The history of Cyprus goes back to about 5,800 BC. There are 3500 archaeological sites on this small island. Cyprus was ruled by several powers, including Persia, Greece, Rome, Venice and in modern times Turkey for 300 years, then Britain from 1878 till independence in 1960. There are still two sovereign British bases on Cyprus.
When I lived there from 1998 to 2001, Cyprus was still divided by a UN "green line," in place since Turkey occupied the northern third of the island in 1974. This problem was the DAILY focus of news here. Nicosia was then the only remaining divided capital in Europe.
Things have progressed in recent years, as Cyprus got serious abotu the final steps of joining Europe. The island has opened up and steps are in process to move toward full unification, rectify the problems that have resulted from the decades of injuries, recriminations, losses and injustices.
In Cyprus things are pretty high tech, with high expectations of quality and visual beauty, more Western than Africa where we lived for so long. Yet there is a slow ease about life, a very eastern flavor, with a strong emphasis on family and home.
Many old sections of the main cities and towns have narrow streets, originally planned for foot traffic or small carts in the Middle Ages when these towns were constructed. These remind us of the old Arab-Swahili towns of the East African coast and of East Jerusalem.
The old limestone block buildings still retain much of their medieval character.
Culture and Economy
In Cyprus there seem to be no poor people, with a very high standard of living for the 800,000 Cypriots, boosted by the international business and tourist economy. Yet there are thousands of "refugees," Greek Cypriots who were driven out of their homes or left in fear at the 1974 invasion by Turkey, which still occupies the northern third of the island. All public life and identity revolve around this situation.
Cyprus is a cultural hub, with people here from most countries in the Middle East and Europe. Nicosia is like a large village with a lot of foreigners, while Limassol is a port city and busy international tourist and business centre, and the site of most of the crime. There are many Russians here, and signs flash in Russian alongside Greek and English, Italian and some French. In Limassol, you can choose Indian, Mexican, Lebanese, Greek, Russian and others.
A famous feature of the capital Nicosia is the Old Town, still called by its early Greek name Lefkosia (according to one derivation, from an even earlier Greek name Lefkothea, meaning "The White Gods"). The whole city is ringed by a great circular stone wall and moat (now parking lots and parks), built by the Venetians during their short rule, with numerous star point ramparts for defense. The gates have all been opened and made into permanent bridges in modern times. Lefkosia is a center for business and art, and the tourist trade.
Insiders tell us the luxury spiral and economic boom here are an artificial prosperity, financed with debts and credit buying. The Greek Cypriots are great gamblers, playing numerous ongoing lotteries and betting of horses and other sports. The embryonic Cyprus Stock Exchange suffers from the mentality, with great rises and falls, leading regulators to periodically shut the whole thing down, or suspend certain stocks from trading. The whole stock exchange was shut down for six months in 1999.
Greek Cypriots have a strong family orientation, several generations living together in the same homestead or multi-dwelling home. Even in the busy, European orientation, the family is the focus of life for the Greek Cypriot. The extended family is important. It is good to see families doing so much together, fathers spending time with their children.
They still follow a dowry system, which nowadays tends to center in the bride´s family providing a home for the new couple. This is often a flat (apartment) in a building built by the family specifically to finance the dowry apartment, as well as the family home, from rents. Sometimes it is a semi-detached, or duplex for you Americans.
But there are many influences, as Cyprus presses to join the European Union, and become more European. New economic and cultural pressures and attitudes are breaking down the strong, centuries-old family and religious traditions.
There is a different beauty in each season here. May is a transition, with cool nights but hot days. The Cypriot sky this time of year is a thrilling soft blue in the early cool air, but then heat builds and clouds swirl, as midday winds stir a breeze. Flowers and trees bud, and the grapes are starting to sprout.
By July temperatures are in the high 30s C (into the low 100s F). In August most of the time it is 40-45 C range (up to 115 F). In 2000, we experienced official temperatures up to 45 C (113F) by early June. Extensive winter rains from September to December brought some relief to the constant drought, though cold temperatures were interspersed with summer or spring days.
Temperatures start to drop gradually in mid-September, until there is a comfortable Autumn, and a short winter, with some mild days amid almost freezing bitter winds. But there is rarely snow or freezing temperatures.
Mount Olympus, the highest point on the island, has snow on it much of the year, and the wooded mountains are beautiful. There is a short skiing season, though in 1999 winter was so mild the ski slopes were open for only one week.
Cyprus is very dry most of the year, and in recent years has suffered constant water shortage, with only a few days supply at any one time. Millions of gallons of water are brought here by ship each month from Greece and Turkey. There are already two desalinization plants operating, and a third in the planning when we left there in 2001.
