At the Ottoman Hammam Omeriye, in the free part of divided Nicosia
Author of the Week: Cyprus
In history’s humidity
We met at the checkpoint on Nicosia’s Ledra Street, at the very heart of the divide. On either side of the street, pedestrian zones were strewn with cafeterias, restaurants, commercial arcades, small elegant shops – not unlike a fairytale.
It is early December 2022. I woke up at dawn. A thin veil of fog blankets Nicosia, shielding memories and shielding the axis around which people are moving. When the sun comes out, the veil turns to a perforated filigree and I can see Pentadaktylos as the first sun rays are landing on its slopes, exposing the scars that, for years now, have fed into its body.
It’s freezing today. Winter marched in like a frozen snowman. Nicosia takes a deep breath and the air is dotted with fine, tiny clouds. The cold makes people reach deeper into their coats and for their scarves. Most of the time, around noon, an invisible drizzle, like thin dust, makes an unexpected intervention and a halo of sun compliantly circles an allegory of a union of people and the glistening steam of the asphalt. Every corner in the city is transformed at dawn or in the twilight of the afternoon.
Our city and its four seasons; the weather conditions form such a big part of our everyday life. When will it rain? When will the air cool down? How much dust has flown in from Africa or Syria? How much humidity descends from the slopes of Pentadaktylos to land on her hair. Thick dust and humidity: inextricable ties, relations of power and conquest. The weather disregards the division as it takes over the entire city with all its inhabitants in the North and South alike.
We walked to the square of the Ottoman Hammam Omeriye and paused under the old olive tree in the enclosure, taking in the fumes of history and the oriental scents rising through the dome of the hammam. So many things in this neighbourhood never cease to amaze me each time I visit.
The Hammam Omerye is a true example of the island’s layered culture and diversity, an inspired work that emits a sense of freedom and flexibility. It dates back to the 14th century, when it was built as an Augustan Church dedicated to Our Lady. Stone-built with small domes, it has its origins in the years of the Frankish and Venetian Empire, more or less during the same period when the city acquired its Venetian walls. In 1571, Lala Mustafa Pasha converted the church to a mosque and named it Omeriye in honour of caliph Omar: it was there, in that special place, he believed, that the caliph had stopped to rest during his visit to Nicosia.
We stepped inside the ‘silent healer’, as it was once known, and were offered warm tea made with lemon blossoms that put us in a state of peculiar relaxation. The room reverberated with soft Oriental music as though a prelude to our journey into history, legend, remembrance and reminiscence; to cleansing of the body and purification of the soul. The skin has the ability to reset; in fact, if you take good care of it, it might surprise you with the passing of the years, whispered the girl who welcomed us. What is time, I wonder, if not our own metrical construct against which humans stand in fear, weighed down by insecurity.
I turn my eyes to the framed poster hanging on the sign next to the entrance. Healing properties of the Hammam, as it carries the body and mind into mystic recreation with an Oriental flair. It relaxes the muscular system; cleanses the skin; reduces fatigue and stress; lowers blood pressure; boosts blood flow; helps with insomnia; detoxifies; fights cellulite, allergies, dry skin and muscular stiffness. Helps with relief of pain in the bones, rheumatism and arthritis.
The Prophet Muhammad said that purity and cleanliness were half of faith; in Christianity too, water carries rich symbolism: ruin, death and interment, life, cleansing, purification, healing, blessing, holiness, baptism, redemption and salvation.
We left our clothes in one of the cabins in the oda, themed after A Thousand and One Nights. The air in the hammam is warm, humid and heavy. Liberated, we walked into an area with an imposing dome and small glazed holes, a polygonal marble bench, carved troughs with running water, and surrendered ourselves to the ritual of the authentic Ottoman hammam experience, a re-enactment of the original ritual of six centuries ago. The social life of the hammam is no longer available to us. Back then, women pampered their body and hair, decorating their arms and legs with henna to ward off the evil eye and malicious spirits, as though a temporary amulet. There they would meet their friends, exchange news and gossip, discuss the fashion of the time, propose matchmaking and even host wedding parties, offering milk, sugar cubes, biscuits, sweets and rosewater or orange blossom water in exchange for a blessing.
Men discussed social topics, the economy and politics, and made commercial agreements. After the bath, they relaxed, had fun, relished coffee, tea or refreshments, ate food and sweets, smoked, listened to music and conversed. At important milestones along their life, such as the birth of a child, circumcisions and weddings, Ottomans would go to the hammam to host feasts with food, music and dancing.
