Cyprus in the Middle Ages

The Medieval history of Cyprus starts with the division of the Roman Empire into an Eastern and Western half.

Byzantine period and Arab Condominium

The cities of Cyprus were destroyed by two successive earthquakes in 332 and 342 AD and this marked the end of an era and at the same time the beginning of a new one, very much connected with modern life in Cyprus. Most of the cities were not rebuilt, save Salamis which was rebuilt on a smaller scale and renamed Constantia after the Roman Emperor Constantius II, son of Constantine the Great, residing in Constantinople.

The new city was now the capital of the island. It was mainly Christian and due to this some alterations were made during the rebuilding. The palaestra was turned into a meeting place and many architectural elements were used to erect spacious churches decorated with murals, mosaics and coloured marbles.

After the division of the Roman Empire into an eastern half and a western half, Cyprus came under the rule of Byzantium.The main event in Cyprus in comparison to older times was the spreading of the Christian faith that created a new attitude towards life since its morality was different to that of paganism. At that time, its bishop, while still subject to the Church, was made autocephalous by the Council of Ephesus.

Nicephorus Phocas

The political history of the island is one of tranquillity until 649 AD when we have the first Arab invasion. Until then people were engaged very much in matters of faith, especially fighting the effort of the Patriarch of Antioch to put the Church of Cyprus under his control. They were finally successful in 488 AD when Archbishop Anthemius guided by a dream discovered the tomb of St Barnabas with the Saint's body lying in a coffin and on his chest a copy of the Gospel by St Matthew in Barnabas' own writing. Having the relics with him, Anthemius dashed to Constantinople and presented them to Emperor Zeno. The latter was very much impressed and he not only confirmed the independence of the Church of Cyprus but he also gave to the Archbishop in perpetuity three privileges that are as much alive today as they were then, namely to carry a sceptre instead of a pastoral staff, to sign with red ink and to wear a purple cloak during services.

By the beginning of the 7th century, the patriarch of Alexandria was St. John the Merciful from Amathus. Another important Cypriot of the time is the church writer Leontios of Neapolis.

In 649 AD Arabs sailed with a big armada under the leadership of Muawiya against Cyprus. They conquered and sacked the capital Salamis - Constantia after a brief siege and pillaged the rest of the island. In the course of this expedition a relative of the Prophet, Umm-Haram fell from her mule near the Salt Lake at Larnaca and was killed. She was buried in that spot and much later in 1816 the Hala Sultan Tekke was built there by the Turks.

In 654 AD the second Arab invasion took place that devastated the island again. This time, however, a garrison of 12,000 men was left in Cyprus, an indication of their intentions to incorporate it into the Moslem world.

When the Arabs invaded Cyprus in 688, the emperor Justinian II and the caliph Abd al-Malik reached an unprecedented agreement. For the next 300 years, Cyprus was ruled jointly by both the Arabs and the Byzantines as a condominium, despite the nearly constant warfare between the two parties on the mainland and the collected taxes were divided among the Arabs and the Emperor. Isolation of Cyprus from the rest of the Greek speaking world assisted the formation of a separate Cypriot dialect.

This period lasted until the year 965, when a resurgent Byzantine Empire under the leadership of Nicephorus Phocas conquered the island. In 1185, the last Byzantine governor of Cyprus, Isaac Comnenus of Cyprus from a minor line of the Imperial house, rose in rebellion and attempted to seize the throne. His attempted coup was unsuccessful, but Comnenos was able to retain control of the island.

Byzantine actions against Comnenos failed because he enjoyed the support of William II of Sicily. The Emperor had agreed with the sultan of Egypt to close Cypriot harbours to the Crusaders. Isaac Comnenos was displaced by Richard I Plantagenet in 1192 and kept prisoner till his death in 1194 or 1195.

Crusades—Lusignan Period 1191-1489

In the 12th century A.D. the island became a target of the crusaders. Richard the Lionheart landed in Limassol on the 1st of June 1191 in search of his sister and his bride Berengaria, whose ship had become separated from the fleet in a storm. Upon her arrival, the ruler Isaac Comnenus of Cyprus requested that Berengaria deboard, which she refused, and upon her own refusal was denied supplies from Comnenus. Richard took this as an insult and attacked the island which was easily subdued. Comnenus was bound to lend aid to Richard in his crusade against Saladin, an oath which he later broke, and Richard had him bound in silver chains (as he swore not to bind Comnenus in iron). The Cypriot chronicler St. Neophytus gave Richard the epithet of "the wretch". Richard married Berengaria in Limassol on the 12th of May 1192. She was crowned as Queen of England by John Fitzluke, Bishop of Evreux. The crusader fleet continued to St. Jean d'Acre (Syria) on the 5th of June.

