23 February 2012

Castle Hunting: Kizkalesi Castles

You know you’ve arrived in Kizkalesi when you spot the floating castle. Sitting some thousand feet offshore, it’s the focal point for this sandy little town in southern Turkey. Walking the beach or sitting in a deserted shorefront bar, the "Maiden" castle is pretty much the best and only thing to look at.
But this isn't the only castle in town. At one end of the beach, more ruined and less photographed, a second fortress lies. Maybe not quite as immediately gripping, Korykos castle was once more impressive. (Admittedly, though, it just doesn’t look as cool.)
The natural harbors that line this part of the coast are made even more attractive by plentiful freshwater springs, which have been an important part of life here forever. Situated at a strategic point in the Eastern Mediterranean, Korykos, as Kizkalesi was called under Greek rule, was once at the naval crossroads between Greece, Cyprus and the Middle Eastern states further south. It changed hands many times, grew and then diminished, and eventually came to be ruled by the Byzantian Emperors for a short time. It was during the Byzantine era that the two castles were constructed – the 12th century rulers were worried about pirates more than anything, and were trying to fortify the port.
The pirate activity continued throughout the middle ages, much of it committed by moorish and cypriot boats. A lot of this Mediterranean piracy was actually focused on land raids, and the population in the area shifted away from the water to the inland fields. Still, the Korykos and Maiden forts were maintained to guard the harbor, and to act as a base for a fleet of Byzantine naval ships that patrolled the regional waters.
Interestingly, many pieces of the old Roman town were incorporated into the stonework, with scrolling and carved letters visible at random in the walls, and even pieces of round columns fitted here and there. We talked about how evocatively Mediterranean white stone is, and how anything built with the stuff seems ancient almost by default.
The land castle (called simply Korykos) is really quite huge, with remains of a large residential complex and chapel protruding from the weeds. Unlike the Maiden castle, the Korykos complex wasn’t repaired after the Ottomans took control in the fifteenth century. Kizkalesi had shrunk to a village by that point, as more people moved inland away from the pirates. It’s thought that the new empire was more concerned with the aesthetic value of the floating fortress and less about its strategic importance.
The walls on shore remain, though, with impressive engineering that allowed for Korykos to be accessed by water while remaining protected. Around the eastern and northern walls, away from the sea, a complicated moat system (it’s dry now) was carved into the rock. Fronting the ocean, the exterior wall was fitted with port doors that could be reached by small craft. Bulwarking this lower wall were low towers designed to engage with enemy ships while remaining below the line of sight for the main keep.
The outer walls, in fact, were built slightly later than the inner walls. They were added both to create a second layer of defense and to cut off the shoreline so that boats couldn’t land directly in front of the battlements.
A land bridge was built to connect the two castles, doubling as a breakwater.
The popular (and probably untrue) story about Maiden castle is that it was built by a king for his daughter. A fortuneteller had prophesied that the girl would be killed by a snakebite, so the king found the one place in his domain where there were no snakes - the small island in Korykos harbor – and built a fortress there. The girl was imprisoned in the castle until the prophesy came true – a small adder was brought to the island accidentally, hidden in a basket of fruit. In the princesses memory, the castle was named “Maiden.”
In reality, there are many towers and forts in the Middle East called “Maiden.” We’ve seen four or five ourselves. The name used to mean that the fortification hadn’t been breached, though often the moniker stuck around after a place had been captured. There’s always a more fanciful story attached, though, that usually has to do with a king and his daughter (a famous example, the legend of Baku’s iconic Maiden Tower, involves the heartbroken maiden throwing herself from the top).
We were offered a ride out to the castle, but it would have been in a paddleboat and the sea was a bit rough for that. In the summer, most visitors swim out, but the February water was a little cold to try. It was disappointing not to be able to poke around, but it was pretty enough that we didn't care.
It’s quite a building, and at sunset it’s gorgeous. It's the offseason, so we had the beach almost to ourselves in the cool evening. With a line of recent, ugly development at our backs, we could look out to sea at a view that's remained unchanged for centuries.


  1. These photos are lovely! My family lineage comes from Cilicia when it was a part of the Kingdom of Armenia (I'm Western Armenian). Such a beautiful place and I understand now why I have always felt so connected to the ocean. Your photos are beautiful and I'm so glad you shared them. Thank you.

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