As you approach the castle from the harbour, the sheer power of the walls impresses. The huge round tower that confronts you is the work of the Venetians. Such fortifications were their major legacy to Cyprus, for they always regarded it as a military outpost to protect and service their lust for trade.
Housed within the castle walls is the Girne Department of Antiquities, which took over custodianship of the castle in 1959. In some of the castle's locked rooms the Antiquities Department is keeping icons which were collected from churches in the Girne area pre-1974 and stored here for safe keeping. Some of these are now on display in the Archangel Michael Church.
Under British rule, the castle was also used as a police barracks and training school, and as a prison for members of EOKA, the Greek Cypriot resistance movement or the Nationalist Organisation of Cypriot Fighters (Ethniki Organosis Kyprion Agoniston). EOKA had begun in 1954, and from secret headquarters somewhere in the Trodos mountains they organised a series of terrorist and sabotage attacks against British administration, to further their aim of union with Greece, or Enosis as this union was known. Pro-Enosis propaganda was concentrated in schools, where it was easy to sway feelings. Schoolteachers were mainly Greek-trained and full of Greek ideology. Although Enosis did not begin as an anti-British sentiment, it gradually became so, to the extent that anyone suspected of collaboration with the British was murdered. The Greek Orthodox Church, encouraged by Archbishop Makarios, retained a strong role in the conflict, refusing to give the sacrament to those who assisted the British police or who betrayed information on EOKA fighters. In the view of impartial observers, the majority of the population was intimidated and uncertain, simply wanting the end of military rule and the return of the old peaceful lifestyle. The Turkish Cypriots felt threatened by the prospect of union with Greece, and the seeds were sown for the inevitable intercommunal fighting. “Greece and Turkey”, as A E Yalman, editor of the Turkish newspaper Vatan, wrote in 1960, “have a common destiny. They are condemned either to be good neighbours, close friends, faithful allies or to commit suicide together.”
Touring the Castle
The ticket office sits at the head of the drawbridge, and can be reached either by steps from the harbour, or from inland, via the little police station with its navy blue Land Rovers. You need to arrive approximately an hour before closing to be allowed into the castle. The moat you cross to reach the main gateway was full of water until 1400, and provided an inner protected harbour at times of war. The entrance fee includes entry both to the Shipwreck Museum housed inside the castle and the Folk Museum on the harbour.
Once inside, the scale surprises, as you pass up a wide, almost ceremonial ramp, built by the Venetians to facilitate rolling the cannon up into place on the walls. An exit left leads off to a small Byzantine chapel. Above the inner gateway, carved into the stone, is the coat of arms of the Crusader Lusignans, the Frankish baronial family who ruled Cyprus for 300 years in the Middle Ages, and who remodelled much of the original Byzantine fort when they took it over in 1191. This coat of arms is the best-preserved example on the island: it consists of three lions prancing on their hind legs, in contrast to the solitary Venetian winged lion to be found on the later walls and towers of Gazima?usa. Next to it, to the right, is a small room that provides a quick rundown of the history of the castle, including some interesting watercolours depicting how the harbour and town would have looked through the ages.
Just beyond the inner gateway stands the tomb of Sadik Pasha, the Turkish Ottoman admiral to whom the Venetians surrendered in 1570, and who died later the same year.
The path leads on into a dauntingly large open courtyard with a somewhat neglected garden at one end. Littering the ground are some Byzantine capitals and stones, many the size and shape of over-inflated beachballs, used in colossal catapault-like medieval weapons. Concerts are occasionally held in this courtyard, which is sheltered from the wind. In 1961 Sir John Barbirolli performed here with the Halee Orchestra. Today's performances are usually somewhat more modest. There's also a small souvenir shop and simple cafe at the northern end of the courtyard.
A whole maze of steps, internal and external, interlink the Byzantine, Crusader and Venetian towers and ramparts of the castle. To the right of the entrance, dark foul-smelling steps set into the walls lead down into the dungeons, rarely empty in the complex series of plots and intrigues that make up the castle's past. The place was never taken by force throughout its history, though it was subjected to several lengthy sieges. The longest, in the 15th century, lasted nearly four years, and the unfortunate castle occupants were reduced to eating mice and rats. Today, rather too anatomically realistic models inhabit the place.
If you enjoy heights and a certain amount of scrambling, it is possible to walk a complete circuit of the ramparts, thereby gaining the full panorama. The most photogenic stretch is definitely the northwestern tower and the western wall, with stunning views down into the harbour. Peeping out from the thickness of the wall by the northwest tower is the little Byzantine chapel, still with its four ancient marble columns, thought to have been taken from the old Roman town that now lies buried under modern Girne. When built, in the 12th century, the chapel stood outside the castle walls, but the Venetians gave it an extra entrance and enclosed it in the 16th century within the tower. Hence its curious position today.
Walking along the western wall inland towards the southwest tower you will get fine views over the rooftops of Girne and the mountain pinnacles beyond. The tower itself is a remarkably advanced example of military design, built, like Gazima?usa's Martinengo Bastion, with three different heights of embrasure to allow three staggered levels of gunfire across the moat. These impressive Venetian fortifications are still in excellent condition, for they were never put to the test. In 1570, at the first confrontation since being completed around 1500, the Venetians at Girne surrendered to the Turks without a single shot being fired. They had heard of the bloody fall of Lefko?a, and their surrender spared them the devastating siege that Gazima?usa endured. Had they not surrendered, we would doubtless not be looking at such a well-preserved monument today. The rusting gun emplacements along the ramparts are the relics of the castle's modern role in the intercommunal fighting of this century.
Alongside this western wall are the roofless yet elegant remains of the Gothic-style royal apartments of the castle, where the French Lusignan family resided at times of unrest or during their battles with the Genoese, their maritime rivals.
From the far southeast tower you can look down onto the rocky town beach tucked underneath the castle walls, with its own pretty cafe terrace. Pre-1974 this swimming spot was known as The Slab, and you had to be a member of the Country Club to use it. The Country Club is the building set up amid the greenery by itself above the bay, now called the Halk Evi or People's House. In the area in front of the Halk Evi and west towards the Anglican church, is the old Turkish cemetery. Excavations carried out here a few years ago revealed the elusive Roman town of Corineum, whose relics in the form of reused columns and capitals are visible here and there throughout the modern town.
Back down in the courtyard, rusting yellow signs point the way to various displays, from the dungeons to the right of the entrance, to the display of armour and weapons in the Lusignan tower (including some early prototype machine guns, one with the shot still stuck in one of the barrels). Next door to this tower is a room displaying the finds from various archaeological sites such as the Akdeniz village tomb, the neolithic settlement at Vrysi, and the Kirni Bronze Age tomb. The jewellery and glassware from Akdeniz in particular are exquisite.