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Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2001

A divided isle's dramatic past

Staff writer

KYRENIA, Cyprus -- The wail of the muezzin drones from the high balcony of the minaret, down through the cobbled streets to the harbor and out across the water to the massive ramparts of the castle.

News photo
St. Hilarion Castle is a remant from the time of the Crusades.

The faithful of the northern Cyprus town of Kyrenia have been called to prayer in this way since time immemorial, but the bored-looking waiters don't even register the sounds as they try to attract the few visitors there are to the cafes and bars that line the harbor.

Late autumn is usually a fairly busy time for this Mediterranean island's all-important holiday industry, but this year travelers are staying away from destinations that are -- or are perceived to be -- dangerous following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

News photo
Kyrenia Castle overlooks the town's harbor.

And though that is, of course, very bad news for those whose living is tied to tourism in northern Cyprus, it means plenty of space around the hotel pool, spare seats on flights, operators competing on prices and elbow room at the casino tables.

And the visitor is hardly "braving" a Muslim country: The people in the markets, corner stores and restaurants are as friendly here as in any country I have ever visited.

The only blot on the horizon is not the "war against terrorism"; it is the decades-old division of this spectacular island into Greek-controlled southern Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of northern Cyprus, recognized solely by Ankara.

Ask a resident of the northern part of the island why Turkish forces invaded in 1974, and the answer you'll get is very different from that of a southerner. Whatever the reason, the frontier today is a mess of barbed wire, lookout towers and patrolling U.N. troops in blue berets.

However, while the south has embraced mass tourism and the beachfront strips of fast-food joints, neon-lit bars and unremarkable hotels, the ostracizing of the north -- to the extent that Greece still refuses entry to people with visas from northern Cyprus in their passports -- means it is still largely unblighted by development.

Sitting strategically at the crossroads of Europe, Africa and the Middle East, the island was given to Cleopatra by Julius Caesar as a token of his love. Subsequent "owners" included the Byzantines, Myceans, Venetians, Lusignans, Genoese and Crusaders -- including John of Antioch (brother of King Peter I of Cyprus) -- en route for the Holy Land. They all left their mark.

Along the jagged peaks of the Kyrenia hills, which rise out of the dusty coastal plain, are a handful of castles laboriously constructed by the Byzantines and enlarged by the Crusaders to act as an early-warning lookout system for Arab pirate raids on the coast.

The most westerly of these redoubts, and the best preserved, is St. Hilarion Castle. Reputedly the model for the castle in the Disney movie "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," the towers and walls of St. Hilarion seem to grow from living rock.

Approached by a road with an alarming drop on one side, the castle's position was chosen for its defensibility. Indeed, it took the forces of John d'Ibelin (of the Lusignan dynasty that controlled the island of Cyprus from the end of the 12th century) four years to overcome those of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in 1232.

The lower precinct is today covered in long grass and juniper trees, with the remains of walls and entire buildings poking through the sun-bleached vegetation. The great hall, beyond the gatehouse of the middle precinct, has been reconstructed in the shadow of a Byzantine church and a belvedere that looks down on Kyrenia, nearly 700 meters below.

The very peak of the mountain and the highest fortifications are farther up a switchback path. Among the uppermost defenses is a structure known as Prince John's Tower due to its grisly past: Deceived by his scheming and hostile sister-in-law, Eleanor of Argent, John of Antioch had his Bulgarian mercenary bodyguards hurled from the tower onto the rock-strewn mountainside 100 meters below. She had claimed they were plotting to turn on him. It was, of course, a lie.

From this aerie, the views eastward along the mountains toward Buffavento Castle and out to sea are spectacular.

Lower down the slope and to the east of Kyrenia are the narrow roads of Bellapais -- and the most impressive Gothic monument in the north of the island.

Bellapais Abbey, which dates from 1324, nestles in the peaceful village that was once home to author Lawrence Durrell -- and dominates it entirely when the sun goes down and the abbey's walls and towers are illuminated. At night, the soft shades of the pockmarked stonework and the palm leaves attract large bats from kilometers around, while strains from the occasional classical concert the abbey stages carry on the breeze to nearby taverns and open-air restaurants.

A few kilometers to the east, where the hilly hinterland meets the coast, are secluded coves and bays where rare turtles still come to nest. In September, the peak egg-laying season, these prehistoric-looking behemoths drag their ungainly shells to the beach by night, apparently oblivious to the occasional human onlooker.

Its location made Cyprus a key trading post as well as a position of vital strategic importance, and one of its most famous links to a proud seafaring past lies within the massive walls of Kyrenia Castle.

Although now tattered and holed, the star attraction of the Shipwreck Museum, with its graceful 12-meter curve of wooden ribs and staves, is recognizable for what it once was: a trading galley that crisscrossed the eastern Mediterranean about 2,300 years ago, making it the oldest recovered shipwreck in the world.

From its cargo, archaeologists have determined the galley's final journey, a route that included calls at Rhodes, Paros, Samos and Kos before it sank less than 2 km from the anchorage of Kyrenia.

Discovered in 1967 by a sponge diver, the vessel was protected by layers of sand and silt some 30 meters down. The underwater site can still be visited by divers.

Outside the walls of the castle, where trading ships once tied up to bustling stone wharves, the crews of tourist boats offering coastal tours, diving and deep-sea fishing charters are desultorily attempting to drum up trade, but to little avail.

Visit now and you are likely to get the full local treatment, with attention to detail that would have impressed Cleopatra herself.

Turkish Airlines flies to Ercan Airport in northern Cyprus from Osaka and Narita airports twice a week, on Sunday and Tuesday. The 9,800-km flight from Tokyo, with a change at Istanbul, takes approximately 12 hours and costs 99,000 yen return between mid-November and Dec. 20.

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