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Cyprus Through the Years
Since the dawn of recorded history, Cyprus has been one of the most sought-after areas of the region, mainly because of its strategic geographical location, at the crossroads of 3 continents (Europe, Asia and Africa).
Ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Romans, along with Crusaders, Byzantines, Franks and Ottomans, have left a remarkable legacy for the modern visitor to explore.
The Ancient Era
The earliest known settlements of Cyprus are thought to belong to the Neolithic Period, which goes back to 7000-3000BC. Archaeologists have made discoveries linking Cyprus with Asia Minor, Syria and Palestine all over the island, mostly in the regions of Chyrokitia, Petra tou Limniti, Troulli and Kalavassos.
People at the time lived mainly from hunting and fishing, although there is evidence of some primitive forms of agriculture. From about 4800BC rough brown pottery was manufactured and there are traces of religious life featuring the “great mother goddess”.
During the Chalcolithic Period (3000-2300BC) copper became increasingly important. A material that was so abundant that probably gave the island its name and which from the Early Bronze Age onwards (2300-2000BC) was being exported.
Copper’s processing method was rather complicated and Tamassos became the centre of the metal’s production in Cyprus from the Middle Bronze Age (2000-1600BC). Although only tombs remain from this period, it is believed that the island was densely populated and economically flourishing during this era. Although Cyprus was at that time in close contact with the other prosperous civilizations of the region, Mesopotamia and Egypt, it retained its political independence and unique culture right until the end of the Late Bronze Age.
In the Late Bronze Age (1600-1050BC) the island received a great influx of immigrants, initially merchants and craftsmen. By the end of the 13th century BC, Greek Achaenan refugees arrived in Cyprus bringing with them influence of the Mycenaean culture. Their fusion with the local Cypriots resulted in the birth of a culture unique in the Mediterranean: a Near-Eastern-Aegean-Greek culture. Vases depicting chariots, ships, bulls and human figures, as well as, high quality ivory carvings are all the result of this period.
From this time is also the cult of Aphrodite at Pafos, a typical example of the island’s mixed religious culture. The Mycenae-like fortifications at Engomi, Paleokastro and Kition, and traces of the Arcadian-Aeolic languages in Greek-Cypriot names, provide conclusive proof of Achaean influence.
At around 1050BC many settlements were destroyed by earthquakes, and the so-called Dark Age descended on the island – when it became insignificant and impoverished.
When the Phoenicians from Tyre arrived in Cyprus during the Early Iron Age (1050-750BC), they introduced their highly sophisticated Semitic-Syrian culture to the island. By the 10th century BC, Kition had become a full-blown colony, independent from the rest of the country and with its own king. The grandiose “Royal Tombs of Salamis” are testimony of the prosperity during this era.
During the Archaic Period (750-475BC) the island was ruled in turn by Assyrians, Egyptians and Persians. Cyprus then consisted of a series of prosperous city kingdoms at Kourion, Pafos, Marion, Soloi, Lapithos, Tamassos, Salamis, Kition and Amathous.
Classical to Ptolemaic Period
Cyprus’ Classical Age coincides with that of mainland Greece (475–325 BC), and during this period Cypriot art came under strong Attic influence.
Zenon of Kition, the founder of the Stoic philosophy movement, was born during this time in Cyprus.
Cyprus was at that time a highly desirable naval base, as well as, a valuable source of wood for shipbuilding – making it Persia’s most important Mediterranean naval base.
Evagoras, king of Salamis, maintained strong links with the Hellenic mainland and extended Greek influence over most of the island despite Persian domination. However, he was finally overcome by the Persians in 381BC and murdered seven years later. His death effectively ended the Classical Age.
Following his victory at Issus over the last Persian ruler, Darius III, Alexander the Great took control of the city kingdoms of Cyprus. When he died in 323BC, Cyprus was ceded to Ptolemy I and for the next two centuries Cyprus was a province of Ptolemaic Egypt.
During this time, the local dialect was replaced by the common idiom of Hellenistic Greek; the cities were ruled by garrisons under the command of Greek officers and by local Phoenician families. Local Greek Cypriots did not fill any important political posts until the beginning of the 1st century BC.
New towns were founded and cultural organisations were formed. While Egyptian culture and religion influence prevailed, the island produced a number of literary talents who wrote exclusively in Greek.
Roman Times and Christianity
The transfer of control of Cyprus to the Roman Empire in 58BC completed Roman domination of the Mediterranean and left Egypt politically isolated.
The Romans adopted the original strict administrative structure of the Ptolemies. Cyprus was now ruled from Pafos by a proconsul and his officials. While the road network improved, the Roman contingent on the island of only 2000 men was too little to make any changes that would affect the native population.
