Cyprus Table of Contents

Cyprus has been home to many peoples in its history. At the beginning of the 1990s, five ethnic communities lived on the island, Greek Cypriots, Turkish Cypriots, Maronites, Armenians, and Latins. The events of 1974 resulted in a de facto partition of the island, and by the early 1990s virtually all Turkish Cypriots lived in the "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus" ("TRNC"). Nearly all members of the other groups lived in the Republic of Cyprus; only about 600-hundred Greek Cypriots lived outside the governmentcontrolled area.

Greek Cypriots

Greek Cypriots formed the island's largest ethnic community, nearly 80 percent of the island's population. They were the descendants of Achaean Greeks who settled on the island during the second half of the second millennium B.C. The island gradually became part of the Hellenic world as the settlers prospered over the next centuries. Alexander the Great freed the island from the Persians and annexed it to his own empire in 333 B.C.. Roman rule dating from 58 B.C. did not erase Greek ways and language, and after the division of the Roman Empire in A.D. 285 Cypriots enjoyed peace and national freedom for 300 years under the jurisdiction of the Eastern Empire of Byzantium. The most important event of the early Byzantine period was that the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus became independent no in 431. Beginning in the middle of the seventh century, Cyprus endured three centuries of Arab attacks and invasions. In A.D. 965, it became a province of Byzantium, and remained in that status for the next 200 years.

The Byzantine era profoundly molded Cypriot culture. The Greek Orthodox Christian legacy bestowed on Greek Cypriots in this period would live on during the succeeding centuries of oppressive foreign domination. English, Lusignan, and Venetian feudal lords ruled Cyprus with no lasting impact on its culture. Because Cyprus was never the final goal of any external ambition, but simply fell under the domination of whichever power was dominant in the eastern Mediterranean, destroying its civilization was never a military objective or necessity.

Nor did the long period of Ottoman rule (1570-1878) change Greek Cypriot culture. The Ottomans tended to administer their multicultural empire with the help of their subject millets, or religious communities. The tolerance of the millet system permitted the Greek Cypriot community to survive, administered for Constantinople by the Archbishop of the Church of Cyprus, who became the community's head, or ethnarch.

However tolerant Ottoman rule may have been with regard to religion, it was otherwise generally harsh and rapacious, tempered mainly by inefficiency. Turkish settlers suffered alongside their Greek Cypriot neighbors, and the two groups endured together centuries of oppressive governance from Constantinople.

In the light of intercommunal conflict since the mid-1950s, it is surprising that Cypriot Muslims and Christians generally lived harmoniously. Some Christian villages converted to Islam. In many places, Turks settled next to Greeks. The island evolved into a demographic mosaic of Greek and Turkish villages, as well as many mixed communities. The extent of this symbiosis could be seen in the two groups' participation in commercial and religious fairs, pilgrimages to each other's shrines, and the occurrence, albeit rare, of intermarriage despite Islamic and Greek laws to the contrary. There was also the extreme case of the linobambakoi (linen-cottons), villagers who practiced the rites of both religions and had a Christian as well as a Muslim name. In the minds of some, such religious syncretism indicates that religion was not a source of conflict in traditional Cypriot society.

The rise of Greek nationalism in the 1820s and 1830s affected Greek Cypriots, but for the rest of the century these sentiments were limited to the educated. The concept of enosis--unification with the Greek motherland, by then an independent country after freeing itself from Ottoman rule--became important to literate Greek Cypriots. A movement for the realization of enosis gradually formed, in which the Church of Cyprus had a dominant role.

During British rule (1878-1960), the desire for enosis intensified. The British brought an efficient and honest colonial administration, but maintained the millet system. Government and education were administered along ethnic lines, accentuating differences. For example, the education system was organized with two Boards of Education, one Greek and one Turkish, controlled by Athens and Constantinople, respectively. The resulting education emphasized linguistic, religious, cultural, and ethnic differences and ignored traditional ties between the two Cypriot communities. The two groups were encouraged to view themselves as extensions of their respective motherlands, and the development of two distinct nationalities with antagonistic loyalties was ensured.

By the 1950s, the growing attraction of enosis for ever larger segments of Greek Cypriot society caused a Turkish Cypriot reaction, a desire for taksim--partition of the island--for the smaller ethnic community had well-founded reasons for fearing rule from the Greek mainland. In the mid-1950s, Greek Cypriot agitation for enosis went beyond manifestos and demonstrations, and Turkish Cypriots responded in kind. Within twenty years, the island was tragically divided.

By the early 1990s, Greek Cypriot society enjoyed a high standard of living, and, to a degree unknown in its past, was educated and open to influences from the outside world. Economic modernization created a more flexible and open society and caused Greek Cypriots to share the concerns and hopes of other secularized West European societies. The Archbishop of the Church of Cyprus was the ethnarch, or leader, of the Greek Cypriot community in name only, because religion had lost much of its earlier power. Finally, the dream of enosis was irrevocably shattered by the events of 1974, and Greek Cypriots sought to deal with the consequences of the Turkish invasion.

Other Ethnic Groups

Cyprus had three other ethnic groups at the beginning of the 1990s: Maronites, Armenians, and Latins. Together they numbered only about 6,000, less than 1 percent of the island's population, but they maintained social institutions of their own and were represented in organs of government. The Maronites and Armenians had come during the Byzantine period, and the Latins slightly later. The Maronites, Arabic-speaking peasants from around Syria and Lebanon, were already an important ethnic group at the time of the Turkish conquest in 1571. By the mid-twentieth century, they lived mainly in four villages in northwestern Cyprus. Armenian Cypriots were primarily urban and mercantile, most of whom had arrived after the collapse of the Armenian nationalist movement in the Caucasus at the end of World War I. Latins were concentrated among merchant families of the port towns on the southern coast and were descendants of the Lusignan and Venetian upper classes. The Ottomans had suppressed Roman Catholicism, and Latins were largely Greek Orthodox, but retained their French or Italian names. Some Latins reverted to the group's original religion.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress