Saint Hilarion Castle, Northern Cyprus

 

Near the lofty summits of the Kyrenia mountain range and overlooking the northern cost of Cyprus, stands the fairy tale castle of Saint Hilarion. Reputed to be the inspiration for Walt Disney's 'Sleeping Beauty', this testament to its builders is one of the world’s best Crusader Castles and is a remarkable place to visit. As long as you have a head for heights and are reasonably fit, the climb to the top will reward you with truly spectacular views. On a clear day, you can easily see the cost of Turkey from here. Unsurprisingly, the castle takes its name from Saint Hilarion, a monk who escaped persecution in Palestine and came to Cyprus, where he lived in a cave in the mountains. In the Byzantine period, a church and monastery was constructed on the site and together with the other main crusader castles of Buffavento and Kantara, the castle at St. Hilarion was originally designed as a watch tower to warn of impending sea-borne invasions. The earliest written records detailing the castle date to the 12th century and although it remained important, it fell into use as effectively a holiday home for the Lusignans. Like many other of Cyprus’ historical treasures, subsequent rulers of the island at times adapted St. Hilarion to meet their own needs. Saint Hilarion was an abbot who studied at Alexandria, where he became a convert to Christianity. He is said to have visited St. Antony, but returned to Palestine to find his parents dead. He gave all his belongings to his brothers and to the poor and became a hermit at Majuma. His regime was monastic in the extreme. He lived on figs, bread, vegetables and oil and slept in a shelter made from reeds. Disciples came to learn from him and large crowds were attracted by his austerities and miracles. Eventually settling in Cyprus, he lived near Paphos, but later retired to a more remote site. St. Hilarion died at the age of eighty.

 

Saint Hilarion Castle, Northern CyprusThere are three main sections to the building as it stands today. The main entrance and its defences were strengthened in the 11th century and the part of the castle below this was used to house troops. The central section became royal quarters, with kitchens, a church and a substantial cistern to store water. At the top of the castle there is a gate which dates to the Lusignan period and a courtyard. The views from what is now known as the ‘Queen’s window’ are truly spectacular. When Cyprus fell to Venetian rule in the 15th century, Kyrenia and Famagusta were the primary points of defence and St. Hilarion was all but abandoned. As a result, much of the castle today retains its original Byzantine features, though many alterations date from the Lusignan period. Within the main entrance stands the an inner gate-house, now used as the custodian's office. The lower ward, where troops and animals were quartered, is the largest section, but there are no buildings of any real significance. A long Byzantine wall encircles the ward and rises up to join with the defences on the summit. It has seven semi-circular towers, in one of which quarters have been provided for the present day custodian. From the custodian's tower to the next one to the west, the parapet walk along the battlements has been restored and the large water cistern built against it is in present-day use. Close to the south-west corner of the lower ward, the path passes the original stables, a vaulted Frankish building with an entrance of sufficient height for a knight on horseback to pass through. In the nearby corner tower, two of the wooden floors have been restored to show its original three-storey use, with a store room at the lowest level. The middle ward is reached through a further massive Byzantine gate house, inside which the subsequent Lusignans built a vaulted passage in cut stone. The arches on the east side here were rebuilt in the 1950s to provide support and prevent the collapse of the vaulted roof. A covered entrance to the west and an annexe to the north are also of Byzantine origin.

 

