Cyprus (Κύπρος, Kibris) is the third-largest island in the Mediterranean Sea and has been continuously inhabited for thousands of years. It has an estimated population of around 1,134,000 (2011), of whom some 80 percent are Greek-speaking Orthodox Christians and some 20 percent Turkish-speaking Sunni Muslims. The remaining population includes small numbers of Syriac-speaking Maronites, Armenians and so-called Latins. Since 1974 the island has been divided between the two ethnic communities, with Turks concentrated in the north and Greeks in the south.

Ancient times

Cyprus's beginnings lie deep within prehistory. Human habitation began at least 7000 BC, as people apparently arrived from the nearby Asian mainland. It has recently been discovered that these early Cypriots were the first to domesticate the cat, even before the Egyptians. (This is somewhat ironic, since in the Greek-speaking world nowadays cats are rarely kept as pets.) The island eventually became known for its copper, the presence of which gives the soil a distinctive reddish cast and the food grown in it a delicious flavour. The very name of the island may either have been bequeathed to the metal or have taken its name from it. Greek presence in Cyprus began in the second millennium BC and has continued to the present. Early in the first millennium Phoenician settlement was established in the eastern part of Cyprus, centred especially around the ancient city of Kition. According to local mythology, the goddess Aphrodite rose to life from the sea off the coast of Paphos. For this reason Cyprus is still to this day known popularly as νησί της Αφροδίτης, the island of Aphrodite.

Although Cyprus was occupied by several local kingdoms, as the age of empires dawned the island inevitably found itself within the shifting spheres of influence of the surrounding political powers, including the Assyrians, the Egyptians, the Persians, the Hellenistic successors of Alexander the Great and, finally, the Romans. The remnants of the ancient cities of this era can be found at Salamis, Kition, Amathous, Kourion and Paphos. The ruins of Kourion, near present-day Limassol, can be seen at left. Cyprus was known as Alasia in the ancient records of the time. In the Old Testament, Cypriots are generally referred to as Kittim, whose etymological relationship to Kition is evident. Brief periods of independence for the Cypriot kingdoms were usually ended by their reincorporation into the dominions of the age's imperial powers.

The Roman and Byzantine eras and the rise of Christianity

Cyprus came under Roman rule in 30 BC. Around AD 45 the apostles Paul and Barnabas evangelized the island, as recounted in Acts 13. As part of a larger Jewish community, Barnabas himself had been born in the island. Barnabas and Mark revisited Cyprus in 47. Eventually the island would come to be very largely won to the Christian faith. Tradition has it that Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead shortly before his own crucifixion, became the bishop of Kition and died there a second time. The Church of St. Lazarus (right) in Larnaca claims to house his remains. In one fashion or another, Roman rule continued until the twelfth century, although most of this period is usually labelled Byzantine, after the ancient name of the new imperial capital, Constantinople.

After conversion of the Empire to Christianity in the fourth century, the Church of Cyprus attained a special status within the larger church. In 431 the Council of Ephesus granted it independence from the patriarchal see of Antioch, a decision subsequently ratified in 488 by the Emperor Zeno. The Church of Cyprus retains this status to the present day and is headed by its own elected archbishop.

The year 649 saw the first of the Arab invasions of Cyprus. Arab presence would continue in the island until the tenth century, when Constantinople re-established uncontested authority. Until then Cyprus was something of a battleground between Muslim and Christian rulers, and was even ruled jointly for three centuries between Emperor and Caliph. In 690 Cypriots vacated the island temporarily and settled near the imperial capital until their homeland could be secured against the invaders. During this era arose the legends of Digenis Akritas, the heroic defender of Christendom against the Saracens (i.e., Arabs). A number of architectural sites have their origin during the Byzantine period. Kykkos Monastery (left), the largest and most famous of the island's monasteries, was established around 1100. The castles of Kantara, Buffavento and St. Hilarion also date from the Byzantine era. The one remnant of the Arab invasions is the Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque, located on the Salt Lake in Larnaca, built on the site where a saintly relative of Muhammad reputedly suffered a fatal fall from her horse.

