Located along the busy shipping lanes of the eastern Mediterranean, Famagusta rose to prominence after a large number of Christians resettled in the city following the fall of the Levantine city of Acre to Saladin’s Muslim armies in 1291 during the Third Crusade. A port that once rivaled Constantinople and Venice, Famagusta was ruled by a succession of conquerors over several centuries, and the visible remains of these powers still dot the city today.
The Cathedral of St. Nicholas in Famagusta’s main square became the coronation site of the kings of Crusader Jerusalem. The remains of a Venetian palace stands across the square from St. Nicholas. The Ottoman siege of 1571 was followed by more than three centuries of neglect, compounded by earthquakes and floods, which left the large sections of the city in ruins by the time the British arrived in 1878. Once considered the richest city in the world with 365 churches and monumental fortifications, Famagusta in Cyprus however, has been largely overlooked by much of the world for most of the last century. Recent efforts to draw attention to the importance of the Old City Famagusta and its built heritage, such as including the historic walled city on the 2008 and 2010 World Monuments Watch, have encouraged international collaboration and the creation of a revitalization plan for Famagusta and a lot of work, to date, has been undertaken to conserve and protect this lovely city.
This short film - Against the Clock: Saving the Endangered Heritage of Famagusta describes these international partnerships and the various actions taken to preserve the historic structures. This visual tour through the walled city and its churches damaged from a lack of maintenance and exposure to the elements conveys the sense that the clock is ticking.
The evident neglect highlighted from the WMF report (see below) has spurred the committee to embrace the whole of the island’s cultural heritage, Greek, Roman, Phoenician, Frankish, Venetian, Ottoman, and later British monuments. Between 2004 and 2006, a program of improvement sponsored by the European Union was undertaken to repave the Venetian Palace and the central square of the city, to redirect traffic around the north side of the square and restore the central market building, known as the Bandabuliya. Since 2006 there have been a number of further restoration projects including the Othello Castle, Martinengo Bastion restorations and the sea wall revamp. The Ravelin/Land Gate restoration is currently in progress. These projects were all part of the work undertaken by the bicommunal Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage and the finished sites are an example of what can result from cooperation from both sides of the island.
Othello Tower / Citadel, Famagusta. The Othello Tower/Citadel is an important monument in the history of Famagusta, Cyprus and the Mediterranean. Its importance and a sense of age and mystery are evident when one walks through the portals of the citadel — with the Lion of Venice still presiding after hundreds of years. The citadel consists of wall fortifications, connecting walls and four remaining towers (originally eight). These elements are in various states of decay from ruin to complete walls and rib vaulting. The monument comprises of two structures one inside the other. The outer Venetian fortifications that date from 1492 were constructed around the earlier Lusignan fortification from the 14th century. The Othello Tower / Citadel formed the key defensive position for the city of Famagusta at the apex of the city walls and the protector between the port and the sea. Othello Tower was the first project of the Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage to be implemented in Famagusta. Completed in July 2015, the Othello Tower/Citadel is now open to visitors.
Martinengo Bastion, Famagusta. Martinengo Bastion is a prime example of state of the art renaissance military architecture. Its location, some distance from the centre of Famagusta provides a peaceful and secluded setting. Unfortunately, it seems unknown and unvisited by residents and visitors alike. This includes both the exterior and interior. The Bastion was created by the Venetian architect Giovanni San Michelle over a period covering almost 10 years. The Venetians realised that this corner of the Famagusta city defenses were weak and this structure was designed to strengthen the northwest corner. Access to the interior is through dual ramps designed to allow easy access for horses or and heavy munitions to supply the cannon in the interior. The conservation project started in July 2016 and is now open to the public.
