A lot of the medieval castles dotted around Europe cast a brooding shadow over the towns they dominate. It’s a fortunate happenstance then, that Kyrenia’s magnificent Venetian monolith which towers over Kyrenia’s small and picturesque harbour, seems to add a sense of gaiety and colour to the vista. This is because the light sandstone from which it is built beautifully reflects the colour of the sun in the mornings and evenings. From the sea side or from the harbour wall the castle is framed by the Kyrenia Mountains and depending on the time of the day and the seasons it can turn to either a subtle gold or a fiery ochre offering viewers the chance to take stunning photographs. In the evening, too, it is beautifully illuminated.
It does well to remember though, that this castle was built for a purpose, and for hundreds of years, served that purpose well. It is the largest castle on the island and in the best condition. The castle we see today is a Venetian conversion of a Lusignan castle which itself was an extension of Byzantine castle built in the eighth-century. It is believed that there was an earlier Roman fortress on the same spot. Of that nothing remains but there are interesting reminders of the Byzantine castle still today, the most notable being the church of St George which originally stood outside the castle walls but was then incorporated into them by the building of the north west tower.
The vast round towers were a Venetian development in medieval defensive warfare:-they were considerably stronger than square towers, especially against cannon fire. This was in the age where warfare was transitioning from swords and shields into explosive artillery. Walls-the thicker and higher the better-were the best line of defence. The castle survived many sieges: against the Genoese in 1373, for example, and a four year long siege against the Egyptian Mamelukes fifty years later.
Indeed, the walls of Kyrenia castle were never breeched, though Kyrenia fell to the Ottomans anyway. Having learned of the terrible fate that befell Nicosia before the unstoppable Ottoman armies, the castle surrendered.
Inside the castle are two fascinating exhibits. One displays the artefacts recovered from nearby neolithic, Bronze Age and Hellenistic tombs but the absolute jewel in the crown is the superb Kyrenia Shipwreck Museum. This is the must-see of any visit to Kyrenia or the castle. A 2,400 year old cargo vessel which sank off the Kyrenia coast is now carefully preserved in a dimly lit and cooled special environment. The wares of the ship plus the victuals of its crew are now on display, including more than 400 wine amphorae and several thousand perfectly preserved almonds. The excavating, preservation and restoration of the ship from its murky grave over a kilometre out to sea, was an important example international cooperation.