The fine mosaics at the 3rd century House of Dionysos in Pafos, as well as those at Kourion, are evidence of the subtlety of the cultural transition. Other noteworthy buildings from this era are the colonnaded gymnasium at Salamis and the Sanctuary of Apollon Ylatis.
The decision of the Roman emperor Constantine (247-337AD) to give preference to Christianity over other forms of religion in his Empire, led to far-reaching religious, cultural and political changes across the Mediterranean.
While it is believed that the first Cypriot followers of St Stephen in Jerusalem date back to as early as 40AD, there are few other traces of Christianity on the island before Constantine’s time.
After his conversion, however, there was a swift increase in the number of bishoprics, and the construction of Christian basilicas reached its peak in the 5th and 6th centuries. Two impressive examples are the three-aisled basilica with mosaic decoration at Kourion, and the church complex at Cape Drepanum.
It was in the 5th century that the Church of Cyprus succeeded in becoming independent of other patriarchates, consequently giving the archbishop of Cyprus the great deal of political power that they enjoy right up to the present day.
The Byzantine Period
Cyprus was subject to the Byzantine Empire at Constantinople, being a province that belonged to the Diocese of the Orient and was governed by a consul based in Salamis.
By the 6th century, the island had become an independent administrative unit, and as such it steadily dissolved its political and cultural links with the city of Rome.
Under the tough conditions imposed by the Byzantine Empire, the Orthodox Church evolved with its own dogma and special liturgical and institutional forms. While believers were divided by the lack of papal primate and the marriage of priests, Orthodoxy remained firm and has exercised a strong influence on the people of Cyprus to this day.
Up until the 7th century Cyprus enjoyed 300 years of peace, which were disrupted only by a severe drought at the beginning of the 4th century and the two earthquakes in 332 and 342 that destroyed Pafos and Salamis.
In 649AD Cyprus was victim of the first Arab raids. The next three centuries, up until the recapture of the island by Byzantine emperor Nicephorus II in 965, were among the darkest in the history of the island. Cyprus became almost completely depopulated as many Cypriots were forced to withdraw to remote areas in the mountains while their cities lay in ruins.
The Middle Ages
The period between 965 and 1195, during which the island was once again part of the Byzantine Empire, was one of economic and cultural prosperity for the Cypriot clerical elite who were busy building monasteries and churches while the rest of the population was being heavily taxed.
This is the time when new towns such as Kiti, Lapithos and Episkopi were founded (at a respectful distance from the shore); and some of the most magnificent monasteries were built: Kykkos, Makheras and Agios Neophytos.
With the arrival of the crusaders, the proximity of the Christian kingdom of Little Armenia in Asia Minor and the increasing activity of the Italian seafaring towns, Cyprus found itself back in the Mediterranean map. By 1148 Venice had obtained many trading privileges on the island.
A major power shift occurred in the region almost accidentally. In 1192, Richard Lionheart was sailing to Palestine when one of his ships, the one carrying his bride Berengaria, limped into port near Lemesos. The Byzantine usurper Isaac held the Lady and her entourage as prisoners, something that obviously infuriated Richard.
Reinforcements were requested from Palestine and, following a quick battle, the island saw the end of the reign of the Byzantine Empire on Cyprus.
For Richard Lionheart the island was a bonus, and as such he managed to sell it to the crusading order of the Knights Templar. In 1192, the Greeks and Armenians rebelled against the tyranny of the Knights in what was probably one of the most important uprisings against a foreigner oppressor in the entire history of the island. But the Knights Templar had other worries fighting the Saracens and opted to sell on the island to Guy de Lusignan, the dispossessed king of Jerusalem, thus introducing the 300-year rule of the Lusignan dynasty.
During this time, Greek Cypriots were hardly represented at all in the administration. There was a huge gap between the ruling wealthy Latins and the impoverished Greek Cypriot population; and the conflict between the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches at the time did not help improve the situation.
Also, there was a lot of political intrigue on the island at this time with enough rivalries in the royal household of the Lusignans and among the island’s powerful barons.
Peter II’s coronation in the cathedral in Lefkosia in 1372 turned out to be far from the happy celebration everybody expected when a fleet of Genoese warships arrived, resulting on a 90-year long period of occupation by the Genoese. The fortune of the island declined as a result.
James II became the last Lusignan king (1460–73). He managed to force the Genoese out of Cyprus and married a Venetian noblewoman, Caterina Cornaro. She succeeded her husband and became Queen of Cyprus and the last royal personage of the Lusignan dynasty. She then ceded Cyprus to Venice.
The Venetians ruled Cyprus from 1489 to 1571, with much corruption and inefficiency. The Ottoman Empire was expanding at the time and in anticipation of an attack from the north, the Venetians fortified Lefkosia with huge circular walls and built massive fortifications around Famagusta. But this was not enough to hold back the Ottoman invasion.
