After a steady diet of Greek mythology and archaeological ruins, touring the small somewhat restored Larnaca Fort in Larnaca, Cyprus was a nice diversion.
Located a few blocks from our hotel on the southern edge of the coastal corniche road, the fort is classified as a Byzantine structure, but there are two drastically different versions of when it was constructed. It is generally agreed upon, however, that the fort’s purpose was to defend the southern coasts of Cyprus, and in particular, Larnaca’s town harbor, and was later used as a prison, artillery center and an outpost.
Since it is unclear as to when exactly it was built, most historians accept the late 12th century theory as the initial period given the fact that Larnaca gained great importance as a seaport during the medieval ages. Written accounts add credence to the claim that the fort was built during the reign (1382-1398) of King James 1 of Cyprus. The form of the entrance arch suggests a 14th century date.
Its original shape was never decisively determined, but the fort appears to have taken the form of a square tower, and based on restoration of a monument, the foundations of an earlier phase were discovered indicating that the original fort was larger than the current structure. Documentation exists to support the evidence that it was rebuilt in 1625 during the Ottoman period.
Today, located in the center of the stone-walled fort is a small, nicely landscaped courtyard. Its north-facing entrance consists of a two-story building, now a museum, and is believed to have been from the Ottoman period. This is based on the Turkish inscription above the main entrance. The courtyard is currently used for cultural events, and the day we visited a stage was in place along with about 50 chairs in anticipation of a final concert of the season.
A sign on the grounds explains that the fort was ransacked, destroyed and rebuilt several times “since it was at the center of conflicting economic interests, which had to do mainly with the export of salt from the port of Larnaca.”
According to the fort brochure, famous explorer Abbot Giovanni Mariti, who lived in Larnaca during the first half of the 18th century, records that “the fort was built by the Ottoman Turks, but was already in a semi-ruinous state at the time, even though a garrison was still maintained here.” The abbot also wrote that the fort was mainly used as a firing-gun salute to passing Christian warships.
By the late 18th century, Larnaca Fort lost its importance and the Turks abandoned it. Apparently the next written documentation comes during World War 1 when the Germans occupied the fort from 1914-1918 using it as a military outpost. At the end of the war, the British retook it and converted it into a prison where a gallows was installed to execute prisoners. The last execution was held in 1945. In 1948, the fort was converted to the current archaeological museum, but not opened to the public until 1969. The installations of the gallows were discovered during conservation and restoration works, but a date was not given as to when that discovery was made.
A sign above the gallows states that relatives and friends of the condemned were allowed to watch the execution from the courtyard, but far enough away, where they could not hear the sound of the trapdoor opening. Looking down the steep ladder to the deep hole of the former gallows was certainly an eerie feeling.
Highlights of the fort include a number of cannons on display in the courtyard – some dating to the medieval ages – and a room of tombstones dating from the 14th Century that are mainly from gothic churches of Nicosia, a town about 20 miles away. A second room featured various inscriptions carved into stone on the walls in various languages. Yet another room that faced the sea had a cave where numerous tombstones were originally uncovered.
As I clambered up some metal stairs to the two-room museum on the second level, a quick view of the calm blue sea beyond the old stone wall reflected the medieval character of the fort. Ducking inside the old door, I discovered displays of pottery, including crude utensils and dishware the soldiers used, along with photos from Early Christian churches (4-7th Century AD), Byzantine mosaics of the Early Christian period (same centuries as above), and Byzantine and Medieval Cyprus monuments from the 4-16th Centuries AD. A second room portrayed wall paintings of Cypriot Byzantine dating from the 11-16th Century AD.
No graceful architecture or any furnishings, for that matter, provided any hints of how comfortable or crude the fort must have been. Based on its size and the display of common household pottery discovered on site, this barren structure must have been sparsely furnished and somewhat lonely; probably not conducive to a “home away from home” for its occupants.