A legacy lives on in Cyprus

Peter Martell

LIMASSOL, CYPRUS (AFP) – Deep beneath a castle on Cyprus lies a legacy historians said still resonates today.

Down steep, narrow and uneven stone stairs in the fort of Limassol is a low-vaulted room lined with tombstones of medieval knights.

This is where England’s King Richard the Lionheart is believed to have been married in 1192.

“The architecture and the artefacts here reflect the broad history of Cyprus,” said Elena Stylianou, a government archaeologist, brandishing a long ancient sword, rusted and chipped but still sharp.

“Cyprus was a place that many outsiders wanted to capture and own.”

Richard, the first of so many British visitors to the sunny island, celebrated his wedding burning, looting and adding Cyprus to his possessions.

After the defeated Cypriot ruler surrendered – reportedly on condition he was not bound in iron chains, so Richard used silver shackles instead – the English king swiftly sold Cyprus.

The Cyprus Medieval Museum, now housed in the Mediterranean port city’s fort, said that while the main castle walls date from the 16th Century Ottoman period, they sit on far older foundations.

Cypriot medieval historian Nicholas Coureas from the Cyprus Research Institute. PHOTOS: AFP
A picture shows a fortress perched on the mountain ridge above the northern port of Kyrenia, in the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), north of the divided Cypriot capital Nicosia
A picture shows the Limassol medieval castle (C), now housing the Cyprus Medieval Museum in the coastal
Cypriot city
ABOVE & BELOW: A part of Buffavento medieval castle ruin, perched on the mountain ridge above the northern port of Kyrenia; and Maria Patsalosavvi, curator of the Leventis Municipal Museum shows an ancient sword

Medieval knights used the island as headquarters to fight military campaigns just over 100 kilometres to the southeast.

Cypriot medieval historian Nicholas Coureas said the event were a key step in forging the island’s national character.

“The most lasting consequence of the conquest of Richard is that although Cyprus would change hands several times, it still has a European orientation… and most Cypriots identify more with Europe than say they do with Asia and Africa,” Coureas said.

“Thanks to its geographical position, and its population, Cyprus is on the edge of Europe, but with strong links to the Middle East,” he added.

Coureas works with the government-backed Cyprus Research Centre, which focusses on national history and sociology.

He argues that for the most easterly member of the European Union, history is not just about dusty schoolbooks, but about how citizens see themselves today – part of Europe, far into the past.

That view matters today. The island has been divided since 1974, when Turkey invaded and occupied the northern third of Cyprus in response to an Athens-sponsored coup seeking to annex the island to Greece.

A UN-patrolled buffer zone runs between the Greek-speaking-majority south and the breakaway Muslim-majority Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognised only by Ankara. British military bases, which remain sovereign UK territory, cover three per cent of the former British colony.

“The Crusades are very relevant today, because there are a lot of parallels,” Coureas said.

“What also started in the Crusade period… was the importance of Cyprus as a base of operations for Western forces operating in the Middle East and North Africa.”

While the medieval knights owned Cyprus outright for only eight months before selling it to French Guy de Lusignan, the order maintained castles on the island.

Stylianou hopes the ancient sites might help draw visitors back to Cyprus, whose vital tourism industry has been devastated by coronavirus restrictions.

Cyprus is dotted with castles and ruins, including the castle of Kolossi.

Perched on a mountain ridge above the northern port of Kyrenia, it looks like it inspired Walt Disney’s fairytale castle.

“When people can, I think they will come,” Stylianou said.

“Because when you are stuck at home, you miss something… and these sites bring you closer to your past.”