The history of Nicosia, the current capital of Cyprus, begins at the geological birth of Cyprus and continues into the present.

The Birth of Nicosia

The legend of the birth of Aphrodite, emerging through the foam of the sea waves, can be compared to the geological birth of Cyprus, in that the island rose from the ocean. The nucleus of this phenomenon is the mountain range of Troodos, which is 92 million years old. The rocks of Troodos were created from the ancient oceanic bark, which started rising from the sea 10 million years ago. First emerged from the sea the Troodos massif on to which limestone sediment began to attach gradually leading to a drop in the depth of the seas. The last to become attached was the Pentadactylos range to the north of the Troodos massif.

Nicosia emerged from the sea 1,8 – 5 million years ago. The emergence of Nicosia joined the Troodos and Pendadactylos mountain ranges and created the Mesaoria plain. This is how the island of Cyprus was created.

Ancient Nicosia

Greater Nicosia is probably the only area in Cyprus that can boast continuous habitation since the beginning of the Bronze Age 2500 years BC, when the first inhabitants settled in the fertile plain of Mesaoria. It is this that makes Nicosia unique among Cyprus's Bronze Age sites, the fact that settlements in Nicosia thrived and developed, while others ceased to exist.

During the first millennium BC, when Cyprus was divided into City-Kingdoms, Nicosia enjoyed neither the power nor the prosperity of other kingdoms, most of which lay on the coastline. It became obvious that the Kingdom of Ledra was firmly under the political will of its neighbours until the Roman times, when Nicosia was nothing more than a small town.

It was not until the dissolution of the City-Kingdoms at the end of the 4th century AD that Nicosia managed to exploit its natural resources and geographical location, in the centre of the island.

The Kingdom of Ledra(1050 BC – 330 AD)

In the first millennium BC City-Kingdoms were established in Cyprus. The Kingdom of Ledra or Ledra is recorded around 672 BC, when it was ruled by King Onasagoras, appearing ninth in a list of kingdoms that paid tribute to the Assyrian King Esarhaddon.

Until recently archaeological finds in the area have been limited mainly to cemeteries, discovered in the areas of the “Old Town hall", Koupati, Ayioi Omologites and Acropolis. However, excavations at St. George Hill (PASIDI) brought to light a complex of buildings, ceramic and textile workshops and other rooms that prove that an important nucleus existed in this area during the Iron era. A big olive press was also unearthed.

During the first quarter of the 4th century BC a number of Cypriot soldiers engraved their names at the temple of Ahori in Karnak in Egypt. Some of the inscriptions bear the names of soldiers from Ledra. At the end of the 4 th century the King of Paphos, Nikoklis, had a temple build for the people of Ledra dedicated to the Paphian Aphrodite.

In the Roman period and up until the 4th century AD the Kingdom of Ledra was nothing more than a small village.

Nicosia from Antiquity until today

Ancient Ledra, in the Ptolemaic period was named Lefkothea ("white goddess"). In the first years of Christianity in Cyprus, around 348 AD, it was known as Lefkousia or Ledri and was a small town. More probably, the name "Lefkosia", probably comes from Lefkos, son of Ptolemy I of Egypt, who rebuilt the city in the 3rd century BC. Its first bishop was Trifillios, who was declared a Saint in 448 AD.

After the Arab raids in the 6th century AD and the pillage that ensued in the coastal cities, people moved to the center of the island in the Mesaoria plain and the mountainous areas.

Nicosia had probably become the center of administration and the island's capital in either the 9th or the 10th century, had acquired a castle and was the seat of the Byzantine governor of Cyprus.

The last Byzantine governor of the Island was Isaac Komnenos who declared himself emperor of the island and ruled the island from 1183 –1191.

Richard the Lionheart 1191 A.D.

In 1191 Isaakios Komnenos was the ruler of Cyprus. Richard the Lionheart organizes the First Crusade. He and his fleet were on the way to the Holy Land when one of his ships put into Limassol and his fiance Verengaria of Navarre was taken prisoner by Isaac Comnenos. Richard landed his army on the island and having looted whatever he found on his way, laid siege to Nicosia . He finally met and defeated Isaac at Tremetousia. Richard the Lionheart became ruler of the island but sold the island to the Templars.

