Castle of the Week 69 – Kyrenia, Cyprus

Kyrenia is a castle that was ‘never taken by force but surrendered sensibly at the right times’. Situated on the northern coastline of Cyprus, the present day castle is huge, and dominates the natural horseshoe-shaped harbour. Here arose, by a process of reconstruction that in the main probably post-dated the fall of Acre, the most important castle on the island.

The history of the castle here is interesting, in that there are distinct periods of fortification that can be quite clearly traced back. The original site was founded by the early Byzantines, some time in the 7th century, and taking advantage of the natural defensiveness of the promontory, they built a rectangular enclosure. The castle successfully defended itself against Arab raids, which seems to be the predominant reason for the building here in the first place. Little remains of the Byzantine structure, save for the church, which was later swallowed up within the walls as the castle was extended.

When the Franks took over the castle, they retained the earlier Byzantine layout, in keeping with many of the Crusader fortifications of the 11th to 13th century. The corner towers overlooking the seaward side at the time of Richard I were relatively small, but the landward side towers were substantially bigger. Kyrenia differs from other Cypriot castles in one important way though; the settlement next to the castle already had some form of defence, and it took on the vague form of a fortified town from an early date. The only significant building work undertaken by the Franks was a Great Hall located in the upper bailey area, and was a purely domestic building, adding nothing to the strength of the castle’s defences.

The entrance to the castle is by way of a bridge over a ditch to the landward side. This was water-filled up until the late 15th century and is thought to have been a harbour to serve the castle directly. A Byzantine church dating from the 11th century lies within the castle walls.

Cyprus enjoyed long and sustained periods of peace during the period of the Crusades, certainly in comparison to the other States, which were under constant threat from the Greeks, Muslims or Bulgars. However, Kyrenia was not isolated from the conflicts that raged across these lands in defence of Christendom. It is brought to our attention once more during the Third Crusade. Richard defeated Isaac Comnenus en route to conquering Cyprus and Kyrenia was given to the Lusignans (who owned the castle for some 200 years) after claiming Cyprus for himself. One of the main threats to the Lusignans was internal uprisings (for example, 1191 to 1192) from Cypriot people. And it is under the Lusignans that Kyrenia was further strengthened.

The north and east curtain walls of the original Byzantine castle were replaced, incorporating two floors of shooting galleries, with ramparts above. To the south of the castle, similar work was undertaken and to the west an L-shaped gateway was built, shielded by the northwest tower. Large sloping ramps were built within the walls to allow large canon to be moved to their firing ranges. It is now known that King John of Dibelin built a large portion of the current castle during the period 1208 to 1211 AD.

Kyrenia suffered some significant damage when attacked by the Venetians in 1373, captured by them in 1491 and was altered architecturally to meet their personal tastes early in the 16th century. It is fair to say that the current Venetian work obscures much of the earlier construction. As well as further rebuilding of sections of wall, they designed and constructed three huge tower-bastions, filling the space between inner and outer walling with earth. This was simply to resist artillery fire. At over 70ft tall and 125 ft thick, they were probably the most massive stone-faced earthworks of their type ever devised.

The castle changed hands without fuss to the Ottomans in 1570 and remained in their hands for three centuries. It remains extremely well preserved to this day, maybe a reflection of a castle that never faced a major siege.

Write-up by Sulis.