There’s something strangely evocative about Famagusta. It’s really like no other Cypriot town and has an unmistakeable air of the orient about it. It absolutely reeks of history and former glory. Impressive and extensive though its historical sights are, no-one visiting today would ever suspect that this was once the most dazzlingly cosmopolitan and wealthy city in the whole world.
Yet, in the thirteenth century and with the fall of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem to the Saracens, this was actually the case. The Christians of Palestine – merchants, craftsmen, knights, and their followers-upped and moved en masse to Cyprus. A spectacular growth ensued as Famagusta became a major bartering station for all manner of exotic goods. As the money flowed in the various sects and creeds of Christianity vied with each other to build churches – so much so that it is said that there was a church for every day of the year. Its fame spread, inducing Shakespeare to set his play Othello here.
There was a smaller, more modest Famagusta, before this, but it was little more than a fishing village founded in the seventh century from inhabitants of the great ancient city of Salamis, who fled here after earthquakes, floods from tidal waves, and the raids of Arab corsairs, had reduced the once magnificent city to ruins.
While Salamis stood as an important centre of Greek and Roman culture for over a thousand years before it slid into obscurity, the decline of Famagusta from its magnificent heyday was far more precipitous. Genoese and Venetian rivalry led to its rapid fall from grace as they vied for power and infamously came to blows in 1372. The furious Genoese attacked Famagusta and forced its merchants to leave. In 1492, they, in turn were expelled leaving the Venetians to at least renovate the fortifications of the city in order to face the growing threat of the Ottoman Empire.
This was the period of great European military architecture and the vast defensive walls were constructed by the greatest engineers of the day. It worked to an extent and the city was able to resist the inevitable Ottoman siege, but only after eleven months and only after a negotiated surrender. The walls today are still magnificently intact and ringed with bastions that still have their Venetian names apart from the Canbulat Bastion, named after the valiant Ottoman soldier who attempted to storm it single-handedly. It now contains a museum, as well as being something of a shrine for Turkish women hoping for some of Canbulat’s valour to rub off onto their children!
Historical monuments and churches are dotted all over the Old Town within the walls. Apart from the churches and fortifications are the Ottoman additions, such as the Dungeon of Namik Kemal in the square that bears his name. He was an Ottoman writer, intellectual and political activist who was exiled here in the 1870s. The Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque, previously the St. Nicholas Cathedral stands in the same square. This was where the Lusignan Kings of Cyprus were crowned. Built between 1298 and 1312, it is a stunning example of gothic architecture.
The sorry tale of the church of St Peter and St Paul, which became the Sinan Pasha Mosque after the conquest, is the tale of the vicissitudes of history. Built from only a part of the profits of a single trade of one of Famagusta’s wealthiest merchants, the huge church was damaged by an earthquake which led to the addition of its flying buttresses, it was abandoned and then converted into a mosque. The Ottomans added further buttresses to prevent its collapse but further land subsidence damaged it again until it was abandoned as a mosque. The British, in an odd act of cultural vandalism, used it as a first a grain store and then a petrol depot. Fortunately, today, its value is a little better appreciated and it is undergoing restoration.