Much of the history of the town is obscure as there are no written records and our only source of material is from travellers' accounts of merchants passing through. Some historians declare that it was founded by King Ptolemy Philadelphus of Egypt in 285 B.C. It is believed that the city occupies the site of ancient town of Arsinoe. Famagusta prospered through the destruction of the neighbouring Salamis, the former capital of the island. By the year 1300 A.D. the town was one of the principal markets of the Eastern Mediterranean, the rendezvous place of rich merchants and the headquarters of many Christian religious orders as revealed by numerous churches of various denominations still to be seen in the town today. This was the time of the Crusades and when the rich Lusignan dynasty ruled Cyprus.
Lusignans fortified the town, and in the thirteenth century built the beautiful Cathedral of St. Nicholas, transformed since then into a mosque. Famagusta was the seat of a Latin diocese from the twelfth century and had residential bishops till the end of the sixteenth. The city is protected by ramparts which encircle the town and the citadel castle guarding the harbour, the best in Cyprus.
This citadel or Othello's tower is the first main focus of attention for visitors.
The period 1300 to 1400 is known as the golden age of Famagusta and was regarded as such by visiting merchants, who brought western Europe the tales of fabulous wealth in the various places. After 1400, rival factions of Genoese and Venetian merchants settled there. The Genoese caused much strife until finally the Venetians took command of all Cyprus and transferred the capital from Nicosia to Famagusta in 1489. The Venetians were in command for 82 years and it was from Famagusta that the whole island was governed.
The invention of gun powder and the use of cannon made it necessary for the Venetians to remodel the entire defences for the use of artillery, the new type of warfare. The mediaeval square towers were replaced with round ones and all along the walls and citadels numerous cannon portholes were inserted. The Ottoman armada arrived outside the town in 1570 and put it under siege for a year. In 1571 not only Famagusta, but all Cyprus was under Ottoman Turkish rule and remained so until 1878.
The end of the British colonial rule in 1960 led to the intensification of inter-communal strife between Greek-Cypriots and Turkish-Cypriots which concluded in 1974 with the Turkish-Cypriot rule in North Cyprus. The new town of Famagusta (also known as Marash or Varosha) lies just to the south of the walled old-city of Famagusta. Today, Famagusta is a bustling university city where Cyprus' oldest and the biggest university Eastern Mediterranean University is located.