Situated on the north coast of Cyprus, Kyrenia, with its 6,000 year long history, unique remains of countless civilisations, miles of natural beaches, calm sea, and mild climate is an idyllic Mediterranean town.
Bounded to the north by the sea and to the south by the greenery of the Besparmak (Fivefinger) Mountain range, it offers the most magnificent scenery on the island.
Kyrenia’s charming and tiny harbour, full of yachts and fishing boats, is framed by the colossal hulk of its Crusader castle. With the backdrop of the jagged mountains behind and the calm sparkling sea in front, the harbour has an intoxicatingly serene atmosphere.
Kyrenia is an easy place to while away any time of the day… exploring shops, markets and local cafés in late morning, strolling in the narrow cobbled alleys behind the harbour in the afternoon, or stepping out for a brisk walk along the promenade and sea wall in the evening.
The beautiful harbour is dominated by the majestic Kyrenia Castle which houses a museum containing the remains of an ancient ship which was salvaged from the sea.
Overlooking the entrance to the harbour is Kyrenia Castle. Dating from the time of the Byzantines, its massive defences surround a complex mixture of building styles from centuries before and it is likely that there was a Roman fort here originally. Subsequently enlarged and strengthened by the Lusignans and then the Venetians, the castle is now home to many historical artefacts and is the current resting-place of the world’s oldest shipwreck.
As the sun sets, Kyrenia harbour again becomes the focus of activity as the locals take their evening stroll and the cafés and bistros that face the sea prepare for their nightly trade. Crisp white linen and small vases of local flowers are lovingly arranged on tabletops to welcome the evening’s guests to wine and dine in the cooling breeze.
The promenade has been turned into a pedestrian zone, and chic pavement cafes and restaurants conceal their kitchens behind elegant Venetian façades. Memorable evenings can be enjoyed in the restaurants and cafes, with the candlelight reflecting softly on the water and the gentle strumming of guitar music wafting out across the harbour.
There are several mosques and churches to see in the town, well worth a visit.
Just a few minutes drive away, lies the fairy-tale castle of St.Hilarion. Rumoured to be the original inspiration for Walt Disney’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’, St Hilarion was built during the crusades and those intrepid enough to brave the long walk to its battlements will be rewarded with stunning views of Kyrenia and the whole of the island’s northern coastline..
The enchanting village of Bellapais overlooking the town with its ancient abbey offers a peace and quiet for and is ideal starting point for hill-walking.
The beauty of Bellapais is legendary. Set in the mountains, just ten minutes above Kyrenia, a visit to this 14th century Lusignan abbey with its fabulous location and pervasive atmosphere of calm is a must.
When Lawrence Durrell, famous British author, bought a house in the village of Bellapais, he felt ‘guilty of an act of fearful temerity in trying to settle in so fantastic a place’.
Although research in the this area has revealed traces of Roman period occupation, the origins of the Kyrenia castle are thought to go back to the 7th century, and it was probably built to defend the town against Arab raids. The first historical reference to it is in 1191 when King Richard the Lionheart of England captured it from the Byzantines on the way to the Third Crusade.
After a short period King Richard sold the island first to the Templars Knights and shortly afterwards to his old friend and ally Guy de Lusignan, the former king of Jerusalem. Thus the Frankish Lusignan rule which was to last for some 300 years (1192-1489) began.
During the long rale of the Lusignans the castle of Kyrenia went through various alterations. However, the fortresses of the time were designed for defence against armoured knights and archers of medieval warfare. When the Venetians captured the island in 1489 they had to redesign the castles against Ottoman cannons. The walls of Kyrenia were rebuilt and strengthened. The towers with corners were replaced by curved bastions to deflect cannon shot.
The small church of St George near the entrance was originally outside the castle, until the Venetian period when it was enveloped by the new walls. It is thought to have been built just before 1100 AD. Its Korinth capitals are thought to have belonged to another edifice.
