The Limassol Castle, which dates back to the Middle Ages, is located in the Old Town quarters. For a long time its mission was to protect the island from foreign raids. According to different sources, including a testimony by Etienne de Lusignan, the castle was built by Guy de Lusignan in the 12th century (possibly in 1193), while records first mention its existence in 1228.
The castle lived through several periods of reconstruction. Its current version dates back to the Ottoman period of the 19th century. Its permanent exhibition includes different objects illustrating the history of Cyprus from antiquity until the last third of the 19th century. The interior features architectural and decorative elements from different time periods.
It would be a good idea to spend an hour or two exploring the castle, whose quarters were once used as a prison. With its somber and imposing presence, it will no doubt cast its spell on you.
But let’s start from the beginning. You’ve arrived in the Old Town of Limassol. You probably want to get to know the country’s history and explore the streets of this popular resort destination. You will find the castle in the historic center of the town — in the middle of the square adjacent to the Old port. The port was built in 1880 and was once one of the busiest spots in Limassol, welcoming cargo ships of all sizes.
Whichever route you take to get to the castle, you can always stop by at one of the many cafes and taverns that surround it. Take a break, order lunch and keep moving.
The castle is one of Limassol’s main attractions. It is known as the former site of Agios Georgios — a Byzantine basilica (6th – 8th centuries) where on May 12th 1191 King Richard the Lionheart married Berengaria of Navarre, the daughter of king of Navarre. At the time the castle was part of a larger byzantine fortress (circa 10 – 11th centuries) and was located in its northern quarters.
The first mention of the castle in 1228 is a result of the involvement of Frederick II (1194 – 1250), the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, in Cyprus’s affairs.
The castle’s most famous prisoner is thought to be King Henry I of Cyprus (1217 – 1253). His father, Hugo, died when the boy was only one year old. Henry was crowned at the age of 8 and took up the reins of government at the age of 15.
Over the course of 400 years (1193 – 1590) the fortress had suffered from numerous earthquakes (the most powerful of which happened in the period of 1222 – 1491) and pirate attacks. Even its own rulers ha tried to demolish the castleand yet despite this, it was always able to bounce back.
During the war with Genoa (1373 – 1374), the foreign army had almost completely destroyed the castle. Having lost the war, the Kingdom of Cyprus [a state created as a result of the Third Crusade that existed until 1489 – ed.] was obligated to pay substantial war reparations to Genoa and was unable to afford the cost of restoration.
Witness accounts state that towards the end of the 14th century the area was practically abandoned. At the beginning of the 15th century the castle was included in the renovation program initiated by the bishop of Limassol. The ruins of the city walls near Zig Zag Avenue were used as building blocks. The bishop also ordered a restoration of the ill-fated castle, which despite this was still destined for more hardship in 1402 and 1408 when the Genoese attacked again.
The restored fortress was supposed to withstand attacks by the Mamlukes — a knightly military caste in Egypt in the Middle Ages, which developed from the ranks of slave soldiers. In 1413 and 1422 the castle was attacked by their army and fleet and although it wasn’t conquered, it suffered substantial damages. Following that it was struck by an earthquake and then in 1425 it was captured by the Egyptians during another raid on the city.
In 1538 during the Venetian rule on the island, the castle was captured by the Turks. Then after gaining back control over the castle and the city Marco Antonio Bragadin, the Venetian governor and military commander (1523 – 1571), ordered the castle to be destroyed so as to avoid future raids on this strategically important building. Only parts of the castle were demolished, but then a series of earthquakes finished the job in the period of 1567 – 1568.
The Venetians later realized that Turkish attacks were unavoidable and decided to build a new fortress on the site of the previous one. Incidentally, Egorios Voustronios (a Greek writer and diplomat) had later criticized the governor’s decision to demolish the fortress, arguing that it would’ve been cheaper to restore it. After the Turkish finally captured the island (1576) they used the remains of the old fortress to build a citadel with two-meter thick walls and two stories of prison cells (1590). The British took over the citadel and beginning in 1878 and up until 1950 the castle was mainly used as a prison.
In the following years when control over all of the prisons in Cyprus was transferred to Nicosia, the Limassol Castle was designated as a historic monument and the Department of Antiquities proposed turning it into a local archeological museum. Following the period of upheaval between 1963 and 1974 the fortress remained closed to the public and was used as an exclave for the National Guard.
