Their immense strength enabled 8,000 Greeks and Venetians to hold off an Ottoman army of around 200,000 for 10 months in 1570-71. In August 1571, Marcantonio Bragadin, the Venetian commander, surrendered with a promise of safe conduct. But things turned sour and the Ottoman leader, Lala Mustafa Pasha, had him mutilated, imprisoned and then flayed alive between two pillars in front of the cathedral.
From that gruesome finale, the old town of Famagusta has never recovered. For the Ottomans, it was a minor garrison and a place of exile for political prisoners. And since the partition of Cyprus in 1974, it has been on the front line between the Greek and Turkish entities. The abandoned Greek resort of Varosha, just to the south of it and now controlled by the Turkish army, underlines its forlorn situation.
Today, its great walls, infested with weeds and litter, enclose a decaying architectural museum. The focal point of the old cathedral, turned into the Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque, has been bizarrely twisted from what was the altar at the east end to the mihrab in the south aisle, and a minaret perches on one side of the western façade.
But at least the cathedral is still used as a place of worship. Elsewhere, the town is dotted with gutted churches made all the more poignant when they stand on waste ground, such as the little Orthodox Ayios Nikolaos in the south or St Mary of Carmel by the Martinengo Bastion. The finish of a classic car rally in front of the cathedral during our visit matched the bygone feel of the place.
Other fortifications in northern Cyprus, though long abandoned, do not inspire such gloomy thoughts. Kyrenia Castle dominates a little harbour. Of Byzantine origin, it was developed by the Lusignans, whose vaulted halls remain, and then encased, to withstand cannon fire, by the Venetians, an extension which brought a tiny 12th-century Byzantine church within the walls. The sheer height of the western curtain and the noble round-arched passages which lead down to the gun emplacements in the bastions are a reminder of the vast scale on which castles were constructed in the Levant. Nevertheless, in 1565, the Venetians pronounced Kyrenia too weak to hold and surrendered it to the Turks five years later.
The older "Gothic" castles on the range which separates the northern coast from the central plain could not be more different. Where Kyrenia sits squat by the sea, they cling like limpets to jagged fists of rock. The largest and most famous is St Hilarion, which was both a lookout post and the summer palace of the Lusignan family. You climb from a lower bailey which includes the stables to a middle section with a vaulted barracks and a Byzantine chapel. After that, a steeper ascent takes you past an enormous cistern to the upper complex. Walls of rock to the north and south enclose what was once a garden and royal apartments, with spectacular views along the coast, span the gap between them on the western side.
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