In 1570 the castle was surrounded by the Ottoman Turks. The Kyrenians, having heard of the bloody fall of Nicosia, surrendered the castle without being able to put to test the strength of its walls, and thus unknowingly enabled the castle to survive to the present day in such good condition.
Access to the castle is gained by a drawbridge. The moat surrounding the walls was full of water until 1400. This moat used to serve as an inner harbour during war.
The arch of the inner gateway is decorated with the coat of arms of the Lusignans which was brought from another building. The coat of arms consists of three lions prancing on their hind legs. Beyond this gate is a turban-capped tomb which belongs to the Ottoman admiral Sadik Pasha who fell during the conquest of Cyprus in 1570.
The shipwreck displayed in the Kyrenia castle is regarded as the most ancient of its kind to have been recovered until now, dating back to the time when the Mediterranean world was ruled by Alexander the Great or his successors. It was noticed in 1965 by a local sponge diver lying in about 3 meters of water less than one and a half kilometers off the coast of Kyrenia and recovered by the University of Pennsylvania. The carbon 14 analysis applied to the almonds found on board has given the date 288 BC, plus or minus 62 years. Its timber was dated to about 389 BC which means that it was built about 80 years before it sank, an old age for the time that it was used.
The ship’s hull was about 15 metres and made from Aleppo pine. It was sheathed in lead probably to protect it against Mediterranean sea-worm. Together with its hull a cargo of some 400 amphorae, most of them picked up from the island of Rhodes, including ten with distinctive shapes belonging to Samos, and 29 basalt grain mills from Cos were recovered. The scholars tend to think that it had sailed along the coast of the Mediterranean collecting various goods before crossing to Cyprus. The utensils, four wooden spoons, four oil jugs, four salt dishes and four drinking cups discovered in the ship indicate that its crew was four people during its last voyage. The surprising amount of almonds – altogether some 9,000 pieces – recovered in jars gives the impression that this was the main food of the small crew. The 300 lead net weights left in the bow show that the crew fished as well. Also, the fact that no skeletons were found made the archaeologists tliink that the crew probably swam to shore when the ship sank.
The ship’s single sail must have been taken down during the storm which brought its end because more than 100 lead rigging rings from a large square sail were found stored in the stern.
The present day name is the corrupt form of the ‘Abbaye de la Paix’ or the Abbey of Peace. The building is regarded as a masterpiece of Gothic art, and the most beautiful Gothic building in the Near East.
The first monks who were known to have settled here were Augustinians who had to flee from Jerusalem when the city fell to Saladin in 1187. It is known that the original construction was built between 1198-1205, and a large part of the present day complex was constructed during the rule of French King Hugh III (1267-1284). The cloisters and the refectory were built during the reign of Hugh IV (1324-1359). Following the Ottoman conquest the monks were turned out and the building was given to the Greek Orthodox Church.
The monastery begins with a gate, whose tower is a later addition, and a forecourt. The church which is situated on one side of the courtyard is the best preserved part of the monument and dates from the 13th century. The murals which have survived above its facade are thought to be from the 15th century.
The forecourt leads to cloisters of 18 arches. Under one of the northern arches there are two Roman sarcophagi which once served as lavabo. The door behind the sarcophagus leads to the refectory of the monks. The marble lintel above the door contains the set of coats of arms of the royal quarterings of Cyprus, Jerusalem and the Lusignans. This is an exquisite sample of Gothic architecture and the finest room in the monastery. The room contains a pulpit for addressing the monks during their meals. Six windows in the north wall which illuminate the room are reinforced by a rose window in the eastern wall. A door in the western wall leads to the kitchen and cellar built under the refectory. The rooms between the refectory and kitchen are thought to have once served as lavatories.
The east side of the inner courtyard was occupied by the chapter house and work rooms (undercroft). The first of these functioned as the administration office of the abbey and retains its interesting
Gothic stone carving: a man with a double ladder on his back, another man represented between two sirens, a woman reading, two beasts attacking a man, a woman with a rosary, a monkey and a cat in the foliage of a pear tree under which a man holding a shield is seen, and a monk wearing a cloak. The column standing at its centre is thought to have come from an early Byzantine church. The rooms of the monks occupied the second floor above this section.
