The Bedestan has a definite curiosity value; though, as you approach it from the Buyuk Han you'll certainly find your concentration drawn away from the Bedestan to its more comprehensive and splendid neighbour, the Selimiye Camii, once upon a time the St Sophia Cathedral.
The best place from which to investigate the exterior of the cathedral is the simple, almost rural garden café, existing in a fine old two-stored crenulated structure with Gothic windows that was formerly the Chapter House, and arrived by walking between the cathedral and the Bedestan. This silent spot has a fantastic view of the cathedral's south wall with its flying ramparts, and gives the free time to appreciate the soft mellow golden stone, corresponding with the surroundings of the green cypress trees and the deep blue sky.
French craftsmen began work on the building of the cathedral in 1209 and, appreciate to the constancy of its flying ramparts, it still stands today despite the earthquakes of the 15th, 16th and 18th centuries. The roof is flat, a concession to the geography and climate of the Orient, but a curiosity in a building which in all other respects looks like the enormous Gothic cathedrals of France.
The cathedral of St Sophia is, architecturally, the most significant monument in Lefkosa (Greek or Turkish), with its splendid carving and statue in the triple-portalled covered entrance and the massive high west window. The twin towers were never completed, a fact which made them provide commendably as foundations for the two tall Ottoman minarets added by the Turks after 1571. In appearance these accompaniments, labelled inappropriate by purists, have been likened to candles with their extinguishers on.
In the present day, as it has done for more than the last 400 years, the cathedral provides as Cyprus's main mosque, and the greatest celebrations of the two major Muslim festivals (equals, if you like, of the Christian Christmas and Easter), are performed here. Its name-change from Aya Sofya Camii took place only in 1954, when the "mufti", the religious leader of the Muslims of the island, renamed it the Selimiye Camii in respect of Selim II, the sultan in whose control Cyprus was conquered by the Turks. Since 1959 the "muezzin" has been secured the climb up 170 steps to the minaret gallery each day, five times a day, to call upon the faithful to prayer, by the opening of a routine recording played through a loudspeaker.
The mosque is open and can be visited anytime, although it is best to keep away from the midday prayers on a Friday. All through other daily prayer times you can visit but ought to keep quiet. As in all mosques, shoes must be left at the entry. No particular outfit is required, as Turkish Cypriots get a much more relaxed view of bare heads and arms. Inside, the whitewashed interior seems bleak but the magnificence of the size in the high pillared nave is if anything improved by the lack of decoration.
Colour comes in the shape of the carpets, mainly greens and reds, nothing older than this century, and all of them leaning towards Mecca. This direction is specified by the very colourful "mihrab" or prayer place in the southern wall. The green wooden structure in the center of the nave is the prayer stand where the prayer leader or "imam" places for the duration of services, and the closed lattice gallery in the north transept is where the women, the minority who appear in the mosque, are penned. Unlike churches, where the mass of the worshippers are likely to be female, worshippers in mosques are almost always men.
All Christian decorations and symbols were exposed from the cathedral, inside and out, when the Turks conquered Lefkosa in 1570, keep for one or two tombstones secret underneath the carpets at the far (eastern) end of the cathedral (if you show a curiosity, a local will assist to trace them for you). The Turkish commander, Mustafa Pasha, even had the graves opened and the bones scattered erratically. Paolo Paruta, Venetian historian and statesman, recorded the actions accordingly: "He ruined the altars and the images of the saints, and committed other unkind and cruel acts for which he was much held responsible even by his own people".
Venetian historians wrote many such accounts, none of which improved the Turks' reputation for mercy The Ottomans had already occupied Syria, Egypt, Rhodes and Constantinople before they turned to Cyprus. With a vast fleet and more than 100,000 men, they landed at Limassol which they rapidly pillaged and burnt, before moving on to Lefkosa, the capital.
Hearing of the advance, the frightened government gathered the men, women and children inside the walls. The Venetian governor at the time was Nicolo Dandolo, "a man whose incompetence was so obvious, his supineness so clear that it verged on deceit", as one historian wrote. The chances were hopeless. Within the walls were 76,000, of whom only 11,000 were able to fight. The power of the walls was such, nonetheless, that the siege lasted 48 days before the city fell. In the marketplace of Lefkosa a funeral pyre was made of the old, the people of poor health and any others who were incompatible as slaves, and the bitter smoke filled the city for days. Once the Ottoman ships went back to Constantinople, they were rounded with as many slaves and as much gold and jewels as they had capable of packing aboard. More than 20,000 Turkish soldiers were left behind to stay on the island, and more were consequently encouraged to move abroad from the mainland.
The Turks reserved control of the island for the next three centuries, but regardless of much mismanagement, beside the nature's assistance of food crisis, deficiency and outbreak, there were some significant improvements. The Greeks were given more autonomy than they had ever enjoyed under any former ruler. The feudal system imposed under the Lusignans and continued under the Venetians, where the peasants were required to work without pay for several days a week, was stopped. The daily life of Cypriots was also made easier by such fundamentals as water fountains circulated all over the cities for the first time. A few are still in use in the present day. The Turks infrequently went in for building fancy, self-glorifying edifices like Roman triumphal arches or Egyptian pyramids. Their bequest set in social welfare buildings, like aqueducts, mosques, tekkes, caravanserais, schools, libraries and baths.
No attempt was done to impose Islam on the local population. The Latin Catholic priests were barred, and the Greek Orthodox Church was restored. The Greeks in fact tore down many Latin Gothic churches and the remainder were turned into mosques or stables. The Turks gave the Orthodox archbishop the liability for collecting taxes from both Greek and Turkish essentials of the population, and in return, the Church was itself excused from any tax it collected in overload of the tribute precise. It was from this way that the habit was recognized of the archbishop being respected as the de facto leader of the Greek Cypriots, a position which was often misused from then until Archbishop Makarios, under whom the Cypriot Church overreached itself for the last time. William Turner, a British diplomat residing on the island in 1815 stated: "In short, those Greek priests, everywhere the vilest miscreants in human nature, are worse than standard in Cyprus, from the power they enjoy. They strip the poor ignorant credulous peasant of his last para, and when he is on his deathbed, make him leave his all to their convent, promising that loads shall be said for his spirit."
Skirting around the cathedral from the northern side, you will see on the right a small fountain place in a pointed arch. Many of these Ottoman fountains can be witnessed on street corners all over old Lefkosa, and two of them are even still in use. The one on Tanzimat Street is particularly well.