The army of Richard the Lionheart continued to occupy Cyprus and raised taxes. After local revolts he decided to sell the island to the Knights Templar, who were unable to hold the island because of further hostility among the local population due to tax raising. A rebellion which took place on April 6 1192 made the Templars sell the island to Guy de Lusignan (1192-1194) who established himself in May 1192.

Guy de Lusignan

Richard saw this sale as advantageous to himself, as the island wasn't worth the trouble to him, as Guy had been captured by Saladin at Jerusalem. Though released later, in 1192 he was ousted in favor of Henry of Champagne as a result, and was willing to buy Cyprus. The crusaders described him as "simplex et minus astutus", though he did set the foundation of Cypriot society in the Lusignan period. He invited Palestinian barons, disenfranchised by Saladin to move on the island, granting them feudal rights over huge estates, using the Cypriots as serfs.


Geoffrey de Lusignan passed up the position of ruler, so Guy was succeeded by his older brother Aimery (1194-1205). During his reign, the Latin church tookover the dioceses of the Orthodox, creating a long standing dispute that also characterized the Lusignan period. Aimery also managed to get Cyprus recognized as "kingdom", a title granted to him by Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI. He then regained officially the title of the King of Jerusalem by marrying Henry Champagne's widow, Isabel. Though in name only, this title was something the Lusignan kings were very proud of as it appears on the Cypriot coat of arms. After some skirmishing in Acre with the Sultan of Egypt al-Malkik al-Adil, a treaty was granted in 1204 giving him some advantages in Palestine. It is said that his eating too much fish in one sitting was his cause of death in 1205.

Hugh I

The kingship then passed to his son, Hugh I (1205-1218), as he was only 5 at the time. He participated in the useless 5th crusade, and died suddenly in Tripoli. He had married Alice of Champagne (daughter of Henry and Isabel) and had only one son, Henry I (1218-1253).

Henry I

His regency lasted almost 15 years, under his mother Alice. She granted the Genoese extensive trading privileges on the island (which would prove later to be a mistake), giving them the port of Famagusta, which would replace Limassol as the island's leading port by 1300 (helped especially by a 10 year papal ban on Muslim trade).

Frederick II tried to seize the regency, receiving initially recognition of suzerainity from now regent John of Ibelin, but later the regent would join the oppositon. In the battle of Aghirda, the Ibelins won a surprising victory of the imperial forces, and the effots of Frederick. known as the Stupor Mundi proved unsuccessful. King Henry ("the fat" as he was called, for his easy going manner) played no part in these struggles, but when of age he participated in the 7th crusade under Louis IX of France to destroy the power of Egypt. His left behind forces were forced to surrender in 1250.

Meanwhile, Henry takes as his 3rd wife Plaisance of Antioch, who finally bears him a son Hugh II (1253-1267) who came upon the throne while only a few months of age. Plaisance acted as his regent, and is described by one chronicler as "one of the most valiant women in the world". She appeared at Acre, now erupting into virtual war between the Venetians, Pisans, and Knights Templar and the Genoese, Spanish, and the Hospitallers. By backing the Venetians, she hoped to have her son recognized as the King of Jerusalem, but the title had little value.

When Plaisance died, Hugh of Antioch became regent.

Hugh II

Hugh II died childless, and Hugh of Antioch changed his name to Hugh III, (1267-1284), taking from his mother's side in order to revive the Lusignan dynasty. The Christian-friendly Mongols were pushing from the east and offered a chance of alliance against the Egyptian Sultan, but the eternally feuding powers of Medieval Europe threw this chance away, while Hugh tried to mediate with them in Syria. He died in Tyre, succeeded by his oldest son John I (1284-1285), and then by his other son Henry II (1285-1324). His reign and reputation suffered from his epilepsy, and in 1286 he was crowned at Tyre for the kingdom of Jerusalem only to see it fall to Egyptian Mameluk sultan. In 1306, Henry's brother Amaury seized power and exiled Henry in Cilicia, but Henry was restored in 1310. He is mentioned in Dante's Paradiso, but it is not a nice reference.

