The main square of the capital of Cyprus, Liberty Square (Eleftheria square), can easily be passed by without paying it enough attention.
It is a rather modestly sized architectural entity that is difficult to compare with some other famous squares.
Had it not been for solutions from the architectural bureau of the legendary Zaha Hadid, the square would have remained rather unremarkable. About the history of this square, its importance, and its appearance - you can from reading this article.
Liberty Square (Greek πλατεία Ελευθερίας, pronounced "Platia Eleftherias") connects the historical center of the capital (as Cypriots say, "Nicosia inside the walls", η εντός των τειχών Λευκωσία) with the "new town", i.e. the more modern areas. The construction of the square began actively only under the British after 1878.
Original plan of the fortified walls of Nicosia, created by architect Giulio Savorgnan, did not include a square. The walls were built for the defense of the city against the Turks, and there was no need for any square to unite the inner and outer districts of Nicosia. The city was linked with the surrounding area only through three gates - Paphos Gate, Kyrenia Gate and Famagusta Gate.
This situation changed under the British. The city developed and it was already overcrowded within the old walls. For convenient communication it was necessary to connect the old town and the new neighborhoods. For this purpose, in 1882, important changes were introduced in the area of the Bastion d'Avila. The building that separated the present-day Ledra and Onasagoras streets from the bastion was demolished and a wooden bridge was built across the moat. That bridge was destined to become Liberty Square. Subsequently, the bridge was strengthened and widened, turning it into a full-fledged roadway. Liberty Square was not immediately transformed into a pedestrian square, at first it was just a continuation of Evagoros Avenue with the traffic moving in both directions.
In 1936, they decided to declare this section of the roadway a square and gave it a rather controversial name, honoring the then-current political figure, Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas.
A controversial character
Metaxas went down in history as a dictator, but at the same time - as a patriot who was not afraid to stand up to a stronger opponent. But first things first. In April 1936, on the wave of the struggle with the labor movement, King George II of Greece appointed Ioannis Metaxas, then Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Military Affairs, as head of government. The country was in a parliamentary crisis, with the parties unable to agree on who would form the cabinet. On August 4, Metaxas announced to the ministers that he was limiting the Constitution and dissolving the parliament. In effect, an autocratic regime was introduced, with police supremacy, repression, and censorship. Metaxas' ideal was a country without political parties or communists.
Today, however, Ioannis Metaxas is remembered every year in a slightly different context: not as a dictator who usurped power, but as a politician who gave a courageous response to Fascist Italy.
It was Metaxas who said the famous "Ohi" ("No") in response to Benito Mussolini's demands that Greece become a springboard for Italy to attack Africa.
In the early morning hours of October 28, 1940, the Italian ambassador in Athens, Emanuele Grazzi, handed Ioannis Metaxas an ultimatum to allow the Italian army to enter Greek territory and occupy strategically important infrastructure (ports, airfields, etc.). If he refused to comply, the Duce threatened war.
I observed the excitement in his [Metaxas'] eyes and hands. In a firm voice, looking me in the eye, Metaxas said: "This is war." I replied that it could have been avoided. He replied, "Yes." I added: "If General Papagos..." but Metaxas interrupted me and said: "No." I left, filled with the deepest admiration for this old man who preferred sacrifice to submission - this is how Grazzi himself described the moment in his memoirs, published in 1945.
It is this response of Metaxas that is remembered during the "Ohi Day" celebrated in Greece and Cyprus on October 28. The continuation of this story is well known - Italy invaded Greek territory but received a worthy response. The Greeks were able to expel the enemy from their territory and even transferred the hostilities to the territory of Albania. Surprisingly, Metaxas, a right-wing politician, did not see it possible for him to cooperate with the "class-closer" fascist regime.
Ioannis Metaxas in the center (If you believe that the military is giving a Nazi salute around him, then you are mistaken).
What is less well known is that Metaxas subsequently said another "no", but this time to the British. Britain offered Greece military assistance in defense against the Italians, but Metaxas saw this as a trap. In his opinion, the British wanted to provoke Hitler to intervene and thus redirect some troops from other parts of the front to occupy Greece. To the British proposal, the Prime Minister replied, "It is better not to send us anything."
Ioannis Metaxas died in January 1941 at the age of 70 from illness. After his death, Greece accepted British military aid. Nazi Germany occupied the country in April 1941, because of which Hitler had to postpone until June 22 the implementation of the plan "Barbarossa" (which modern Greeks are very fond of recalling in conversations about the Second World War). But, all this would come later. In 1936, when the square named after him appeared in Nicosia, Metaxas was the leader of Greece's conservative pro-monarchist forces and a usurper who dissolved the parliament. Giving a new square the name of such a politician meant sending a very definite signal about one's political preferences.
The renaming of the square
The square bore this name until 1972. In the early 1970s, tensions arose between the ruling Greek junta of the "Black Colonels" and the Cypriot authorities. Leaving the central square to bear the name of a right-wing politician was not an option.
Ioannis Metaxas is nowhere else in the Greek world so revered that the most central square in the city would have his name - the newspaper "Kypros" wrote on December 4, 1972.
Therefore, the mayor of Nicosia, Lellos Dimitriadis, proposed to name this urban space Liberty Square. In 1975, this option was approved. Throughout its history, Metaxas/Liberty Square has been the scene of major events in the political history of Cyprus. The first presidential candidates of the Republic of Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios III and Ioannis Clerides, delivered their election speeches in this square. From the Bastion d'Avilla, which adjoins the square, President Makarios made his last speech. On November 21, 1983, a rally was held here against the establishment of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (until then, that is, for almost 10 years, there was no quasi-state structure in the north of the island). In May 2004, President Tasos Papadopoulos raised in the square the flag of the European Union.