Frankish and Venetian rule

In 1184 a nephew of the Emperor, Isaakios Comnenos, installed himself as ruler of Cyprus and declared its independence from Constantinople. Thus began an episode that would see the island detached from the Byzantine Empire for good. In 1054 a schism between the eastern and western churches had taken place that was now hardening into permanence. The weakening of the Empire after the loss of the Battle of Manzikert (1071) and a succession of initially well-intended but destabilizing Crusades left it vulnerable to the rapaciousness of western Europeans. Cyprus bore the brunt of western efforts to expand into the Levant. In 1191, after seven years of Isaakios' misrule, Richard the Lionheart landed on the island and deposed the young upstart. Richard turned around and sold Cyprus to the Knights Templar, whose efforts to impose confiscatory taxation quickly caused rebellion among their new subjects. The island was returned to Richard, who sold it to Guy de Lusignan, a French (or Frankish) nobleman whose chief claim to fame had been his status as the last of the Crusaders effectively to claim the title, King of Jerusalem. Guy's descendants would continue to style themselves kings of Cyprus and Jerusalem, despite the permanent loss of the latter in 1187. In 1210 the Lusignan rulers granted land near Limassol to the Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, better known as the Knights Hospitaller and, much later, the Knights of Malta. They built Kolossi Castle (right), which became associated with the famous dessert wine, Commandaria.

The Lusignan rulers of Cyprus were mostly undistinguished and were, in any event, a foreign presence in the island. The Latin church was favoured, and the Orthodox Church was forcibly brought under submission to Rome. As a result of a marriage between the last Lusignan king, James II, and Caterina Cornaro, Cyprus came under Venetian rule in 1489. The Venetian Republic had a maritime empire encompassing much of the Dalmatian coast of the Adriatic, Crete and Cyprus itself. Among other things, the Venetians rebuilt the walls of Famagusta, which bear the symbol of Venice: the famous Lion of St. Mark (left). Cyprus suffered from relative neglect under the Venetians. In 1571, the same year that the west won a decisive naval victory against the Ottoman Turks at Lepanto, the Turks laid siege to Famagusta, successfully taking the city and plunging Cyprus into just over three centuries of Muslim occupation.

Ottoman rule

The Turkish conquest of Cyprus was not an unmitigated disaster, and many Greek Orthodox subjects, who had seen their church suppressed under the "Latins," actually welcomed Ottoman rule. Indeed the Ottoman authorities were comparatively tolerant of religious minorities in their empire, and they moved to rehabilitate the Orthodox Church. Moreover, they went so far as to grant the island's prelate genuine political authority over the Sultan's christian subjects. Thus began the peculiar institution of the ethnarchy, which reached its apogee in the twentieth century in the person of Archbishop Makarios III, the first president of independent Cyprus after 1960.

However, for the most part, once the dust had settled, Ottoman rule became as onerous as Lusignan and Venetian rule had been. The population of Cyprus declined during the Turkish period, as many people left the island. There were occasional rebellions by both christian and muslim subjects in Cyprus against their rulers. The Turkish legacy contributed few visible landmarks, one of which is an eighteenth-century aqueduct in Larnaca (above right). After 1683 the Ottoman Empire went into a long, slow decline, thereby opening the notorious Eastern Question, which would bedevil western policy-makers throughout the subsequent centuries until the Great War of 1914-18. In 1877 Russia came perillously close to conquering Constantinople outright and imposed the abortive Treaty of San Stefano on the Sultan. The western powers intervened and propped up the Ottoman Empire for another generation and a half. As a price for its own protection of the Empire, the United Kingdom received Cyprus in 1878.

