The construction phases of the monument are four: (the mid-Byzantine, the late-Byzantine, the Ottoman, and the modern period), making the Castle an indisputable witness of the city’s history from the Byzantine era until today.
Castle of Arta
The Castle of Arta is an indisputable witness of the historical identity of the city, which was inhabited and flourished from ancient to medieval times. Massive and imposing dominates the modern urban fabric of Arta, as it is built on a hill, near the river Arachthos, visible almost entirely from all sides. The area it occupies, as well as its architectural form, indicates the prestige of the capital of the “Despotate of Epirus” and the strategic role of Arta in the medieval history of the city and the wider region. The construction of the Castle on the northeastern side of Arta was not chosen at random, as its northern and eastern sides were forts, protected by the river Arachthos. On these sides of the Byzantine walls there are integrated parts of the fortification of ancient Ambracia, proving that the inhabitants of the ancient city have realized the strategic importance of the place, erecting in the same area the walls of Ambracia.
The Castle rises on the northeast side of the modern city of Arta, the urban fabric of which surrounds the monument on all sides, except the east. The route of the north and east sides of the Castle follows the older direction of the river Arachthos, part which was embanked in order to build the Ring Road. The Castle has a trapezoidal shape and an area of about nine hectares and in some places reaches a height of 11m. It is reinforced by nineteen towers (rectangular, semicircular, polygonal and triangular false towers). An inner perimeter, which runs the entire length of the Castle, secured the interior communication of the defenders. The main gate is located on the south side, while there is a second gate, of smaller dimensions, on the north side of the walls. A large part of the Castle was protected externally by a rampart, from which large parts are preserved in better condition on the northwest, but also on the east side of the walls. Inside the monument, there used to be several buildings from which few traces survive.
Today in the center of the Castle are the hotel Xenia, the remains of a Byzantine building and the newest Chapel of All Saints. A special place is occupied by an inner citadel, the last refuge of the defenders, in case of siege.
The Castle has completely undergone several alterations and additions dating from Byzantine to modern times. Among them is the tree planting that has given the inside of the fort a different character. On the east, as well as on the north side of the walls, there are integrated parts of the ancient fortification of Ambracia. Although it is difficult to distinguish the construction phases of the Castle, especially of the Byzantine period, however, an attempt was made to separate these phases based on the general characteristics of the masonry of the fortification. A special feature that is worth noting is the small area of the Castle, about forty acres, compared to others in the area, such as the Castle of Rogoi and Ioannina.
The space it occupies is limited, especially if we consider that it guarded the city which was the capital of the medieval “State of Epirus”. The Castle of Arta could not protect or accommodate a large population as the buildable space would leave free the necessary military and administrative infrastructure and the temples would be scarce. It is, therefore, possible that the location and the construction of the Castle depended on the existence of an earlier fortification project, which to some extent protected Arta. Resulting in the construction of the fortress complex that survives to this day as the culmination of all the city’s defense infrastructure.
It cannot be ruled out that during the early Byzantine period the remains of the fortification of ancient Ambracia were preserved to a satisfactory degree and could, with some interventions, protect even partially the emerging Arta. Although the above hypothesis is difficult for the time being, in the absence of written sources and excavation data, to be substantiated, it nevertheless gives a satisfactory answer to the question of the small space occupied by Arta Castle, which is inversely proportional to its mission.
Historical Review of Arta & its Castle
Arta and its Castle occupy an important place in medieval sources from the 11th to the 15th century, where there are reports that provide important information. The city develops gradually during the mid-Byzantine period, and from the beginning of the 13th century becomes an important center of the Byzantine world and a field of development, as the capital of the “Despotate of Epirus”, the independent state founded after 1204.
The Castle, built on a low hill, occupies a prominent and strategic position, mainly due to the surrounding floating river Arachthos and the fertile plain, which extends to the west. It attracted the interest of many conquerors and very often turned into a field of fierce clashes and sieges.
Arta is first mentioned in medieval sources in 1082 when the Normans invaded the western territories of the Byzantine Empire. The emperor Alexios I Komnenos hurried to confront the troops of Robert Guiscard, Duke of Puglia and Calabria, led by his son, the infamous Bohemond I of Antioch (also known as Bohemond of Taranto), the later prince of Antioch and Taranto. In 1085 the emperor Alexios I Komnenos freed Epirus from the Norman threat and the area returned to the jurisdiction of the Byzantine Empire.
In the 12th c. Arta is testified as a “visit” that belonged to the “Theme” of Nikopolis. In 1165 the Spanish rabbi Benjamin from Tudela reported that «Two days journey by sea bring you to the coast of Arta, the confines of the empire of Manuel King of Greece, on this coast lies a village with about a hundred Jewish inhabitants, the principal of them are R. Sh’lachiach and R. Hercules ». Τhus, providing indirect information about the total population of the city, but mainly about the existence of a castle in Arta.
Although there is no evidence, we assume that the Castle was built during the mid-Byzantine era, when Arta became the seat of a diocese, which indicates that the city had a large population and stable state structures.
Over the years, many reports and descriptions are made from travelers, researchers, and historians who visited the imposing fortress. Characteristic is the report of Rabbi Benjamin from Tudela, Spain who stated that in 1165 AD, he visited the city of Arta “on this coast lies a village with about hundred Jewish inhabitants inside its castle”. The evidence and studies that followed the coming years were growing and sometimes were contradictory. As to the dating of its construction, recent archaeological excavations documented the Castle’s existence since the mid-Byzantine period. Today, it is believed that the Castle was expanded and upgraded from its pre-existing form to its current, and became extremely fortified by Michael II Komnenos Doukas (1206-1268 AD), who ruled the “Despotate” of Epirus from 1231 to 1268.
In 1449, Arta and its Castle were surrendered into the Ottoman Turks conquerors. During the years 1796-1820, it was fully handed over the rule of Ali Pasha of Ioannina and certain upgrades followed, mainly in ramparts and towers, according to the requirements of the warfare techniques of that time.
In modern era, 1959-1961, the hotel Xenia was erected inside the Castle. Maintenance work on the walls and general rearrangement of the site also took place at that time.
The Castle of Arta, despite the sieges and wars it experienced, was preserved in excellent condition and it has become a masterpiece for the city of Arta. When its usefulness as a military infrastructure was canceled due to the development of weapons systems, the Castle acquired new uses that reached to our days. In 1956, it was designated as a “historical monument” (ΥΑ 90211/4215 / 7-12-1956 – ΦΕΚ 281 / Β / 29-12-1956) and since then, it has become a place that highlights the cultural heritage of the wider region.