High-level discussion on endangered heritage in the Buffer Zone of Nicosia

On 24 October, the second day of the 5th Anniversary Conference of the 7 Most Endangered programme and Capacity Building Days on Endangered Heritage in Nicosia (read related news item), a special session was dedicated to the Buffer Zone of the Historic Centre of Nicosia. A stone’s throw from the Buffer Zone, 100 participants from all over Europe gathered in the Centre of Visual Arts and Culture to discuss, in a spirit of collaboration and cooperation, the past, present and future of this area located in the heart of the old town of Nicosia.

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Androulla Vassiliou, Vice-President of Europa Nostra, moderated the session which brought together representatives from the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities who have worked for many years to recover the Buffer Zone and advocate for its development into a unifying space for bicommunal activities. Mrs. Vassiliou shared her personal memories of the Buffer Zone as a place for all communities to intermingle peacefully. She stressed that it now represents, “authenticity and cultural, social and economic potential”, underlining that “it is considered as the most important unifying area for the future functional integration of the old city of Nicosia”. Mrs. Vassiliou introduced Elizabeth Spehar, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of Mission of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) and conveyed warm thanks to the UN and its Secretary General “for his untiring efforts to help Cyprus and its people find their way towards a lasting peace”.

Elizabeth Spehar, opened the session with an engaging and encouraging message in support of the many initiatives that are in place to preserve the “common, and yet in some ways, distinctive cultures on both sides of the divide, creating accessible spaces for Greek Cypriots, Turkish Cypriots and others to meet and enjoy the many historic treasures of this island, contributing to a sense of shared heritage and shared community”. Elizabeth Spehar highlighted the progress that has taken place since the inclusion of the Buffer Zone of the Historic Centre of Nicosia on the first list of the 7 Most Endangered programme in 2013 as well as the current efforts to start works on reinforcing two endangered historic monuments that are found within the Buffer Zone, the St. George Church and the St. Jacob Church, undertaken jointly by the UNFICYP, the Embassy of Sweden and the Office of the Religious Track (RTCYPP), the Bi-Communal Technical Committee for Cultural Heritage and UNDP – Partnership for the Future (UNDP-PFF).

The Head of Mission of the UNFICYP noted that due to the decision of Europa Nostra and the European Investment Bank Institute, religious leaders of Cyprus and the communities they represent, along with the political leaders of both sides, became joint advocates of the initiative to preserve these two historic monuments. Elizabeth Spehar concluded her speech with a call to all conference participants: “Let us all try our best to contribute to a culture of peace and assume our shared duty to future generations by honouring the proud heritage of all humanity.”

The highlight of the morning session was a panel discussion with representatives of the two communities of Nicosia, Constantinos Yiorkadjis and Mehmet Harmanci, and Guy Clausse, Executive Vice-President of Europa Nostra. The two representatives gave updates on the future of Nicosia and the Buffer Zone and highlighted some necessary initiatives that should be developed in the future. The two representatives were in full agreement regarding a number of proposals that are set to be implemented which include additional crossings that would facilitate easier access to important religious sites and which would create a link between the two planned creative communities in the city centre. The representatives closed their discussion by signing and expressing their support for the Berlin Call to Action: “Cultural Heritage for the Future of Europe”.

Europa Nostra’s Executive Vice-President Guy Clausse urged the representatives of the two communities to continue urban planning for all of Nicosia and to invest early enough, notably also into cultural heritage preservation, as any such investment at a later stage would be well more expensive.

Agni Petridou, former Head of the Nicosia Master Plan (Greek Cypriot team) and Council member of Europa Nostra, and Ali Güralp, Head of the Nicosia Master Plan (Turkish Cypriot team) next presented “The Nicosia Master Plan Project and the approach to the Buffer Zone:- technical challenges and bicommunal cooperation”. Their talk focused on the many challenges that are faced when designing a plan for a city that is in decline, both socioeconomically and physically. The new vision which has been developed for the city focuses on promoting the common heritage of all communities and is flexible and adaptable to the needs of both sides of the city.

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Though Gul Oztek, former member of the Buffer Zone team and Conservation Architect could not attend the conference, Athina Papadopoulou, Head of the Nicosia Master Plan (Greek Cypriot team), presented “The Buffer Zone Studies: joint effort and capacity building for a shared vision” and highlighted the potential of the Buffer Zone to become the most valuable part of the city, especially if further crossings are to be opened. Athina Papadopolou emphasised that the opening of the Ledra Crossing in 2008 marked a turning point in the easing of communication between both technical committees and stated that they are optimistic that a solution could be found which could bring people back into the heart of the city.

Rita Severis, Director of the Centre of Visual Arts and Research, presented the history of Nicosia and the Buffer Zone, focusing on the bicommunal nature of life there before the division, with the help of photographs, paintings and lively anecdotes from the people who lived there. Ayla Gurel, Researcher and Consultant from the Centre of Visual Arts and Research, emphasised the need for a space within the Buffer Zone for coexistence and stated that now is the time to seek a solution.

“The future and how to get there: implementation obstacles, opportunities and lessons” was the title of the next pair of presentations which were made by Glafkos Constantinides, Economist and Urban Planning Consultant and Former Coordinator of the NMP Project Team, and Naciye Doratli, Professor at the Faculty of Architecture of the Eastern Mediterranean University and Director of the Centre of Cyprus Studies, and former member of the NMP team. Glafkos Constantinides focused on the issues regarding funding for development in the Buffer Zone and the surrounding city, underlining that a solution which would generate revenue that could then be reinvested could produce the best results. In her presentation, Professor Doratli emphasised that the Buffer Zone could have a ‘gluing’ effect in the city and advocated for giving culture and cultural heritage a central position when seeking solutions in the Buffer Zone.

On the afternoon of 24 October, conference participants visited the Othello Tower and monuments restored by the bi-communal Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage in Famagusta and learned more about the heritage situation and work in this important historic city (read related news item).

On the first day of the conference, a photo exhibition on the Buffer Zone of Nicosia by the young Dutch photographer Roman Robroek was opened in the presence of Her Excellency, the Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in the Republic of Cyprus, Ms Nathalie Jaarsma.

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