Athina and Ilkay: two women, one common heritage

Athina Papadopoulou and İlkay Feridun in front of Archangelos Michael Church — one of the projects of the Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage. UNDP Photo/Kerim Belet

Athina Papadopoulou and İlkay Feridun are two conservation architects from Cyprus.

They first met in 1999 when Athina, back then a young architect in her thirties, joined the bi-communal team of the Nicosia Master Plan, where Ilkay had been working since 1981.

Working side by side at a time, recalls Athina, “when it was not even possible to make a phone call from one side of the island to the other”, in the past twenty years the two women strongly contributed to shaping a non-political dialogue for Nicosia urban heritage first, and for the island’s broader cultural heritage some years later.

We quickly discovered that our sensitivities and enthusiasms were all quite similar” says Ilkay. “When I first joined the Nicosia Master Plan I was very young. Living in the northern part of Cyprus at the time was not easy. The Nicosia Master Plan experience was thrilling since we were brought together with Greek Cypriot colleagues at a time when communications between the two communities was limited.

To those visiting today, the walled city of Nicosia, with its narrow streets and traditional facades, appears full of cafes, restaurants, crafty shops, families and young people. Until recently though, the Cyprus problem had redefined the topography of the walled city. And as Nicosia continued to grow, and new residential areas were built outside the city walls, the old city on both sides of the divide looked abandoned.

Phanermoneni square, the Omeriye Bath and its surroundings, Selimiye and Samanbahce areas, are just some of the projects that thanks to European Union and UNDP’s support, Ilkay and I contributed to safeguard. Of course many other women colleagues had a major role in the success of the Nicosia Master Plan, first of all Agni, Gülşen , Naciye, Gul, Maria, and in later years Eleni, Andri, Selen, Ozge, Fatma, Asli, Silia. Today people from both communities walk in these streets, enjoy a spa treatment at the hamam, without even realizing that this has happened thanks to the capacity of technical teams from both communities to develop a unified and common vision for their divided city” says Athina. “And as women architects, this was even harder to achieve as we were confronted daily with a workforce that in the construction sector was made up a hundred percent by men.” she adds.

I believe that our work helped to foster a new kind of urban and spatial consciousness among the Cypriot communities. As we worked to protect street patterns and civil architecture, we triggered a transformation in people’s attitude towards and perception of their spatial environment. We observe that there is a greater tendency to reclaim spaces of the past, or urban everyday life. We see more and more people making use of the previously abandoned inner-city areas; cultural and leisure spaces are flourishing and being frequented by younger generations.” says Ilkay.

Almost ten years after their first encounter, and many years of successful collaborations, the two women were called again to work together within the Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage, a mechanism created by the Leaders of the two communities in 2008 where the practical aspects of cultural heritage preservation island-wide are considered in a non-political manner and practical measures are taken to improve the situation on the ground.

The Nicosia Master Plan can be considered as the seed for the Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage. Both platforms actively chose to focus on commonalities rather than differences in a committed manner.” says Athina. “We joke amongst ourselves and say that we are above all sorts of political developments. The Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage has met weekly since 2008 non-stop, regardless of any political changes taking place. We have gone past blame games and all other forms of conflict. We operate at another frequency and we will carry on doing what we do best. I hope this gives inspiration to younger generations who would like to achieve common visions like ours.”

Coming from two strong technical backgrounds (Ilkay being the first in her community to specialize in heritage conservation), the two women embraced from the very early days a bi-communal philosophy to heritage conservation. Both were convinced that cultural heritage could play a pivotal role in reminding both communities their common past and building a common future.

Apart from the physical aspect of our work, we believe that we are building confidence at a community level since there is a human factor to all the projects. People appreciate the work done because they end up reconnecting with a part of their lives. It required hard work to reach this point of maturity and gain acceptance.” says Athina.

These are long-term processes. It took a decade for our work within the Nicosia Master Plan to show its results. Today we see more and more Cypriots from both communities rediscovering the pleasure of a weekend stroll in the old town. Similarly, through our work with the Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage more and more spaces of memory island-wide are being reclaimed by older generations with an elevated enthusiasm. These are the dynamics that keep the bonds between places and communities strong and alive, and I would like to think that this is our contribution to the cause.” adds Ilkay.

Things have not always been easy.

Originally, within the Turkish Cypriot Nicosia Master Plan team, we were two women only, later we became four. “The ladies’ gang” they used to called us.” recalls Ilkay. “The atmosphere was not at all as it is now. Imagine seeing, in a still quite conservative society, four women, four strong characters like we were, going to ask for permissions (there were lots of formalities in place back then to cross into the Buffer Zone) to meet our Greek Cypriot counterpart to discuss how to plan a reunited city. We were questioned several times “are you sure these are technical meetings you are going to?”. But we kept it technical and we kept going”.

Yet, Athina and Ilkay, together with other members of the original Nicosia Master Plan, eventually did gain the trust of their communities in the long-term and today they continue to work together within the bi-communal Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage on more than 60 European Union funded heritage conservation initiatives island-wide.

Since 2012, approximately €14.7 Million have been provided by the European Union through the Aid Programme for the Turkish Cypriot community to implement the priorities of the Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage for the preservation of the island-wide cultural heritage in Cyprus. The European Union is the largest contributor to the work of the Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage in Cyprus.

All projects of the Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage are implemented by UNDP.

Some of the women of the Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage and its Advisory Board: Athina Papadopoulou, İlkay Feridun, Figen Caner, Emine Reis, Andri Sofroniou with the women of the UNDP in Cyprus’ team: Tiziana Zennaro, Fatma Terlik, Elena Papapetrou, Melis Karagozlu, Doygu Kalfaoglu, Georgia Tzika, Seniz Avcioglu.