to establish the first free zone on the island with the aim of developing an effective economic, social, cultural and confidence building project.
The multi-layered heritage of the walled city remains from the ancient Roman Ledra city-state, the Ptolemaic Lefkothea, the Middle Ages and Venetian fortified Lefkosia, the Ottoman Lefkosha and the British Nicosia. The walled city with eleven bastions and three gates was built as a closed castle. This gated city was fragmented into Greek and Turkish communities during the Ottoman period and British colonial rule. However establishing the local administration authorities by both communities in 1958 was the first step in the legal division in Nicosia. After the inter-communal violence of 1963, the city was physically divided into two parts by the “Green Line”. In 1974, this line was expanded to become the “Buffer Zone” under the control of the United Nations.
In 1979 the bi-communal attempts to create a common master plan for old Nicosia was started by Mustafa Akinci and Lellos Demetriades, the two mayors of Nicosia. In the master plan, numerous projects including rehabilitation of neighbourhoods, pedestrianisation and restoration projects were proposed for the walled city as part of a common heritage site for all communities. In addition to residential and cultural activities, the master plan introduced artisans and traditional shopping areas in the heart of the walled city and green and open public areas in the bastion and gate areas. The plan concentrated on the buffer zone as a “gluing” area especially around Ermou Street.
While many of the planned projects have been realised over the last three decades, the buffer zone area and sections of Ermou Street could not be refunctioned and opened for public use yet. Recently, the two present mayors of Nicosia, Mehmet Harmanci and Constantinos Yiorkadjis, have pressed ahead with their attempts to develop a revitalisation project for the buffer zone area and implement the pedestrianisation project for the walled city. They have also presented their proposals for the opening of new checkpoints in the city to the community leaders.
While increasing the links between the two divided parts of Nicosia walled city and bringing life back to the dead buffer zone area, are both positive initiatives, a more holistic and integrated approach for this most historically and socio-culturally valued part of the island could act as a catalyst for re-conciliation and even re-unification of the country as a whole. Nicosia walled city could easily be turned into a “free zone” with controlled access from the both sides and local, public-private partnership oriented, internationally supported and bi-communal initiated administrative authority.
The physical shape of the walled city as a fortified castle, the limited access points to it, its historical value, the organisation of spaces around it and the accessibility – car park and public use opportunities – could be all used as advantages in making Nicosia walled city a bi-communal free zone.
By moving the checkpoints outside the walled city on the both sides and establishing a bi-communal initiative to administrate the walled city, the project could be readily realised. The walled city could be transformed into the most alive, valuable part of the island. It could be the first bi-communal settlement and the first co-habitation and co-operation centre. The project would attract the attention of both local and international investors for its restoration and revitalisation projects. By opening up new employment and business potential, the “Free Nicosia Walled City” project could revive the island’s economy.
It seems that opening up Nicosia is both politically and technically easier than Varosha. It could also be more meaningful and effective.
Dr Hossein Sadri is an associate professor of architecture in northern Cyprus