The British colonial era

For the first nearly half-century of British rule, the island was effectively under British administration but its population remained nominal subjects of the Ottoman Sultan. Because Britain had a philhellenic reputation, many of the island's christian population assumed that she would eventually cede it to the Greek kingdom, as she had the Ionian Islands in 1864. From the outset the British high commissioners made the fateful decision to allow the importation of school textbooks from Greece itself, thereby inadvertently imparting to Cyprus' christian youth a sense of being part of a Greek irredenta. Thus began a lengthy campaign for enosis, or union of the island with Greece. At the outbreak of the Great War, which found Britain and Turkey on opposite sides, Britain annexed Cyprus outright, a move subsequently confirmed by Turkey in the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. Cyprus became a Crown colony in 1925, a status which continued until 1960. In 1931 a pro-enosis uprising took place, after which the colonial government was suspended and direct rule imposed. In its first fifty years British rule was scarcely less onerous than Ottoman, with the latter's high taxes maintained until 1927 to service an Ottoman debt. Thus Cyprus remained economically backward through that time.

After the Labour Party came to power in Britain, Lord Winster, the colonial Governor of Cyprus, offered the island a constitution providing for a full measure of self-government but leaving its external status unchanged. With the encouragement of the Church, which was imbued with the Greek nationalist vision of the nineteenth-century Μεγάλη Ιδέα, or Great Idea, the people of Cyprus unwisely rejected this. It is difficult to determine the actual support for enosis among the ethnic Greek population at this time, but a Church-sponsored plebiscite in 1950 showed 96 percent in favour. Relations between Britain and the Greek Cypriot population soured during the 1950s, with a guerrilla war breaking out in 1955. The principal instigator of hostilities was the National Organization of Cypriot Fighters, known by its Greek acronym, EOKA. Understandably, the ethnic Turkish population opposed the cession of Cyprus to Greece and sought either to maintain the status quo or to partition the island between Athens and Ankara.

Once Britain had accepted that its rule over Cyprus was at an end, a compromise solution was reached whereby the island would become an independent republic within the Commonwealth, with Britain retaining sovereign military bases at Akrotiri and Dhekelia.

Independence, continued troubles and partition

A conditional independence was granted to Cyprus in 1960 under terms of the London/Zürich Agreement and under a new, exceedingly lengthy constitutional document that was negotiated by the UK, Greece and Turkey but had little input from Cypriots themselves of either ethnic community. Greek Cypriots elected as their first president Archbishop Makarios III, in a latter-day manifestation of the Ottoman ethnarchy. With little if any basis in domestic traditions of intercommunal accommodation, the new constitution failed after only three years. In 1963 the first of the post-independence episodes of intercommunal strife broke out, when Makarios attempted to streamline the constitution in exchange for minority guarantees. The Turkish Cypriot ministers would have none of it and left the government. With the encouragement of their élites, Turkish Cypriots began to segregate themselves into enclaves in a dark precursor to the island's partition. United Nations peacekeeping troops were sent to keep the two communities apart—a presence that is now nearly six decades old.

After the civilian government in Athens was toppled by lower-level military officers in 1967, Greece proper entered into a period of brutal dictatorship that was to last for seven years. During this time, support for enosis in Cyprus dwindled to a small minority, as fewer Cypriots relished the notion of their island becoming a distant province of such an obviously misgoverned country. However, the Greek colonels themselves continued to covet the increasingly prosperous island and made several attempts on Makarios' life. Hostilities broke out again in 1967. Finally, in July 1974 Athens made its final attempt to annex the island, overthrowing Makarios and installing a puppet ruler in his place. Ankara responded quickly and sent a flotilla towards Cyprus, landing troops at Kyrenia, where they established a beachhead. The dictatorships in both Greece and Cyprus collapsed within days, and civilian governments were restored in Athens and Nicosia. In the meantime, however, Turkey took advantage of its presence in the island, as well as the US government's (possibly wilful) inattention in the immediate wake of President Richard Nixon's resignation, to expand its occupation zone to take in 37 percent of the island, as shown in the map above left (source: CIA).

The result of this invasion was a forcible partition of Cyprus, with most Greeks fleeing south and Turkish Cypriots making their way north. Scores of thousands became refugees in their own country, losing their homes and homelands. The largest casualty was the Varoshia district of Famagusta, south of the old walled city, which had been the centre of the island's thriving tourist industry in the 1960s. It is now an uninhabited ghost city (right), surrounded by a (lightly in places) guarded fence to keep out curiosity seekers. As such it has fallen into decay for nearly fifty years, with Turkey apparently keeping it as a bargaining chip in any future settlement. In 1983 the Turkish-occupied zone declared itself independent as the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus (TRNC), an entity recognized by no one other than Turkey itself. Nevertheless, Turkey wields overwhelming influence there, going so far as to settle illegally people from the Anatolian mainland, much to the irritation of even Turkish Cypriots.

