The Crusader Castles of North Cyprus
The Crusader castles of North Cyprus. STRATEGICALLY placed along the ridge of the five-finger mountain range lie the Byzantine defences of St Hilarion, Buffavento and Kantara. The ruins of these enchanting Crusader castles will capture your imagination with their fascinating history, not least tales of warrior kings, treacherous princes and fairytale princesses.
St Hilarion, the best preserved and most popular of the three castles, boasts tales of Richard the Lionheart no less after falling under his rule in the late twelfth century during the Third Crusade. It is even rumoured that the infamous English King spent his honeymoon here.
Originally an eighth-century monastery, St Hilarion was fortified by the Byzantines in the eleventh century to protect against coastal raids from Arab pirates, its position commanding the pass through the Kyrenia mountains. The castle was divided into three wards; the lower ward for the men-at-arms, the middle of a church and the upper ward reserved exclusively for royalty.
During the thirteenth century Lusignan rule, whilst still a military base, St Hilarion was strengthened and added to further and most of what you see today with its beautiful turrets and towers is a testament to the romance of this era. Nicknamed ‘Dieu d’Amour’ or Cupid’s Castle, St Hilarion enjoyed its royal heyday during the reign of King Peter I and Queen Eleanor of Aragon, although the king’s rule came to an untimely and brutal end, allegedly at the hands of his own brother. However, in revenge for her husband’s murder, the dowager queen tricked the brother, Prince John, into throwing his own faithful bodyguards from the castle’s highest tower leaving him exposed to his own unfortunate death.
The Prince John Tower, Queen’s window and upper royal ward can still be entered via a well-preserved archway, and even though much of the castle was destroyed by the Venetians after they invaded Cyprus in the late fifteenth century the ruins are still a sight to behold. St Hilarion is even said to be the inspiration behind Walt Disney’s castle in Sleeping Beauty.
St Hilarion’s sister castles, Kantara and Buffavento, also have their own enchanting and magical qualities with equally exciting histories. In fact, both of these castles offered King Isaac refuge after Richard the Lionheart invaded Cyprus, although ultimately Isaac had no choice but to surrender to the notorious English king despite these well-positioned hideouts.
At nearly 1000m above sea level, Buffavento stands the highest of the three Crusader castles and was often used as both a hideout and political prison. Whilst Buffavento is the least well preserved of the three, the view is truly breathtaking and not surprisingly its name translates as ‘Defier of Winds’. Arguably, however, the views from Kantara are the finest of all, its name meaning ‘bridge’ or ‘arch’. Kantara’s location literally bridges across the Kyrenia mountain range offering unsurpassed and all-around views of the Karpas Peninsula.
So if you are prepared for some steep and uneven climbs to visit these three magnificent Byzantine sites you will definitely not be disappointed, with either the views or the wealth of history that has survived the rather treacherous Cypriot centuries.