Ledra Palace blues: The rise and fall of an iconic hotel
There are certain places that are like containers of memory. Every room, every corridor holds within it years of lived memories.
One such place is the Ledra Palace Hotel, for decades stuck in the buffer zone of Europe’s last divided capital and home to UN forces.
The hotel was founded in 1947, when three entrepreneurs envisioned the island’s tourism potential following the Second World War: One of these was Cypriot hotelier George Skyrianidies; another was an Alexandrian businessman, while the third was Nicosia Deputy Mayor Giorgos Poulias.
These three chums, who built the hotel at a cost of 200,000 pounds, opened its doors on 8 October 1949 with a ceremony attended by the island’s colonial Governor. Within a short time after its opening, the hotel became a frequent haunt of the island’s high society.
No cost had been spared in constructing the building. The furniture and chandeliers were imported at great expense from Italy, and the dance floor was even made of expensive oak wood. The marble came from Greece, and even the bedspreads were sewn from the finest materials.
The hotel had two restaurants, a very popular bar, a tennis court, and a frequently used ballroom. Well-known musical groups from Europe, Lebanon, and Egypt would perform in the ballroom at balls attended by the island’s Greek, Turkish, and Armenian elites, as well as by the period’s colonial administrators and their spouses.
It also became the preferred hotel of internationally renowned artists and other foreign guests, including Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin and Lyndon Johnson.
This postwar multiculturalism ended abruptly on 1 April 1955, when the Greek Cypriot underground organization EOKA declared war against the British. EOKA’s main targets were those places where the English on the island tended to socialize.
The Ledra Palace would fall victim to this strategy on the night of 28 November 1955. The Scottish members of the colonial administration were celebrating St. Andrew’s Day when a grenade thrown into the hotel’s ballroom resulted in four people being seriously injured, including one woman. After this incident, British and Turkish customers immediately ceased to frequent the hotel. Until 1957, when EOKA unilaterally declared a ceasefire, the hotel’s customers consisted only of tourists and the Greek Cypriot middle class and wealthy. In one night, the hotel had been transformed from a multicultural to a mono-cultural space.
After the 1959 London and Zurich agreements and subsequent 1960 declaration of the Republic of Cyprus, the Ledra Palace again became the entertainment and social center of the new Republic’s Greek and Turkish elites, although with less enthusiasm than before.
During the conflict period, Turkish Cypriots had built the Saray Hotel, which was considerably more modest but sufficed for them. To generate activity and revenue, the hotel management began to use the ballroom during the daytime for seminars, conferences, and exhibits.
With the money earned from this relative increase in customer potential, the hotel administration built the island’s first swimming pool in the hotel’s garden in 1962. In a short period of time, the swimming pool became the hotel’s center of attraction, not only for its novelty but also for Nicosia’s bikini-clad girls who sunbathed around it.
The hotel’s customer profile again changed with the outbreak of intercommunal conflict in December 1963. Turkish Cypriots withdrew into militarized ghettoes, able to see the hotel and its pool only from behind barricades.
During those years, the only Turkish Cypriots who visited the hotel were their leaders who went to negotiate the status quo. When President Makarios unilaterally lifted the siege on those ghettoes in 1968, the hotel would again begin to acquire its multicultural atmosphere, even if it was not like the old days.
This situation would continue until 15 July 1974, when EOKA B, with the support of the Greek junta government, attempted a coup against Makarios. During the coup, foreign correspondents located in Nicosia took refuge with foreign guests in the hotel.
The coup was followed only a few days later by the sound of Turkish jets flying low over the city and the start of a Turkish military intervention. Because of its central location, a number of Greek and Greek Cypriot soldiers entered the hotel and took up positions there, despite warnings that they were endangering civilians. The following day, UN troops would forcefully enter the hotel, empty it, and take over to protect the civilians harbouring there.
That was the start of the UN’s 43-year Ledra Palace stay. Today, the ballroom where the Cypriot elite had danced to celebrate the Cyprus Republic’s founding has become a site where political leaders of the two sides occasionally meet for negotiations.
Civilians enter only to discuss the Cyprus problem, or for the occasional UN cocktail party. The latest example of these was a farewell party for UN representative Espen Barth Eide after the failure of the latest round of negotiations.
On that gloomy occasion, wandering around with a brandy sour in my hand, I had ringing in my ears the voices of the dozens of former UN diplomats who had passed through the island and held hundreds of meetings in the hotel with the intention of solving this never ending issue.When I returned home and was browsing the internet for more information about the hotel, I came across the following letter, published in the Observer on Sept. 15, 1974; sent to a customer who had been stuck there on the night of July 20:
“We hope that you have had a pleasant journey back home and that your stay at the Ledra Palace Hotel was an enjoyable one, up to the unfortunate moment when the Turkish invasion broke out on Saturday, 20 July 1974, for which I am sure we will all have a memorable experience. You will appreciate that the hotel guests had to be evacuated with the assistance of the United Nations peacekeeping force on Sunday, 21 July, and we have therefore invoiced your account up to 19 July 1974... Enclosed please find your hotel invoice to the amount of .... for which an early settlement will be much appreciated. Thanking you in advance, and we look forward to welcoming you back at the Ledra Palace Hotel on (sic) better conditions in due course.”