Nicosia

Article and pictures by Dragos Cosmescu, all rights reserved.

The fortifications of Nicosia must be understood in the context of the larger Renaissance project of designing the Perfect City: functional urban life protected by strong, efficient fortifications. Nicosia and Valletta are the best practical examples of this idea, whose theoretical bases are retraced to Vitruvius and Filaret's Sforzinda.

The audacious Ottoman attack on the Knights Hospitallers in Malta in 1565, signalled the renewed Turkish interest in offensive operations in the Mediterranean. So far, since the Battle of Preveza (1534), the Porte's offensive actions were limited to the corsairs (the Barbary pirates), although many of these had official titles within the Ottoman military and administrative bureaucracy. The conquest of Tripoli (1551) and the naval victory at Gerba (1560), as well as actual military cooperation, in the alliance with France, under Francis I, were performed by corsair forces. In Malta, these were accompanied by significant Ottoman land troops, under direct command of Ottoman high officials from Constantinople. The Turkish intent to direct expansion was clear.

In the aftermath of the siege of 1565, major fortification works were undertaken throughout the Christian Mediterranean. In the Venetian overseas empire these focused on the larger colonies (such as Candia and Cyprus) and the key places (such as Corfu). Other key fortresses, like Napoli di Romagna (Nauplion), Modon (Methoni) and Coron (Coroni), had been lost in 1540, in the aftermath of the major Christian naval defeat at Preveza (Corfu had also been besieged in 1537, as a result of unhindered Turkish fleet movements following their domination of the seas around Greece, after the said victory). The renowned military architects Savorgnano, Martinengo, Sanmicheli and Pallavicini were dispached to these important islands, which were within easy reach of the enemy. Of these, Giulio Savorgnano designed the trace of Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus.

Cyprus had become Venetian in 1489, when queen Catarina Cornaro, herself scion of an important Venetian family, had bequeathed the island to its home town (a satisfactory compensation for the loss of Negroponte few years earlier). Previously, from 1191, Cyprus had been a successful Crusader state, under the Frankish Lusignan dynasty (which also held the titles of Kings of Jerusalem and of Armenia).

In 1566 Nicosia still was surrounded by the old crusader walls (although these were much damaged following Genoese and Mamluk raids), with typical medieval towers and curtain, unadapted to artillery fire. The enceinte was apparently even larger than the current renaissance walls, which cover a huge area. To make way for the walls, the ditch'and the glacis, and also to achieve the circular shape, a large part of the old town was demolished, particularly to the south of the city. Here, from the bastions'Roccas to Caraffa, many religious buildings were removed, like the Dominican monastery, (from which the Paphos Gate got its original name) and especially Orthodox ones, from the area of the ditch from Tripoli to Caraffa, where the Greek population lived (incidently, same geographical area - south - where the Greeks were to live in Nicosia under the Turks too).

The walls of Nicosia, like those of Valletta, were finished in an astonishing three year period (1567-1570). The perfect shape of Venetian Nicosia was and is unique in Europe: a circle, the most perfect of the geometrical forms, encloses the Frankish Medieval city, with its center quite close to the cathedral of St. Nicholas. Other fortress were designed in the shape of circles (see Palmanova, in Terrafirma and Neuf-Brisach, France), but not cities, and certainly not ones of such political importance or geographical extent.

The fortifications of Nicosia comprise 11 bastions, two public gates and one large military gate. From this military gate clockwise the bastions are: Caraffa, Podocattaro, Constanza, D'Avila, Tripoli, Roccas, Mula, Quirini, Barbaro, Loredan, Flatro (this bastion and ditch are inaccessible because they are in the Green Zone, the UN buffer zone - this also means it is the best preserved). Although picture-perfect from the air, the reality of the fortifications of Nicosia is rather disappointing: the curtain is small, there are no piazza-bassa (like in its contemporaries, the bastions of Candia and Valletta) nor cavaliers'(historical accounts describing the siege recall the hastily construction of cavaliers on some bulwarks).

The front is bastioned in the Italian style. The bastions are filled and have orillons'instead of flanks (as with the later vauban-style fortresses) but they have no embrasures, like their contemporary counterparts in Candia. However, they do not have the piazza-bassa (as would be expected after experience at Candia), nor cavaliers or any kind of gun platforms (like the Schiavo "bastion"/round cavalier, in Canea). Without this and without demi-lunes, their flanking and supporting fire capabilities are greatly diminished, which also explains why this perfectly-planned design failed to deliver. The bastions also have different heights, for example Barbaro's face and orillons are visibly dwarfed (however, this could be latter intrusion). Besides being obviously unfinished, the fortifications of Nicosia appear to have been rebuilt in places. This would be understandable for the southern bastions, which were heavily bombed during the siege of 1570, but the makeshift nature of the northern fortifications is rather puzzling. In addition, the only part of the fortifications that still preserve the "seal of origin" - the cordon - is the orillon on the Podocattaro bastion. Some primary data suggests that the reason why the walls appear to have been modified by the Turks is because the Venetians had only faced the lower half of the trace in stone.