Following a period of reconstruction that included changes to the interior in order to create space for an exhibition the Cyprus Medieval Museum finally opened on March 28 1987.
The majority of the objects on display belong to another museum — the one in Nicosia, which is located in the buffer zone overseen by the UN peacekeeping forces.
Compared to its 1193 version, the present castle is smaller in size, but thanks to the more massive walls, it actually appears larger. Because of the many times the castle was destroyed and rebuilt, it features different architectural elements. The bottom two stories of the castle belong to the crusader period and are gothic in style.
The castle is surrounded by a park that houses an exhibition of archeological finds and artifacts, such as ceramics, a millstone, fragments of columns, etc. Take a look at the ancient oil press (Byzantine period 7th – 9th centuries), which includes special reservoirs for the storage of oil.
Archeologists have discovered that the previous versions of the castle were a lot different from the current one not only in regards to the size but also in terms of appearance. There is even a story to confirm this. One day archeologists were working on the site of Panagia Katholiki, when they came upon a 14th century tombstone depicting the ancient version of the castle. The image depicted the castle with three tall towers. The only «original» part to survive to this day is the gothic chapel, whose stonewalls are light yellow in color.
There is an inscription in Arabic at the top of one of the walls and a pair of initials («VR») carved out over the entrance into the Museum.
The objects on display at the museum reflect Cyprus’s historic path beginning from antiquity. Visitors can explore the different economic stages of its development, its social and cultural past as well as the centuries-old traditions and rituals that shaped the island’s identity. The exhibition can be divided into four chronological periods:
- Late antiquity, Early Christianity and Early Byzantium(324 – 650);
- Middle and Post Byzantine period (650 – 1192), Dark Ages / Arab attacks (650 – 965), Late Byzantine period (965 – 1191);
- Middle Ages (1192 – 1570), the French rule and the House of Lusignan (1192 – 1489), Venetian period (1489 – 1570);
- Ottoman rule (1571 – 1878).
We enter the second floor of the castle via the stone staircase that runs through the watchtower (at one point the cannons in this watchtower were used to protect the main entrance).
In the center of the hall you will see a glass window case that displays antique ceramics and pottery, such as different types of vessels and lamps (most of which come from Salamis and the Chrysopolitissa Church in Kato Paphos).
The atmosphere is particularly somber thanks to the many tombstones and graves, some of which were moved here from the Abbey of the Augustinian Order, which is located next to St. Sophia Cathedral (presently known as Ömeriye Mosque) following the arrival of the Turks in the 16th century.
As you enter the castle you are immediately immersed in its grave atmosphere of the Middle Ages. Stone staircases run in different directions towards the dark galleries of the castle. Those who decide to linger here a bit longer might feel uneasy thanks to the ominous, stone vaults and the abundance of tombstones. In this case we suggest going up and exiting the «darkness».
The upper level houses a collection of reconstructed coats of arms belonging to the dynasties of knights that once ruled over Cyprus: Cornaro, Pissarro, Guerini and other famous dynasties. The small galleries used as exhibition space once served as prison cells. They have no windows and their gothic vaults feature replicas of frescoes from different Cyprus churches. Among other things on display are tombstones and their fragments. They belong to the late members of the religious community and monks who once lived at the former abbey. So, for example, one of the tombstones features an inscription that reads: «Monk. Michele di Montignano» 14th century.
Incidentally, the marble used to construct buildings, monuments and for other projects was brought here from Marmara (former Proconessos — an island in the western part of the Sea of Marmara). After being processed by the masters in Constantinople it was shipped to other countries through the island.
The museum boasts a large collection of carved tombstones dating to the period between 13th and 14th centuries. The tombstones feature images of monks, knights, aristocrats and their coat of arms and other insignia.
The main aisle features fragments of Venetian columns from Nicosia, a fragment of a column with a relief of a cross from the Episcopal Basilica in Amathus. Among other decorative elements are fragments of columns and marble plates from different basilicas in Kourion (remains of one of them were discovered close to an antique stadium), from Acrotiri (6th century), from the Church of St. Epiphanius in Salamis and from the Basilica of Agios Filon in the Karpass Peninsula.
The first floor exhibition hall displays watercolor copies of early Christian frescoes from the Church of Agios Nikodimos in Salamis, which is currently located in the occupied territory and is considered one of the earliest examples of Christian art in Cyprus from the Roman period.