In 2004 the internationally recognized government in the southern part of Cyprus joined the European Union, along with nine other states. In the preceding year two significant developments had occurred. First, on 23 April 2003 the TRNC government suddenly decided to open the Green Line (left, at Ledra Street, Nicosia) separating the two sides to relative freedom of movement. This move may have been instigated by Turkey itself, which is keen to become a member of the EU. Second, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan formulated a plan to reunify the island so that it could enter the EU as a reunited whole. A new anthem and flag were to be chosen for the new entity. However, with only days to go before the deadline of 1 May 2004, Turkish Cypriots voted in a referendum in favour of the plan, while Greek Cypriots rejected it, at the urging of their president, Tassos Papadapoulos. Thus the plan died and only the southern part of Cyprus officially joined the EU, much to the irritation of EU officials in Brussels and elsewhere. The stalemate therefore continues, albeit with substantial freedom of movement between the two sides—except for Varoshia, which remains off limits.

Cyprus today

Prior to 2003 one generally could not visit both sides of Cyprus. One had to opt for either south or north. Since then Greek and Turkish Cypriots cross back and forth fairly easily, with many of the latter now commuting to work in the south and holding European passports issued by the legally recognized government. Now it is possible for the tourist to see the Tombs of the Kings in Paphos and Bellapais Abbey (right), near Kyrenia, on the same day. (Despite a surface resemblance to the name of an Italian cheese, Bellapais does not mean "beautiful country"; it is a contraction of the French Abbaye de la Paix, or Abbey of Peace, as reflected in Lawrence Durrell's famous respelling, Bellapaix.) In general the transportation and communications infrastructure is much better in the south than in the north, although the north is less expensive for the tourist. The people are overwhelmingly friendly and courteous on both sides—much more, some visitors report, than their respective mainland counterparts.

Two mountain ranges traverse the island: the Troodos Mountains in the south, and the Pentadaktylos range in the north. The latter extends into the Karpass peninsula towards the Asian mainland. The broad Mesaoria plain in the middle of the island is the most fertile; the major part of it lies in the TRNC. Along the coast one finds numerous fishing villages, such as the one pictured at left, known in Greek as Koma tou Yialou (Κώμα του Γιαλού) and in Turkish as Kumyali. Many of these in the north, including Koma, are largely abandoned, their buildings having been disassembled so that the stones can be used elsewhere. Those buildings still in use are often inhabited by settlers illicitly imported from the mainland. The major cities in Cyprus include Nicosia (the divided capital of both the Cyprus Republic and TRNC), Famagusta, Morphou, Paphos, Limassol, and Larnaca. Much of the tourist industry that made Varoshia (Famagusta) popular before the invasion was relocated to the once sleepy village of Ayia Napa. Previously known as the site of a monastery and an ancient one-of-a-kind fig tree, it has now become a garish resort city.

The government of the Cyprus Republic is a truncated one relative to what was established in the 1960 Constitution. The head of state and government is the President. A Council of Ministers is appointed by the President and, nominally, the Vice-President. Although the Vice-President's office was supposed to be occupied by a Turkish Cypriot, it has in fact been vacant since 1963. There is a unicameral House of Representatives (Βουλή των Αντιπροσώπων), whose seats were to have been segregated and reserved for the two ethnic communities. Once again, the Turkish Cypriot seats are vacant. Deputies serve for five-year terms, as does the President of the Republic.

The TRNC political system is a parliamentary one, seemingly modelled on that of Turkey prior to 2017, with separate offices of President and Prime Minister, the latter of whom appoints a Cabinet. The legislature is known as the Assembly of the Republic, or the Cumhuriyet Meclisi.

Most proposals to reunify the island envision a territorial federal framework with a modification of the boundary separating the two sides, return of property or appropriate compensation for its loss, and freedom of movement.