An unattainable dream of a new identity
The first plans for the reconstruction of the square emerged in 1972, but were shelved due to the Turkish invasion two years later.
Newspapers in 1972: "Liberty Square will finally get a new look".
It wasn't until 2005 that an architectural competition was announced for the redesign of the square. The winner was the architectural bureau of the world-famous architect Zaha Hadid.
Sheikh Zayed Bridge in Abu Dhabi, the design utilizes familiar flowing lines
Due to its modest size, Liberty Square did not give much room for architectural imagination, so the architects of the Zaha Hadid bureau decided to expand the space for creativity by including the level of the moat between the Bastions d'Avila and Dionisio Solomou Square.
The square thus became, as it were, a two-level plaza. The roadway between Evagoros Avenue and Lidra Street became a pedestrian zone, slightly changed its shape and received a modern design. The square, with elements of unusual rounded shapes, boldly made its way from the Bastion d'Avila towards the moat, like the prow of a ship.
Zaha Hadid's design was immediately criticized for looking completely out of place and in no way blending in with the capital's historic landscape. Archaeologist, art historian, and mayoral candidate Anna Marangou was one of its fiercest critics.
The only striking feature of this city was its historic fortifications, but even here the authorities managed to find a way to hide them and create something that has nothing to do with Cyprus, its history, character, and image. Now no one can condemn other people for destroying our cultural heritage because this time we did it all ourselves," she said.
But the authorities had every reason to forcefully fit such an ultra-modern (as of 2005) space into the center of Nicosia. Nicosia's old town had a reputation for being dusty, dirty and dangerous. The unconventional, bright project was supposed to help bring the historic center out of this state of decay and become a symbol of the new Cyprus, which had just entered the European Union. It must be said that this calculation worked perfectly. But at what cost?
The main square of the Cypriot capital became for the architectural bureau of Zaha Hadid the most delayed project in its history. And this is despite the fact that on the account of the famous British-Iraqi architect and her staff dozens of buildings of various levels of complexity were being constructed all over the world. Similar projects were usually completed by the bureau in an average of three years.
Design began in 2006. Three years later, the initial construction work revealed important archaeological discoveries that forced changes to the original design. Work did not resume until 2012. The project, which was initially estimated at €23 million, has faced several delays due to a number of technical and contractual problems. In February 2014, the first contractor, Miltiadis Neofitou, withdrew from the project. The municipality paid him 522 thousand euros in compensation.
Liberty Square during the works
Following a new tender, Lois Builders took over the management of the project. The square was supposed to be delivered by April 6, 2016, but new delays have again stalled its construction for five years.
On January 1, 2021, an underground parking lot at the level of the moat, under Homer Avenue adjacent to the square, became operational. To facilitate the movement of citizens and show the long-awaited results, the city authorities opened access to the west ramp and the central staircase at that time. The official opening of Liberty Square took place on December 10, 2021. Unfortunately, Zaha Hadid herself did not live to see the completion of the work, she died in 2016. The final budget of the project surpassed 40 million euros.
Cypriot residents who came to see the new square in January 2021 were divided in their appreciation.
It's nice, but I don't think it belongs here. Now we are certainly impressed by the design, but something similar can be seen in Dubai. Yes, the square tries to look trendy and modern, but here it's more like a simulation," 28-year-old Jessica Christodoulou told Cyprus Mail at the time.
Other visitors were more optimistic.
Honestly, I like it here. I think people complain too much. The whole point of this project, in my opinion, is to portray the contrast between the old and the new," said Andreas Hadjiyiannis, 32.
Ironically, what seemed inappropriate and too bold 17 years ago has become much more in tune with the landscape of Nicosia's 2021 version. Improvement works in the commercial district, between Stasinou Street, Stasikratous Street, and the northern part of Archbishop Makarios III Avenue, have made the city center more pedestrian-friendly and trendier. Two high-rise towers rise next to the square.
It may seem odd, but I think it's even better that the project was so late and constantly delayed. I think it now better matches how Nicosia has changed over the last five to ten years. The towers in the background prove it," emphasized 36-year-old Yorgos Kyriakides.
Bonus: The story of "Hadjisavva Palace"
Opposite Liberty Square, southwest of the Bastion d'Avilla, there was a building with an interesting history. At the end of the nineteenth century, a café opened on the corner of two large streets that today bear the names of Homer and Evagoras. Its founder was the Nicosian businessman Kypris Hadjisavvas (1862-1952). He gave his name to the establishment and the cafe became known as Hadjisavvas. The cafe was located in a small historical building.
The one-storey building with arches in the right part of the photo is the mentioned same cafe
One of the first European-type cafeterias in the whole city was located in a very busy place.
One of the first European-type cafeterias in the whole city was located in a very busy place.
Further down the street, the Magico Palati (i.e. Magic Palace) and Pate movie theaters soon opened. Opposite the café was the building of the British Institute. In 1952, Kipris Hadjisavvas died. He bequeathed the building of the cafe to the All Cyprus Gymnasium, but on one condition. No matter what would arise on that place, there should always be a catering establishment with democratic prices. In the 1960s, the original cafe building was demolished and in its place was erected an interesting building designed by architect Pefkios Georgiadis in the style of Cypriot modernism. The building was named "Megaron Hadjisavva", i.e. "Hadjisavvas Palace".
Photo from the Cypriot Modernism community