Inspiration to William Shakespeare
Also known as Othello’s Tower, this famous construction was originally built as a moated citadel in order to protect Famagusta’s harbour, and was the original main entrance to the town.
Initially named the Harbour Citadel, it was built in the 14th century by the Lusignans who ruled the Kingdom of Cyprus, and members of the royal family and their servants are believed to have lived there. The tower was constructed around a central oblong courtyard with a square tower on each corner. A great hall, kitchens, storerooms and servants’ quarters were located on the ground floor, reception rooms and bedrooms on the floor above.
Prior to its construction, there had been a tower and fortifications on the site built by Prince of Tyre in the late 11th century.
After Cyprus was sold to the Republic of Venice, they entirely remodelled the Citadel, and turned it into a military stronghold. By removing the first floor and bringing the level of the building in line with the encircling walls, they ensured that it was not visible from outside the city. Venetians greatly strengthened the town’s defences, incorporating the citadel into the main town walls, and the tower offered protection to the port against possible enemy attacks.
Whilst the thick walls were maintained or strengthened, the rectangular towers of this medieval fortress were replaced with circular alternatives to better suit modern artillery such as cannons and gunpowder – under an attack, a non-cylindrical tower could easily have its corners knocked off by gunfire. In effect, the Venetians took over the tower and turned it into a fort, which in turn provided residence for soldiers. It is also known to have been used as a prison in 1566.
After these modifications, in 1492 a marble slap of the winged Lion of St. Mark, the patron saint of Venice was engraved above the castle’s main entrance. The front paws of the lion on land represent Venice’s land power, whilst the rear paws in the sea represent her maritime empire.
The name of Venetian Captain Nicolao Foscareno, who directed the alterations to the castle, is also credited in inscription. The citadel was then renamed after Giovanni San Michele, the Venetian civil engineer who was responsible for remodelling much of the city.
What to See
Below this sculpture, the entrance door is one of the earliest surviving wooden doors in Cyprus.
On entering the courtyard of the citadel, visitors will come across antique cannons on the grounds, over 400 years. The bronze gun is in excellent condition despite its age, and believed to be of Spanish origin, the other with iron rings along the muzzle being from the post-Ottoman era. Be careful not to trip over the various cast iron cannon balls lying about as you make your way through, relics of the castle’s turbulent history, nor to walk into the enormous rocks which were missiles launched from a trebuchet, large catapults intended to damage fortifications.
To one side of the central courtyard is the Great Hall, a large vaulted room near to thirty metres in length supported with magnificent Gothic beams, dating to around 1300, used as a dining room by the Lusignans. The wooden pegs from which would have hung decorative tapestries in this grand room can still be seen in the walls.
To the north and south of the rectangular courtyard is a series of five ribbed vaulted chambers, constructed between 1300 – 1310 AD, used by the Lusignans as dormitories and a refectory.
Steps from the courtyard lead up to the embattlements, providing fine views of both the ancient and modern harbours. Modern ships still use the same harbour entrance from the golden age of Famagusta, 1300 to 1400 AD. In old times the harbours were defended by a huge iron chain slung across the water to prevent enemy ships entering, and visitors can make out the cluster of rocks on a promontory where the chain tower was positioned. The chain tower in Kyrenia Harbour still stands today.
The citadel itself consists of towers with corridors leading to artillery chambers. In times of war, they would have allowed soldiers to quickly navigate through the castle. During the Ottoman siege, it is rumoured that the Venetian merchants hid their fortunes down here and sealed the tunnels up – when they were allowed to leave the city, these treasures were left behind and are still supposed to be concealed to this day.
Access is possible into the round towers, where smoke holes and gun ports are clearly visible as well.
Othello’s Tower was known as the “impenetrable fortress” due to it being nearly impossible to attack from the deep surrounding ditches. Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice written in 1603 is set in a harbour town in Cyprus and it is believed the great playwright took the name from this famous castle.
This castle underwent restoration in 2014 and reopened to the public on 3 July 2015. Apart from the spectacular architecture, there is a fine view from the top of the tower over the town, with the Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque dominating the centre.
The mix of Venetian and Lusignan architecture inside is a prime highlight of a visit here and every stone has a different story at this ancient stronghold – you will feel obliged to view each one if you are sightseeing in Famagusta.
If you are lucky, you may also encounter an event or performance at the courtyard or vaulted hall – keep up to date with all on the NCY calendar.