A pair of stairs on the south of the inner courtyard lead to the treasury room in the north-west corner of the monastery.
The castle is named after St Hilarion, a hermit monk who fled from persecution in the Holy Land and lived and died in a cave on the mountain. Later in the 10th century the Byzantines built a church and monastery here.
Along with Kantara and Buffavento, St Hilarion Castle was originally built as a watch tower to give warning of approaching Arab pirates who launched a continuous series of raids on Cyprus and the coasts of Anatolia from the 7th to the 10th centuries. Some 400 years after it was first built, the castle became a place of refuge and also a summer residence for the Lusignans. When the Venetians captured Cyprus in 1489, they relied on Kyrenia, Nicosia and Famagusta for the defence of the island and St Hilarion was neglected and fell into oblivion.
The apse of the church of St Hilarion
The castle consisted of three wards on different altitudes, each with its cisterns and storage rooms. The first and lowest of these was used to accommodate the garrison and horses. It began with a barbican and its main gate and other walls, which are reinforced by horseshoe-shaped towers, were built originally by the Byzantines in the 1 lth century. The ruins of the stables where the animals were kept and the water cisterns – an invaluable water source during the long medieval sieges -have survived to the present day.
The entrance of the main gateway of the middle castle, which consisted of a church, Belvedere, barrack rooms and a four-storey royal apartment, was closed with a drawbridge. From the church of St Hilarion its apse has survived. The refectory which served as the dining hall for the Lusignan nobles is the largest room of the surviving ruins. When the weather is clear enough, Kyrenia range and the Mediterranean and even the snow-capped Taurus mountains of Anatolia some 100 km north are visible. Beyond the royal apartments there is a large water tank to collect the winter rain.
After a steep and windy climb access to the upper castle is gained by a Lusignan archway guarded by a tower. The courtyard of the upper castle rests under the natural protection of the twin summits, some 730 m above the sea. These two peaks have given the mountain its first name Didymos (Greek for ‘twin’), and from which the Crusaders derived the corrupted name of Dieu d’Amour. Two cisterns sunk into the rocky courtyard supplied water to the upper castle. The rooms on the east side served as kitchens and waiting rooms. The royal apartments occupied the western side of the courtyard. From the gallery, which was originally on a basement, two Gothic tracery windows, one with two stone window seats on either side, and thus known as the ‘Queen’s Window’, have survived. The window offers a beautiful view of the village of Karmi.
A set of rough steps leads to the uppermost section of the castle known as the Tower of Prince John. Tradition has it that Prince John of Antioch, the brother of King Peter I of Cyprus, in 1373 having been convinced that they were plotting against him threw his Bulgarian bodyguards to their death.
Sourp Magar Monastery
The Armenian monastery of Sourp Magar, or the Virgin Mary, was first established in about 1000 AD as a Coptic monastery, and was dedicated to the Egyptian hermit St Makarios of Alexandria (309-404 AD) whose Coptic (Egyptian Christian) monastery still exists in Egypt. Its location being at the edge of the cliff and the beginning of a deep ravine is very picturesque. It was also used as a summer resort by the Armenian community in Nicosia. It passed to the Armenian Church in the early 15th century and became a favourite pilgrimage spot for Armenians on their way to and from the Holy Land until 1974. The present day ruins date from the 19th century. Outside a wall on the eastern side a pillar with an inscription in the Armenian language dated 1933 stands. Antiphonitis Church
The Antiphonitis church was the centre of a monastery. It dates from the end of the 12th century and was built by a monk from Asia Minor. The dome of the edifice rests on eight stone columns which form an octogon. The two columns in the east are detached from the walls and mark the division of the altar. This architecture is very unusual for Cyprus. Its barrel vaulted narthex and arcade, which was once roofed, were added in the 15th century. The stone balustrade between the arches and wood and clay rood of its arcade have not survived.