The Templars ruled the island having bought it from Richard the Lionheart for 100.000 gold byzantiums. Their seat was the castle of Nicosia. On Easter day on the 11th of April 1192 the people of Nicosia revolted and drove the Teplars off the city. Having driven the Templars away, fearing their return the Nicosians demolished the castle of the city almost to its foundations.

The Capital of the Lusignan Kingdom

Guy de Lusignan, King of Jerusalem, bought Cyprus from the Templars and brought many noble men and other adventurers, from France, Jerusalem, Tripoli, the principality of Antioch and Kingdom of Armenia, to the island. Guy shared the land he had bought among them and Nicosia became capital off their kingdom. He imposed harsh feudal system and the vast majority of Cypriots were reduced to the status of serfs.

“Nicosia is also a very old city in the center of the islands valley, in a very good climate … there is plenty of water and fertile land… and when the Lusignans became kings, Nicosia became the capital of the entire Kingdom. Due to the destruction and desertation of Salamis, Famagusta, the Archbishop obtained the Pope's permission to move to Nicosia. Thus Nicosia became established as the capital of the Kingdom. It had a perimeter of three leagues or nine miles, and was adorned with beautiful, large buildings, amongst which were palaces, churches and the old castle, which had been built, be the dukes during the time of Constantine the great. Evidence of this lies in the fact that every time a building is constructed in this city, sections of walls are discovered in many areas, as well as numerous objects and medallions bearing the emblem of Constantine the Great and that of his mother, Saint Helen.”

The fortifications during the Lusignan period 1192-1489 AD

The first Lusignan castle was built during the reign of King Henry I, 1211. On seals of the king and his mother Alix in 1234, a castle with one or two towers is depicted surrounded with the inscription “CIVITAS NICOSIE”.

“Passing on we reached Cossia (Nicosia). This is the king's capital city, situated almost in the middle of the plain; it has no fortifications. A strong castle has just now been built in it. It has inhabitants without number, all very rich, whose houses in their interior adornment and paintings closely resemble the houses of Antioch. In this city is the seat of the archbishop and also the court and palace of the king, where I first saw an ostrich”.

Oldenburg W (De), PELEGRINATIO, 1653

Under the reign of Peter I , 1368 a large tower named Margarita .

“ So he ordered a tower to be built, and in the upper part he built a church, which was called Misericordia; and below the surface of the ground it was a prison, which he called Margarita. And this finished and it was so strong, and he wished to put a moat outside ”.

Leontios Machairas, Recital concerning the sweet land of Cyprus entitled Chronicle, 1483 ,

Peter II fortifies the entire city . He demolished Margarita tower and the new walls had many gates . Among them are:

  • The Gate of St. Andrew
  • The Gate of Sainte Venerande or Sainte Paraskevi
  • The Gate of the Armenians
  • The Gate of the market or Paphos

The Venetian administration and the new fortifications

Caterina Cornaro ruled Cyprus from 1474 to 1489 but was forced to cede the administration of the country to the Republic of Venice. The Venetians ruled the island from 1489 –1571. Nicosia was their administrative center and the seat of the Venetian Governor. Since the threat from the Ottomans was visible, the Venetian Governors of Nicosia emphasized in their letters the need for all the cities of Cyprus to be fortified.

In 1562 Venice sent Ascanio Savorgnano to the island to prepare a general description of the cities and their prospects for their fortifications. In his report Ascanio maintained that Nicosia did not need to be fortified.

The new fortifications by Julio Savorgnano

In 1567 the Venetians decided to fortify the city of Nicosia. This time Julio Savorgnano, brother of Ascanio arrives on the island. Savorgnano is an architect and engineer and he design new fortifications for the city according to contemporary defense methods.