The landscape of Cyprus is dotted with the artefacts of the several civilizations which took root in the island, ranging from the ancient Greek and Roman to the present. Where else but in Cyprus is one likely to find a western-style gothic churchedifice flanked by a minaret, an obvious indication of mediæval Frankish and Muslim Turkish influences juxtaposed in a single building. Cyprus contains a treasury of ancient mosaics, which are lovingly preserved and maintained, especially in the south. Byzantine churches abound, including one at St. Paul's Pillar in Paphos (right) where, legend has it, St. Paul the Apostle was flogged by the Roman governor for preaching the gospel on his first missionary journey. Amongst the best museums are the Cyprus Museum in Nicosia and the Byzantine Museum, also in the capital city and attached to the Archbishopric. Outside Cyprus itself exhibits devoted to Cypriot artefacts are found in a number of museums, including the British Museum and the Royal OntarioMuseum in Toronto.

The music of Cyprus is rather distinctive, although it shares features with other music of the region, especially that of Greece and Turkey. In the folk tradition, there is a pronounced affinity for asymmetrical rhythms, especially 5/4 or 5/8 time, in addition to the 7/8 time signature found elsewhere in the Greek-speaking world. A quite good webpage is devoted to Cyprus music, including ancient Byzantine kalanda (κάλαντα) and the more recent compositions of Michalis Violaris and others. In my considered opinion, the best recording of Cypriot music is Chants épiques et populaires de Chypre, recorded by the Ensemble Cypriote de Musique ancienne and published under the Arion label in France in 1982.

Though distinctive in some elements, Cypriot cuisine  shares much with those of the surrounding region. Anyone who has eaten at Greek or middle eastern restaurants will recognize much of the fare that nourishes the people of Cyprus. Shown at left are three typical foods. Koupepkia (Κουπέπκια) are stuffed grape vine leaves known elsewhere in the Greek-speaking world as Dolmadhes (Ντολμάδες), from the Turkish verb dolmak, meaning "to fill, to stuff." Moving clockwise around the plate are four slices of halloumi (χαλλούμι, hellim in Turkish), a delicious cheese unique to the island, made of sheep and goat milk, packed in its own juices and sprinkled with mint. Its unusual physical properties enable it to be grilled without melting, as most cheeses would if subjected to similar treatment. Then, of course, come the ubiquitous olives, as shown above. As in most cuisines of the region, meat is reserved for special occasions, such as lamb for Πάσχα. Everyday meals include vegetables, legumes and grains, with olive oil a perennial staple. Extra virgin olive oil comes from the first pressing of the olives and is used for salads, bread, and drizzling over boiled greens. Lower grades of olive oil come from later pressings and are used for cooking. One of the more typical dishes in the home (but not the restaurant) is moujendra (μουτζιέντρα), made of at least lentils and rice, and sometimes additional ingredients as well.

Not surprisingly, Cyprus is known for its wines. Already mentioned above is Commandaria, reputedly the oldest wine in the world. Indeed some think that wine was invented here. The southern city of Limassol sponsors an annual winefestival in the late summer. Its slogan is well known in the island: Πίννε κρασίν νάσιης ζωήν ("Drink wine to have life" in Τζιυπριώτικα). When my wife and I were in a Cyprus café in 1995, we were served an excellent dry red wine in an unmarked bottle. After inquiring as to its identity, the waiter shrugged his shoulder and said it was "village wine" from the Troodos Mountains. Nothing fancy, but certainly amongst the best wines we've ever drunk.

