Selimiye Mosque (St Sophia Cathedral) in Nicosia, North Cyprus.
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Salamis Ruins From Helicopter
photo by: TAK News Agency
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Selimiye Mosque
(St Sophia Cathedral)

Selimiye Mosque
photo by: Anonymous
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Right at the heart of the old city of North Nicosia is the Selimiye Camii (or mosque), housed in the former St Sophia Cathedral. There has been a religious building on this site since 1193, when a small church was built for the coronation of King Amaury in 1197. (You can still see marble from this original church incorporated in to the north doorway.) Life in modern North Nicosia centres around this building, so it’s a "must see" during your North Cyprus holiday adventure.

St Sophia: French style in medieval Nicosia

The foundations for the much grander French-style cathedral were laid in 1209, but the cathedral itself was not consecrated until 1326. Work on the great façade still continued after this date, as records show that the men working on it were granted an indulgence by papal decree in 1347. Even today, the towers are unfinished, and the flat roof (a peculiarity of Gothic churches in Cyprus) makes it less imposing from the side than many of its European counterparts.

St Sophia in North Nicosia, North Cyprus: Surviving Through the Centuries

St Sophia Cathedral Video
video by: TRNC Ministry of Tourism
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The cathedral was originally quite grandly decorated with statues, a painted screen, choir stalls and paintings in the vault itself. However, the ravages of invasion by the Genoese in 1373, the Mamelukes in 1426 and two earthquakes in 1491 and 1547 all took their toll on the building and its contents.

When the Ottomans converted the cathedral to the Aya Sofya Camii in 1570, they stripped out all the contents, especially any remaining representations of the human form, so that the only remaining statuary in St Sophia’s is now outside. (A couple of tombstones still remain under the mosque’s brightly colour carpets.) Despite further earthquakes in the 18th century, the old building still stands strong today. The mosque was only renamed the Selimiye Camii mosque in 1954, in honour of Selim II, the sultan at the time of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus.

Selimiye Mosque Inside
photo by: Sinem Tulipa Turcica
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The Selimiye Mosque and its Minarets, North Nicosia

The front porch is as grand an entrance as ever graced a European cathedral, with fine carvings all around the three doors. The west window dominates the façade, although the twin towers designed to match this window were never completed. Ever resourceful, the invading Ottoman used the tower bases to add two minarets to their newly-converted mosque. Right up until 1959, the muezzin had to climb 170 steps five times every day to call the faithful to prayer; now a recorded message and loudspeaker do the work instead! You can still see the minarets towering above the old city buildings from across North Nicosia.

Inside the Selimiye Camii, the plain interior gives a spacious and serene feel to this grand building. The original cathedral features have been carefully reused, such that the old lady chapel now contains the mithrab that orientates the mosque towards Mecca.

The best views of the mosque’s south wall and its impressive flying buttresses are from the café housed in the former Chapter House. It’s a lovely place to rest your feet and have a cool, drink after a hard day’s sightseeing on your North Cyprus holiday.