Kyrenia (Greek: Κερύνεια; Turkish: Girne) is a town on the northern coast of Cyprus, noted for its historic harbour and castle. Internationally recognised as part of the Republic of Cyprus, it is under the control of the de facto Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and capital of its Girne District. Once predominantly inhabited by Greek Cypriots, Kyrenia’s population consists now largely of Turkish Cypriots, British people and Turkish immigrants.
Kyrenia dates to the end of the Trojan War and it was founded by the Achaeans, ancient Greek colonists from the Peloponnese who established towns in the district. Evidence from archaeological sites excavated in and around the town of Kyrenia evidence settlement since the Neolithic period, 5800–3000 BC. Mycenaean (Achaean) tombs dating from 1300-500s (decade) BC and geometric artefacts have also been discovered. A fine climate, fertile soil and an abundance of water offered ideal conditions for the town’s early settlement.
Cepheus from Arcadia is believed to be the founder of the town of Kyrenia. A military leader, he arrived at the north coast of the island bringing with him many settlers from various towns in Achaea. One such town, located near present-day Aigio in the Peloponnese, was also called Kyrenia. East of Kyrenia lays the “Coast of Achaeans”. It was at Kyrenia, according to Strabo, that Teucer came first ashore, to found the ancient Kingdom of Salamis after the Trojan war.
The earliest reference made to the town of Kyrenia is found, together with that of the other seven city kingdoms of Cyprus, in Egyptian scripts dating from the period of Ramesses III, 1125-1100s (decade) BC.
From its early days of settlement, Kyrenia’s commerce and maritime trade benefited enormously from its proximity to the Asia Minor coast. Boats set sail from the Aegean islands, traveled along the Asia Minor coast, and then crossed over the short distance to the northern shores of Cyprus to reach the two city kingdoms of Lapithos and Kyrenia. This lively maritime activity (late 4th or early 3rd century BC) is evident in an ancient shipwreck discovered by Andreas Kariolou in 1965, just outside Kyrenia harbour. The vessel’s route along Samos, Kos, Rhodes, the Asia Minor coastline and then Kyrenia, demonstrates the town’s close maritime relations with other city kingdoms in the eastern Mediterranean.
During the succession struggle between Ptolemy and Antigonus that followed Alexander the Great’s death in 323 BC, Kyrenia was subdued under the rule of the kingdom of Lapithos that allied itself with the Antigonid dynasty. Diodorus Siculus(19.79) observes that in 312 BC. Ptolemy arrested Praxipos the king of Lapithos and the king of Kyrenia. Once the Ptolemies were successful in dominating the whole island, all city kingdoms were abolished. Kyrenia however, because of its maritime trade, continued to prosper. In the 2nd century BC, it is cited as one of six Cypriot towns which were benefactors to the Oracle at Delphi, that is, it received its special representatives who collected contributions and gifts. The town’s prosperity at this time is also evident from its two temples, one dedicated to Apollo and the other to Aphrodite, and from the rich archeological finds dating from the Hellenistic period excavated within the present-day town limits.
The Romans succeeded the Ptolemies as rulers of Cyprus and during this time Lapithos became the administrative centre of the district. The numerous tombs excavated and the rich archeological finds dating from this period indicate however, that Kyrenia continued to be a populous and prosperous town. An inscription found at the base of a limestone statue dating from 13–37 AD, refers to ‘Kyrenians Demos’ that is, the town’s inhabitants. Here as everywhere else, the Romans left their mark by constructing a castle with a seawall in front of it so that boats and ships could anchor in safety.
Christianity found fertile ground in the area. The first Christian martyrs used the old quarries of Chrysokava, just east of Kyrenia castle, as catacombs and cut-rock cemeteries which are considered among the island’s most important specimens of this period. Later, some of these caves were converted into churches and feature beautiful iconography, the most representative of which is that found at ‘Ayia Mavri.’ From these early days, the town of Kyrenia was an episcopal see. One of its first bishops, Theodotus, was arrested and tortured between 307–324, under the reign of Licinius. Though the persecution of Christians officially ended in 313, when Constantine I and his co-emperor, Licinius, issued the Edict of Milan which mandated toleration of Christians in the Roman Empire and freedom of worship, Theodotus martyrdom and persecution only ended in 324 and it is this event that the Church annually commemorates on March 2.
With the division of the Roman Empire into an eastern and a western empire, in 395 Cyprus came under the Byzantine emperors and the Greek Orthodox Church. The Byzantine emperors fortified Kyrenia’s Roman castle and in the 10th century, they constructed in its vicinity a church dedicated to Saint George, which the garrison used as a chapel. Then, when in 806, Lambousa was destroyed in the Arab raids, Kyrenia grew in importance because its castle and garrison offered its inhabitants protection and security. Isaac Komnenos of Cyprus, the island’s last Byzantine governor, sent his family and treasures to the castle for safety in 1191 when King Richard I of England went to war with him and became the island’s new master.
