By Serpil Kadirlar
Lucky are those who live in North Cyprus. Lucky are those who do not, yet spend restful holidays on the island and manage make time to see and experience what is one of the most picturesque, impressive cities on earth. As far as historical locations go, Lefkosa is home to some of the most amazing architecture in the world. Steeped in Ottoman history, it’s easy to become compelled by the buildings, the aromas of traditional dishes, fresh fruits and vegetables and roasted coffee.
The quirky, narrow streets, stone buildings and sparsely placed residential homes which are adorned with the original Cypriot style wooden window shutters offer a charm, while the tombs of fallen Ottoman soldiers reminds one of how the Turkish Cypriots of today came to existence.
Within the walls of the old city of Lefkosa, a world of splendour awaits those who love to explore and immerse themselves in all that the city has to offer. With no shortage of places to eat, drink and shop, it is well worth allocating AT LEAST an entire day to really appreciate all that is on offer in this beautifully restored part of Cyprus’ Capital.
Büyük Han (The Great Inn)
In the heart of the Cypriot capital City of Lefkosa, located in the traditional market centre within the old city walls, Büyük Han is the largest caravansarai on the island of Cyprus and is considered to be one of the finest buildings on the island. A caravanserai was a roadside inn where travellers (caravaners) could rest and recover from the day’s journey. Caravanserais supported the flow of commerce, information and people across the network of trade routes covering Asia, North Africa and Southeast Europe, especially along the Silk Road.
The Büyük Han was built by the Ottomans in 1572, the year after they had seized Cyprus from the Venetians. The centre of the open courtyard is a mosque with a fountain for pre-prayer ablutions, and though it is not in use for religious practice today, it stands in pristine condition, bringing an authentic if not spiritual aura to the entirety of the Great Inn. The Inn was known to have been built under the auspices of Muzaffer Pasha, the first Ottoman governor of Cyprus, and was modelled after Koza Han in Bursa. The building was reportedly built upon the remains of an older one. However, archaeologist Tuncer Bağışkan attributes the construction of the inn to his successor, Sinan Pasha, as Muzaffer Pasha had been appointed as the governor of Tripolitania on 26 August 1571. There is one surviving letter from Selim II about the inn, where, upon being informed that some shops had been demolished to build a caravansarai, he ordered that if the caravansarai was not profitable for the VAKIF it should be demolished and replaced with new shops.
According to İslâm Ansiklopedisi, Muzaffer Pasha requested an architect for the reconstruction of Cypriot fortresses from Constantinople. The architect that was sent, named Bostan, could have constructed Büyük Han.
* VAKIF property is also known as habous or mortmain property, is an inalienable charitable endowment under Islamic law, which typically involves donating a building, plot of land or other assets for Muslim religious or charitable purposes with no intention of reclaiming the assets. *
Upon the British takeover in 1878, the British used the Inn as Nicosia Central Prison- the first ever prison in Lefkosa. The windows of the Inn were high up, partially to deter marauders who saw the rich merchants staying at the Inn as a source of easy riches, and partially because glass was very expensive, thus, for the British, this was an ideal location to implement a prison.
The Great Inn, which had been partially destroyed during the events which ensued during the Cyprus conflict, received a new lease of life during the 1990’s and restoration work commenced to bring the Inn back to its former glory while maintaining its originality. The Inn has been revived as a thriving arts centre, consisting of several galleries and workshops as well as hosting several courtyard cafes and souvenir shops. Two symmetrical stone stairways at the northwest and southeast corners of the courtyard lead to the upper floor. Here the rooms, which were originally the bedrooms of the Inn, have low-arched doors with machicolations above them. There are also windows facing the outside of the Inn with loopholes above, hearths with octagonal chimneys, and niches. The room which falls on top of the main entrance is larger than the rest, and its door when opened, extends all the way to the gallery.
Today, whether shopping for traditional and cultural trinkets, souvenirs or textiles, or relaxing in the courtyard café with your favourite beverage, the ambience in what is one of the most significant and stunning pieces of Ottoman architecture in Cyprus is unlike any other place on the island.
Opening Hours: 8am-7pm, Monday-Sunday
The Kumarcilar Han, (Gambler’s Inn), is just 100 yards or so north of the Buyuk Han, in Asmaalti Square. Much smaller than the Buyuk Han, the Kumarcilar Han is nonetheless typical of an Ottoman inner city commercial inn. Built around the end of the 17th century, during the middle ages, merchants used to group themselves together according to their trades. When travelling, merchants from the same town or trade would favour certain Inns, which would tend to assume the name of that town or trade.
Kumarcilar Han is much smaller and modest when compared with Büyük Han (Great Inn). Similar to all caravansarai, the entrance leads to an open air courtyard, which is surrounded by a two storey building, originally containing 56 rooms. Those on the upper story were used by the travellers, while those on the ground floor were used for their animals and belongings.