“ Savorgnano, who was a man of a lively and understanding spirit, took shipping as soon as ever he had his dispatches. Scarcely was he arrived on the island, but began to surround it, and view those places which most needed to fortified, with such an exact diligence as answered the good opinion the Senate had of him”.

“He thought at first to built new walls and raise new forts to the city of Nicosia, being the capital of the Kingdom, situated in the midst of the island, and was then about four miles in compass. The Nobility made their usual residence there, the Richest of the inhabitants rendered her the most wealthy and important place of all the country and had she been put in a capacity to sustain a siege, might have proved, by reason of its greatness most commodious for a retreat to the country-people in a time of war. Neither did the change, nor difficulty of the enterprise, which had always deterred the preceding governors, discourage Savorgnano”.

D. B. Lorrini, Delle Fortificationi, Venetia, 1597 AD.

East Gate, Nicosia "Famagusta Gate", 1878 of the Venetian walls

The new walls have the shape of a star with eleven bastions. The heart shape design of the bastion is more suitable for the new artillery and a better control for the defenders. The walls have only three gates, to the North Kyrenia Gate, to the west Paphos Gate and to the east Famagusta Gate that is the larger and was also named Porta Julia in honor of the architect.

The new walls of Nicosia are considered as the prototype of the renaissance military architecture.

The construction of the new walls

The decision

“ Having assembled the Nobility, he showed them the interest they had to fortify their city, to secure their possessions for the Rabine and avarice of the Barbarians, and that it was of great consequence to their particular preservation, and that the whole state, these works should be finished before the end of six months”.

The sponsors

“These gentlemen comprehending the danger wherewith they were threatened returned Savorgnano their thanks, approve his designs and offer him all that in them lay to facilitate it”.

The construction

“He them caused several workmen and slaves to come to Nicosia, he pulled down the ancient walls and adjoining houses and drew line in a round figure less than the former which beginning from an Eminency Northward, near the old walls, ended 400 paces near the first circulation.... This enterprise was carried on with such a diligence as surprised all people. For these bastions and the wall were in a short time brought on to a reasonable height, and the Ditch made deep enough to defend itself against a great army The noise and reputation of this work gave the more joy and hopes to the republic, because it cost her but little and because one of the magistrates had so happily and speedily finished it. ”.

Excerpts from the book: Antonio Maria Graziani, "De bello Cyprio", Roma, 1627

The Siege of Nicosia

22 July 1570

On July 1st 1570 the ottomans arrived on the island and on the 22nd of July Piale Pasha and his army marched towards Nicosia.

“The enemy raised four earthen forts with which to protect themselves against the artillery of the city, and to annoy its defenders. One was on the hill of St. Marina 270 paces from the Podocataro bastion; one at St. Giorgio di Magnana; one on the little hill called Margariti, and the other on the chain of hills of Mandia. But seeing that these forts were too far away to do anything but injure a few of the higher houses, they more wisely moved up to the ditches and trenches of the old city, and there by entrenchments got close to the bastions Podocataro, Costanza, Davila, and Tripoli – opposite to each of these they raised at once a royal fort, 80 paces from the ditches, and began to brisk and sustained bombardment”.

SERENO Bartolomeo, Commentari della guerra di Cipro, Montecassino, 1845, p.57-59

September 9th , 1570

“At dawn on Sunday, the 9th , they made a brisk attack on the bastions… The defenders, as they always did, met the charge with great bravery and repulsed the enemy before they could get over the parapet; with fierce slaughter on both sides…At last after a long struggle on the Podocataro bastion by some mishap many of the enemy got in, and captured the platform and the redoubt…. As soon as they heard noise and outcry … Colonel Palazzo and other gentlemen, ran to help of that bastion, but they were too late…Then followed the sad and terrible spectacle, the savage slaughter of the poor soldiers who had defended the city, and the nobles, who made a brave stand. …. There was confused fighting in every quarter of the city, and in the squares. There was no order, no one to take the lead, and the massacre lasted till the sixth hour. Those who defended themselves were killed; those who surrendered were made prisoners. At last Mustafa Pasha entered the city, and saw the frightful slaughter.

