Cyprus: A Brief History

A Brief History of Cyprus

Republic of Cyprus Κυπριακή Δημοκρατία Kıbrıs Cumhuriyeti

Ancient History

Recent archaeological evidence suggests that Cyprus was inhabited as far back as the 10th millennium B.C., and that 11,000 years ago its inhabitants began to form agricultural settlements—an indication that they were not lagging behind Neolithic developments in the Near East.

In the 2nd millennium B.C. Cyprus began to be settled by Greeks. Mycenean Greeks began to arrive in the 14th century B.C., and by the 11th century the Hellenisation of the island was well under way.[1]

According to Eusebius, the sea was controlled by the Cypriots for 33 years some 300 years after the Trojan War, but it is not at all certain that the dates are accurate or the information reliable.[2] Nevertheless it is true that Cyprus was rich in timber and copper, both useful for building ships, and that it was valued by major powers throughout the ancient period for its ability to contribute ships and nautical expertise when these were required for military campaigns.

The Phoenicians (from what is now Lebanon) began their westward expansion in the 9th century B.C. with colonies as far afield as Spain. In Cyprus they seem to have founded or acquired a new city, which they called Qarti-hadasti (Carthage), meaning “New Town”, to serve as an outpost for the Phoenician city of Tyre.[3] Assyrian inscriptions indicate that for a time the king of Tyre was overlord of the island, whilst being himself a vassal to Sargon II, King of Assyria:

“And seven Kings of Yadnana [i.e., Cyprus]... together... withheld their tributes [to Shilta, King of Tyre]. And Shilta brought his own hefty tribute, and... asked me for military assistance. I [Sargon] sent an officer who is fearless in battle and my royal guard to avenge him... [c. 709 B.C.] On seeing the powerful troops of [the god] Ashur, and hearing the mention of my name, they became frightened and their strength left them...”[4]

However a large basalt stele portraying the Assyrian King Sargon II (see illustration below), which was discovered near Larnaca (Kition) in 1844, indicates that by c.707 B.C. the Cypriot kings had established a direct line of communication with Sargon bypassing Tyre and the Phoenicians.

“And seven kings of Yadnana... which is seven days away in the middle of the western sea... when they heard of my deeds in Chaldea and Hatti, their hearts trembled and fear overcame them. They brought to me in Babylon gold, silver, and furniture of ebony and boxwood, manufactured in their land, and kissed my feet. I commanded that a stele be inscribed with my victory and my conquests over all my enemies, by the power of the great gods, and left it for posterity in the land of Yadnana.”[5]

For Sargon the stele was a demonstration of the extent of his dominions which now reached even unto Cyprus across the sea, but for the Cypriot kings it indicated that they were now under the protection of a distant king, and for the cost of an occasional tribute, could enjoy a large measure of real independence. Judging from the archaeological record, the century which followed seems to have been a golden age for Cyprus.[6]

For much of its ancient history Cyprus was divided into city-kingdoms. In a building inscription from Nineveh, Sargon’s successor Esarhaddon (680-669 B.C.) lists ten vassal kings of “Ya’ Adnana in the midst of the sea”, i.e., Cyprus.[7] At least seven of these have Greek names:

The Kition Stele

Four towns or cities are not mentioned in the inscription: Amathus (Ἀμαθούς), Kyrenia (Κυρηνεία), Lapethos (Λάπηθος), and Kition (Κίτιον), but Kition may have been known to the Assyrians as Qarti-hadasti.

Speaking of a later time Diodorus Siculus refers to only nine city-kingdoms, but does not give names: “For in this island were nine populous cities, and under them were ranged the small towns which were suburbs of the nine cities. Each of these cities had a king who governed the city and was subject to the King of the Persians.”[8]

The city-kingdoms of Cyprus

With the decline of Assyrian power, Cyprus came under Egyptian control. According to Herodotus, the Pharaoh Amasis II (570-526 B.C.) “... took Cyprus, which no man had ever done before, and compelled it to pay him a tribute.”[09] However Egyptian rule was short-lived, for Egypt itself fell to the Persians in 525 B.C.

During the period of Persian rule, Evagoras I of Salamis (410-374 B.C.) extended his own rule over other city-states of Cyprus, and when the Persian Emperor decided that his vassal's power needed to be curbed with a show of force, Evagoras managed, with assistance from Athens, to make himself ruler of of “almost... the whole island”.