From June through September the weather is very humid, yet the wind currents are such that it rarely rains! The air conditioners are installed so that most people can catch the runoff, as the machines dehumidify the air, and this water can be used for washing clothes or bodies, or other household needs, to supplement the supplies. We get water from the city system on two nights a week.
During the summer of 2000, water supply was cut back from 14 hours on each of these two days to only 9 hours per day, then finally to only one day per week. During this time, numerous forest fires occurred in the mountains and plains, destroying precious forest and farm areas and many homes, threatening whole villages. Much of Southern Europe had this same problem in mid-2000.
The winter rains of 2001 brought the wettest year in decades, with flood damage, and water rationing ended. Spring was cooler longer, but fire hazards were again being issued by May.
Larnaca, where the international airport is located, is built on the site of the ancient city of Chittim, or in Greek Kittim, later Kition. This city was named for the grandson of Noah, who was believed in antiquity to be the founder of the original city, one of the oldest cities in the world. Larnaca is also a sea port but more known for its tourist activities and "boardwalk" seafront. Kition was the birthplace of the great philosopher Zeno, founder of the Greek school of Stoicism in 312. Though usually considered a Greek philosopher, Zeno was a Jew, rather than a Greek.
The old town here is much like Arab towns on the coast of East Africa, with narrow winding streets hardly wide enough for one compact car to pass, with small welcoming shops selling all kinds of local and tourist goods, and many coffee shops kafeneia), selling the thick Cypriot ("Turkish") coffee (Kafes), the less strong "filter" coffee (American) or "Nescafe" instant. These varieties of coffee are common over the island. The Cypriot coffee is a thick sludgy coffee usually sweetened and perhaps with some milk.
Old Pafos, on the western coast of the island was the Roman capital of Cyprus. Here the Apostle Paul met with the Roman governor Sergius Paulus (recorded in the book of Acts), who became the first Christian head of state! Legend claims that Pafos is one of the unnamed places Paul refers to where he was beaten with 39 lashes. The legends say variously that he was beaten by either Sergius before his conversion or the Jews. Still-visible ancient mosaics depict various mythological and daily-life scenes from the Greek and Roman eras.
Kolosi and Limassol
We´ve seen Crusader castles and other sites from the Middle Ages. In Limassol is the church where Richard the Lionhearted married his princess from Navarre, Berengaria, in 1191, while the Normans ruled Cyprus during the Crusades. In this wedding, the Armenian King Leon II served as the best man. Nearby is the castle of Kolosi, built among the rich grape vineyards by Richard for his new Queen Berengaria.
The 14th Century Castle of Limassol was built by the Venetians, who ruled the island as a part of their commercial Mediterranean empire for about 80 years, until they lost it to the Turks in 1571. Venetian forts, aqueducts, city walls, and other great stone edifices are found all over the island.
Lefkara and Kykkos
In the Troodos Mountains are many picturesque towns and beautiful mountain scenes. Lefkara is a ancient arts center known for its silver smithing and needlework. A type of work called lace is famous worldwide. When Leonardo da Vinci painted his famous Last Supper, he draped the table with a Lefkara lace tablecloth he specifically chose personally in Lefkara for the purpose.
Kykkos is the premiere monastery of Cyprus, founded about 1100, and famous throughout the Orthodox world. The inside of the monastery church is painted with images of saints. This multistory monastery´s halls and balconies are lined with beautiful, intricate mosaics of scenes from the Gospels and Acts, and a story of the great icon of the Virgin making its trip from Europe to the monastery.
This painting of the Virgin was originally a painting believed to have been done by the Apostle Luke. It was given to the monastery by Emperor Alexios Comnenos, along with the grant of land to found the monastery. The icon has long been considered too holy to view, and since 1576, it has been covered with silver.
The icon is thought to have rain powers, and in times of drought it has been placed in a special throne" outside the monastery as a focus for prayers for rain. This area is now enclosed in a special structure, which replaced the wooden throne.
This beautiful mountain village is built up and down several slopes of the Solea Valley in the Troodos Mountains. One famous site here is a water mill on a tributary of the Kargotis River, which operated from the 18th century till recently. There are three churches here, the most famous being St. Nicholas of the Roof, built in the 11th century. The church is painted with frescoes dating from the 11th to 17th centuries.
Famagusta, or Ammochostos in Greek, is one of the most famous cities of the Middle East (or of Southern Europe, wherever you classify Cyprus!). It is a major sea port, now as ever. Called Gazimagusa in Turkish, it was the last stronghold to surrender to the Ottoman Empire. Famagusta finally fell to the Turks in 1571, after a year´s siege again the valiant defense of the Venetian garrison after the rest of the island was lost.
