One historical sight that you have to see when visiting North Cyprus is the wonderful and vibrant Büyük Han in Lefkoşa. It’s one the main attractions for tourists, but also has its own local community feel, with residents and tourists alike spending time soaking up its unique atmosphere.
The Büyük Han (or Great Inn), located within the city walls, was commissioned by the first Ottoman Pasha to Cyprus, Musafer, in 1752, shortly after the Ottoman occupation of Cyprus. It was a familiar sight for travelling tradesman, as these types of Hans (Inns) were common in Turkey, especially in Anatolia. They were also known as ‘caravanserai’ which literally means a centre where people would commune. Apparently this Han is similar in design to only two others in the whole of Turkey, and is often compared with the Kosa (or cocoon) Han in Bursa.
The construction was specifically designed to allow the central area to provide stabling for animals, such as horses and camels, but also acted as the commodity area where sales and purchase were made. The inner ground circle of the Han would have been used for selling and buying offices whilst the upper circle was used for accommodation for the tradesman making 68 rooms in total. There are also 10 rooms surrounding the outer circle of the building.
There are two entrances to the Han, one being the main larger entrance which could have accommodated a loaded camel, whilst the smaller entrance is known as the eye of the needle, and would have only been in use when the main entrance was locked. On entry into the Han there are two external stairways leading up to the upper circle area.
The central domed building in the Han is known as a Mesjid, which is a type of mosque/chapel built to accommodate travellers who wished to pray. The domed top sits upon six pillars and travellers would have climbed the outer staircase to pray in the domed vault, after first having used the buildings fountain for the ritual ablutions.
Apparently, in years gone by, the Han also served as a hostel for the homeless and destitute. After the British took over the island of Cyprus in 1878 the Han was subsequently used as the central Lefkoşa prison. It turned out to be a good option for a prison as the windows of a Han are always situated high up, and as such had deterred would be thieves and robbers who would have seen the rich merchants staying at the Han as a potential source for easy pickings, and likewise as a prison it proved hard to escape from! It then spent some time being used as a builder’s yard and sadly fell into disrepair.
The Büyük Han was only fully restored as recently as 2000, finally reopening in 2002 and it really has been done very tastefully and with attention to detail as you can see from our pictures. The result has been to bring back to life a very unique Ottoman building which is now a major architectural focal point in North Cyprus. The rooms which would have accommodated the travelling salesman are now home to shops selling a range of Turkish Cypriot handicrafts and souvenirs as well as art galleries with the central area hosting various events throughout the year. A good place to visit should you be looking for a little traditional North Cyprus shopping experience.
One very interesting man who has a shop at the Han, Mehmet Ertuğ, makes his living entertaining people with his puppet shows. He often gives performances of ‘Black-Eye and Hacivat’ from his shop on the upper circle, a tale of two gossipy workers, who were told off by their king for being lazy and not working as he had ordered!
The Han is also a major centre of art and culture, and you can often pop in to see a piano recital, or see an artist at work, visit in the evenings to hear local musicians, or watch one of the local ladies preparing traditional Turkish Cypriot cuisine.
The Büyük Han is a bustling place, but at the same time you can really appreciate its calm and relaxed atmosphere, and it certainly acts as an oasis of peace away from the main city streets. You can stop and have something to eat and drink, walk the galleried circle, take in the atmosphere or just people watch! Please make sure you visit when you are in North Cyprus, and check out our sightseeing in North Cyprus section to find more interesting places to explore.