Arguably the most interesting part of the museum exhibition is located on the upper level. If you go up and walk down the hall, both sides of which are lined with prison cells (presently used as exhibition rooms), you will come across two knights — the top part of their armor is an extremely elaborate replica of the armor used by ancient warriors. Nearby you will see a small hall used to display other types of armor: hoods, maille (14th century), weapons and firearms from Europe and the Middle East (pistols, rifles, swords and cannon balls). To complete your viewing experience, check out the bronze stirrups.
You can also visit some of the other halls and explore window cases featuring different cult attributes and symbols, metal objects (including jewelry and coins), as well as elements of men’s and women’s attire from the past.
If you look up, you’ll notice the carved support beams that demonstrate the island’s tradition of woodcarving.
The exhibition will surely be of interest to adults and children alike. Those who decide to go to the top of the castle will enjoy a great view covering the coast of Limassol and the marina as well as the Old Town and its charming narrow streets and historic buildings. The third basement floor houses an exhibition of images of different Cyprus churches of the Byzantine period as well as sculptures and copies of images from the St. Sophia Cathedral.
At the end of the gallery — in the center — you will see a marble structure (the sign reads: «a table for proscomidia», which means sacrifice in Greek) that comes from a basilica in Akrotiri, 6th century. The window cases feature fragments of decoration and friezes from different basilicas starting from Early Christianity (4th – 6th centuries) and up until Renaissance, such as the decorative elements from the Famagusta Gate in Nicosia (16th century).
Other window cases contain glazed ceramics. Unlike the symbols common among Early Christian objects (e.g. fish, birds, shepherds, etc.), these ceramics feature spiral-shaped patterns with flowers that resemble Arabic script. One of the niches contains pottery and terracotta ceramics from Kyrenia, Kyperounta, Salamis and other regions (vases, pots and pitchers). Other niches include ceramic lamps and kitchenware.
There are window cases displaying portraits, whose origins are still unknown (one of such images presumably depicts the head of Dionysus, circa 4th – 5th centuries.)
Another curious aspect of the permanent exhibition are the clay plaques that feature engraved symbols and images that come from the ancient churches located in the Troodos Mountains.
As we walk through other exhibition halls, we see the way an antique technology of making chandelier glass had continued to survive. We also come across examples of «newer» ceramics that date back to a period between 17th – 19th centuries.
At the very top of the castle is an open space that is used as an observation deck. Originally it was used by the archers and then to station weapons. If you are able to find a particularly narrow staircase, you will be lucky enough to walk to the highest point of the castle with a view covering almost the entire coast of Limassol and its surroundings.
In our opinion the only thing missing at the museum is reference information providing a historic context to all of the objects on display. We would be interested to learn more about the knights and how all of the objects on display made their way into this castle. It seems that there is a lot to take in, but too little information to accompany it.
Research and discovery
One of the oldest artifacts (5th century) from the Early Christian period in Cyprus was found at the burial site of St. Reginos (commemorated on August 20th), which was carved inside a ruler’s crypt close of the Church of St. Reginos and St. Orestes in the village of Fasoula. Examples of carved sarcophaguses that are decorated with hunting scenes are on display in the gallery at the northern wall.
One of the first discoveries made at the site of the castle dates back to 1518, following a powerful earthshock. When people were working to repair the resulting damages they discovered gothic vaults in the western part of the castle and arched passageways in the sidewalls on the first floor and the floor above the current entrance.
In the eastern part of the underground level there is a large arc that is 12 meters in diameter — it is considered to be part of the first Latin cathedral in Limassol. In the southwestern corner there is a spiral staircase that leads to the roof. It was probably once part of that cathedral and confirms the approximate date of its origin.
The gallery that connects the main hall to the eastern basement carries signs of a stratigraphic analysis made by scientists in 1951. As a result of this test scientists discovered the brickwork and the marble foundation of a small Christian basilica from the Middle Byzantine period (10 – 11th centuries).
Our tour comes to an end. You have probably learned a lot, but also have a great deal of questions. Use this as inspiration to read a historic novel or watch a film about this time period in Cyprus.
Otherwise, bring your family to the castle and don’t forget to also visit the Old Town.
Address: Ricardou and Berengarias, 1/1
Entrance: 4,5 euros (half-priced admission for children).
Telephone: +357 25305419, +357 25305157
Open: Monday – Saturday 09:00 – 17:00; Sunday 10:00 – 13:00
Please note: all photo and video is prohibited
See you soon!
Written by Evgeniya Kondakova-Theodorou.