Cyprus was an Ottoman domain until 1878, when Britain took over. Famagusta is in the Turkish occupied north. A striking sight in that town is the Gothic former Cathedral of St. Nicholas built by the Lusignans, but turned into a mosque. It is still used as such today, as the Lala Mustafa Pasha mosque. The building was badly damaged in the Turkish conquest of the island is 1571, but they rebuilt it.
Nearby are the ruins of the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, another 14th century Lusignan church converted into a mosque for a while, then allowed to fall into ruins, now listed as an ancient monument. In the north, Maronite and Greek churches still operate, but the Turks closed all the Roman churches, associated with the grief of the Crusades, or converted them to other purposes.
Near Famagusta is the ancient cultural and market city of Salamis. This is where the Christian Apostles Paul and Barnabas arrived in Barnabas´ home country, in AD 45. There was a well-established Jewish community in Cyprus, with synagogues in major centers. Today we can see the beautiful seaside layout of the whole city with most of the old Amphitheater and the pillars of the Forum and market place, which must have been covered as a pavilion.
When I visited Salamis in 1999, my wife and I roamed through the city, from the Forum back through some of the homes, to the grand Amphitheatre. The Forum or Market is near the water, where boats would have docked. This was the first stop for Saul and Barnabas on what is called by some the "First Missionary Journey."
Barnabas, a Jew like Saul (later called Paul), was a native of Cyprus, so they went there first. The Forum/Market would not have been far from the synagogue, but I did not learn where the synagogue was.
There are still visible scenes on the remaining, though damaged, mosaic floor of the Forum and surrounding walkways. In ruins of the homes and public buildings, there are intact mosaics in alcoves and home altars.
Kyrenia is another beautiful site on the northern side of the island. Called Girne in Turkish, it is a busy seaport also, also having a large marina for small boats. A prominent feature of the port is the old Castle of Kyrenia, built in the Crusader period by the Lusignans, a Norman group from Southern France who settled with Guy de Lusignan, former King of Jerusalem, who was given the rule of the island by Richard the Lionheart in 1192.
(Some histories report that it was actually sold to Guy by the Knights Templar, who had bought it from Richard, but then got into financial and administrative difficulties. It seems, rather, that because of these difficulties, Richard took the island back from them, and gave it to his ally Guy in order to maintain a strong Norman-Frankish front in the Middle East.)
Carnival in Cyprus
As the month of Lent begins, Cyprus celebrates Carnival along with the whole of Mediterranean Europe. Americans will be most familiar with this in the Mardi Gras festival of New Orleans, the final celebration of the Carnival (Carnaval) season. Carnival season is pretty quiet in Nicosia, the capital.
The Carnival centre in Cyprus is Limassol (Lemessos in Greek), where celebrations go on for 10 days. The focus of Carnival in Cyprus is Carnival weekend, with a parade in Pafos (Paphos) on Saturday and the great parade in Limassol on Sunday, covered by the local TV channels for about 3 hours.
Besides the various costumes worn by dance troupes in the parade, as well as individuals, a large contingent of Indian dancers, dressed in traditional Indian dress, marches in the parades. Many Indians work or study in Cyprus.
Monday before Mardi Gras is the national holiday of Green Monday, when Cypriots go on picnics in the mountains, celebrate the natural riches of the countryside, and eat their final meat before fasting for the month of Lent. The devout also abstain from dairy products during the Lenten season, following the strict requirements of the Orthodox tradition.
Easter is interesting in this part of the world, with three calendars in operation for certain peoples and churches. The dates when the eastern and western Christian churches celebrate Easter varies because the western churches follow the Gregorian calendar, while the Eastern churches still follow the Julian calendar. In 2001 one of the quirks of the calendars caused the rare event of both Easters falling on the same date. The Armenian Church celebrates on a third calendar.
Eastern Holy Week in Cyprus is a full focus on the final week of Jesus´ life, his passion and death, followed by the resurrection. The whole society is oriented to this religious focus. Greek Cypriot culture is intertwined with the Christian calendar of the year.
The TV schedule shifts to heavily Biblical themes, not only the life of Christ, but Moses, David, and almost anything they can get their hands on. These are in English, or sometimes French, with Greek subtitles. But there are a few original Greek ones. Anyone who watches a few of these, or thinks about what is going on around him in this society cannot help but hear the Biblical good news. Opportunities abound.
Pentecost or Whit Sunday, 50 days after Easter, is also a time of celebration of Noah's Flood, called Cataclysmos. Greek Cypriots observe a whole weekend of celebrations with traditional dances and fairs. The beachfront of Larnaca becomes a carnival midway. The actual origin of the celebration, however, goes back to pagan times, when Cypriots celebrated the birth of Afrodite, the goddess of love, in the sea foam near Pafos. The Monday after Pentecost Sunday is a national holiday, as the celebrations continue.
