Islamic Shrines in the North
ISLAM found permanent roots on the island of Cyprus with the might of the Muslim-Ottoman conquest in 1571. Following the Ottoman invasion the Catholic Church of the Crusader and Venetian rulers was expelled and its buildings confiscated or converted into mosques.
Whilst modern Turkish-Cypriot society is rooted in a more secular way of life, the north remains home to a settled Muslim population and several Islamic shrines, not least the Selimiye, Haydar Pasha and Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosques.
Converted by the Ottomans during the Middle Ages, these mosques are examples of three of the finest Catholic cathedrals from the Crusader era. Originally intended to cater exclusively for the Catholic ruling elite, these buildings represent some of the most impressive pieces of Gothic architecture still standing in the north and offer historical and aesthetic appeal to those of all faiths.
The Selimiye Mosque, formerly known as Saint Sofia Cathedral, is located on the northern side of the island’s capital. Constructed by the French Lusignan Dynasty during the 13th century, the Selimiye Mosque is the largest and oldest surviving gothic church on the entire island. Given its grand scale it took in the region of 150 years to be completed.
Having been renamed the Selimye mosque in honor of sultan Selim II who ruled at the time of the Ottoman conquest, it remains Nicosia’s main mosque to this day.
The Haydar Pasha mosque is arguably the most important gothic building in Nicosia after Semiliye. Named after one of the twelve generals in command of the Ottoman army, the mosque can be found in the historic neighborhood of the same name. Before the Ottoman conquest the mosque had been dedicated to Saint Catherine, the evidence of which is a window shaped like the wheel on which the saint was martyred (and the reason why we call those Bonfire Night fireworks ‘Catherine Wheels’!)
The third in the trio, Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque is based in Famagusta and is as spectacular as the Selimiye. Again built during the French Lusignan period, it bears a striking resemblance to the gothic art masterpiece, the Notre Dame de Reims Cathedral in France. Formerly known as Saint Nicholas Cathedral, it was later renamed the Ayasofya Mosque of Magusa and was eventually changed to Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque in honour of the commander of the 1571 Ottoman conquest.
In accordance with Islamic tradition prohibiting iconology, the sculptures, stained glass, frescoes and tombstones from each of the three former cathedrals were destroyed following the Ottoman invasion. That said, these buildings remain magnificent examples of both French and Ottoman architecture combined. Whilst the buildings were stripped of much of their decadent Catholic decoration, in converting the cathedrals into mosques the Ottomans added elegant spires with conical crowns known as minarets.
Moreover, the architecture of these three gothic buildings have remained entirely intact and their use as mosques spared them from the Baroque additions and 19th-century restorations that were inflicted on most European cathedrals.
Today both the Selimiye and Lala Mustafa Pasha mosques continue to be used for prayer and whilst their vast interiors are filled with humble trappings, they retain a grandeur fit for a Lusignan King. In fact these former cathedrals were where the ruling Lusignans would be crowned Kings of Cyprus and Kings of Jerusalem, the latter a purely ceremonial honor since the Crusaders had lost the Holy Land in the late 13th century.
As for Haydar Pasha mosque, this has seen a more modern conversion into a private art gallery but it still retains a historical, religious and architectural significance of multiple provenance.
Whilst these three magnificent buildings are undeniably Islamic shrines, they are also shrines to the rich tapestry and history that makes the north in itself so magnificent.