... when he was forced to go to war, he proved so valiant, and had so valiant an ally in his son Pnytagoras, that he almost subdued the whole of Cyprus, ravaged Phoenicia, took Tyre by storm, caused Cilicia to revolt from the king, and slew so many of his enemies that many of the Persians, when they mourn over their sorrows, recall the valor of Evagoras. And finally he so glutted them with war that the Persian kings, who at other times were not accustomed to make peace with their rebellious subjects until they had become masters of their persons, gladly made peace, abandoning this custom and leaving entirely undisturbed the authority of Evagoras.
Isocrates, Evagoras, trans. George Norlin, 1928.
Evagoras ... agreed to peace on the conditions that he should be king of Salamis, pay the fixed tribute annually, and obey as a king the orders of the King.
Diodorus of Sicily, Trans. C. H. Oldfather, 1933.

The island came under Greek rule again when it was wrested from the Persians by Alexander the Great in 333 B.C. Following his death in 323 B.C., it became, along with Egypt, part of the territory ruled by the Macedonian-Greek dynasty of the Ptolemies, the last of whom was Cleopatra. Under the Ptolemies the kingdoms of Cyprus were abolished: “The Cypriotes were first ruled in their several cities by kings, but since the Ptolemaic kings became lords over Egypt, Cyprus too passed to them.” (Strabo 14, 6.)

Rome, Constantinople and Christianity

The Romans captured Cyprus in 58 B.C., but it was returned to Cleopatra by Julius Caesar in 47 B.C. With her demise the rule of Rome was reinstated, and Cyprus remained under Roman rule for the next twelve centuries, in the course of which the Empire acquired a second capital in Constantinople, and lost its original one to invading “barbarians”. In the East the Roman Empire survived for many centuries after the fall of Rome, and only came to an end when Constantinople itself fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

The eastern Roman Empire is often called the Byzantine Empire, after Byzantium, the original name of the city of Constantinople, but its citizens always referred to their empire as the Roman Empire.

Christianity came to Cyprus early. The first stop on the very first missionary journey, was Salamis in Cyprus, where the apostles "preached the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews" (chap. 13, The Acts of the Apostles). The apostles then made their way across the island to Paphos, from whence they sailed to Asia Minor. The missionaries on this trip were Saint Barnabas, a Cypriot by birth, and the Apostle Paul.

Barnabas returned to the island in A.D. 50 with Mark the Evangelist, and according to tradition, became the first Bishop of Cyprus. He was martyred in A.D. 57 at Salamis. Not surprisingly Saint Barnabas is the patron saint of Cyprus.

Icon of Saint Barnabas

Life became much more secure for Christians when Christianity was adopted as the state religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century. The cultural character of the Roman Empire then began to change markedly.

In the eastern Empire where Greek had long been the lingua franca of the whole region, Greek was adopted as the official language of the Empire in 620, during the reign of Heraclius (610-641).

Thus it was during the “Byzantine” Roman period that the Greek and Orthodox culture of the majority of the population of Cyprus was firmly established.

The Church in Cyprus was claimed by the Patriarch of Antioch (now Antakya in Turkey) to be under his jurisdiction, but the Cypriots resisted. The issue was resolved in 478 when Archbishop Anthemios of Cyprus found the tomb of Saint Barnabas after its location was revealed to him in a dream. On the breast of the remains of the Saint lay a copy of the Gospel of Saint Matthew transcribed in Barnabas’ own hand. According to tradition Barnabas always carried this Gospel with him, and when he was buried Saint Mark placed it on his breast.

Archbishop Anthemios presented the manuscript of the Gospel to the Emperor Zeno, who must have been delighted with this gift. In return he confirmed the autocephaly of the Church of Cyprus, and also granted the Archbishops of Cyprus the right to wear purple, to carry a sceptre, and to sign their names in red ink. The last was normally a privilege enjoyed only by the Emperors.

The Arabs

In the 7th century the Arabs, inspired by the prophet Mohammed, adopted a new religion, Islam, and became a force to be reckoned with. They attacked and destroyed the Persian Empire and made extensive inroads into the Roman Empire’s eastern provinces. By 639 Palestine and Syria were under their control.

Cyprus was not to remain immune from these shifts in power. In 649 an Arab fleet led by Muawiyah, the governor of newly conquered Syria and Mohammed’s brother in law, invaded Cyprus and sacked the city of Salamis. On learning that a Roman fleet was making its way to the island the raiders departed, but returned in 653. Many Cypriots were killed and the city of Lapithos was captured. However Muawiyah’s involvement in the struggle for succession to the Caliphate forced him to seek a truce with the Romans and to pay a tribute to the Emperor.

