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Home > Going Out > Historical Places > Kyrenia > St. Hilarion Castle

St. Hilarion Castle

Best preserved out of the trio castles in the Kyrenia Mountain range, St Hilarion is located west of the main Kyrenia-Nicosia highway. As a westernmost fortress, it was established by Byzantines and Crusaders.

The legend of St Hilarion

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Although not adequately proved, the castle happened to be called after the saint of the name. St Hilarion, a hermit that was little known and a monk fled persecution from Palestine during the 7 th century to dwell and die up in the castle. According to legend he was extremely deaf and resistible to the cries of pagan demons that had been hiding and wandering about in the mountain peak. After luckless attempt to make him go, they disappeared. During the 10 th century a Byzantine chapel, monastery and later a fort grew around his tomb.

It is documented that the Byzantine fort was called Didymos , the Greek name for the twin peaks overhead. The Lusignans modified this to Dieu d'Amour , probably confusing a mixture of legends and believing that this was the castle of Aphrodite .

With walls and towers that appear to sprout out of the rocks almost randomly, it is a fairly-tale sight living up to Rose Macaulay's much-quoted description "a picture-book castle for elf-kings" and the rumour that Walt Disney used it as a model for the castle in Snow White and Seven Dwarfs. According to the legend that was spread locally St Hilarion housed 101 rooms, of which 100 could easily be found; but the last, an enchanted garden with a magnificent treasure belonged to an elusive "queen" of Cypriot folklore, most probably a holdover of Aphrodite worship.

How to get there

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If driving from Kyrenia to Nicosia (Lefkosia), take the main road that climbs through the Kyrenia mountain range. The dual carriageway leading off the roundabout will pass the silhouette of Atatürk high on the right. At the top of climb through the mountains, about 50 yards (45 m) before the mountain pass turn right at the sign saying St Hilarion Castle. After turning right follow the direction as signed by the army. This is a controlled road and stopping and taking photographs are signed as forbidden. Drive carefully as the road here is narrow and twisty. On the right you will pass the Turkish military camp and the route continues to wind up. You can view Kyrenia harbour to the right and the route reaches its highest point with the vista towards the twin peaks of Didymos ahead. The road continues to the base of the castle walls where a car park is located with a small snack bar.

Practical info

During hot summer days come early or later in the day if you can, as climbing to the top of 730 m can be tiring and quite difficult. Make sure you wear stout shoes because of the uneven ground. For climbing St Hilarion a walking stick, camera, binoculars and a bottle of water are recommended accessories. When taking children be aware of many long drops everywhere. Finally after scaling the castle you can enjoy refreshment at the café by the car park.

Tel.: 0533 161 276

Opening hours:

Summer 9.00 - 18.00, last entry: 17.00

Winter 9.00 - 16.30, last entry: 15.30

Admission: app. YTL 5.00

History of the castle

Byzantine rule

The mountain lookouts were built early in the 7 th century to resist against Arab raiders, similarly like Buffavento and Kantara Castle . The first proofs to the castle date back to 1191. St Hilarion was one of the last taken by the Crusaders at that time. During Byzantine era were built major fortifications.

Frankish period

Under the rule of Lusignans, St Hilarion became a conflict of interests of a four-year struggle between Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II and Regent John d' Ibelin for control of the island, ended in victory of John's army at the battle of nearby Ag ídra (at present A girdag ) in 1232. During the following 140 years of peace, there were added royal apartments for the knights as well as the cisterns to collect water and chapels for worship. The castle served both as a summer palace for the knights practicing their martial skills on the jousting grounds, and too a refuge from the plague during 1349-1350.

Genoese

When the Genoese invaded in 1373, the castle again acquired military significance as the retreat of under-age King Peter II. His uncle and regent John of Antioch was misled by his evil scheming sister-in-law Eleanor of Aragon. After she persuaded him that his bodyguards of Bulgaria were treasonous, prince had them thrown one by one from tower now known as Prince John's tower.

