Historical sites in Northern Cyprus
With Kyrenia harbour and its castle, Bellapais Abbey, Saint Hilarion Castle, the Roman city of Salamis and all the architectural treasures of its towns and cities, it is easy to see that the island has been gifted with a vast and ancient treasure trove. For lovers of history and scenery though, there is far more to explore and visit during a Northern Cyprus holiday!
North Cyprus boasts no fewer than three crusader castles, St. Hilarion, Buffavento and Kantara. Although St. Hilarion is the best preserved, the others also merit attention. Buffavento castle stands in the mountain range to the east of Kyrenia. Both Saint Hilarion and Kantara are visible from here, so the location was important in terms of passing signals between the three. The original building dates back the the 11th century and is of Byzantine construction. It was fortified and expanded under Lusignan rule in the 14th century, but was later abandoned as following rulers such as the Venetians thought it of limited strategic benefit, instead strengthening the defences of Famagusta and Kyrenia.
The castle is somewhat off the beaten track and access by road stops at about a half hour climb to the main entrance. The gatehouse is in reasonable order, but most of the rest of the site is in comparative ruins. You can still see stores and sleeping quarters. The further climb to the top level is quite steep. Here there are the remains of some buildings and a chapel. However, the view more than makes up for it. On a clear day you can see as far as Famagusta to the east, Nicosia to the south and the coast of southern Turkey across the Mediterranean.
To the eastern end of the Kyrenia mountain range, Kantara stands in an elevated position, with views over the central plain of Cyprus and the start of the Karpaz Peninsula. Its original construction, as with Buffavento and St. Hilarion was under Byzantine rule in the 10th century. It was also expanded by the Lusignans and unlike the other mountain castles, was initially considered as important by the Venetians, although they later abandoned work here to concentrate on the walls surrounding Famagusta. Sited at a lower level, it is easier to reach than either St. Hilarion or Buffavento, however the views from are just as magnificent and possibly even better. The castle is interesting to visit and much of the construction is visible. The south-east tower, gate house, barracks and north east bastion are in good condition. It has quite easy access by road and there is an adjacent car park.
Panayia Kyra, Panayia Pergaminiotissa and Panagia Theotokos churches
Near to the village of Iskele, around the base of the Karpas Peninsula and to the north of Famagusta, there are a number of places of interest. The Panayia Kyra church is a small Byzantine structure, dating from around the 6th century. Around it are remains of a later city from the Roman period. The Panayia Pergaminiotissa church is a somewhat larger and later building, probably 11th century, although foundations uncovered during its restoration suggest there may have been a building here significantly earlier. The church has been recently renovated and houses the remains of a number of frescos. In the outskirts of Iskele, the Panagia Theotokos church is an important building. Originally constructed in the 12th century, it was expanded at later dates and comprehensively restored in the 19th century. Further subsequent works have been carried out to preserve the wall paintings here, many dating to the original 12th century building. Of these, probably the most important is a painting of Christ in the dome of the church. The building is also a museum, housing many icons from the church itself and from other parts of Northern Cyprus.
The town of Iskele itself is also worth spending some time exploring. There are a number of ancient buildings here, including the charming 15th century St. James church. Possibly one of the smallest religious buildings on the island, it is now used as the tourist information centre. Known for art and culture, the town hosts an annual festival around the end of June or early July, with folk dancing and musicians from around the world.
The Blue House
‘Mavi Kosk’ in Turkish, the house was originally built by an eccentric Greek Cypriot entrepreneur. As its name suggests, the house is decorated and furnished with a blue colour scheme, including the furniture, décor, bathroom and even a blue-tiled sunken fountain. There are excellent views from the first floor rooms and the house, near Guzelyurt, is well worth a visit. Although open to the public daily except Mondays, it is located in a controlled area so you will need to bring your passport with you to gain entry.
To the west of the island, the area around Guzelyurt is commonly referred to as the ‘garden of Cyprus’. With rich and fertile soil, it is famed for citrus fruit growing and you will pass miles of orange and lemon groves. The town itself has not developed much as a tourist destination and is all the more delightful as a result. The monastery of St. Mamas is located in the town and dates back to the Byzantine period, with subsequent Lusignan additions and much rebuilding in the 18th century. Nest to the monastery you will find Guzelyurt’s Museum of Nature and Archaeology. Originally a bishop’s palace, the building houses various collections including displays of finds as far back as the Neolithic period when Cyprus was first settled.
To the far north west of the island, near the town of Lefke, is the ancient site of Soli. This was one of the ten ancient kingdoms of Cyprus and is believed to have originally been settled around the 11th century BC. Later falling under Persian and then Roman rule, the town gained in importance, but over time gradually diminished. Substantial archaeological works were conducted here in the 20th century and have exposed some real treasures. Remains have been discovered of temples, an amphitheatre, palace ruins and churches. The amphitheatre has been partially reconstructed and is of a substantial size, but the site is probably best known for its mosaics. Mostly dating to around the 4th century, these are in remarkable condition.
Near to Soli and on a remarkable cliff-top setting are the remains of the Palace of Vouni. Dating back to Persian rule of the area, Vouni was originally settled around 500BC. Its turbulent history resulted in it being occupied for less than 150 years in total and the site fell into disrepair after it suffered a massive fire. The construction was on three levels and remains of buildings are evident. Access is by a fairly steep and winding road, but is not difficult. Although there is not a great deal to see here, it is worth coming for the views alone, which are amazing.
As always, there is much more to discover during a North Cyprus holiday and these are just a few of the places worth visiting. The Antiphonoitis Church near Esentepe has the remains of many important and beautiful frescos and icons. Travelling into the pine-scented mountain regions near Alevkayasi, the North Cyprus Herbarium is a fascinating place, full of collections of preserved and pressed flowers and a massive collection of horticultural drawings. There are literally hundreds more churches and museums dotted around the island, many of which are worthy of a visit.