A town is a form of reality and value that is experienced socially. It plays a major role in the formation and development of human identity. And as with all other social constructs, the dimensions of towns and the meanings they signify have been in a state of perpetual change throughout history. In this regard, the historical development of Famagusta provides us with a wealth of dimensions and cultural associations.
Founded in 300 B.C on the old settlement of Arsinoe, Famagusta remained a small fishing village for a long period of time. Later, as a result of the gradual evacuation of Salamis, it developed into a small port.
The turning point for Famagusta was 1192 with the onset of Lusignan rule. It was during this period that Famagusta really developed as a fully- fledged town. The town now increased in importance in the Eastern Mediterranean due to its natural harbour, and the walls that protected its inner town. Its population started to increase. This development accelerated in the 13'" century as the town became a centre of commerce for both the East and West. This commercial activity turned Famagusta into a place where merchants and ship owners led lives of luxury. The belief that people's wealth could be measured by the churches they built inspired these merchants to have churches built in varying styles. These churches, which still exist, were the reason Famagusta came to be known as "the district of churches". The development of the town focused on the social lives of the wealthy people and was centred upon the Lusignan palace, the Cathedral, the Square and the harbour.
During the Genoese period, the town was exploited exclusively for military purposes and as a result Western Europe found the sea routes, which had made it possible to have contact with the lively commercial activity of the East, now brought them into contact only with an atmosphere of quiet melancholy. The Lusignan town, its streets running into squares lined with churches and cathedrals, ceased to develop, and losing its sense of time, surrendered itself to silence.
In the Venetian period, the magnificence and glory of Famagusta faded still further as a result of the neglect of the island as a whole. The walls and moats were rebuilt in accordance with prevailing conditions, but as a protected port town with its land and sea gates providing entrance into its inner town, Famagusta remained in essence a military base. Developments in this period focused on the Cathedral of St. Nicholas, the main Square and the Venetian Palace. The town developed on this central axis.
The Venetians tried hard to transform Famagusta into a small Venetian town and did not fail to bring a number of Venetian characteristics to Famagusta. The most important of these was the official symbol of the Venetian Empire - The Winged Lion to be found at the entrances of both the Othello Tower and the sea gate. Of the statues of The Winged Lion and St.Theodoros which once stood on two columns in San Marco Square in Venice, only the bases remain in a corner of the main square in Famagusta. There are even sources that reveal plans to join the moats with the sea and thus turn Famagusta into another Venice.
In the Ottoman period, the palaces and mansions were demolished and the commercial activity of the island shifted to Larnaca. As a result, Famagusta lost its urban and economic significance in the region and became a ghost town with a small population made up of soldiers and exiles.
It may be observed that as a result of forcing the non- Islamic population to inhabit the regions outside the city walls, the town began to develop in the lower and upper Varosha (Maras) districts. Changes in social and cultural life had a major effect on the architectural and physical environment. In order to adjust to the socio- economic and cultural traditions of the new inhabitants, some changes were made to existing buildings. The cathedral was turned into a mosque, and the bazaar and market place were developed. Meanwhile a theological school, baths and fountains were built to fulfill basic daily needs. With the importation of dead end streets from Ottoman culture, the existing organic town structure was enriched and a communal spirit began to assert itself. The few two-storey houses inhabited by the limited number of wealthy people balanced harmoniously with the more common one-storey houses.
In the British period, the port regained significance. The enlargement of the town outside the city walls in the Ottoman period accelerated. In this period, the Turkish population generally settled in the inner town while the Greek population settled in lower and upper Varosha. In tune with their colonial policies, the British set up an administrative base between the Turkish and Greek quarters rather than following the convention of establishing a base in the inner town. As a result, the enlargement of the town was increasingly centred around the Varosha district. Towards the end of the British period, in parallel with Socio-economic developments, and in order to meet the changing needs of the population, new residential districts were built, incorporating new housing, commercial, touristic and recreational areas.
In this period, the town underwent a change reflecting contemporary colonial practices. The influence of British architecture was particularly apparent in the form, the details and the materials used. The British, who believed in getting close to communities under their rule by using local materials and details, employed the same practice in Famagusta.
Under the Republic of Cyprus, the town developed towards the south west of Varosha as a tourist center. Especially in 1969-1970, as a result of Beirut losing its appeal due to the war, Famagusta became one of the world's best-known entertainment and tourist centres. On the one hand there were structures conveying the characteristics of British colonialism, and, on the other hand, buildings reflecting trends in contemporary architecture. These modern buildings were mostly in Varosha. Architecture in Famagusta in this period thus reflects a desire to merge history and modernism in the pursuit of progress. From its origins as a small port in the seventh century, Famagusta in the nineteen seventies had become a town which now displayed the universal trends of the modern architectural movement.
(*) Holiday Times Magazine, November 2000,
Article: Dr.Uğur Ulaş Dağlı, Photographs: Banu Demirci