Venetians

After the Venetians took over the island in 1489 they dismantled the castle considering it worthless in warfare as it would not have withstood the power of cannon. They left the castle crumbling, unwanted and uninhabited.

Turkish Cypriots military army

In 1964 the beleaguered Turkish Cypriots found the castle useful, it served as headquarters of their main enclave which included several Turkish communities on the main Kyrenia-Nicosia road. With a small garrison, teenage TMT (Turk M üdafaa Teskilati) activists were able to take control of the castle and successfully face attacks by EOKA. Passage on the traditional main highway prohibited Greek vehicles, and possible only in slow, UN-escorted convoy. The central government was then forced to build a bypass via Be sparmak (Pentadactylos). On early July 20, 1974 St Hilarion and its surrounding enclave were a primary landing goal of Turkish paratroop.

Castle tour

Built in three separate parts each of them self-contained, the castle was inhabited by community of servants, knights, nobles and royalty bound to the selected parts. The three parts of the castle blend into the rocky landscape upon which it has been grafted.

Lower ward

Visitors enter by the barbican and the main gate beyond the ticket booth into the lower ward, which served formerly as the main garrison and stabling area . One can notice that the wood-and-plaster work has traces of the 1995 bush fire in Kyrenia . On main entrance there are some fine carvings. Outer bailey wall has battlements linked by six semi-circular towers and a walkway for the guards between each tower. The lower ward was once used for armoury and stores. After entering the main gate the path climbs to the left and follows a course along the line of the southernmost battlements. Underground on the left there is a large cistern , and another one is situated as the pathway turns to the right, together with stable block.

Middle ward

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A meandering path leads visitors up to the second ward. On the right are two flights of steps, the first will take you to the floor above the entrance gate and provides a good vantage point over the lower ward. With the second staircase you reach the Byzantine church which is an earliest structure in the castle. After the restoration, the frescoes remains on the walls are still dimly visible. On the outer wall at the western end, the French additional masonry has been broken away and through the gaps one can see the colours of some late Byzantine wall paintings. The chapel was used for Catholic worship by the French and it has several small rooms leading off it: sacristy, confessional and private chapel. Middle ward also include the monastic refectory , later a royal banqueting hall. At the eastern end of the passage there is the vaulted belvedere , the place where ladies would sit and watch the knights on the jousting ground performing their martial art below. Doorways lead off into small chambers, and staircase lead round the walls of the apartments, at present they are largely roofless. There are a couple of latrine rooms on this route. Following the steps higher, one can admire a spectacular view over the Kyrenia coast. After descending the stairs there are situated storerooms and barracks on the right. When you take a few steps the path continues upward to an enormous cistern for the storage of vital water that was built partly into the face of the mountain and on the eastern side is supported by massive buttresses.

Upper ward

The route to the upper ward is long and winding. Just before reaching the entrance arched gate to the topmost section of the castle, there is a junction. If you go left there is Prince John's tower that is worth visiting. According to the legend, Prince John of Antioch was given the remark by Queen Eleanor that Bulgarian guards were planning to kill him. John, blindly persuaded about the treason had them thrown over the steep cliff to their death, the tower bearing his name. The main entrance is guarded by a strong gate and around the courtyard are more royal apartments , kitchens and ancillary chambers. Returning to level ground the path passes a fenced-in aqueduct and cistern full of mud-puddle and leads into only relatively intact buildings that comprised the royal apartments on this level. These are the remains of the Great Hall , above is the boudoir of the plotting Queen Eleanor. The panoramic view through the Queen's window, carved in the Gothic style, is splendid indeed. If by this time you have any breath left, it is relaxing just to sit and gaze out over the countryside towards the mountain village of Karaman and the coastline of Kyrenia which is 730m lower in elevation. If the day is clear you can spot the Taurus Mountains in Turkey , more than 70km away.

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