Renowned for its breathtaking white sand beaches, crystal clear waters, and sunny weather, the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus is a fascinating destination for politics and history enthusiasts and has much more to offer visitors than picturesque coastal towns and villages.
Populated by both Greek and Turkish Cypriots, the island was split into two parts not long after the Republic of Cyprus gained its independence from Britain in 1960 and Cypriot intercommunal violence ensued.
An illegal coup d’état by the Greek army in Cyprus aiming to annex the Island to Greece prompted a Turkish invasion in 1974. Turkey took control of the north before a ceasefire was agreed dividing the island along what became known as the Green Line, a heavily-restricted United Nations demilitarised buffer zone patrolled by the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP).
Cyprus has been peaceful since the ceasefire and the de facto division of the island. With two presidents, separate governments and separate flags, however, the dispute between the Greek Cypriots in the south and Turkish Cypriots in the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus persists as the debate around reunification continues.
A trip to Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus and the last divided capital in Europe and indeed the world, makes for an astonishing weekend away where you can observe the ‘dead’ buffer zone, cross the city checkpoint at Ledra street between the Turkish and Greek parts and explore sites on both sides of the divide.
On the northern side of the capital lies one of the oldest Ottoman buildings in Cyprus, and it is well worth a visit. Buyuk Han (The Great Inn) was built in 1572 under the auspices of the first Ottoman governor of Cyprus Muzaffer Pasha soon after the Ottomans seized the island from the Venetians in 1571.
Currently a vibrant cultural centre, Buyuk Han was originally constructed as a caravanserai for travelling merchants. The inn offered travellers fortified accommodation and a place of rest. If you were travelling from Anatolia and needed lodging and a place to store your wares and provide protection against thieves and bandits, Buyuk Han was the place to go.
Externally, the inn resembles a fortress. Its charming and architecturally inviting interior, however, draws you in as you pass through one of its two large wooden gates into an open courtyard, at the centre of which lies a miniature domed mosque raised over marble piers. The mosque is fitted with a traditional fountain underneath used for ritual pre-prayer ablutions.
Some 68 rooms set over an upper and a lower gallery overlook the inner courtyard, with two symmetrical stone stairways at the northwest and southeast corners leading to the upper floor.
The inn was originally named ‘Alanyalilar’s Han’, but later became known as Buyuk Han (the Big or Great Inn) to differentiate it from the Kumarcilar Han (Gamblers’ Inn), which was built nearby in the 17th century.
Buyuk Han has a striking resemblance to the famous Koza Han (Cocoon Inn) which was built around 1490 in the Turkish city of Bursa, the first capital of the Ottoman Empire. The design and layout also mirror many historic Ottoman caravanserais found in Anatolian cities.
In the late 19th century, Buyuk Han was used as a prison during the British colonial rule of Cyprus. After World War II, it served as a hostel housing poor families.
The rooms of the historic inn have been revived as arts and crafts workshops and boutiques, and fitted with galleries and cafes offering locals and tourists a place to socialise and attend and participate in cultural events and activities, from folklore dance shows to puppet shows, art galleries, traditional wedding ceremonies and live concerts.
As Buyuk Han is located a few minutes from Ledra street, Nicosia’s main shopping thoroughfare, it certainly makes for the perfect resting spot where you can take a break from the hustle and bustle and take in the intriguing history and remarkable architecture of the place as you enjoy a drink and some Cypriot pastries in its courtyard.
Tourists can also purchase postcards, artworks, and many handmade crafts and trinkets from the souvenir shops inside, where both Euros and Turkish Liras are accepted, before continuing their tour of North Nicosia or crossing the Ledra checkpoint into the Greek side.