In September, photographer Roman Robroek was commissioned to photograph the Nicosia green line. His evocative photos formed part of a conference earlier this week organised by the Europa Nostra organisation which placed the area on its list of the seven most endangered heritage sites in Europe in 2013. The conference highlighted the need for urgent action to be taken to renovate the buildings in the buffer zone.
Below is an excerpt of what he saw as UN soldiers escorted him along the green line
The first buildings I saw and photographed were the Ayios Kassianos schools. The schools comprise a very interesting complex of two neoclassical buildings of the beginning of the 20th century and a later one which is known to be the nursery. The two schools, boys and girls, are identical in their original layout, but bear later interventions. Their characteristic neoclassical elements recall the architectural style of other examples of schools within the city of Nicosia. Their importance for the area and the city as a whole highlights the urgency of their immediate support and restoration.
Ayios Georgios church is located in the same complex and is also a very important monument. It dates back to the 17th century, built in ashlar stone, with later interventions. Its southern wall lies on Ayios Georgios street, where the main entrance to the narthex opens. The internal walls of the narthex bear signs of bright colours and of stone decorations. It is of high importance that this church is documented and restored immediately; otherwise one of the most important monuments of the area will be lost.
Across from the church is ‘Annie’s House’, named after the woman who refused to leave her house, after the buffer zone was established. UN diplomacy could not dislodge her. She continued living in her house, and UN patrols regularly escorted her on shopping trips to get groceries and such. When UN patrols hadn’t noticed any movement in her house, they entered and found she died. Annie’s family had broken contact, and she had no-one to arrange her funeral. Annie was 90 years old when she died, and UN soldiers paid and arranged her funeral. Her story is still alive.
Continuing along the road, I came across Ayios Iakovos church, one of the most important monuments in the buffer zone area. It dates back to the 15th and 16th centuries with later interventions, such as the steeple built of fine ashlar stones. It’s a Byzantine type of church covered with two intersected barrel vaults carrying the cupola, with eight windows. The arch of the Holy Place is semi-circular. Louis Salvator of Austria visited Nicosia in 1873 and gives a description of this church, as “… a small building with four-barrel vaults …The Iconostasis curved of wood, bears the Russian eagle…”. The church is part of a building complex referred to as the monastery of Ayios Iakovos.
At one point, we crossed the buffer zone at Ledra Street. A very busy crossing, and just a day before I walked through the street and faced the big fences and gates on both sides. Today, these gates opened to cross from the east side of Ledra Street to the west side of the street. On the corner is located the well-known Olympus hotel. Decades ago it was one of the most important hotels of the walled city. The richness of its architectural elements, as well as the grand halls in the interior and its large rooms reveal the importance of this building and its significant role in the heart of the economic and probably the social life of the city.
It was built in the beginning of the 20th century (1914–1933) using load bearing masonry, with classical elements decorating the facades. The ground floor was built for commercial use, with simple elements of decoration while the first floor was occupied by the Olympus hotel, with much more complicated decoration elements such as pilasters, balconies and cornices with modillions. Both the facades are formed according to a combination of the classical Greek ionic order with a Roman-Corinthian cornice with modillions, along with neo baroque elements on the corner of the building. Since 1974, the building has been largely abandoned to the ravages of time. Only the part that faces Ledra Street has been renovated. It looks amazing.
Throughout the buffer zone, there are several corner buildings. These are a special type which appears on the corners of commercial building complexes on the crossroads in the heart of the commercial centre, around Phaneromeni. There are six of them in an area of 500 metres long. These buildings are identical in layout, square in shape, with rounded corners. Neoclassical architectural elements decorate the facades. One of my personal favourite shots of my visit is a corner building that’s being completely reclaimed by nature.
One of the buildings that I was able to enter, is called ‘Maple House’ which was once used as a platoon house for UN soldiers. It wasn’t a very luxurious base and has been abandoned for a number of years as part of the general force reduction. On the wall is a plaque of a former gun shop that was located inside of the building. Maple House was originally a small arcade type shopping centre with an apartment block above. The building itself has been mostly stripped, yet it is still in a good condition.
One of the other shops located in this complex used to be a car garage. A lot of cars have been left behind in the showroom and the cellar. The cellar is filled with cars, and some of them even have as little as 40km on the clock.
A small number of cars were removed from the basement by the UN and are better preserved, but most of them have been left behind. Just before hostilities in 1974, these cars had been imported and driven to the basement in Nicosia. Some have just 40 kilometres on the clock. The drive-in entrance to the basement is in the buffer zone. Over the years the cars have been stripped of their internal fittings and smaller engine parts and, although technically ‘new’ can no longer be described as being in ‘mint condition’. Thieves have provided themselves access to this storage area, with all the risks involved, to strip the cars.
Close to Maple House is the ‘ten minute yard’. According to the UN, this was a very sensitive location because there were numerous protests about the amount of time Turkish soldiers spent in the area of this yard. It was agreed with the UN that Turkish soldiers would only be visible in the yard for ten minutes in each hour. However, to make a point the Turkish soldiers would appear at 10 minutes ‘to’ the hour and then continue to stay for 10 minutes of the next hour, thereby remaining visible in the yard for 20 minutes. This was obviously seen as a gesture of provocation.
Right next to the ‘ten minute yard’, almost attached to it, are the remains of a yellow car. Near the end of the fighting in 1974, this yellow car was destroyed and both Greek and Turkish sides disputed the exact position of the ceasefire line. According to the UN, the Turkish side believed that the ceasefire line should be drawn at the south point of the car, while the Greeks believed the line should be at the northern point of the car. The dispute was settled by the UN by painting two lines; one at the northern end and one at the southern end of the car. Thereby, the UN created a ‘buffer zone’ within the buffer zone.
The full text and photographs of Roman Robroek’s visit to the green line in Nicosia can be viewed at https://romanrobroek.nl/a-rare-view-inside-the-buffer-zone-in-nicosia-cyprus/