It was 1570 when 350 Turkish ships landed at Larnaka and the island fell to the Turks. The Greeks fought fiercely next to their rulers, but their efforts were fruitless.
The battle of Famagusta lasted 10 months. The Turks reportedly lost 80,000 out of 250,000 soldiers, while the defenders were highly outnumbered with less than 10,000 men. But when the gun power finally ran out the white flag of surrender was hoisted.
The violent battles and subsequent emigration resulted in a catastrophic drop in the population. From the 200,000 inhabitants or so recorded in 1570 it reached an all-time low of 95,000 by 1740, even with the Turks that moved to Cyprus at the time. The island was a poverty-stricken province of the Ottoman Empire.
Christians and Moslems live alongside one another, but in separate areas of the cities and villages. Although it was the duty of the Sublime Porte to avoid tyranny and suppression, and to achieve peaceful existence between population groups, the reality was very different. Tyranny, corruption, high taxation and famine were the order of the day.
The power of the Orthodox Church remained untouched as the Sultan recognised the archbishop as the spokesman of the Orthodox population. In no time, the clergy was practically running many of the affairs of the island.
In 1804 the Turks living in Lefkosia rose against their governor who had proved to be a willing tool of the Greek clergy. The Greek population wanted nothing to do with the revolt, but the Ottoman ruler arrested and killed the Orthodox archbishop Kyprianus on charges of an alleged conspiracy.
While many Greeks fled the island, tensions prevailed, mainly because of Turkish resentment over the education and prosperity gap between the Turkish and Greek population.
But it was neither nationalistic nor religious ideas what ended the Ottoman domination on the island. Instead, it was the interest of Great Britain in Cyprus’ strategic location.
British rule on Cyprus began in July 1878 with Sir Garnet Wolseley as High Commissioner. But at this stage, Cyprus had only been leased to Great Britain by the Ottoman Empire in return for help in the war against the Russian czars.
During the British occupation, the centuries-long isolation of Cyprus from Europe came to an end. The British modernised the administration and a new education system was introduced. A Legislative Council was formed for making joint decisions, trade increased, and the first newspaper appeared. All of this affected life in the cities, while the conditions in the villages, where most Cypriots lived, remained unchanged. In fact, Cypriots continued working under heavy taxation, few roads were rebuilt and a lot of the villagers were living on the verge of starvation.
This lack of investment was simply a reflection of British interests: Cyprus was important only from a strategic point of view. From here, traffic to India via Suez could be controlled, and any Russian intervention in the region checked. But once Britain held control of Alexandria, Cyprus’ strategic importance was diminished.
When in 1914 Turkey joined World War I on the side of Germany, Britain assumed absolute sovereignty of Cyprus. This was ratified by Turkey in the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923. By 1925 the island was elevated to the status of a Crown Colony.
But it was not until the 1930s that Cyprus began to see some improvements in its economy, and when Crete fell under German occupation during World War II, Cyprus turned into an important military outpost.
Pre-enosis (union with Greece) riots broke out in 1931, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that there were increased efforts by Greek Cypriots for union with “the motherland” and by the Turkish Cypriots for takism (partition.)
The British started using military force to control the guerrilla struggle without success, the fighting escalated into a full scale civil war between the island’s Turkish and Greek populations.
In 1959, Greek Cypriot Archbishop Makarios III and Turkish Cypriot leader Faisal Küçük met in Zurich with leaders from Greece, Turkey and representatives of the British government. They ratified a plan whereby independence would be granted to Cyprus in return for allowing three British sovereign bases on the island.
Great Britain, Turkey and Greece were named ‘guarantor powers’, giving all three nations the right to intervene in the affairs of Cyprus should it be believed that the terms of the independence agreement were being violated in any way.
British colonial rule in Cyprus ended in August 1960 when the last British governor, Sir Hugh Foot, handed over his official duties to the government of the Republic of Cyprus.
Independence and Conflict
Archbishop Makarios III became the first president of the Republic of Cyprus, with Turkish Cypriot Faisal Küçük as vice-president. Their task was to build a combined republic where the political activity would no longer focus on the separate interests of the Greek and Turkish Cypriots, but on the concept of a unified state for all.
But in practice this was a challenge because the new constitution saw that ministers were elected and recognised by only one of the two ethnic groups; hence they saw themselves as exclusively representing either Greeks or Turks, never both.
Many politicians saw the collective state as a temporary solution. Greek nationalists continued to demand enosis with Greece, while more and more Turks called for takism, or partition of the island.
For three years the tension increased, until Makarios called for a revision of the constitution which the Turkish Cypriots did not support as it would deprive them of the right of veto.