The languages of Cyprus are Greek and Turkish, although the tiny Maronite population, traditionally found in the northern village of Kormakiti, speaks Syriac/Aramaic in addition to Greek. In standard demotic Greek the Cypriot dialect is known as Κυπριακά. In the island it is known as Τζιυπριώτικα (pronounced Tcheep-ree-O-tee-ka). The most recognizable feature of the Cypriot dialect is that, where the letter κ (kappa) occurs in standard Greek, it is softened to a <tch> or <dj> sound if it precedes the letters ι, υ, η, ε and the homophonous digraphs, ει, οι and αι. In this respect the development of Cypriot Greek mirrors a similar shift in the romance languages from Latin to Italian and Romanian. Whether this was an indigenous natural development or occurred under the influence of Italian during the Venetian era is uncertain. Because it is found elsewhere in the Greek islands— most notably Crete and even as far west as Kerkira (Corfu)—and because many of these same islands were controlled by Venice or Genoa, either explanation is possible. A second characteristic feature of Τζιυπριώτικα sees words ending in -ια preceded by a <k> sound. For example, the word τραγούδια (songs) becomes τραούδκια or τραούθκια, as in τζιυπριώτικα τραούδκια (Cypriot songs). Similarly, τα μάτια (the eyes) becomes τα μάθκια. Third, whereas the final letter ν has generally been dropped from neuter nouns in standard modern Greek, it has been retained in the Cypriot dialect, as in το παιδίν (the boy). In this respect the Cypriot dialect retains an archaic flavour relative to the standard language. Other peculiarities:

Standard Greek
Cypriot Greek
I and you shall go to Cyprus. Εγώ και εσύ θα πάμε στην Κύπρο. Εγιώνι τζι'εσούνι έννα πάμεν στην Τζιύπρον.
How are you? Τι κάνεις; Ίντα μπου κάμνεις;
My father comes from the house.
Ο μπαμπάς μου έρχεται απ' το σπίτι.
Ο τζιύρης μου έρκεται 'πο το σπίτιν.
brothers and sisters
αδέλφια αδέρκια

There are many other differences as well, which space does not allow us to cover here. Had political history developed somewhat differently, it is possible that Τζιυπριώτικα might have come to be viewed as a distinct language within a larger Hellenic family.

Selected bibliography

Attalides, Michael. Cyprus. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1979.

Beaudoin, Mondry. Étude de Dialecte chypriote moderne et médiéval. Paris: Librairie des Écoles françaises d'Athènes et de Rome, 1884.

Durrell, Lawrence. Bitter Lemons. London: Faber & Faber, 1959.

Foley, Charles. Legacy of Strife: Cyprus from rebellion to civil war. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1962, 1964.

Georgiades, Cleanthis P. History of Cyprus. Engomi: Demetrakis Christophorou, 2nd English edition, nd (1993?).

Hitchens, Christopher. Hostage to History: Cyprus from the Ottomans to Kissinger. London: Verso, 1997.

Hunt, Sir David, ed. Footprints in Cyprus: an illustrated history. London: Trigraph, 1990.

Joseph, Joseph S. Cyprus: Ethnic Conflict and International Politics. Houndmills: Macmillan, 1997.

Kyriakides, Stanley. Cyprus: Constitutionalism and Crisis Government. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1968.

Lanitis, George. Νάσος τας Αφροδίτας: Cyprus: Island of Aphrodite. Nicosia: Phædros Editions, 1967.

Mallinson, William. Cyprus: A Modern History. I. B. Tauris, 2005.

Morgan, Tabitha. Sweet and Bitter Island: A History of the British in Cyprus. London, New York: I. B. Tauris, 2010.

Mourdjis, Marios. The Cypriots at Table. C.A.L. Graphics, nd (late 1970s?).

Newton, Brian. Cypriot Greek: its phonology and inflections. The Hague, Paris: Mouton, 1972.

Oberling, Pierre. The Road to Bellapais: The Turkish Cypriot exodus to northern Cyprus. East European Monographs, 1981.

Polyviou, Polyvios G. Cyprus: The Tragedy and the Challenge. England: John Swain & Son Ltd., 1975.

________. Cyprus: Conflict and Negotiation, 1960-1980. London: Duckworth, 1980.

Stavrou, Patroclos. Cyprus: The Sweet Land. Nicosia: Achilles Ghinis, 1971.

Stern, Laurence. The Wrong Horse. New York: Times Books, 1977.

Thubron, Colin. Journey into Cyprus. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986, originally published 1975.

Toy, Barbara. Rendezvous in Cyprus. London: John Murray, 1970.

Text and photographs © David T. Koyzis, 2006. All rights reserved.


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