Buildings aren't just structures that surround us. They are our souls, our histories, our shared memory.
When communities rediscover their rich past, their encounters can help to bridge divisions, restoring a sense of common identity and through it, a sense of peace and trust.
In Cyprus, one of the last divided countries in the world, such efforts are especially prominent. The buffer zone which divides the island stretches 180 kilometres across the island, from West to East, separating the Turkish Cypriot community in the north, from the Greek Cypriot community in the south. The division has often made peacebuilding efforts on the island very challenging.
Ali Tuncay and Glafkos Constantinides are two of ten (five Greek Cypriot and five Turkish Cypriot) custodians of cultural heritage in Cyprus.
Both Ali and Glafkos were appointed by their respective leaders in 2008 to be members of the Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage. Their role is to watch over the proper safeguard and conservation of rich historical and archaeological heritage of Cyprus.
The committee is an advisory board composed of archaeologists, architects, art historians and town planners from both communities. Not an easy task considering the more than 2,300 immovable cultural heritage sites that Phoenicians, Venetians, Lusignans and Ottomans – amongst others - have left on the island as legacy of their presence.
“These are not Greek Cypriot or Turkish Cypriot, or Venetian monuments - they belong to humanity,” Ali explains to Al-Jazeera English talking about the Othello Tower of Famagusta. Shakespeare’s world famous monument is one of the many cultural heritage sites that the Technical Committee has agreed to conserve island wide.
In 2009, with funding from the European Union, UNDP began to work on a study of cultural heritage in Cyprus. That trip paved the way for many more years of fruitful work.
Thanks to the work of people like Ali and Glafkos, Cypriot cultural heritage has finally found a way forward in a non-political manner. Their initiatives have encouraged thousands of Cypriots from across the divide to get involved in promoting heritage around the island.
“Occasionally we do argue. But not across community lines. We argue on which is the best way to conserve a building or on how to allocate funds,” Glafkos laughs.
In the last 5 years alone, UNDP Partnership for the Future has implemented 72 different initiatives, which include the conservation of churches, mosques and other landmark buildings.
Most recently, a major landmark - the Apostolos Andreas Monastery - got an overdue "makeover."
For a long time, the monastery has been a place of pilgrimage for Cypriots and a popular spot among many visiting the island. Now, following a collaborative process led by both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, it is also set to become a symbol of co-operation.
The restoration includes a full structural and architectural rehabilitation of the main church, new electrical and mechanical installations, extended gallery for women (gynaikonitis) and a refurbished altar, ambon and the iconostasis with 58 icons. The team has also reconstructed the arcade in the back of the church, making it a spectacular sight.
Restored buildings have also allowed Cypriots to create shared meaning with events and activities.
Take for example, Shakespeare's famous Othello tower, originally built in the 14th century. When it was restored in 2015, eight actors from the island’s two communities brought the play to life on site in front of an audience of 300 people.
The Greek Cypriot actors said they were overwhelmed with awe to be part of the project, more than 50 years since the last performance.
Support to the committee is a cornerstone of the European Union's support to reconciliation and confidence building in Cyprus. Since 2012, their projects have received 11.7 million euros from the EU.
The work on the ground has also drawn support from other donors, including the Church of Cyprus and the EVKAF administration, amounting to more than 16 million euros in total.
The partnerships that have formed among local stakeholders not only signals that the changes taking place on the ground will remain intact for a long time to come; it also means strong relationships that are paving the way for reconciliation.
“In the end, our work on cultural heritage is not only about stones and buildings,” says Ali. Glafkos nods, completing his partner's thought:“It is really about people, and their stories, and their capacity to translate it into new encounters and friendships.”