There is something both magnificent and melancholic about Christian fortifications in the Levant. And in that combination lies their charm.
Magnificence is in the size of the castles and walled cities and in the intricacy of their defences, strengths that made up for their remote position in hostile territory and the smallness of their garrisons.
Melancholy stems from their abandonment to the forces of Islam in a protracted retreat which began with Saladin’s victory at Hattin in 1187. It would not be until the second half of the 16th century, at the Great Siege of Malta and the Battle of Lepanto, that the tide would begin to be stemmed.
In a previous issue of Standpoint (“Castles of the Imagination”, October 2009), I wrote about the “frontline” of the Crusading effort in Syria — the great Hospitaller fortresses of Krak des Chevaliers and Marqab, the Templar strongholds of Safita and Tartus and the castle of Sahyun, with its 90ft-deep rock-cut ditch. The present journey, inspired by A. F. Kersting’s photographs in Castles of the Crusaders (Thames and Hudson, 1966), is through secondary lines of defence, from the walled city of Famagusta in eastern Cyprus to the Greek island of Rhodes.
Nowhere is the paradox of magnificence and melancholy more acute than in the old town of Famagusta. A small and declining Byzantine port, it fell to Richard Coeur de Lion and was sold by the Knights Templar to Guy de Lusignan the following year, in 1191. But it was only a century later, after the final expulsion of Christians from Acre, that it was transformed by fugitive merchants from the Palestinian mainland. As a transhipment point between East and West, it became one of the richest cities in the Levant. During its heyday, the Cathedral of St Nicholas, modelled on Notre-Dame in Rheims, was built, the citadel completed and the sea-wall strengthened. Merchant wealth and the needs of various denominations gave rise to many churches.
The Lusignan kings of Cyprus lost control of Famagusta to the Genoese in 1373 and in 1489 it passed into Venetian hands. They initiated the second big wave of military building — a new outer wall surrounded by a wide ditch and punctuated with mighty bastions, a system of defence against cannon developed in Western Europe.
The strongpoints of the old town are the Rivettina Bastion in the south-west (a complex of galleries protected by a double moat), the arrowhead Martinengo Bastion in the north-west and the remodelled citadel overlooking the harbour.
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.
Moving east, the next in the chain is Buffavento, a deserted eyrie more than 3,000 ft up with views of the Troodos Mountains to the south, the Anatolian coast to the north and the Kyrenia range to east and west. Finally, there is Kantara, the best preserved of the three, complete with a barbican, cisterns, latrines, a barracks and an elegant horseshoe-shaped tower with arrow slits on either side. Communication between the Gothic castles was by flares from their watchtowers. After the Venetians gained control of the island, they were abandoned as no longer relevant to its defence.
To cross from Kyrenia to the Anatolian coast is to enter lands once controlled by the medieval Kingdom of Lesser Armenia, which, after the fall of the Frankish states, was the only Christian power left on the Levantine mainland.
At Kizkalesi (Greek Korykos) there are both land and sea castles. The second, some 300 yards offshore, is the more picturesque and has a legend to match. This is that the king, forewarned that his daughter would die of snakebite, built the castle for her protection. However, when one of his advisers took her a basket of fruit, a snake slid out and killed her.
We went out to the “Maiden’s Castle” by pedalo, beaching it beneath the walls and using it later to circumnavigate the rocky shelf on which the fortifications stand. The interior is largely bare — fragments of mosaics, a ruined chapel and a cistern remain — but there is an elegant, Gothic-vaulted gallery on the west side, and the round and rectangular towers on the curtain wall are being refaced. The land castle Korykos Kalesi, by contrast, has been abandoned to the elements, its wildness lending it the enchantment of some of the great Syrian fortresses. In October, yellow swallow-tail butterflies flitted among ruined masonry overgrown with plants burnt gold in the summer heat. Architecturally, the land castle is much more interesting than its prettier marine cousin. It has the remains of a harbour mole, a fosse and two rings of concentric walls. On the west side, the medieval builders have incorporated a Roman gate into the structure. On the east, fluted classical columns have been laid horizontally as reinforcing rods into the walls, and a rock-cut ditch, leading to the sea, protects what was the original entrance.
A little way along the coast is Silifke, classical Seleucia, a town on the River Göksu dominated by a castle which is part-Byzantine, part-Armenian. The curtain, reinforced by semi-circular towers, a feature of Armenian military architecture, is well preserved but the interior is a mass of rubble. From the ramparts you have a fine view over the Göksu delta, which is today a bird reserve. A few miles upstream, overlooking a gorge, stands a memorial stone, recording in Turkish and German that Frederick Barbarossa, the crusading Holy Roman Emperor, drowned while fording what was then called the Calycadnus on June 10, 1190.
Continuing westwards, the last of the great Crusader castles on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast is Mamure Kalesi, near Anamur. It is an Armenian fortress with three baileys, protected on the landside by a moat in which turtles live. Its curtain and towers sport splendid crenellations, their preservation due to the fact that the castle was restored and garrisoned by the Ottomans. We were reminded of their presence when the recorded cry of the muezzin burst from the mosque they built within the walls.
After Jerusalem and Acre fell to Saladin, the Hospitallers based themselves briefly in Cyprus, where the keep of their castle at Kolossi, near Limassol, still stands, but then fell back to the Aegean coast and the Dodecanese.
At Bodrum, the ancient Halikarnassos, they built the fortress of St Peter on a peninsula at the centre of a large bay. It repelled a Turkish attack in 1480 and was strengthened in the early 16th century by the addition of a battery and ravelin overlooking the harbour, and a ditch and bastions on the northern, land side.
We had long wanted to see this castle but in the event were disappointed. On the west side, cruise boats with lofty masts crowd in on it, and from the sea the profile of its towers against the hills is spoilt by new building.
The interior has been sacrificed to the needs of a museum of underwater archaeology. Old vaulting has disappeared, several of the towers were shut and coloured arrows indicating the shorter and longer routes round the castle gave it a regimented feel.
By contrast, the castle on the Greek island of Kos, an hour’s boat ride away, was a delight. A double citadel built by the Hospitallers between 1450 and 1514, it has the charm of a classical site. Since ancient columns have been incorporated into the walls and litter the enceinte, that is hardly surprising. The fate of both Bodrum and Kos depended on Rhodes, which the Hospitallers had captured in 1310 and made into their new headquarters.
Two months ago, the town was packed with tourists, many of them off cruise ships, but we got away from the crowds by walking round the vast moat, whence you have an unrivalled view of the bastions, gateways and double line of walls which made Rhodes one of the most advanced fortifications in the world. The improvements carried out under later grand masters are commemorated by coats of arms on the ramparts bearing the hat of a cardinal; by a papal grant of 1489, the head of the order held that rank.
Within the walled town the most interesting building is the knights’ old hospital, centred on a courtyard bounded by two storeys of arcaded galleries, with simple vaulting below and a flat wooden roof above. Along the east side runs a magnificent Gothic hall with central columns and little chambers let into the walls. This was the main ward of the hospital and the chambers were for isolating infectious cases.
Rhodes was attacked by the Ottomans in 1440, 1444, 1469 and 1480. It required a six-month siege by 400 ships and around 200,000 soldiers under Suleiman the Magnificent to force its inevitable surrender on Christmas Eve, 1522.
The evacuation of Bodrum and Kos followed soon after and the knights became peripatetic till the Emperor Charles V gave them Malta in 1530. That would prove their final line of defence against Ottoman Muslim forces. Malta was tested to the utmost — and not found wanting — in the Great Siege of 1565.