On Christmas of 1963 fighting broke out, police and army were divided into ethnic groups and widespread violence erupted. More than 500 lives were lost during the summer of 1964, until a UN peacekeeping force arrived on the island to stop the bloodshed.
The USA sought a diplomatic solution to the problem, and suggested that the island be divided between Athens and Ankara; but president Makarios rejected this proposal. From then onwards the USA administration saw him as insecure, unreliable, and with links to communism.
The conflict ended any hopes of peaceful coexistence on the island and while the Turkish Cypriots congregated in rural enclaves and urban ghettos, the Greek Cypriots controlled the state.
By 1968 the situation began to relax as the Greek Cypriots desire for enosis faded due to a flourishing economy and the military junta in Athens; but they would not accept the Turkish Cypriots’ proposal for a bi-zone federation, fearing that it would pave the way towards partition.
While things were calmer in Cyprus, the relationship between Nicosia and Athens became bitter. The Greek junta accused Makarios of offering asylum to persecuted democrats and not sticking to press censorship. This was fuelled by the criticism of the Cypriot president in the USA.
On July 15, 1974, the Greek military junta decided to get rid of Makarios and launched an attack on the island’s capital; but the president managed to escape to one of the British bases where he was out of reach. A right-wing radical, Nikos Sampson, was proclaimed president in his place and the coup was announced as an internal affair of the Greek Cypriots.
Five days later, on July 20, the full force of the Turkish army was felt on the island. The troops first occupied the area to the north of Nicosia which was inhabited by many Turkish Cypriots. This time, the USA did nothing to prevent Turkey from carrying out its plans.
Exactly two days later the military junta fell in Greece due to the Cyprus fiasco and democracy was restored in Athens; but the human tragedy in Cyprus had just begun.
In defiance of the UN Security Council resolution, Turkey refused to withdraw its army, and on August 14 the Turkish soldiers marched onwards. Turkish tanks rolled over the island while thousands of Greek Cypriots ran for their lives. Those who stayed behind were taken prisoners. More than 6,000 lives were lost that summer.
By August 16, 1974, the Turks had occupied 37% of the island. As a result, about 165,000 Greek Cypriots and 55,000 Turkish Cypriots fled from their homes and have been refugees in their own country ever since.
European Union and the Future
Cyprus has enjoyed a long-standing relationship with the European Union since it signed and Association Agreement with the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973. This agreement allowed Cyprus to join a customs union with the EEC, providing for commercial, financial and technical cooperation. The agreement saw the gradual reduction and eventual elimination of customs duties on industrial and agricultural products traded between Cyprus and member countries. Between 1979 and 1998, the EU facilitated three loans from the European Investment Bank to improve the infrastructure of Cyprus.
Cyprus formally applied for accession to the European Communities in 1990, and in 1993 the European Union (EU), which was formed in 1992, considered Cyprus eligible for membership.
In 1995, the formal negotiations on membership of Cyprus into the EU began. The division of Cyprus was one of the key points in the negotiations. EU representatives repeated the wish that membership in the EU would help bring benefits to the Greek and the Turkish communities, and that this membership might help reconcile the differences between the two sides and help the Turkish side improve economically.
The final stages of negotiations on Cyprus’ entry into the EU began in 1997. Initially, it was stated that the membership of Cyprus into the EU could only take place after a political settlement had been reached; but by December of 1999, at the Helsinki Economic Council, the heads of the governments of the member states formally announced a solution to the political problems of Cyprus was not a precondition for Cyprus joining the EU.
Negotiations for the accession of Cyprus to the European Union proceeded in parallel with the UN-sponsored peace talks throughout 2002 and the beginning of 2003. But it was clear that if there was no solution to the Cyprus problem by May 1, 2004, the south alone would join along with nine other news candidates. EU membership was confirmed by an accession treaty on April 16, 2003.
A referendum was scheduled on April 24, 2004, just one week before EU accession, in the hope that a unified island would join. The Greek Cypriots voted against it by a margin of 3:1 leaving the Turkish-occupied north out of the European Union.
b) The future
European Union membership has given Cyprus the opportunity to step up to an enhanced role on a wider stage, the stage of Europe. Cyprus has now secured a voice in the EU parliament, taking part of EU’s decisions on positions and policies, and commercially it has gained access to a market of 320 million people.
But the country’s reality cannot be ignored. Even if the lifting of most restrictions on crossing the Green Line has been in place since 2003, the island is still divided and resolving the “Cyprus Issue” is (and will always be while it is not resolved) the cornerstone of the political agenda of the island’s administration.
Currently, the leaders of both sides of the conflict conduct regular direct negotiations trying to reach a settlement of the problem that is satisfactory for all.