Famagusta (Mağusa), North Cyprus - cypnet.co.uk


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It was after the loss of Acre in 1291 that the city of Famagusta rose to great importance because it was the obligatory entrepot for all commercial transactions between west and east. In 1300 almost all the churches, and the fortifications as well, were still in the process of construction. They show the influence of Provence and Champagne and thus corroborate the documentary evidence for close connections between Cyprus and the fair of Champagne and of southern France.

The wealth of Famagusta was proverbial between 1300 and 1370. John of Verona speaks of it in 1335 and describes the lavish pomp of local ceremonies, such as a funeral with mourners and a wedding procession in which "the bride rode on horseback surrounded by forty candles". In 1350 Ludolf of Sudheim was astonished by another bride "whose ornaments were richer than those of all the brides of France put together". Both these pilgrims comment on, and are scandalised by, the wealth and display of the courtesans of Famagusta.

But the outstanding example of riches ostentatiously flaunted was afforded by the Lachas brothers, Nestorian merchants from Syria. When they entertained King Pierre I in their palace the two brothers went to ridiculous lengths to display that parvenu splendour with which the rich merchants of Famagusta used to dazzle all the travellers who came there. Precious stones were laid out on plates, the gentlemen of the royal court showing no scruples about picking up a few keepsakes; huge armfuls of aloe-wood blazed in all the fireplaces; even the kitchen stove was filled with the same aromatic firewood, which must have given a wonderful taste to the food. On another occasion one of the Lachas paid a huge sum for a carbuncle which he proceeded to grind down in a mortar; once he presented the King with 30,000 ducats. In the end they were ruined when the Genoese sacked Famagusta in 1373 and took from them everything they had, amounting to two million ducats.

Among the merchants of Famagusta at that time there were Greeks, Syrians, Jews, Italians, Provenals and Armenians. The Syrians were predominant, and after them the Genoese. "But since the death of King Pierre I in 1369" says Machaeras "a malignant devil has become jealous of Famagusta". In 1372 this devil chose as his instrument St. Bridget of Sweden who decided that it was her duty to come to Cyprus to give good advice to the royal family and to preach to the people of Famagusta in the main square.

In 1373 the Genoese took the city by surprise and by treachery and sacked it thoroughly, committing the most abominable cruelties. The children of the Lachas brothers were reduced to poverty. Famagusta remained in Genoese hands until 1464, in spite of numerous attempts to recapture it by the kings of Cyprus. Under Genoa the city declined. Nicholas of Martoni in 1395 and Don Peter Tafur in 1435-1439 speak of the depths to which it had fallen.

Jacques II (also known as 'James the Bastard'), who had reconquered it, liked to live there and was able to restore its prosperity to some extent. Queen Caterina Cornaro was forced to live in Famagusta by the Venetians but after her son Jacques III died there she left it for Nicosia.

The Venetians made great efforts to restore it and to put it in a state of defence. In 1507 the pilgrim Pierre Mesenge, a canon of Rouen, says that Famagusta "has a fine harbour, but for as much as the said harbour has long been in ruins, and is still not well restored, ships cannot use it". He adds that this "beautiful city" is "very poor, and but few merchants live there; it is almost all inhabited by poor farm-labourers whom the above-mentioned soldiers (a thousand men in garrison) hold in great subjection"; the churches are "very poor and ill-appointed"; pilgrims seem to have found no hostelry there but lodged with "one of the soldiers of the city, a native of Orleans". Mesenge refers to the massive rebuilding carried out by the Venetians but, apart from the unhealthiness of the place, the works were hindered by storms and earthquakes in 1546 and 1568. After the Venetian occupation the monasteries were converted into barracks. In 1490, in response to a petition by the inhabitants, the Doge Barbarigo ordered these buildings to be repaired and the churches evacuated.

In 1570-1571 Famagusta was the last stronghold in Cyprus that held out against the Ottoman Turks. It resisted a siege of thirteen months, and a terrible bombardment, until at last the commander, Marco Antonio Bragadino was flayed alive and his lieutenant, Tiepolo, was hanged.

In the 17th century Famagusta was practically deserted. The Turks used to sell the materials of the houses; when one of the Pashas forbade them to sell the stones they satisfied themselves with carrying off the timbers until the time when the construction of Port Said, Larnaca and the Suez canal brought a new demand for materials from the quarry that Famagusta had become.

During the Ottoman period Christians were not permitted to live in Famagusta; they were only allowed to enter it on foot, and even so it was difficult to get permission. The British regime has cancelled this prohibition; I owe a personal debt of gratitude for the valuable and effective protection of the British authorities.

From whichever direction one approaches it, Famagusta can be seen from a long way off. The graceful outlines of its towers, either silhouetted against the sea or reflected in it as they rise from behind the still intact circuit of the walls, give the impression of a completely European city, still flourishing.


  • Adapted from: "L'art gothique et la Renaissance a Chypre", by Camille Enlart, Paris, 1899, pp.251-255.

    * The above article is quoted from Cyprus Today, Vol. 4, No. 2, February 1996.

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