The piteous sack of the ill-fated city was over. . Before leaving Mustafa installed in the fortress a garrison of 4000-foot soldiers and 1000 cavalry”.

Description provided by the Venetian Pietro Contarini who witnessed the events, from the publication: Historia delle cose successe dal principio della guerra mossa da Selim Ottomano, Archivio Contarini, Venezia, 1572, p. 9-13

Nicosia during the Cyprus under the Ottoman period

After its siege by the Ottomans the city was deserted. The foreign travellers that visited it refer to its great walls that were ruined, its few inhabitants and the big but deserted houses. The main Latin churches were converted into mosques. There were gardens with citrus and palm trees, and to enter the city one had to go through the three gates that opened on sunrise and closed on sunset. Nicosia was the seat of the Pasa, the Greek Archbishop, the Dragoman and the Cadi. It was also a commercial centre, even though the majority of its Greek and Latin inhabitants had left it to reside in Larnaca or immigrate abroad.

Nicosia revived its old splendour around the mid-nineteenth century, when the administration of the island was generally more tolerant.

The Establishment of British Rule

Sir Garnet Wolseley in Nicosia

On 5 July 1878 the administration of the island was officially transferred to British Empire. The Union Jack was raised in the presence of Vice-Admiral, Lord John Gray, Commander-in-Chief of the Channel Squadron that had been dispatched from Crete to Cyprus. Nicosia was initially occupied by 50 Marines and 50 Bluejackets from his flagship, the Minotaur.

On 31 July 1878, Lt. General Sir Garnet Wolseley, the first High Commissioner, arrived in Nicosia. He immediately established a skeletal administration by sending officers to each district to supervise the administration of justice and obtain all possible information about the area.

Wolseley immediately established a Post Office at his camp at Kykko Metochi monastery outside Nicosia. Wolseley lived at ‘Monastery Camp' until a prefabricated residence had been built for him near Strovolos on the site of today's Presidential Palace.

Urban Development

Within the Walls

At the time of the British occupation, Nicosia was still contained entirely within its Venetian walls. Although full of private gardens and amply supplied with water carried to public fountains in aqueducts, the streets remained unpaved and just wide enough for a loaded pack animal In 1881, macadamized roads through the town were completed to connect with the main roads to the coastal towns but no roads were asphalted until after World War I. The narrow streets with overhanging kiosks were made darker by the awnings, “tourathes”, rigged up by the shopkeepers against the sun and rain.

Beyond the Walls

A series of openings in the walls provided direct access to areas beyond the walls as they grew in importance. The first opening was cut in the Paphos Gate in 1879. The most famous opening across a wooden bridge at the top of Ledra Street, the Limassol or Hadjisavva opening, now Eleftheria Square linked the city to the government offices in 1882. In June of that year, the municipal limits were extended to “a circle drawn at a distance of five hundred yards beyond the salient angles of the bastions of the fortifications”. An opening was made at the Kyrenia Gate in 1931 after one of Nicosia's first buses proved too high to go through the original gate. Many more openings followed. The prosperous 1920s resulted in elegant villas lining the main roads out of the old City alongside the colonial residences already built there. During the post-war period the villages around Nicosia began to expand. By 1958 they had been engulfed in suburbia. Only Strovolos and Aglandja maintained separate physical identities, chiefly because of intervening state-owned land. By this time, the old city was increasingly given over to shops and workshops. In residential terms it had become a lower income area. Old people tended to stay in the old city, building houses for their daughters outside.

Archbishop Makarios III

The period of the Struggle for Liberation 1955-59

The period of Struggle for Liberation 1955-59, Nicosia at the duration of fight of EOKA 1955-59s The referendum that organised the Church in 1950 in which the majority of Greek Cypriots was come out in favour the union with Greece prepared the territory for the popular revolt that in April 1955 took place and was expressed with the violence. The Nicosia as the seat of government and Ethnarchy constituted the main theatre of political conflicts. Discussions between the Governor Sir John Harding and the Archbishop Makarios began in the hotel Ledra Fights in October 1955 and were completed in March with his exile in the Seychelles. The same period, the continuing violence and the declaration of emergency in November 1955, changed the Nicosia in a fighting capital with armed forces of safety. At home restriction and barbwires, sirens, murders and arrests were the everyday routine of life. The road Ledra, the commercial road, became "the mile of murder". .

