As it seems, the northern side of Cyprus used to be an attraction pole for every conqueror through the centuries, and mostly for the Saracens, who used to approach the northern coasts with their pirate ships and raid the island. For this reason, a series of embattled fortresses were built on the mountain of Pentadaktylos and they were used to defend the island.
The three powerful fortresses of Agios Ilarionas, Vouphavento and Cantaras, dominate on the northern mountain-range of the island. People are astonished even today when seeing the huge boulders used for the construction of the fortresses on steep rocks with primitive technical means. However, the construction efforts are completely justified, considering that these fortresses were observatories from which one could observe not only the plain of Mesaoria but also the Saracens’ ships, a long time before they reached the coasts of Kyrenia.
Once the guards spotted the enemy in the horizon, they would make light signals to the other fortresses and through “this visual telegraph”, as we are able to name it, they would notify the other guards of the kingdom for the incoming danger.
The fortress of Agios Ilarionas, built on a mountain peak on an altitude of 2.200 feet, had always been of great importance for the defense of the area. The fortress was named after Saint Ilarionas, a loner who lived in the 6th century and who came in Cyprus searching for peace and rest and spent the last five years of his life on this peak.
Later on, during the 16th century, the Byzantines first built a church here, dedicated to his name and then, a monastery. However, during the Frankish period, the entire construction, completed and reinforced, was turned into a powerful fortress with battlements, crenellations and strong bastions which, in combination with the natural protection offered by the rocks and cliffs, made the fortress impenetrable. Chambers for the army and the guards, food storage rooms, arsenals, horse stables and water tanks covered a big part of the fortress.
The royal chambers were situated on the highest zone, on the edge of the cliff. Kings along with their queens, children and courtiers used to come to the palace to protect themselves from horrible epidemics or hostile raids.
Thousands of workers, master builders and mechanics took part in building the fortress. They put all their mind’s and body’s strength to submit the hard stone and to built up there one of the greatest fortresses of the Medieval era.
The word “Buffavento” is Italian and means “the person who defies the winds”. Naming the fortress “Vouphavento” was really reasonable as the winds blowing at those high places are strong and precipitate.
What is left of the old and impenetrable fortress today, are one or two ruined chambers which look like an eagle’s nest built on an unreachable mountain peak. However, back in the Frankish period, the fortress was a very busy kings’ palace which was graced by the presence of knights. It was a safe hideaway in harsh times and even a place of punishment and a prison for the exiled and rebels. It seems that the most important role of the fortress was the one of the observatory.
From its peak, guards were able to monitor what was happening at the surrounding peaks and also in the sea which spreads just ahead.
The fear for the Saracen pirates would disturb the sleep of the people and the lords during the old years.
The Castle of Kyrenia
The beautiful small Kyrenia district is spread leisurely near the coast, on the foot of the mountain of Pentadaktylos. Although small in extent, the district is rich in historical background with countless monuments of many historical periods. Moreover, it provides a concrete testimony for the adventures and the deadly dangers that our island suffered during the past centuries. Maiden stone built castle, the castle of Kyrenia is a witness of both happy and horrible moments of the past.
It hangs over the small town harbour, with its four big towers which connect the intermediate high walls. Once inside the castle, you get the impression that you are standing in an old ruined town since it is so spacious all around.
This highly compact construction was built with stone so that it would resist the saltiness of the sea and the attacks of the enemies, since the castle was periodically under siege, both from water and earth. And it was a truly maiden castle, since the enemy never managed to conquer it with an attack.
An amplitude of large high-ceiling halls with windows facing towards the sea, adorned with noblemen’s blazons, indicate that the castle did not only serve the defense of the area, but it was also used as accommodation for many people.
Its history is really ancient. The foundation stone was firstly placed by the Roman or the Byzantine emperors. Many historic figures and several conquerors associated their name with the castle of Kyrenia.
The Franks renovated the castle and added chambers for the knights, the bondsmen and their families. The Venetians made it even more powerful but their domination was also temporary, since in 1570, the embroidered with gold Venetian – Frankish banderoles were replaced by the red Islamic banner.
And the succession of conquerors continues.
We are aware that in 1878 the English bought the island and the occupation lasted until 1960. During the liberating fight of Cyprus against the English, the castle was used as a prison where the conquerors imprisoned many of the brave fighters of the National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters (E.O.K.A).
In 1960, when Cyprus was declared as an independent state, the flag of the Republic of Cyprus was raised on the castle for the first time.
The last few years before the Turkish invasion, the interest of all foreign and local visitors was drawn by a special room. Inside that special room, the wreck of the Greek ship, which was discovered in the bottom of the sea near Kyrenia, in a distance of about 800 metres from the castle, was displayed after it was raised and put together by foreign scientists.
It was a commercial ship of the 4th century B.C. and many ancient potteries, coins and several utensils were discovered in it. Today, almost four decades after it was discovered, it still stands in the castle of Kyrenia to remind the Turkish invaders of the Hellenic identity of the land which they so brutally wished to grab.