The church and its annexes are far more substantial than would be normal  for castle chapel, which is due to the first substantial structure on the site having been a monastery. The existence of this  ready-made accommodation partly explains the choice of this site for a castle, which in some ways is not ideal. The church is not a particularly good example of its type, which can be found in other places in Cyprus. It is a comparatively early building, probably dating to around 970AD. Traces of two paintings survive on the south wall, one in a 12th century style and probably resulting from restoration of the church after the Byzantines had converted the site into a castle. The buildings to the south of the church are mostly in ruins. North of the church, steps lead down to a vaulted passage of Frankish construction separating it from the hall. This was rebuilt in the 14th century, but is missing both its roof and the floor that separated it from cellar underneath.  Earlier masonry incorporated in the end walls suggests that a similar hall existed in the Byzantine building and this hall may date even earlier, possibly having been in use as the refectory for the monastery. The same passage leads into the 'belvedere', a vaulted space providing fine views through its open archways. This and the similarly vaulted kitchen block to the east of the hall, date from the Lusignan period. Between the hall and the kitchen, is what was probably a buttery, of more basic construction. From the kitchen, there are two alternative pathways. If you do not have much time, go down the wooden steps leading to the terrace outside the hall’s cellar. From here you can follow the main path to the top of the castle. For the longer route, go back to the Belvedere and follow the stone steps and subsequent passage. These lead down under the kitchen and into the buildings occupying the eastern end of the ward. A building of apparent importance, it is assumed to have been used as the royal apartments before the larger quarters were built in the upper ward. Work at some stage includes the addition of a tiled roof, and the east gable can be seen. The modern steps at the eastern end of this building lead up to a terrace, presenting views over Northern Cyprus and the Mediterranean beyond. Going down to the basement level, you come to a row of very substantial, vaulted chambers. These date from the 14th century and were likely to have been used as barracks. In a small yard to the east there are the remnants of a kiln, probably used for making roof tiles. From here, go up the long flight of stone steps. Passing the remains of buildings on top of the barracks, you join the path to the top of the castle. At this exit from the middle ward there would have once been a gate. Outside there in an enormous open tank, which was used to store winter rain for building and other requirements in the summer. The tank is at the bottom of the gully, along which a zigzag path rises to the upper ward. The entrance is a Frankish arch, built in an earlier Byzantine wall and overseen by a tower similar to the ones in the lower ward. The courtyard inside is flanked by the twin crests of the Kyrenia mountain range summit. At the east side are Frankish buildings, including a kitchen with the remains of an oven.

 

Saint Hilarion Castle, Northern CyprusOn the west side, the courtyard is closed by the royal apartments, dating to the 14th century Lusignan occupation. A passage leads down to a postern and a cistern at the basement level. The upper level can be reached from a restored staircase at the south end of the ground floor, which would originally have been divided by partitions. The upper chambers could also have been accessed from an external gallery along the inner wall. At the south end, the ‘queen’s window’ is found, together with its side seats. At the other end, a passage leads to a large closet. Going down the staircase from the gallery, you pass the ruins of a few minor buildings and water cisterns. From the courtyard here, a short climb upwards takes you to the top ramparts. Some 730 metres above sea level, the views here are truly spectacular and well worth the effort of the journey. The ramparts and square towers are Frankish, and replaced an earlier Byzantine wall and round towers, traces of one of which are visible under the present western tower. After going back down the route, it is possible to visit Prince John’s Tower, by keeping to the right of the path. Of 14th century construction and with sheer drops on three sides, this is believed to be the ‘Donjon tower’, where prisoners, including the Prince of Antioch were thrown from the tower. Going back down through the castle, you can miss out most of the middle ward by going through a passage and tunnel, which survives from the original Byzantine monastery. From the passage, you can access the isolated Castellan's Quarters, which are of Frankish construction and include a vaulted cellar and a main chamber above, renovated in the 20th century. Returning to the Custodian's Tower, if you have spare time, you can explore the eastern section of the lower ward, where the outer wall crosses a steep slope joinined to the cliff on top of which the middle ward was built. There was a postern here and water cisterns were built against the wall. High on the slope, below the church, you can see the ruins of a Byzantine bath building.

 

Saint Hilarion Castle is a short drive from Kyrenia on the road to Nicosia and is easily accessible from any of the hotels in the Kyrenia region. Access to the castle by car is straightforward (though the road is quite winding!) and there is a good-sized car park at the base of the castle with a small cafe. As part of your Northern Cyprus holiday, this is a fascinating historical site and well worth a visit. You can, of course, visit on your own, but we also arrange guided tours to the castle. It does involve quite a climb, so you need to be reasonably fit. Wear stout shoes and allow plenty of time. Especially in the summer months, take plenty of water with you.