Nicosia capital of the Republic of Cyprus

The signing of the Zurich and London Agreements in February 1959 inaugurated a period of transition. On 1 March 1959, Archbishop Makarios returned to the island after three years of exile. Two hundred thousand people, nearly half the population of the island, lines the road from the airport to the archbishopric in the old city of Nicosia to greet him. From its balcony he addressed the huge crowd.

Let us hold out the hand of friendship and cooperation… We are called upon to transform our island into a golden bridge that will unite and not divide the opposing powers.

During the following months, Nicosia was at the heart of the administrative and constitutional preparations for Independence. On 13 December 1959, Makarios was elected President of the Republic of Cyprus and Nicosia officially became capital of the Republic of Cyprus.

Nicosia 1963

In 1960 Nicosia becomes the capital of the Republic of Cyprus, whose constitution is based on the co-operation of the island's two communities, Greek and Turkish, in a ratio of seven to three . Greek Cypriots make up about 80% of the island's population and Turkish Cypriots 18%. The remaining 2% are Latins, Armenians and Maronites who at the time of independence opted to belong to the Greek Cypriot community.

In December 1963, in the aftermath of a constitutional crisis, skirmishes broke out between the Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots. Nicosia was divided into Turkish and Greek quarters. The dividing line, which cuts through the city, was named Green because the pen used by the UN officer to draw the line on a city map was green.

Nicosia 1974

A coup d' Etat on the 15th July 1974 against the lawful Cypriot government provided a pretext for Turkey to invade the island on 20th July and and promote her expansionist plans.

Ankara attempted to present the invasion as a socalled peaceful operation aiming at restoring constitutional order and protecting the Turkish Cypriot community. However, even after the restoration of constitutional order and the return of Archbishop Makarios III to in December 1974, the Turkish troops remained on the island promoting Turkey's plans against Cyprus.

Bombing of Nicosia, 1974 ( Source : Aspect of Cyprus)

On 14th August 1974, the seccond phase of the Turkish Invasion of Cyprus began which led to the following tragic consequences:

(a) 37% of Cypriot territory is under occupation despite repeated UN and other International Resolutions for the respect of independence and territorial sovereignty of the Republic of Cyprus.

(b) Five thousand Greek Cypriots were killed, 180,000 lost their homes and became displaced and 1619 are still missing.

Since 1974 the people of Cyprus have been experiencing the tragedy of a divided country, with the Green Line cutting in two the heart of the capital city Nicosia and crushing the dreams of its inhabitants

A City That Waits

In spite of the current division, the people of Nicosia hope that one day the city will be reunited and they look forward to Cyprus' accession to the European Union. Nicosia is a growing city. Nicosians are actively engaged in trade and other profitable professions and the Nicosia Municipality, a series of large infrastructure projects, is modernising the city in order that it will a worthy capital of the Republic of Cyprus when it joins the European Union.

The city must be seen from a distance With virgin eyes, with the eyes of, say, a Traveler beholding the first time she appears to have just emerged detaching herself from mountain Pentadaktylos that provides her with a cerulean backdrop to north.

Ancient is the city of Nicosia, yet her later history tightly interwoven among the years of the Franks, the years of the Turks and of the British and of course the years of our own generation

In our times she remains the last divided city of Europe, sliced in two by the “Green Line” disrupting its cohesion, its continuity. The tragedy of this country's occupation it tangible throughout the areas of the “Green Line”.

But time move on… Elsewhere, the Berlin Wall and other artificial dividing lines have crumbled. This too is Nicosia's hope for tomorrow. For man- made lines to dissolve, for the city to once more discover her complete face.

See Also

History of Cyprus

Cyprus Encyclopedia




Hellenica World - Scientific Library