Ravelin / Land Gate, Famagusta. It is an essential part of the walls of Famagusta and the main entry point for those arriving to the city from other parts of the island of Cyprus. It is a complex massive structure built into the living rock with many layers of history from the original Lusignan original tower to the Venetian Ravelin to the later changes by the Ottomans and finally British conservation efforts. It is formed by various levels of construction, connected by small passageways, bridges and fosses and connected to the outside of the city by a bridge and drawbridge. Because of its importance and prominence as the main entry into Famagusta it receives many visitors. The conservation project started in February 2017 and will be completed in March 2018.
Walls between Arsenal and Sea Gate. The Walls of Famagusta were famous throughout Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. They were constructed over many centuries as the city grew, changed rulers and adapted to warfare technology. The walls are principally constructed of a rubble masonry core with sandstone ashlars facing held together with a variety of mortars. They are an important record of military architecture and adaptation to changing technology and rulers. There are few such fortifications still in existence and therefore the importance of protecting and conserving them.
Other ongoing projects are conservation works to St. Mary Church of Armenians, St Mary Church of Carmel (Carmelite), St. Anne Church, and the Mescit of Tabakhane/Tanner’s Mosque (Jacobite Church). New design projects for Canbulat and the Seagate have also been announced. These works are fully funded by the European Union and implemented by UNDP. Since 2012 approximately €11.7 Million have been provided by the European Union through the Aid Programme for the Turkish Cypriot community to implement the priorities of the Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage for the preservation of the island-wide cultural heritage in Cyprus. The European Union is the largest contributor to the work of the Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage in Cyprus. As more conservation projects are completed, they will be a powerful reminder of Famagusta’s legacy and inspiration for more protective measures to be taken. See the film below on the works being undertaken to protect the frescos on the walls of the Armenian church (St. Mary of Armenians).
Some of my favourite places in and around the city center are those building that have been converted into restaurants and taverns by some of the locals invested in the preservation of the Old City Famagusta. These include the Monk’s Inn, on a side street to the south of St. Nicholas Cathedral (Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque), the Ginkgo Restaurant in the medrese of Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque, on the east side of the main square, Jax Bar, on a side street off the south side of the main square, and the Hammam Inn, in the Ottoman bath building adjoining the Church of St. Francis on the north west corner of the main square and the Twin Churches on the same road leading to the square.
If you want to read more of the work of the World Monument Fund and the conservation that has and is being undertaken in the Old City, there is a great report you can read here. Also the UNDP’s website is a good source of information www.cy.undp.org. Both these resources explain in depth the restoration projects undertaken.
To read more on the history of the building of Saint Peter and Paul Church see Michael J. K. Walsh, “Saint Peter and Paul Church (Sinan Pasha Mosque), Famagusta: A Forgotten Gothic Moment in Northern Cyprus,” Inferno: Journal of Art History Vol. 9 Article 5 (2004).
You can purchase the Stones of Famagusta DVD, a feature length documentary film on the fascinating history of the remarkable medieval and renaissance city of Famagusta, in Turkish Cyprus, told through the city's magnificent historical architecture. Once one of the world's most famous cities and one of the most strategic in the Mediterranean, now largely forgotten, this award-winning documentary tells the dramatic tale of Famagusta's rise and fall. You can read about the DVD here.
You can also purchase Allan Langdale's guide to the archaeology and historical architecture of Northern Cyprus - In a Contested Realm, which surveys the remarkable history of one of the most culturally rich regions in the world. Available from Amazon here.
Langdale's text enlivens the archaeological sites and ancient buildings with the rich historical contexts relevant to each monument. Liberally augmented by compelling accounts of ancient voyagers, and generously illustrated by the author's own photographs, this book is a must read for anyone contemplating a trip to the northern part of Cyprus. The extraordinary depth of history in this region has been ebbing from our consciousness for decades, preempted by Cyprus's acutely contemporary political issues. This book gives new life to the area's long architectural heritage, surveying prehistoric settlements, Greco-Roman cities, Byzantine castles, Gothic cathedrals, and village shrines situated in landscapes laden with history; all supplemented by the personal testimonies of travelers throughout the centuries.