Most disturbingly, for its siege-worthiness, is the lack of outworks. The fortifications of Nicosia do not even have demi-lunes and a counterscarp, not to mention crownworks'(which are present at Candia) or tenailles (seen at Valletta). Although plans for this fortification are not available, it is almost certain that the original design could not have missed these out and it was probably only the onset of the siege that prevented their construction. Some old maps show a river passing through the middle of Nicosia, but this is inaccurate, since the river Pedios was diverted around the town in order to keep the ditch dry. The Turkish siege works were concentrated on the south side of the town, where the high ground overlooked the defences. In this area the besiegers' gun emplacements would have been almost at the same level as the bastions and could have dealt enfilading and ricochet fire at close range. It never came to breaching fire, since the ditch was filled and Podocattaro Bastion (other sources name Constanza Bastion) was assaulted after only six weeks. At the time when the fortifications were designed, a plan to include the high ground within the defences was considered, but it was abandoned to allow for the perfect circular shape worthy of a Renaissance perfect city.

The military gate, Porta Giuliani, (now called Famagusta Gate), is most impressive. Presumably the best preserved of such architectural features from that period in the Mediterranean, its design is very similar to that of the now lost Gate of St George in Candia. The access is through three vaulted corridors, the middle one higher and wider, and the only one to open in a cylindrical chamber, although at a narrower entry than from the city side. The two side passages only have small openings at this end, to provide firing cover. From this last chamber an even narrower postern leads into the ditch, protected by the west orillon of the Caraffa bastion. The two public gates are the Paphos (Porta di San Domenico) and Kyrenia gate (Porta Del Proveditore). They are not triumphal arches but small openings in the walls to allow incomer screening and straightforward military defence. Breaches have been cut to allow modern traffic, on one side, at Paphos Gate, and on both sides, at Kyrenia Gate. The idea of cutting through the walls to open traffic was then abandoned for the idea of bridging over the walls, which meant heightening the level of the town, so that now a ring runs on top of the wall, rather than at the base of the wall, as normal.

The curtain, similar to that of Candia, if narrower, has been virtually buried (with the exception of small areas around the Roccas Bastion and the Famagusta and Paphos Gates). In the first half of the XXth century a ring was build around the houses of old Nicosia and, because its streets were too narrow, the road was raised to the level of the wallwalk, to insure broadness. This modern intrusion has destroyed the wall on its city side and, most likely, the access stairs (still visible at the Paphos Gate), the artillery ramps and possibly the bastion gates. Basically, we can consider that the curtain is very much lost, except for the scarp. The bastions are huge and solid, but the curtain is low, the ditch is not wide or deep enough for a dry ditch and there is no counterscarp. The main weakness of the fortification was the lack of outworks - this allowed the Turks to engage the main walls directly and quickly (a large fleet was assembled in Crete by the Holy League and had just passed Rhodes when it was turned back by the news of the fall of Nicosia. Reassembled next summer, in similar strength, it crushed the Ottoman fleet at Lepanto). Besides this, the Turks obviously had the sheer advantage in number, so much so that, the day before the storming of Nicosia, they mounted an all-out attack which targeted four bastions (D'Avila to Caraffa), on a front larger than any in the sieges of Birgu (1565), Candia (1648-69) or Corfu (1715). They managed to climb the Podocatarro face on early hours before sunrise, on September 8, 1570, surprise the defenders, and, after taking that bastion, spread out to outflank the others. Further significant resistance was offered in the Cathedral Square, the Lusignan Palace (now demolished) and the bastions of Barbaro and Caraffa. The massacre that followed killed almost all the inhabitants (20,000 souls). The initial redesign of Nicosia focussed on the street pattern, which was meant to be altered to a more manageable military form (grid or radial); historians blame this lack of adequate communication lines for the failure to stem the Turkish attack on Podocatarro. The truth is that the town is huge and it was hardly possible to maneuver companies of heavy foot from the north to the south bastions swiftly. The Venetians simply needed far more soldiers in order to man the walls properly.

Visiting Nicosia

The town of Nicosia is easily accessible, being the capital of the country of Cyprus, member of the EU. From the airport of Larnaca, there are buses going to the capital: the main bus terminal is right on the Tripoli bastion (although not all airport shuttle buses stop there). For cars, there are large car parks in the ditch, in front of the curtains of D'Avila, Constanza and Podocattaro.

All the southern bastions (Tripoli, D'avila, Constanza, Podocattaro, Caraffa) and the ditch are accessible and in very good shape, although many are affected by modern development (car parks, public buildings). In the south are also the Famagusta and Paphos Gates.

The capital Nicosia has been divided since 1974 and access to the northern part is through a vehicle crossing at Ledra Palace and a pedestrian crossing in the heart of town, in Ledra Street. In the North lie five more bastions (Roccas, Mula, Quirini, Barbaro, Loredan) and Kyrenia Gate. The Barbaro bastion is inaccessible, being a military barracks, and there are warning signs saying "photos forbidden". Be advised, the Turkish military is strict about these restrictions. At the least you will have the film/card confiscated. The eleventh bastion, Flatro, is inaccessible, being occupied by UN troops, in the buffer zone between the two communities. To visit the entire bastioned front is lengthy, since, after covering half the circle, you still have to go to the center of this rather large town and cross the border. Crossing the border is very easy for EU citizens, who only have to show a passport. For other countries, it might require a visa (depending on country of origin).

Article and pictures by Dragos Cosmescu, all rights reserved.

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