Richard’s rule was not welcomed in Cyprus so he sold the island first to the Knights Templar, and then in 1192, to Guy of Lusignan. Under Frankish rule, the villages of the district of Kyrenia became feudal estates and the town became once again the administrative and commercial centre for its region. The Lusignans enlarged the castle, built a wall and towers around the town, and extended the fortifications to the harbour. They also fortified the Byzantine castles of Saint Hilarion, Bouffavento and Kantara, which, together with Kyrenia Castle, protected the town from land and sea attacks. Kyrenia castle played a pivotal role in the island’s history during the many disputes among the Frankish kings, as well as the conflicts with the Genoese. On numerous occasions the castle came under siege, but it never capitulated.
In 1489, Cyprus came under Venetian rule. The Venetians modified Kyrenia Castle to meet the threat that the use of gunpowder and cannons posed. The castle’s royal quarters and three of its four thin and elegant Frankish towers were demolished and replaced by thickset circular towers that could better withstand cannon fire. These new towers, however, were never put to the test. In 1571, the castle and the town surrendered to the Ottoman army.
Under Ottoman rule, Kyrenia district was at first one of four, then one of six, administrative districts of the island and the town remained its administrative capital. The town’s fortunes declined however as it was transformed into a garrison town. The Christian population was expelled from the fortified city, and no one was allowed to reside within the castle other than the artillerymen and their families. These men coerced the town’s inhabitants and those of the surrounding villages, Christian and Muslim alike, with their arbitrary looting and crimes. The few local inhabitants who dared to stay were merchants and fishermen whose livelihood depended on the sea. They built their homes outside the city wall, which through time, neglect and disrepair, turned to ruin. The rest of the inhabitants moved further out to the area known as Pano Kyrenia or the ‘Riatiko’ (so called because it once belonged to a king) or fled further inland and to the mountain villages of Thermeia, Karakoumi, Kazafani, Bellapais and Karmi.
The town revived again when bribes and gifts paid to local Turkish officials caused them to permit local maritime trade with Asia Minor and the Aegean islands to resume. In 1783, the church of Chrysopolitissa was renovated. Then in 1856, following the Hatt-i Humayun, which introduced social and political reform and greater religious freedom for the various peoples of the Ottoman Empire, the church of Archangel Michael was rebuilt on a rocky mount overlooking the sea. At..
In its heyday, just before the British occupation of the island in 1878, Kyrenia harbour was a quiet, often ignored, port between Cyprus and mainland Turkey. From there local caiques, Greek owned, Turkish owned and even Turkish-Greek owned, conducted a thriving trade. Depending on the season, they exported wheat and olives, donkeys and goats and much more. Larger boats, mostly from Europe, arrived in the late fall and early winter to take in the crop of carobs, the main export item of the area. The caiques brought in wood, earthenware, legumes, cheese, butter, and even small luxuries items such as silk and cotton cloth, buttons and odd pieces of furniture. Slowly, two storied buildings emerged around the harbour as the owners used the lower floor as warehouses and the second floor as their residences.
The town’s trade with the Anatolian coast and beyond the Levant sea was badly affected when in 1885, the then British government of the island began the Kyrenia harbour works that left the harbor wide open to the northern gales. Slowly, over the next decades, scores of caiques were wrecked within Kyrenia harbour, with their owners often unable to recover from the loss.
Kyrenia harbour is currently a tourist resort.
Kyrenia Castle at the east end of the old harbour is a spectacular site. The castle dates back to Byzantine times and has served the Byzantines, Crusaders, Venetians, Ottomans, and British. Within its walls there is a 12th century chapel containing reused late Roman capitols, and a shipwreck museum. Huge round towers that the Venetians built in 1540 AD occupy the corners. These strengthened the castle against artillery.
The town has an icon museum housed in a church that had been dedicated to the Archangel Michael. Not far from it there are some tombs cut into the rock dating from about the 4th century. Behind the harbour are the ruins of a small Christian church, and in the harbour is a small tower from which a chain could be slung to close the harbour to any enemies. The Anglican Church of St. Andrews is behind the castle, close to the bus station, and is open all year round.
Bellapais Abbey (from the French “abbaye de la paix” which means the Peace Monastery), in the northern village of Bellapais, was constructed between 1198–1205. The main building as it can be seen today was built during the 13th century AD by French Augustinian monks, and specifically during the rule of King Hugh III 1267–1284. The pavilions around the courtyard and the refectory were constructed during the rule of King Hugh IV between 1324–1359. You can also see the Ancient Greek Orthodox Church of Mother Mary Robed in White.
Outside the town, on the Kyrenia mountain range, one can see Buffavento Castle, St. Hilarion Castle and Kantara Castle, all of which are thought to have been constructed by the Byzantines following the Arab raids on the island. During Lusignan rule, Buffavento Castle was a prison and called ‘Chateau du Lion’. There the despot Byzantine king of the island, Isaac Comnenus, is said to have fled after Richard the Lion Heart conquered Cyprus in 1191. The mountaintop castle of St. Hilarion dominates the town of Kyrenia and is visible for many miles along the coast. Historical records show that the castle was originally a monastery, founded about 800 when a monk by the name of Hilarion chose the site for his hermitage. Later, perhaps in 1100 AD, the monastery was changed into a castle. The easternmost of the three castles is Kantara castle. Sources only make mention of the castle in the year 1191, when Richard Lion-Heart captured the island.