Hugh III

Rule passed on to his nephew Hugh IV (1324-1359), who found himself in a new privileged position. The fall of the last coastal strongholds of the Kingdom of Jerusalem made it unnecessary for the island to waste its money on its defense. It also made the island the center for Oriental trade, and Famagustan merchants became notoriously rich, and the island as a whole became known for its wealth. Hugh enjoyed a peaceful reign, and preferred to stay on the island. Peter I (1359-1369), his son, may perhaps be the best known King of Cyprus. He is mentioned in Chaucer's canterbury tales. He led an expedition to Alexandria that upset the Italian merchants, but proved successful (at least in gathering booty). He toured Europe in order to gather support for his love of crusading, but found their promises unfulfilled. He sacked Alexandria again regardless, and in destroying the gates found it impossible to hold against the Mameluks. He was driven out, but had he held it would have been a very valuable outpost. He was murdered by his nobles, but left a very devoted wife Eleanor of Aragon (supposedly he took her nightgown with him on his campaigns), who with the help of the Italians pursued the assassins.

Peter II

Upon the ascension of Peter II "the fat", (1369-1382), because of his lethargy, a riot broke out the coronation ceremony at the Cathedral of St. Nicholas in Famagusta between the Venetians and the Genoese. The dispute arose over who would lead the King's horse on the right side; traditionally it belonged to the Genoese but now the Venetians took it. Many Genoese were killed in the riot, and the Italian city responded harshly. In 1374, the island surrendered to the Genoese under terms of tribute, payment for damages, and loss of Famagusta to the Genoese, effectively ending prosperity.

James I

Peter succumbed to his lethargy, and the rule passed on to James I (1382-1398), his uncle and now prisoner in Genoa. He was released on harsh terms, including the proviso that all ships coming into Cyprus land in now Genoese Famagusta. The King also had to raise taxes in order to pay. He added the title the King of Armenia in 1393, though it was useless as well.


He was succeeded by the son of Peter the II., Janus (1389-1432), though also called the fat was described as "tall and good looking". He unsuccessfully tried to drive the Genoese from Famagusta. In 1426 the Mameluks raided the island, and Janus met them at Khirokitia. Apparently the troops had no water, so they drank wine instead and became rather intoxicated. When a Mameluk embassy was sent, it was treacherously killed by Janus' men. The outraged Turks slaugthered the inebriated, enfeebled, soldiers under Janus. They then proceeded to expose the hoax of the levitating cross at the monastery at Stravovouni, containing a piece deposited by St. Helena in the 4th century. Janus was taken to Egypt and paraded around backwards on a donkey in humiliation. Two years later he was ransomed back, and Cyprus was now ruled by the Mameluks.

John II

His son John II (1432-1458), was described as "effeminate, but not unattractive" and was reviled by Pope Pius II as a vile evil sloth. He was dominated by two women in his life, both Greek; Helena Palaeologina his wife and Marietta of Patras, his mistress. Supposedly in a fight between these two in the king's presence, the queen bit off her adversary's nose. As the queen was Greek, she was well loved by the Cypriots and the orthodox church.

Her daughter Charlotte and her opponent's son James would play huge roles in the collapse of the Lusignan dynasty. James "the bastard", as he was called, was well loved by John, who made him archbishop of the island at a very young age. Yet Charlotte in 1458 was recognized as Queen regent, and James fled to Egypt. The two were said to have had a fairly good relationship, and it is probably very much due to the church that this political conflict arose between them. James convinced the Egyptian Sultan to aid him, promising loyalty to Egypt, and landed, armed, in 1460.


James won victories over the major forts, including Genoese Famagusta, and was solidly placed on the throne in 1464. Charlotte had unsuccessfully tried to secure aid from outside, including from the pope who was disgusted with her Greek and lack of French. According the legend, James fell in love with his wife Caterina Cornaro while walking with her uncle who purposely dropped an image of her. The two were wed by proxy, and Caterina was adopted by the Venetian state, securing the passage of the island to the signory. James died in 1473, and his short-lived son the next year, and the Venetians were eyed with suspicion. In 1473, the Catalans on the island formed a revolt supporting Ferdinand II of Aragon, that was put down by the Venetians. In 1479, the party of Queen Charlotte plotted to assassinate the queen, but it was betrayed and quashed. Due also to the looming threat of the Ottoman Turks, Venice used the Queen's brother to convince her to abdicate the throne in 1489, ushering in the Venetian period.


Hunt, Sir David (ed.) 1994. Footprints in Cyprus. London.

Venetian Period 1489-1571

Caterina Cornaro left her kingdom on the doge's ship in 1489, apparently against her will as she was well loved by the inhabitants. She survived almost 20 years after her reluctant abdication, and the rule of Cyprus passed over to the Venetian Signory. Venice had been accumulating land, despite its early success solely as a sea power, and Cyprus came under its jurisdiction. In a model like Pericles in Thucydides, or George Washington's farewell address in American History, the Venetian Doge Moncinego had long ago warned Venice not to overextended itself in a land empire. In all of these cases, this advice was of course, ignored.

