Cyprus' Green Line, a UN buffer zone between the Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish-occupied North Cyprus, runs right through the city of Nicosia. We crossed from North into South on foot, along with a man who had just hopped over for some groceries. The border is informal these days - a far cry from 1974. That's when Turkey came in and nabbed 38% of the island, right up to the Green Line, which was at the time a cease-fire line drawn in the 60s. We knew that the we'd see reminders of that year in Nicosia, but weren't expecting to encounter them in the ways that we did. Flashbacks to the 70s popped up in retro ice cream salon signage and abandoned vinyl stores.
Even as we crossed the border we felt a little time-warpy. This is a UN-protected border in 2012, hardly the place we thought we'd see a barrier made of sandbags. Combined with the checkpoint's palm-thatched roof, it conjured images of 1970s Hollywood 'conflict in the tropics.' The camou-wearing guards wielded machine guns yet still seemed less intimidating than some Manhattan doormen I've encountered. But, we weren't about to treat it flippantly and we didn't break any rules. So, no photography of anything in or around the Green Line. Just these 'vintage' signs from Nicosia's Old Town.
The Buffer Zone is quite literally "green," a defacto national park of protected area belting a country that is being developed at a rapid rate. There are cemeteries that no one can visit anymore, houses that had to be abandoned. In Nicosia, there's a big sign outside one of the pedestrian checkpoints. "The World's Last Divided Capital," it reads. The once murderously volatile dividing line is now a tourism selling point. Which is why I was even more shocked to see that so much of the Old Town was a derelict time capsule.
It makes sense, really. In the North and the South, we've met people who define themselves as refugees from the other side. In 1974, once Turkey's occupying forces made it down to that line, Turkish-Cypriots were relocated up North and Greek-Cypriots sought refuge down south - creating two ethnically defined halves. Houses, land, stores, etc were abandoned. So, I assume the same was true in Nicosia. Walking around the Venetian walled Old Town of South Nicosia, it felt like more than half of the businesses were shuttered - dilapidated, really.
The style of signage left behind all harkened back to one era. A gutted store with a sign that read "International Calls" had faded posters featuring tight white pants. A music store, the windows broken and door locked with rust, had stacks and stacks of old vinyls in boxes inside. All of the historical sites in the Old Town are beautifully preserved. Faneromeni and Archbishop Kyprianos Squares are filled with architectural sites. The Old Town has a good number of well-cared for and worthwhile museums, a cobbled shopping avenue and atmospheric, tourist eatery quarter. It's just that everything in between is grittily decayed. Some blocks feel like ghost towns.
In 2011, a study showed Nicosia to be the tenth richest city in the world according to purchasing power. It is the wealthiest city per capita in the Eastern Mediterranean. Usually, a city's Old Town and New Town is a division of exhibit and reality. One is twee and one is gritty. A poor country can have the glossiest, most renovated historic center - putting all their eggs in the tourism basket. It is the exact opposite in Nicosia where, it seems, all post 1974 prosperity is manifested in the New Town. It's sprawling and lively and mostly uninteresting. Big buildings, stores, traffic - which we saw stop dead when the first snow here in 18 years began to fall from the sky.
I wonder if part of the reason so many buildings in the Old Town remain ignored is a lack of interest in revisiting that moment in recent history. The cultural landmarks are part of a greater Cypriot history. They can be viewed as a part of everyone's identity. Cleaning, fixing, selling and re-opening a relocated family's shop when your own family was also transplanted just may not have felt too appealing. Knocking them down would be too harsh and would, no doubt, ruin the integrity of any "Old" Town center. So what is there to be done? Who even owns these buildings?
At least things look like they're changing a bit. The city is, day by day, being filled with new residents who are no longer attached to that recent history. Young business owners, who were born in an already divided city, have converted old stores into boutiques and arts centers. The other bright, new businesses joining them in the Old Town's back streets are run by the burgeoning Asian, African and Middle-Eastern communities. In the New Town, a massive project is underway to redesign Freedom Square. They broke ground years ago but, oops, excavated some archeological findings. So, they had to alter the blueprints a little. The newest of New Town had to work around the oldest of Old. A rare border crossing between South Nicosia's division of New and Old.