The name Antiphonitis when loosely translated means ‘Christ who Responds’. Some of its surviving frescoes are original. Among these, the Virgin Blachernitissa – with the figure of the bust of Christ Child in her bosom – flanked by Gabriel and Michael, occupies the conch of the apse. Archangel Michael is encountered once more holding a parchment script on the upper part of the detached north column. On the opposite column Gabriel is shown. On the south-west wall of the nave the blue hooded figure of St Anthony and the scene of the Baptism can be distinguished. On the lower half of the column on this side St Endoxus and to the left St Paul are placed.
The rest of the frescoes are from the 15th century. The dome is occupied by the figure of the Christ Pantokrator represented inside a medallion surrounded by angels in the scene of the Preparation of the Throne, which is flanked by the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. The twelve apostles seated on their thrones and the images of prophets represented beyond accompany the scene.
Folk Art Museum
This small museum which was originally a typical 18th century Cypriot house is situated in the harbour. On its ground floor an olive press and a threshing board and other items related to agricultural life are displayed. Its second floor houses bridal costumes, carved wooden chests and various needlework items.
Archangelos Church (Icon Museum)
The high bell-tower of this Greek Orthodox church dedicated to Archangel Michael is the most obvious landmark of the town. The church was built in 1860 and its bell tower was added about 25 year later. At present it serves as a museum where icons gathered from the churches of the Kyrenia area are displayed.
Buffavento castle was built, along with St Hilarion and Kantara, as a part of the defensive chain against the Arab raids. It is the highest of the three castles, its summit being some 950 m above sea level. Like the other two it guarded an important pass through the mountains and it had signal connections with the other two strongholds. When Richard the Lionheart conquered Cyprus in 1191, the Byzantine despot king of the island Isaac Comnenus is said to have fled here.
Like the other castles of the island it is associated with a mysterious queen, who once ruled Cyprus, a story probably connected with the goddess Aphrodite. One of the popular stories about the castle is that during the reign of the Knights Templars a Byzantine princess suffering from leprosy was confined together with her dog which had the same disease. After a while the princess noticed that the skin of her dog had begun to heal. Following him she saw that the animal bathed in a spring far below the castle. Doing the same, she was cured. In gratitude, at the spot near the water source she founded the Monastery of Ayios Ioannis Chrysostomos.
During the Lusignan rule it was used as a prison and called ‘Chateau du Lion’. In its later history, the Venetians having relied on the coastal fortresses such as Kyrenia or Famagusta for the defence of the island, Buffavento fell into oblivion.
The name of the castle means ‘Defier of Winds’. However, some people think that ‘buffeted’ or ‘blown’ by the wind is a more appropriate explanation for its name. It is made of two sections. Its lower section begins with an arched gateway. The group of rooms beyond this entrance must have served as barracks and store rooms. Under the rooms a cistern is located. The door and the arches of some rooms in the upper castle show Byzantine style red brickwork. In the upper castle the remains of a chapel can be distinguished. This part offers a staggering view of Nicosia and the Troodos chain in the south.
Ayios Epiktitos Vrysi is a Neolithic settlement on a small headland on the coast looking as if it is about to slip down into the sea, which actually happened to part of it. It is thought to have been occupied from between 4000 and 3000 BC, and according to the impression that the pottery and obsidian finds have given, by people from Cilicia, in Anatolia.
Artefacts such as stone axes, grinders, and bone needles as well as remains of wheat, barley, lentils, grapes and olives show that the inhabitants of Vrysi were farmers rather than fishermen. Pigs, sheep, goats, dogs and cats are among the animals whose bones have been identified. Their handmade painted pottery is decorated with bold designs in dark red or brown on a white surface.
Some of the dwellings were irregular in plan owing to the uneven surface of the rock promontary; some were rectangular with softened corners. They were partly underground (especially those dug by the first settlers) with walls built inside hollows cut out of the rock and connected by narrow passages. The houses were separated from each other by narrow streets. The stone walls were plastered with clay on their inner surface. The first dwellings were very weak. Later they became stronger. The floors were mud or clay covered with woven mats of plant fibre. Each room had a raised hearth and platforms. The roofs were of reed. At the beginning the settlement was fortified by a V-shaped ditch separating it from the mainland. Excavations however, have shown that soon after it was dug the ditch became unnecessary, and new houses were built beyond it for the growing population.
