Castle of the Week 128 – St. Hilarion Castle

Perched high in the Kyrenia mountain range, overlooking the Mediterranean shore of Northern Cyprus, the remains of St. Hilarion Castle echoes the turbulent history of island. St. Hilarion Castle is named after a deaf, hermitic monk who fled persecution in Palestine after the Arabs took control of the Holy Land and lived in a cave on the mountain during the 7th century (not to confuse him with another saint of the same name of whom much more is known). Later a monastery and church was erected on the hill to preserve his relics and shelter his later followers (circa 800 AD). The holy complex was later fortified in the late 11th century, possibly by order of Emperor Alexis I to strengthen Byzantium’s hold on the island after a serious revolt in 1092, to guard the Kyrenia-Nocsia highway, and to help protect the northern coast from pillaging Mediterranean pirates.

The earliest references to the castle are found in contemporary accounts of Richard the Lionheart’s conquest of Cyprus. Even though King Richard I quickly captured Isaac Comnenus, the ruler of Cyprus, the rest of the island still remained defiant. Due to his contracted illness at Nicosia, the Lionheart assigned the subduing of the island to Guy de Lusignan who promptly captured Kyrenia and assaulted St. Hilarion Castle, which resisted imperviously. Isaac Comnenus was pressured into ordering the surrender of the castle, and his daughter was later imprisoned in it to prevent her from ever being recovered by Comnenus’s supporters.

Soon, the castle’s previous name of Didymus (the Twins) became corrupted into the French Dieu d’Amour (God of Love, a reference to Aphrodite/Venus). During the Lusignan reign, the castle was strengthened and organized for defense by John d’Ibelin, the inherited regent of Cyprus, in 1228, when Emperor Frederick II landed at Limassol and demanded control of Cyprus before a truce was arranged and John d’Ibelin agreed to join the Crusade. Upon John d’Ibelin’s return in 1299, he found the island controlled by Emperor’s Frederick’s supporters. Outraged, he attacked and defeated them near Nicosia and then assaulted them at their refuge in St. Hilarion Castle. He was finally victorious after a nine-month siege. His victory would not last long for in 1232, a force of Emperor Frederick’s Longbard troops overran the island and besieged Ibelin at St. Hilarion. His surrender was barely withheld, when the return of young King Henry from Syria attacked and routed the besieging forces at Agirdha and led to Frederick’s forces’ surrender at Kyrenia.

For over a century, the castle was untouched by warfare. It was improved and embellished by the Lusignan royal family and became their summer residence. The castle can be divided into three main parts. The lower part of the castle consists of the largest bailey, protected by long walls embedded with seven semi-circular towers, and housing stables, the living quarters for the men-at-arms, storage cistern, various buildings, and the main gatehouse whose archway was originally closed by a drawbridge. Contained in the middle ward is the large church, monastery, royal palace, the gallery with the panoramic Queen’s Window, kitchen, and several cisterns, cellars, and other buildings, including a bath. The upper ward has a courtyard in the middle with nobility housing in the Eastern section, and other rooms for daily use in the Western section with the highest point occupied by Prince John’s Tower. The castle clearly takes advantage of its elevation and rocky outcrop with towers and building built into the contours, with a maze of staircases, rooms, tunnels, vaulted ceilings, with a spectacular view of the surrounding country side and northern shore. St. Hilarion Castle’s sprouting towers are said to have inspired Walt Disney’s castle design in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

After the death of a few compatriots at the coronation of Peter II, the Genoese ravaged the island. John Price of Antioch, the regent and uncle of the young king, launched several sallies of Bulgarian mercenaries against the Genoese besieging Kyrenia Castle. After peace was made with the Genoese, the Bulgarian Bodyguardss were thrown one by one from the precipice of the fortification in 1373 by the paranoid John who suspected an assassination plot. Later John would go to Nicosia never to return from a supper.

After the invention of firearms, the functionality and importance of the castle was lost. When the island was occupied by Venetians in 1489, the new governing administration ordered the dismantling of many castles, including St. Hilarion, to reduce the cost of their garrisons. For the remainder of much of its existence, St. Hilarion was neglected and allowed to endure disrepair until the castle’s church underwent a restoration in 1959 to prevent its close, inevitable collapse. The castle came to prominence again in 1964, when Turkish Cypriots used it as the headquarters of their main enclave, and was defended by teenage activists who fended off EOKA attacks. Again in 1974, the castle was at the center in a control battle because of an important nearby pass between north and south Cyprus.

Although St. Hilarion Castle is open to the public, the approaching road passes through a military area, which occasionally closes access to the castle. The castle itself enjoys lively tourist activity, boasting a cafe and a caretaker that resides in one of the restored towers.

Write-up by Sir Hugh.

Special thanks goes to the following for granting permission to use their images:

A nice layout of the castle can be found here.

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