Today, two women, one a Greek Cypriot and the other a Turkish Cypriot, are lying side by side on the warm marble slab. We’ve known each other for years, first met when the checkpoints opened in 2004 enabling us to unite our voices, our thoughts and words through the verses of our poems; it was then we had been able to clearly see each other’s face without the burden of political shadows, differences and prejudice. We have since preserved a beneficial, generous friendship between us.
Now we are immersed in 43°C steam and healing humidity. Alev wrapped a colourful turban around her head; I let mine down. To really relax, you must first warm up inside, she says. We both take a scented eucalyptus soap and rub our bodies with loofah pads until the pores of the skin open and drip with sweat, forming small streams that pour into the towel and onto the slabs under our bodies.
Now and then we glance at each other, faces flushed, eyes the image of a bright cloudless sky. We rub each other’s back, fill the bakir bowls with cold water and rinse while laughing softly lest we disturb the others.
I closed my eyes and dreamt that I could furtively observe the city and its people going about their everyday lives, free from animosity, war and political differences. I could see them rushing by as though in a hurry to escape the adversities of life.
I dreamt of our city, a melting pot of its conquerors, Lusignans, Venetians, Ottomans, the British. This clamouring city of many passions, of multiple forms and names, a city much loved and divided, its green line and the barbed wire, the checkpoints, the dead-end roads of its life, the hypersensitivity of its people in the North and in the South, whose love of their city is now irrelevant to all; a lasting bond rendered emotionally sterile by citizens and politicians or spiritually fertile by authors and poets; a compelling flirt with an unknown future.
When I opened my eyes, Alev was peering at me.
What were you thinking? she whispered. Your face had the aspect of a migratory bird; furtive.
How I wish that the rapport between the people of our city, North and South, were like ours, I replied, even though we both knew this was impossible. We were captives of a utopian wish. We felt superior, liberated, but at the same time entangled in our past and our history. There is no way to undo the graves of the dead or the heavy legacy of our land, or change the minds of our fellow citizens and our politicians.
A cyclical time dominates the minds of people and their life begins as an embryo, goes through the process of ripening, and ends in death. All those years of peaceful coexistence, today summed up in lectures and memories on book pages, are blown away by the wind. We paused for a few minutes, allowing silence, vapour and the warm atmosphere to conjoin our thoughts. Time flew; it poured into the hands of the clocks that ticked inside of us, spilling over into our heads.
After a cold shower, we returned to the oda, got dressed, had tea and lukum, took pictures to remember these brief moments of togetherness.
By the time we stepped outside, the light blue hues had been erased from the sky and night had already descended upon the street. Somehow, I felt that everything had changed tremendously in the span of a few hours and we had found ourselves on the verge of our own, exclusive paradise.
We walked around the square. Aspects of myself I didn’t know were there began to unfold inside me. For just one second, I read upon Alev’s face a different side of the world, a world tinged with colours, aromas and soft sounds, almost like whispers.
The night breeze blew gently; our feet were lifted off the ground, over Nicosia, and we saw the checkpoint that separated the city in two. It was lit up and people were standing in queues to cross over into either side of the divide.
That night we didn’t go to sleep. We stayed awake on the plateau hovering above our city.
That night, the world on both sides of divided Nicosia took on a more humane aspect, tinged pale by light filtered through the lampposts.
Translated by Despina Pirketti
 Pentadaktylos is a mountain range extending along the Turkish-occupied Northern coast of Cyprus. It owes its name to the eponymous summit which has the shape of an open, five-finger palm. According to tradition, the Byzantine hero Dighenis Akritas left the imprint of his hand on the mountain as he prepared to jump over it.
Lily Michaelides lives and creates. In poetry she has published The Alchemy of Time (2001), Shapes and Roads in Relief… (2003), Remembrance of a Dawn, a bilingual poetry collection (2004), Innuendos (2007), Arena, a bilingual poetry collection – short listed for the state poetry award (2014), and Entrapped Silk (2021). In prose she has published The city needs no introduction (2011), Drops from the Maasai Land (2017, 2019), and Him, stories of men a bilingual collection of narratives – short listed for the state narrative award (2018). Since 2006 she is a cofounder and director of Ideogramma. www.lilymichaelides.com