According to Haşmet Muzaffer Gürkan, a hypothesis about its name states that it was originally called “Kumbaracılar Hanı”, after a subdivision of the Ottoman army, “kumbaracılar”. It was recorded with different names at different times, in 1881, it was called “Kucuk Khan” (“Small Inn”) in a map and Rupert Gunnis wrote in 1936 that it was called the “Khan of Itinerant Musicians”.
The inn, which had been derelict for 35 years, was fully restored with the funding and assistance of the republic of Turkey and has been open to the public for less than a year. Similar to the Great Inn, The Gamblers Inn hosts, arts and crafts shops, stalls, cafes and shops selling local and traditional produce.
The area around Bandabulya has been the centre of shopping in Lefkosa since the 1800’s. This covered market has a mix of produce stalls piled high with fruit and vegetables for local shoppers, craft shops aimed squarely at visitors, clothing stores and stalls, classic music vendors, antiques stores and a couple of cafes.
The current Bedestan served as a market during the 19th century, where mostly textiles were sold. Because of population growth, and because people from all over Cyprus came to the city to sell their goods, new buildings were built around the Bedestan where tradesmen could stay. During this period, the weekly market place was turned into a permanent market place, and this continued till the Bandabuliya was built.
Construction of the Bandabuliya started in 1930, and it was opened two years later in 1932. The bazaar housed everything from greengrocers to butchers and fishmongers.As the population increased, movement towards the outskirts of Lefkosa became further distant from the historical shopping capital, forcing other shopping centres to form closer to new settlement areas which had a negative impact on trade within Bandabulya. The closure of roads leading to Turkish parts of the city in 1958, lead to a further decline.
Recent years have seen a revival of trade, and this historic bazaar is still a superb market for fresh vegetables, clothing and Turkish souvenirs. It is still frequented by local shoppers, so any visitor can get a taste of shopping in the old city.
In 2010, the Bandabuliya closed for restoration, and re-opened in the Spring of 2012. Sadly the refurbishment has meant that a lot of the character of the old market has been lost. Instead of a Middle East bazaar, we now have the feel of a 1960s English provincial indoor market. However Bandabulya remains a great place to shop, especially if you live in Cyprus!
Opening Hours: 8am-6pm, Monday-Sunday
The Selimiye Mosque
The former cathedral is noted as being the largest and the finest temple, and the most important Gothic structure in Cyprus. The Gothic structure of the interior is still apparent despite Islamic overlays, such as the whitewashed walls and columns, and the reorientation of the layout to align it with Mecca. The ornate west front has three decorated doorways, each in a different style. Four marble columns relocated from Ancient Salamis (located in the Iskele region of North Cyprus) were placed in the apse off the main aisles.
It is said to have been constructed over a Byzantine church called Hagia Sophia on the same site. However, such a cathedral is absent from Byzantine sources and is not associated with any excavated ruins. In spite of this, a single 11th-century manuscript mentions the existence of an episcopal church dedicated to Holy Wisdom in the city.
The construction of the Roman Catholic Church was started by the Latin Archbishop Eustorge de Montaigu in 1208. It was consecrated in 1326 and opened to religious service. The cathedral was restored by the Genoese in 1373, and by the Mamluks in 1426; it was damaged in several earthquakes. The eastern section of the cathedral was destroyed in eathquakes in 1491 and as it was being restored by the Venetians, the grave of an old Lusignan king (Hugh II) was uncovered. The corpse was well preserved with a crown on its head, and items made of gold and documents on it.
After the Ottomans captured the island from the Venetians in 1570, Ottoman soldiers were said to have entered the church. They washed the interior of the Church to make it ready for the first Friday prayer that it would host on 15 September, which was attended by the commander Lala Mustafa Pasha and saw the official conversion of the cathedral into a mosque. During the same year, the two minarets were added, as well as Islamic features such as the mihrab (a semi-circular niche in the wall of a mosque that indicates the qibla; that is, the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca and hence the direction that Muslims should face when praying) and the minbar (a pulpit in the mosque where the imam/ prayer leader stands to deliver sermons).
The first imam of the mosque was Moravizade Ahmet Efendi, who hailed from the Morea province (now the Peloponnese peninsula in southern Greece) of the Ottoman Empire.
Following its conversion, the mosque became the property of the Sultan Selim Foundation, which was responsible for maintaining it. Other donors formed a number of foundations to help with the maintenance. During the Ottoman period, it was the largest mosque in the whole island, and was used weekly by the Ottoman governor, administrators and elite for the Friday prayers. In the late 18th century, a large procession that consisted of the leading officials in the front on horseback, followed by lower-ranking officials on foot, came to the mosque every Friday. The Friday prayers also attracted a large number of Muslims from Nicosia and surrounding villages. Due to the crowds frequenting the mosque, a market developed next to it and the area became a trade centre. The area around the mosque became a center of education as well, with madrasahs such as the Great Madrasah and Little Madrasah being built nearby.
