Visiting Famagusta was easily the busiest day of our week in North Cyprus. So I thought I’d do a more detailed post about it! Read on to find out about the beautiful ruined churches in the walled city, the sweet gooey baklava from Petek Patisserie, the eerie sight of the Varosha ghost town, and the fascinating ancient Roman excavations.
The Walled City
Famagusta (also known as Gazimağusa) is an old port town on the east coast. It was the key trading point of Medieval and Ottoman Cyprus. The walled city was mostly populated by Turkish Cypriots even before the Turkish invasion of 1974. There are still many abandoned houses left by Greek Cypriots fleeing to the south of the island.
Venetian Walls surround the old city, which is jam packed with ruins, like Othello’s Castle, St Sophia Mosque, the Venetian Palace, and at least three churches.
EDIT: OK I’ve just looked this up and 365 churches were built in Famagusta in the 14th century. 365!
Petek Patisserie is a great place to eat on a day trip to Famagusta. It has a welcoming interior and delicious fresh baked bread. We all enjoyed the traditional Turkish meatballs with delicious rice. Make sure you don’t leave without trying some of the gooey-est, sweetest baklava of your whole life.
Built in the 14th century, Othello’s Castle (Othello Kulesi) was named after a Venetian governor. It’s believed to be the namesake of the Shakespeare play. It is the official entrance to Famagusta, and Spanish and Ottoman cannon balls still litter the courtyards – evidence of the city’s turbulent history.
Lala Mustafa Paşa Mosque
The largest of all the ruins within Famagusta, towering over the other buildings in the city, is the St Sophia Mosque (Lala Mustafa Paşa Camii). Since it is a fully operational mosque, it arguably is not a ruin. But seen from any distance with its missing towers it could easily be mistaken as one.
Originally St Nicholas Cathedral during Venetian rule, the Ottomans badley damaged the towers and roof of the structure when they invaded. They turned it into a mosque without reconstructing, leaving this totally unique building.
The Venetian Palazzo del Provveditore (Venedik Sarayı Kalıntıları) was built by the Lusignan Kings of Cyprus and later used as a governors palace. Only the grand facade and back courtyard remain.
Another surviving area of the palace is the Namık Kemal Dungeon, which housed the revolutionary playwright Namık Kemal in the late 19th century.
St Francis Church
Another church built in the 14th century, St Francis Church was originally part of a Fraciscan monastery alongside the Royal Palace. Swooping buttresses would have supported the walls, but today there is only two sides of the apse and a small side chapel still standing.
Sinan Paşa Mosque
St Peter & Paul’s Church was built in the 14th century by a successful merchant. The invading Ottomans turned it into a mosque in 1571.
It’s been used for many purposes over the years. The British used it as a grain and potato store. In the 1960s Turkish Cypriots converted it into a Town Hall. Nowadays it’s used a Public Library, and when we were visiting they were exhibiting traditional Cypriot dances and costumes.
St. George’s of the Greeks Orthodox Church
The southeast corner of Famagusta is historically the Greek quarter of the walled city (which explains why it is now mostly abandoned as all Greek Cypriots feld the north when it was invaded by Turkey). It holds many Greek Orthodox churches, of which St George’s is the largest.
Built in the 13th century in the same style as St Nicholas Cathedral, St George’s of the Greeks would originally have been full of colourful frescos, some of which you can still see. The roof of the church collapsed due to the immense weight of the dome, which would not have been properly supported by the spindly decorative columns.
The church was damaged even more during the Ottoman invasion of the 16th century, and you can still see holes in the outside from cannon fire. After the church was damaged beyond repair by earthquakes, passing solders used the ruins as a shooting gallery.
The whole southeast quarter of Famagusta is somewhat of a ghost town, with deserted cafes, homes, churches, shops and, perhaps most notably, a retro cinema.
If the deserted areas of Famagusta intrigued you, you’ll love this next bit. Athough it seems odd to be calling it a tourist attraction, the ghost town of Varosha was definitely one of the most impactful things we saw on our holiday.
Although the area is fenced off and tightly restricted by Turkish military, you can see the bombed out shells of hotels, left from the Turkish invasion, from Palm Beach.
Just 16km north of Famagusta is the ancient city of Salamis, excavated in the 19th century and open to the public.
The excavations at Salamis reveal a long standing city that dates back as early as 1075 BC. Legend has it that it was founded by Teucer, who could not return home after the Trojan war because he had failed to avenge his brother Ajax.
Salamis was an important trading centre throughout ancient history, first under the Persian Empire, then Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine, before a series of natural disasters and pirate raids finished it off.
Excavations on the site started in the 19th century and continued through to the 1970s, when they were interrupted by the Turkish invasion.
The site includes a massive gymnasium, surrounded by columns an used as an exercise ground, as well as swimming pools and baths with cold rooms and saunas.
The other main feature is the amphitheatre, with 50 rows of seats that could have fit 15,000 audience members.
In the time of the Romans, the theatre would have been at the centre of town. Rich figures and officials paid to put on shows, which were free to the public, and would include all kinds of genres from romance and comedy to drama and crime (sometimes featuring live executions!).
The curtain would have been kept in the gap between the stage and the standing room, and pulled up at the end of a performance.
North of the amphitheatre is a Roman villa, two basilicas, forum, temple and reservoir, although these are a considerable walk away from the main site and aren’t in as good a condition as the baths and theatre.
St Barnabas Monastery
All the artifacts excavated from Salamis are either in the British Museum or displayed in the Archaeological museum at St Barnabas Monastery. The monastery itself is a gorgeous 18th century church worth driving only 10 minutes up the road to see.
There were a lot more ruins and abandoned buildings in Famagusta than I was expecting. Coupled with the ghost town at Varosha it gave the whole city an echo of past sadness. The excavations at Salamis were really interesting – in fact, Matt and I went visited the British Museum just recently because our visit to Salamis had made us so curious to learn more about ancient Cyprus.