“All ships and all wares must needs come first to Famagusta.”
(14th century German traveller)
What a place this port city must have been back then – enclosed within its 2 miles of walls and its moat. Imagine the babble of tongues – Greek, Arabic, French, Hebrew, Italian – as Crusaders, merchants and armies passed through en route to Europe and the Near East. Then there were the invaders, with the city adapting and changing to fit the requirements of its conquerors and rulers. Lusignan, Ottoman, Venetian and British all left behind layers of history, commerce, law and culture, shaping and reshaping this urban settlement down through the centuries.
I knew I was going to like Famagusta because I liked the name!! Shallow!! I know!! But I came away from the place feeling as though I’d been somewhere very special indeed….
There’s NO way you can look at the walls and not be impressed!
There were already walls here when the Venetians took over in 1489 but they were tall and thin for defending against bows and arrows and other siege weapons of the day. The invention of gunpowder meant these were no longer suitable. Renovation and updating included strengthening of all parts of wall and bastions and the replacement of arrow slits with openings for canons and other modern weapons. Averaging 30ft in thickness and 60ft in height, the new walls housed stables, armouries and tunnels.
Beyond the walls, and the now dry moat, the modern city spreads out in all directions.
Othello Castle dominates one corner of the old city. Originally built in 1310, the fortress was re-constructed in Renaissance style by the Venetians in 1492.
The Venetian emblem – the winged Lion of St. Mark – is still clearly visible over the entrance. The front paws are on land, representing Venice’s land power, while the rear paws are in the sea, representing her maritime empire.
It’s said that the castle was home to Cyprus Governor, Lieutenant Christoforo Moro, who was the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Othello.
Most of the play is set in Cyprus, with references to ‘a seaport in Cyprus‘ and ‘Cyprus, the Citadel‘. Shakespeare did visit Cyprus but was never in Famagusta. However, the town fits the bill perfectly in terms of both geography and timing.
The castle was sometime later named after the play.
Leaving the walls and heading in to the heart of the old town, you can expect the usual jumble of tightly packed streets, squares, houses and public buildings. What’s immediately striking is the number of religious structures – many in ruins. By the middle of the 14th-century, Famagusta’s citizens had built some 365 churches – I can well believe it!
It’s towards the towers (or missing towers!) of St. Nicholas Cathedral – Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque – that we turn for orientation (not that we can really get lost!)
Built between 1298 -1312, the cathedral was considered one of the most beautiful buildings in the Med. With it’s soaring Gothic architecture, this was the site of the coronation of the kings of Jerusalem and Armenia.
The Turks, under Lala Mustafa Pasha, captured the city in 1571. Many landmarks – including most of the 365 churches – were destroyed. Famagusta was closed to Christians and a smattering of churches, including the cathedral, were converted into mosques. Here, a minaret was added alongside the damaged towers, frescoes were white-washed, tombs emptied and altars demolished. The arches and columns remained, as did the facade, and the mosque is fully functional today.
The Lusignan- Venetian Palace was built by the Lusignan Kings of Cyprus and later used as a governors palace. Only the grand facade and back courtyard remain.
St. Francis Church was originally part of a Franciscan monastery, built alongside the palace.
St. George of the Greeks Church
After the foundation of the Republic of Cyprus in 1960, the area of Varosha, just outside Famagusta’s old walls, developed into a hugely popular tourist and entertainment hub, attracting the celebs of the day – Liz Taylor, Paul Newman, Brigitte Bardot….. By the early 70’s, over 30% of hotels on the island were located in the Famagusta area and the industry was flourishing.
All changed of course in 1974. An attempted coup by Greek nationalists was followed by a Turkish invasion. Famagusta was bombed and the Turkish army took control of the city within just two days. 70% of Famagusta’s citizens were Greek Cypriot and they quickly fled the city, assuming no doubt, that they would return once things settled down. Varosha was fenced off by the army ….. and became a ghost town.
In 1984, the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution permitting only Varosha’s legal inhabitants to resettle the town.
To this day, the resort lies empty.
In 2020, the Turkish authorities partially reopened the town, allowing visitors access to sections of it for a number of hours per day.
A word about Dark Tourism
This ‘reopening of Varosha has understandably upset Greek Cypriots who, simply put, condemn it as an attempted land grab. Most visitors to Famagusta – including ourselves – now cross into the town. Voyeurism? Yes. But the few dozen or so people, who wandered the roads in silence during our visit, did so with total respect and a sense of privilege I think at being able to witness the destruction and decay firsthand. I’d like to think that we came away from Varosha a bit more reflective and a bit better informed.
The ancient city of Salamis dates back to the 11th century BC. Once an important trading centre in this part of the Med, it prospered right up to Roman times. A series of earthquakes particularly in the 1st and 4th centuries, along with the silting up of the harbour and continuous Arab raids, brought this prosperity to an end and its inhabitants relocated a few miles to Arsinoe – late to be known as Famagusta.
Excavations on the site started in the 19th century and continued up to the 1970s, when they were interrupted by the Turkish invasion.
Entrance 20TRY/ €1.19…. allow 60 – 90 minutes
St. Barnabas’ Monastery
Barnabas was Jewish and hailed from Salamis. He travelled to the Holy Land to study law where he met St. Paul and was converted to Christianity. He was made Archbishop of Salamis and, upon his return to Cyprus, he convinced the Roman ruler of Cyprus – Sergius Paulus – to adopt Christianity, making Cyprus the first country in the world to have a Christian ruler. He was martyred in 75AD (stoned to death) but followers managed to hide his body in a secret tomb, along with a copy of St Matthew’s Gospel, where he lay undiscovered for over 400 years.
Around 480AD, Bishop Anthemios had a dream in which he saw the location of the long-lost tomb. Barnabas was found – holding a Gospel of St. Matthew. Emboldened by this miracle, the Bishop went to Istanbul and convinced Zeno, the Byzantine Emperor, to allow him self-govern his church – thus gaining autonomy for the Orthodox Church of Cyprus.
The emperor, impressed by the miracle, made a donation for a monastery to be built at the location of the grave. The site included a church, courtyard, and living quarters for priests. That original structure gradually crumbled and the monastery as it is today dates from the 18th century.
After partitioning in 1974, the last remaining elderly inhabitants moved to the south and the monastery was closed. In 1991, the Antiquities Department chose the site to house an Icon Museum and the priests’ rooms display art works from the Neolithic Period up to Roman times.
Before you go……
Thinking of visiting Northern Cyprus?