Archaeologists believe that after an earthquake around 3000 BC the people of the settlement moved somewhere else. Tradition has it that Lambousa was founded as early as the 13th century BC by a group of Laconians from south Greece. In the 8th century it must have been an active trading post of the Phoenicians. During Roman and Byzantine rule it became an important administrative city with a gymnasium, a theatre, other public buildings and dockyards, being a natural port for trade with Cilicia. Its Byzantine name meant the ‘Shining’. It was destroyed in the 7th century during Arab raids.
The town wall, the breakwater, the rock-graves which have been the popular hunts of treasure seekers, and served as stone quarries, and the fish tanks are among the ruins of the Roman period which have survived to the present day. The archaeological excavations at Lambousa have been recovered since 1992.
The fish tanks or fishbreeding tanks are known as the earliest examples of their kind (while some sources assign them to the early Byzantine period, some claim that they were in origin a bathing establishment, part of a Roman villa). They are cut into the rock near the harbour. They are designed in such a way that while the cool and fresh water entered into them with the tides, the warmer water went out through another channel.
In 627 AD, the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius (610-641), fought the Persian general Raztis in single combat and beheaded him. Afterwards, having compared his victory with that of David against Goliath he issued some commemorative silver which is today known as the David plates. They were found in about 1900 in two stages in the vicinity of Lambousa and eventually having been split up into four, ended up in the museums of Nicosia, New York, Washington and London. Obviously they were buried in haste just before the Arab pirates arrived. These silver vessels, of which the largest depicted David against the giant Goliath, are regarded as among the finest examples of the art of the early Byzantine era. Since most of them bore imperial control stamps, they were closely dated as being from the years 627-630 AD.
Karmi is one of the most picturesque villages of North Cyprus. It is inhabited mostly by British and German expatriates.
Necropolis of Karmi
The necropolis of the village is thought to date from the Middle Bronze Age (c 1900-1625 BC). Here a number of rich chamber tombs have been excavated. On the wall of an access passage of a tomb the crude relief of a human figure has survived. This is the earliest relief of a human figure discovered on the island so far. In one of the tombs a Minoan ‘Kamares’ cup and blue faience beads from Egypt which suggest very early trading relations with Crete and Egypt were discovered. It is called ‘the tomb of the seafarer’ because it was believed ‘that the man probably walked down to the sea at Lapithos and took service with one of the vessels trading between the Syrian ports and the Aegean and that these objects are momentoes of his travels’
The Latin church of St Catherine was built at the end of the 14th century and converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest. Its external architecture features trapezoidal represses alternating with tall and narrow Gothicwindows. The openings of windows are filled with slabs of gypsum perforated with geometric designs.
The monument has three entrances. Access from Ae south is gained by an ornate Gothic portal. It carries a deeply carved hood ending with a finial. The figures of the corbel supporting this have not survived. Above the lintel, there are the reliefs of The three Lusignan shields. The arch and lintel are supported by groups of carved capitals on the two sides. The detached middle column of each group is of white marble. The larger western entrance was similar in design. Its finial has not survived. Its lintel is decorated by a frieze of roses and dragons. The door in the north wall leads directly to the cloister. It is simpler than the other two entrances. Nevertheless, its corbels, one showing a naked woman holding two fish by the tail and the other a dragon are interesting.
The interior of the church does not have aisles. Pillars incorporated into the walls support a cross ribbed ceiling. The thrust exerted on the walls is shared by steel ceiling ties. At the end of the nave a polygonal choir and a small sacristy are placed. The double flower, which decorates the keystone of the vaulting, is repeated all along the main body of the building. Above the sacristy there is the treasury with a window opening into the church. On the right is a small basin which must have held baptismal water.