To be Greek, or Greek Cypriot, is to be Eastern Orthodox. In the Eastern Orthodox fellowship, each regional or national church is self-governing. The church in Cyprus is the Autocephalous (Self-Governing) Orthodox Church of Cyprus, which claims to have begun with Barnabas, a native of Cyprus, and Paul, on their first missionary journey. On this trip, in AD 45, Governor Sergius Paulus, believed the gospel.
Cypriots claim Barnabas as a "patron saint." In AD 478 (488 by some sources) the Archbishop discovered what was thought to be Barnabas´ tomb. This was cause for Emperor Zeno to declare the Cyprus Church autocephalous. Cypriot representatives were prominent in the first seven Church Councils.
Lazarus is also honored here, as the first Bishop of Larnaca, where tradition says he came to minister after his resurrection by Jesus. The Church of Saint Lazarus on the waterfront in Larnaca, the beautiful water sports tourist center, claims to be the burial place of Lazarus. The building dates back to AD 901, when it was built by (Byzantine) Emperor Leon VI when the body was moved to Constantinople, except for some "relics" of the body allowed to remain at the Larnaca church.
The Cypriot Church ranks 5th in eminence among the Orthodox family, after the patriarchates of Constantinople (Istanbul), Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. Thus it ranks above the patriarchates of Russia, Greece, Serbia, Romania and others.
The Armenian Church (an independent, ancient church) is prominent here also, serving the many Armenian refugees from Turkey, and the Lebanese Maronite Church accounts for another large minority.
There are also a few evangelical Christian congregations, some Greek and some international, English-speaking, in character. Legally Cypriots have full freedom to practice the religion of their choice, but the tradition of cultural identity and church-state association is strong, and there is strong social pressure against Greek Cypriots who are not Orthodox.
Church, Culture and Government
Christians were heavily persecuted in Cyprus in the early centuries, but persisted until the famous Temple of Apollo in Kourion was permanently shut down in the 300s. Greek Cypriot Culture is intertwined with the Greek Orthodox liturgical calendar. High religious days all through the year are national holidays in Cyprus. Cypriots have trouble understanding how a person could be Cypriot and not be Orthodox. Life is hard for the Evangelical Greek Cypriot. Many legal functions and privileges in Cypriot and Greek citizenship are tied to Orthodox Church membership.
Yet in Cyprus there is a growing dissociation of the government from the church. People are becoming disenchanted with the Church as closed, focussed on power and money. The Cypriot Church is the largest land-owner and is reported to own the largest single stake in the business sector of Cyprus. Many participate little in actual church services or events.
The Church, however, was the primary cultural or political identity for Greek Cypriots over about 300 years of rule by Muslim Turks (till 1879), and was the major force in organized political resistance against the Ottoman Turks, and finally leading to independence from the British in 1960.
The first elected President of independent Cyprus was Archbishop Makarios, leader of the Cypriot Church. This was the first time in history that Cyprus had ever been independent. It had always been part of some other political domain through recorded history.
Turkish contact with Cyprus goes back to the 11th century, when the Seljuks were pressing on the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. Turks traded and raided occasionally over the next centuries. The Ottomans finally annexed the island in 1571.
Most of the Muslim Turkish community live now in the northern third of the island occupied by Turkey There were, however, still working mosques in the "southern" territory ruled by the official Cypriot (but then Greek-only) government.
The Turkish sector, called the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, is a quite secular society, with a secular government as in Turkey. This political entity is not recognized by any nation except Turkey. There is a strong presence of western churches, notably the Anglican, in the north.
Since joining the European Union in 2004, the two sides of Cyprus have been involved in discussions on opening up the island between the two territories and ethnic communities. The former border has been opened, to some degree, and discussions on the political and economic future continue.
A major issue is the resolution of property ownership after 30 years of displacement, rebuilding, and separate economic development on the two sides of the border across the island.
Across the Greek Divide
Cyprus, Afrodite and the Holy Virgin
Cyprus Napkin Holder and the Orthodox Sunday School
History and Art in Cyprus
Italians, Etruscans and Greeks: Genetics and Ethnicity
Orthodoxy and the Latin Church
A Prayer for Cyprus
For more information on Cyprus:
Cyprus World Guide
The History of Cyprus
History of Nationality in Cyprus
St George of the Greeks Church, Famagusta, North Cyprus
Orthodox Church of Cyprus
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
First posted in 2000
Last updated 3 August 2013
See photos of Cyprus and other places by the author at
Webshots Cyprus Albums
Copyright ã 2000, 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
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