Three castles on Cyprus
Fortresses from Byzantine, Crusader, and Venetian eras
It is often said that Cyprus is the world’s largest stationary aircraft carrier. As the location of two large British sovereign bases just a stone’s throw from the Middle East, the island certainly serves that purpose in the present day.
But before Cyprus assumed the role of aircraft carrier, it was the home of military bases of the medieval sort.
Castles were a form of military power projection for medieval states. Cyprus’s proximity to the Holy Land and the merchant cities in the Middle East with access to the Silk Road made the island a critical location to control and surveil. As each successive empire came and set up shop in Cyprus, fortifications were installed, upgraded, and improved.
In this post, we’ll look at three of the most spectacular and well-preserved castles in Cyprus, representative of three different eras in Cyprus’s history.
The romantic castle of Saint Hilarion
Rising from the mountain mist, the Castle of Saint Hilarion is massive, sprawling, and daunting. As you roam through its halls and ruined complexes, you might think you’re in the surreal, virtual environment of a video game, a level in Tomb Raider or Uncharted series. In fact, this castle was so video-game ready it was depicted in a 2009 edition of Assassin’s Creed.
The castle sits astride the Pentadactylos Mountains which form the northern ridge of the island, and is but one of a series of castles first constructed by the Byzantines to augment this natural wall against Arab raiders and other invaders. Go further down the range and you might come across the contemporaneously built fortresses of Buffavento and Kantara.
This castle, however, might be predated by the home of the eponymous saint. Born in the late 3rd Century CE, Hilarion was an early monk from Palestine who followed the example of Saint Anthony, one of the first monks to choose to conduct a solitary life in the desert. Hilarion did the same, but eventually people began to think of him as a holy man and follow him wherever he went. He fled the pilgrims by traveling to Sicily, Dalmatia (part of modern-day Croatia) and finally Cyprus, where he lived atop the Pentadactylos, dying there in 371 CE. Some believe a monastery was built there after his death, but that theory is still disputed.
Eventually the Byzantines fortified the area, and when the Frankish (French) crusaders took control of the area in 1191 CE, they adopted it as a castle of their own, constructing a palace near the summit as a royal retreat.
In the 1950s and 1960s it became a popular tourist attraction, and even the Greek poet and Nobel laureate George Seferis was photographed visiting the Queen’s Window in the royal apartments.
The castle was more recently used as a military outpost by the Turkish army during their 1974 invasion and sustained occupation of the northern part of Cyprus, revealing the continued strategic value of the site.
Today, you can visit and explore the castle’s many ruins, though a fire in May 2021 destroyed the modern café within the castle.
Kolossi Castle: The winery of the Knights Hospitaller
On the other end of the island, near Limassol and the British air base of Akrotiri, lies Kolossi Castle, an example of a crusader castle. Originally built in 1210 AD, this boxy tower was once home for the Knights of Saint John, aka the Knights Hospitaller, a Crusader order of knights established after the first Crusade established Western crusader kingdoms in the Holy Land.
After the kingdom of Jerusalem was defeated by Saladin’s Ayyubid army in 1187 CE, the exiled French King of Jerusalem Guy de Lusignan assumed the mantle of King of Cyprus, and the Knights Hospitaller set up shop in Cyprus.
A rival of the more-famous Knights Templar, the Knights Hospitaller upgraded the tower in 1454 to its present iteration.
The Knights Hospitaller produced sugar on-site from local sugarcane, as well as a sweet wine called “Commandaria,” one of the oldest continuously produced varieties of wine in the world.
Unlike the Knights Templar, which was disbanded on Friday the 13th, 1312 following a Papal order, the Knights Hospitaller avoided persecution and proved resilient over the centuries. The Knights Hospitaller later moved to the island of Malta before their ultimate defeat by the French in 1798. They order continues to live on today in various forms, including the Sovereign Order of St. John of Jerusalem Knights Hospitaller, a modern charity.
The Tower of Othello: A monument restored
Othello wasn’t a real person, but there is a tower associated with his name in Famagusta.
Othello is a character in the titular Shakespeare play, which the Bard set in Cyprus during the Ottoman war with Venice. In the story, Othello was a Moorish general in the Venetian army who is married to a white woman, Desdemona. However, his rival Iago deceives him into believing his wife was unfaithful, and Othello murders his own wife, leading to his downfall, foreshadowing Cyprus’ forthcoming fall to the Ottoman invasion. As the lead role is traditionally played by a Black actor, Shakespeare’s Othello is an interesting examination of race, racism, and jealousy that has stood the test of time.
Famagusta’s Tower of Othello was built by the French kingdom in the 1300s, and was later upgraded by Venice, supposedly with some advice from Leonardo da Vinci. The fortress defends the strategic harbor of Famagusta and is among one of the best surviving examples of Renaissance castle architecture.
It was restored in 2014 and 2015 by the Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage, a bicommunal organization that restores monuments on both sides of the divided island. The example of the Tower of Othello’s restoration shows that despite conflict and the existence of castles pointing to ongoing conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean throughout the region’s long history, a shared interest in preserving cultural heritage can overcome the challenges of maintaining historic monuments for the noble goal of preserving and understanding the legacy of human civilization for future generations.
This is the sixteenth post in The Cyprus Files, a limited-run newsletter series from The Usonian chronicling my Fulbright experiences in Cyprus. You can read all the posts in The Cyprus Files here. Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to subscribe so you don’t miss a (free) dispatch from the island of Aphrodite!