Cepheus from Arcadia is believed to be the founder of the town of Kyrenia. A military leader, he arrived at the north coast of the island bringing with him many settlers from various towns in Achaea. One such town, located near present-day Aigio in the Peloponnese, was also called Kyrenia.
From its early days of settlement, Kyrenia's commerce and maritime trade benefited enormously from its proximity to the Asia Minor coast. Boats set sail from the Aegean islands, travelled along the Asia Minor coast, and then crossed over the short distance to the northern shores of Cyprus to reach the two city kingdoms of Lapithos and Kyrenia. This lively maritime activity (late 4th or early 3rd century BC) is evident in an ancient shipwreck discovered by Andreas Kariolou in 1965, just outside Kyrenia harbour. The vessel's route along Samos, Kos, Rhodes, the Asia Minor coastline and then Kyrenia, demonstrates the town's close maritime relations with other city kingdoms in the eastern Mediterranean.
During the succession struggle between Ptolemy and Antigonus that followed Alexander the Great's death in 323 BC, Kyrenia was subdued under the rule of the kingdom of Lapithos that allied itself with Antigonus. Once the Ptolemies were successful in dominating the whole island, all city kingdoms were abolished. Kyrenia however, because of its maritime trade, continued to prosper. In the 2nd century BC, it is cited as one of six Cypriot towns which were benefactors to the Oracle at Delphi, that is, it received its special representatives who collected contributions and gifts. The town's prosperity at this time is also evident from its two temples, one dedicated to Apollo and the other to Aphrodite, and from the rich archeological finds dating from the Hellenistic period excavated within the present-day town limits.
The Romans succeeded the Ptolemies as rulers of Cyprus and during this time Lapithos became the administrative centre of the district. The numerous tombs excavated and the rich archeological finds dating from this period indicate however, that Kyrenia continued to be a populous and prosperous town. An inscription found at the base of a limestone statue dating from 13-37 AD, refers to ‘Kyrenians Demos' that is, the town's inhabitants. Here as everywhere else, the Romans left their mark by constructing a castle with a seawall in front of it so that boats and ships could anchor in safety.
Christianity found fertile ground in the area. The first Christian martyrs used the old quarries of Chrysokava, just east of Kyrenia castle, as catacombs and cut-rock cemeteries which are considered among the island's most important specimens of this period. Later, some of these caves were converted into churches and feature beautiful iconography, the most representative of which is that found at ‘Ayia Mavri.' From these early days, the town of Kyrenia was an episcopal see. One of its first bishops, Theodotus, was arrested and tortured between 307-324, under the reign of Licinius. Though the persecution of Christians officially ended in 313, when Constantine I and his co-emperor, Licinius, issued the Edict of Milan which mandated toleration of Christians in the Roman Empire and freedom of worship, Theodotus martyrdom and persecution only ended in 324 and it is this event that the Church annually commemorates on March 2.
King Richard's rule was not welcomed in Cyprus so he sold the island first to the Templars, and then in 1192, to Guy of Lusignan. Under Frankish rule, the villages of the district of Kyrenia became feudal estates and the town became once again the administrative and commercial centre of the area. Its castle was enlarged, a fortification wall and towers were erected around the town and the fortification works extended to the harbour. The Byzantine castles of Saint Hilarion, Bouffavento and Kantara were also fortified. Thus fortified, the four castles constituted a defence system that protected the town from land and sea attacks. Kyrenia castle played a pivotal role in the island's history, the many disputes among the Frankish kings, as well as the conflicts with the Genoese. On numerous occasions, the castle came under siege, but it never capitulated.
In 1489, Cyprus came under Venetian rule and Kyrenia castle was modified and revamp in order to meet the new military threat posed by the use of gunpowder and large cannons. The castle's royal quarters and three of its four thin and elegant Frankish towers were demolished and replaced by thickset circular towers that could better withstand cannon fire. These new towers, however, were not put to the test. In 1571, the castle and the town surrendered to the victorious Ottoman army.
The town revived again when local maritime trade with Asia Minor and the Aegean islands was allowed, through bribes and gifts paid to local Turkish officials, to resume. In 1783, the church of Chrysopolitissa was renovated. Then in 1856, following the Hatt-I-Humayum which introduced social and political reform and greater religious freedom for the various peoples of the Ottoman Empire, the church of Archangel Michael was rebuilt on a rocky mount overlooking the sea. At about this time, many of the Christian inhabitants of the surrounding villages reestablished themselves in the town. Local agriculture and maritime trade, particularly the export of carobs to Asia Minor, allowed the people of Kyrenia to have a comfortable living, and some even to educate their children or pursue other cultural activities.
In 1922, the episcopal see of Kyrenia relocated back to the town after the completion of a new metropolitan building. That same year, the Greco-Turkish war brought to a halt all trade with the opposite coast causing a serious economic depression. To the rescue came a young repatriate from the USA who built the town's first modern hotels, the ‘Seaview' in 1922 and the ‘Dome' in 1932, having a foreign tourist clientele in mind. Kyrenia's mild climate, picturesque harbour, numerous archeological sites, panoramic views that combined sea, mountains and vegetation, coupled with modern amenities, soon attracted many travellers and Kyrenia's economy revived through tourism. After the Second World War, more hotels were built and the town remained a favoured vacation spot for Nicosia residents and foreign travellers alike. To the town's Greek and Turkish inhabitants were added many from Great Britain who chose Kyrenia as their permanent place of residence.
The town's inhabitants, Greek, Turk, Maronite, Armenian, Latin and British peacefully coexisted and cooperated in their daily affairs and the town had grown beyond its two historic neighbourhoods of Kato (Lower) Kyrenia and Pano (Upper) Kyrenia. It expanded towards the mountain slopes to form the new neighbourhood of "California", and eastward it had just about reached the outskirts of Thermia, Karakoumi and Ayios Georgios. On July 20, 1974, Turkey landed on the the island to protect the Turkish minority from attack from the Greek military coup for enosis . The Greek Cypriots of Kyrenia abandoned their homes and headed to south of what is now the green line.
In 1974, there were 47 villages in the district of Kyrenia and the Greek and Maronite Cypriot population constituted 83,12% of the district's total population while the Turkish Cypriots constituted just 15,34% of the total. After the Turkish Intervention.
While the people of Kyrenia were expelled from their ancestral homes and were forced to endure the pain and suffering of being refugees in their own country, they have not disappeared. Through their collective efforts, their Municipality and Folklore Society they continue their work from Nicosia. Through special voters' registration and procedures, the people of Kyrenia continue to exercise their separate political and civic rights. The Bishop of Kyrenia continues to oversee to the religious affairs of the community. All traditional holidays, religious and cultural, are celebrated and kept alive by the people of Kyrenia. Through their work, their clubs and societies they vow to never stop fighting for the restoration of their human rights and their eventual return to their homes.