The charming city of GAZIMAĞUSA (Famagusta), is second only to Girne in the north’s tourism league table. Like Girne it boasts an atmospheric old town surrounded by crumbling Venetian walls, a legacy of its strategic position facing the Middle East. Its shops, restaurants and cafés are threaded through and between the photogenic remains of churches destroyed or damaged during the Ottoman siege of 1570–71. Immediately to the south lies the ghost town of Varosha, once the heart of Famagusta’s tourist trade, now isolated by the Turkish invasion of 1974. To the north lie a clutch of historically important sites – ancient Enkomi/Alasia, the monastery of Apostolos Varnavas, the Royal Tombs, and above all ancient Salamis – and the miles of beaches that line Gazimağusa Bay.
Confusingly, Gazimağusa is known by a host of different names. The city was renamed Gazimağusa (sometimes shortened to Mağusa) by the Turks in 1974, having been known as Famagusta, from French (Famagouste) and Italian (Famagosta), since Lusignan/Venetian times. In Greek it is known as Ammochostos. If that wasn’t puzzling enough the name Famagusta/Ammochostos is also used by the republic for the district across the Green Line to the east, of which the city is the notional capital.
The current site of Gazimağusa was established during the Byzantine era by refugees from Salamis, after that city was destroyed by Arab raids. The new city reached its zenith under the Lusignans, especially after the Fall of Acre to the Saracens in 1291 AD brought an influx of Christian merchants and craftsmen. When the pope banned direct economic ties with the infidel, Gazimağusa became a major entrepôt for the whole of the Middle East, famous for its wealth and as a melting pot of different cultures and beliefs – hence the huge variety and number of churches (one, it was said, for every day of the year). It went into something of a decline from the late fourteenth century onwards, but was fortified under the Venetians as they tried to meet the growing threat from Ottoman expansion. As at Girne and Lefkosia, this did them little good – the city fell in 1571 after a nine-month siege, thus completing the Ottoman conquest of the island. It is said that 100,000 cannonballs crashed into the city during the siege and, since no attempt was made by the Ottomans to repair the damage, the remains still stand today. Three years after the siege, Greek residents were expelled from within the walls. Many of them resettled just to the south, creating what later became Varosha. During the 1960s and early 1970s, Varosha and its beaches were at the heart of massive tourist development, only to be frozen in time by the Turkish invasion.