When Muawiyah became Caliph he again initiated campaigns against the eastern Roman Empire and even besieged Constantinople. After suffering heavy losses he withdrew his forces and was forced to agree to a thirty year peace and to pay the Emperor 3,000 stolidi (gold coins), 50 prisoners and 50 horses per year.

In 688 the peace was reconfirmed with the new Caliph, Abd al-Malik. “One of the conditions of the peace ... was the division of the Cypriote tribute between the two powers.” (E. J. Brill, First Encyclopaedia of Islam.) Despite this arrangement sporadic raids by Arab forces continued, e.g. in 743 and 773.

... it is clear that Cyprus in the Umaiyad period, apart from occasional Arab razzias [raids] and quite ephemeral occupations, retained a fairly independent position between the two great powers, to which it was materially bound by the payment of tribute, on which point the sympathies of its Christian inhabitants were rather with Byzantium than Islam. Under the ‘Abbasids the situation became still more favourable to the Byzantines. It is true that we read of successful expeditions against Cyprus, under Harun al-Rashid, for example, and even later. It is clear that on these occasions the permanent occupation of the island was not thought of. But Byzantine influence always soon became preponderant again... The population remained Christians as before; their trade assured them friendly relations on either side. The island was however used as a naval base by whichever side happened to be predominant at sea for the time. After [Emperor] Nicephoros Phocas (963—969) we find it again [fully] in the possession of the Byzantines.
E. J. Brill, “Cyprus”, First Encyclopaedia of Islam, 1913-1936.

To be continued...

Pavlos Andronikos


[1] “The Greek colonists traced their descent, at Curium, from Argos; at Lapathus, from Laconia; at Paphos, from Arcadia; at Salamis, from the Attic island of that name; and at Soli, also from Attica. The settlements at Paphos and Salamis, and probably at Curium, were believed to date from the period of the Trojan War, i.e. from the I3th century, and the latter part of the Mycenaean age...” “Cyprus”, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911.

[2] Eusebius’ Chronicle. He gives as his source the writings of Diodorus.

[3] Historians have not arrived at a consensus regarding the identity of Qarti-hadasti. The candidate cities are Limassol, which the Romans called Neapolis, which also means “New Town”; and Kition, which is where the stele portraying Sargon II was found. (See below.) If it is Kition, then it cannot have been literally a “new town”.

[4] From Sargon’s Annals, Recension of Hall V. My rendering, based on the translation of Nadav Naʼaman in Ancient Israel and Its Neighbors: Interaction and Counteraction: Collected Essays vol. 1, 2005, p. 122.
See also Karen Radner, “The Many Kingdoms of Cyprus”, Assyrian Empire Builders, University College London, 2012: “By the second half of the 8th century BC, Tyre dominated the political system of Cyprus since it was able, according to Assyrian testimony, to treat the local principalities as its vassal states. In 709 or possibly 708 BC, Šilṭa king of Tyre called on Sargon II of Assyria to assist him with his army in disciplining his rebellious vassals, the rulers of Cyprus.”

[5] My rendering, based on the translation of Nadav Naʼaman in Ancient Israel and Its Neighbors: Interaction and Counteraction: Collected Essays vol. 1, p. 118-9. The passage is from one of Sargon’s prisms from Calah (Nimrud). See also “The stele of Sargon II of Assyria at Kition: A Focus for an Emerging Cypriot Identity?” by Karen Radner.

[6] “From about that date [669 B.C.] Cyprus had almost 100 years of virtual independence—one of the most brilliant periods of Cypriot culture...” (“Cyprus”, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1967). See also “Cyprus” by V. Karageorghis in The Cambridge Ancient History, Volume III, Part 3: The Expansion of the Greek World, Eighth to Sixth Centuries B.C. ed. John Boardman & N. G. L. Hammond (CUP, 2nd ed. 1982), pp. 57ff.

[7] The name given to Cyprus by the Assyrians most likely means “island of the Danaans”, i.e. Greeks. (Danaans is one of the names for the Greeks in Homeric epic literature.)

[8] The Library of History of Diodorus Siculus 42: 4, vol. VII, Loeb Classical Library edition, 1952, p. 355.

[9] This statement by Herodotus is puzzling. Perhaps it is indicative of the extent of the independence of the Cypriot Kings under Assyria.