Visiting Information: Everybody is welcome to visit the mosque although it is closed to non-Muslims during times of worship. Please note that you will be required to take your shoes off at the door, women will be required to wear a head covering and modest clothing to enter. Men are also required to wear modest clothes- long sleeved shirts are advisable. These items are available at the mosque entrance. Please do not be deterred by the rules which are set out to respect worshipers using the mosque as well as the traditions of the religion. This spectacular mosque is a must see!
Bedesten or Bedestan is an historical building in the Selimiye quarter of Lefkosa, located directly beside the Selimiye Mosque. The structure has a long and complicated history spanning more than one thousand years. Originally built as a church in about the sixth century, and expanded and rebuilt between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, it was converted to a bedestan, a type of covered market, during the period of Ottoman rule.
Under the Lusignan kings, the subsequent history of the building is not well documented, but some historians, including Camille Enlart, proposed that after the fall of Acre (a conquest battle in 1291 the loss of the Crusader-controlled city of Acre to the Mamluks- It is considered one of the most important battles of the period in the late twelfth century), English monks who were followers of Thomas Becket established a new Latin church on this site and dedicated it to St Nicholas. This reading of the sources is not, however, universally accepted in view of the minor role played by the Knights of Saint Thomas in the history of the Latin east. For reasons and circumstances that are unclear, the church was expanded several times and rebuilt during the fourteenth and the fifteenth centuries. During the Venetian rule of the island, the Bedesten was used as the metropolitan bishopric building by the Orthodox church, and dedicated to Mary as Panagia Hodegetria.
In 1573, a few years after the Ottoman conquest of Cyprus, the building was given by the Ottoman authorities to the foundation of Haramayn (that of the two holy cities of Islam, Mecca and Medina) to be used as a bedestan (a covered textile market). It was later used as a market for food, and by the 1760s it was a food trading centre for Turkish, Greek and Armenian merchants alike. By 1873, it had been converted into a flour depot with limited sale of flour, which was brought from the now Değirmenlik region of Lefkosa , by governmental officials. It was then used as a wheat depot in the 1870s and a generic storage place for the Evkaf Administration in the 1930s.
In 2003, studies, investigations and design commenced for the restoration of the of the Bedestan, aimed to contribute to the revitalisation of the Selimiye Quarter, a focal point of the unique cultural heritage of the Walled City of Old Lefkosa. When the project started, this historically significant landmark was partly in ruins, and the restoration aimed to strengthen remaining structural parts. The building has now been restored to its former splendour. Before the project, the Bedestan was closed to the public due to dangerous structural conditions.
Today, the Bedestan is used as a cultural centre, and hosts daily performances of the whirling Dervishes.
A Dervish is a member of a Muslim (specifically Sufi) Mevlevi religious order who has taken vows of poverty and austerity). Dervishes first appeared in the 12th century; they were noted for their mystical rituals which were known as dancing or whirling, to the practice of their order. The Mevlevi order was founded by the poet Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi, who was born in 1207 in what is now Afghanistan. While he was still a boy, his parents emigrated to Anatolia and settled in Konya. There he studied under his father, and at the age of 24 became a professor of history, theology and jurisprudence.The mystical philosophy that he express in his poetry and bequeathed to the Mevlevi order would spread east from Konya as far as India, and then throughout the entire Islamic world. His teachings emphasised the individual soul’s separation from God during earthly existence, and the power of Divine Love to draw it back to the infinite on death. Quite scandalously to orthodox Muslims at the time, Rumi stressed music and dance as an expression of this mutual love and yearning, and the Mevlevi order became famous over the centuries for its whirling ceremony. In Cyprus, the Lefkosa Mevlevihane was the centre of the Sufi tradition on the island. It is believed that the mufti of Cyprus, who came from Konya in 1607 was also the first Sheik of the Mevlevihane.
The Mesmerizing performance of the whirling dervishes is one which is indescribable. One must see it to feel the soul in their performance, which is a scene of man submitting fully to god and his spiritual beliefs. The religious whirling, which is a form of meditation, is paired with an element of science and biology.
A dervish always begins whirling from the left, This is to imitate the principle rule of existence. The blood in the human body circulates from left to right, the earth rotates on its axis and around the sun from left to right. The other planets in our galaxy(with the exception of Venus) orbit the sun from left to right. While whirling, the Dervish connects with the universe, synchronizing with the forces of the cosmos that causes the planets to rotate. Pretty deep stuff for a centuries old practice!
Performance Days and Times: Monday-Saturday, 12pm, 2pm, 5pm and 5pm
Entry Fee: 7 Euros.
Sources: Monument Tracker, North Cyprus Tourism information, Lonely Planet, the VAKIF centre, Wikipedia
Photos By: Serpil Kadirlar