28 February 2012

Castle Hunting: Kyrenia

The scene is the Eastern mediterranean at the twilight of the fifteenth century. Venice has just captured Cyprus from the diminished, paltry Frankish lords. The fictional Othello won't be governor for a century. Crusader kings had owned the island for three hundred years, since Richard the Lionheart passed through on his way to Jerusalem. It is a lonely, isolated place.
The empire of Venice is at its zenith. With 3,300 ships and forty thousand men, they have come to own the Mediterranean. Their annexation of the island went smoothly, work has begun on expanding the old Lusignan castles. The most ambitious of these fortifications is at Kyrenia, in the north. The new walls are to be several times thicker than the old ones, the seaside walls outfitted with massive cannon stations. The navy is king, the large wars are fought at sea.
But curiously, the real work is done on the inland side, where a three level gunning system has been devised to engage troops on land. Why is Venice afraid of the interior?
Kyrenia has been a castle town since the 7th century, and likely had Hellenistic and Roman fortifications near the important harbor before that. The Lusignan overlords that ruled Cyprus for much of the middle ages built a number of impressive castles on the island, but most of them were situated on mountaintops away from the water - military architecture at the time was all about height advantage, and the locations had been chosen before the advent of real gunpowder warfare. The Frankish knights did build a sizable stronghold in Kyrenia, utilizing some of the earlier walls. Garrisoning troops was the primary focus of their fortress, though, and evidence suggests that the fortifications were rather ordinary, with the basic wall and tower formation of the time.
The Venetians rebuilt Kyrenia at a time when gunpowder and sailcloth won wars, and tower height had little to do with defensibility. Kyrenia's walls were expanded and thickened. Significantly, the towers were actually lowered, echoing a shift that would come to define the last three centuries of the castle age.
High towers were a problem for three reasons. Firstly, the new, more sophisticated cannons caused more damage when fired horizontally - firing downwards limited their effect and made them inaccurate. Secondly, the new guns were much larger and heavier, meaning that it was difficult to install them at the top of narrow, soaring towers. Thirdly, and most importantly, large towers made big targets, and the new artillery was powerful enough to knock them down - falling rock and crumbling walls posed a mortal threat to the castle defenders below.
Inland castles were also developing thick walls, but seafront castles needed to be even sturdier. On land, it took a lot of effort to move cannons from place to place. Also, the artillery had to be set up and dug in within range of the defense's own guns, which were already situated and prepared. Naval advancements and large fleets meant that a formidable amount of ready firepower could be brought right to the castle's doorstep in a matter of minutes.
Kyrenia's walls were built thick enough to withstand the most powerful guns of the day, and were also brought to the water's edge on three sides, so that the sea formed a natural moat. Huge batteries of cannon were installed. Long, broad ramps were set up in the courtyard so that guns could be moved efficiently and wheeled up to the battlements.
The Venetian empire was among the richest in Europe, with revenue from far reaching trade and taxes collected from some of the wealthiest cities of the Mediterranean. Venice also had a unique problem - it had come to control a large area of coastline, but had few men to defend its new territory. With a small population and so much manpower invested in its navy, technology and firepower were even more important. When the castle came under attack, it would almost certainly be from a much larger force of men.
And over the narrow straight, ever present in the minds of the Venetians, was just such a force. The Ottoman empire's navy, at the time, was much less powerful than its European counterparts. But the army was huge, and was beginning to flex its muscles.
Walking around Kyrenia is a sunny and relaxing experience. It's not thrilling; the walls are square and wide, there's no real keep, the corners are sturdy, nothing much stands out. Beautiful views over the sea and the harbor are more engrossing than the defenses. A blunt stronghold, built too late for fanciful touches, Kyrenia can feel like one giant brick of sandstone.
The interesting parts mostly pre-date the Venetian expansion. Some arched rooms from the Lusignan castle remain. Dungeons and storerooms are worth a quick look. A deep cistern, still full of water, sits in the middle of the courtyard. Roman columns and capitals lie around listlessly. There's a popular cafe, some shady trees, a shipwreck museum.
Near the entrance, a small, low passageway leads to one of the most fascinating features. The chapel of St. George sits almost completely swallowed up by the walls, only its domed roof sticking up into the sunlight. Built by the Byzantines, it was outside the original castle - saved by the Venetians, and now almost completely hidden, it's reminiscent of a cave.
In the end, the Venetians only lasted about eighty years on Cyprus. In 1571, the Ottoman army marched into Kyrenia and took the town and castle without firing a single shot. Having just ransacked Limassol and massacred 20,000 men, the Turks never even considered attacking Kyrenia from the water, where their ships would be at a disadvantage. Too far away from Venice, with too few men, the castle had become stranded - all the firepower was essentially useless against the 60,000-strong Ottoman invasion, especially coming by land. The three-tiered gunning system along that inner side was never tested - Kyrenia remained under the Sultanate until the British came in 1878.

No comments:

Post a Comment