The Signory had great repute in Venice itself, indeed supposedly matching up to the Venetian myth, but in its colonial administration it was corrupt. The island was run by three men; the lieutenant and two councillers collectively known as the three rectors, as well as a captain for the army. The signory feared these men becoming too powerful, so these positions changed every two years. As a result this administration was greedy, lethargic, and overall inadequate, and although taxes were high they were still not enough to run the island. One pilgrim noted that "all the inhabitants of Cyprus are slaves to the Venetians."

Salt was the major item of production on the island in this period, taken from Larnaca. In earlier times it was used in the cult of Aphrodite, as the salt lake produces around a one inch thick deposit. It was said that Larnaca provided enough salt to fill 34 ships, all of this profit went not to the island, but straight back to Venice.

In 1562 the Greeks raised a failed revolt. In 1566, Suleiman the Magnificent, ruler of the Ottoman Turks was succeeded by his son Selim "the fool", an epithet given to him by western historians. Suleiman had been advised by his grand vizier to leave Cyprus alone, due to friendly relations with the signory and the prosperity that the Ottomans were enjoying as a result of trade with them. Because it was customary for the new ruler to conquer new territory, and Selim didn't care for the advice of this vizier, he sent an insulting request for cession of the island to the signory. This request claimed for the immediate ceding of the island, citing the condominium of 649-965AD and the debts of James the Bastard to the Caliphate as reasons why this island was the property of the Muslims; this was pure instigation citing these rather bogus reasons. The Venetians prepared for invasion, updating sites as Nicosia, Kyrenia, and Famagusta. The Lusignan walls were restored; they were made shorter and thicker to adjust to more formidable artillery of the period. Earth was also put on top of the walls, to better handle the impact. Nicosia indeed was perhaps the vangaurd of military technology at the time. Bastions stationed around the roughly circular plan allowed the gunners collectively full range of 360 degrees.

General Lala Mustafah landed near Larnaca on July 1st 1570. The writer Paruta is a good source for the activities of this invasion, and to him I am much indebted for this following information on the invasion. The island suffered from incompetent military leadership; there was only one capable leader on the island who defended Famagusta. Nicosia was defended by the bumbling Matteo Dandalo, who held his troops within the walls leaving Mustafah free range of the island, which he plundered.

The Venetians also couldn't rely on the Cypriots themselves, who hated their overbearers. Mustafah, in an unexpected moves, pursued the nobility of the island and attacked Nicosia first. Though Nicosia had adequate supplies and great architecture, its undoing proved to be its leadership, led by Dandalo. The fort was surrendered after only 6 weeks, perhaps Dandalo thought he himself would get special treatment from the enemy. There was none to be found, and the city was massacred, save for the Cypriot peasants who during the course of the battle had hauled down the Venetian flag and had raised the Ottoman. A mosque was erected in honor of the deceased standard bearer, who had been the first to set upon the walls. The heads of Dandalo and the other nobles were sent to Kyrenia, which surrendered without a fight.

Mustafah next doubled his army to almost 200,000 for the siege of Famagusta, attracting people with promises of booty multiple times better than that of Nicosia. Famagusta was led by the only great leader on the island, the Venetian Marc Antony Bragodino though the fort itself was undersupplied, and the harvest hadn't been brought in for the year as well. Bragodino had only about 10,000 men defending. The Venetian gunners had to fire sparingly as their powder supply was quickly dwindling, and the best tactic against the enemy were fireworks shot at them. Wealthy Venetains offered financial incentive to those who fought the Turks in single combat. After about a year, the ravelin fell, and Bragodino surrendered, seeing further defense as useless. He came to agreeable terms with the Turks, securing safe passage of the inhabitants from the island. However, these terms were rescinded; the Venetians say that Mustafa was angry at seeing the pathetic status and numbers of the army that had troubled him while the Ottomans say that the Venetians mistreated Turkish prisoners. The prisoners were kept, and Bragodino himself had his eyes and nose cut off, was flayed alive, and stuffed with hay to be paraded around Istanbul. Later his body was recovered and brought back to Venice. Good feeling in Istanbul wasn't to be found, as the Turks had suffered a defeat in the battle of Lepanto in 1571, ending Ottoman westward expansion. But the declining empire lived on and ruled the island of Cyprus until 1878, the beginning of the British occupation.


  • Hunt, Sir David (ed.) 1994. Footprints in Cyprus. London.
  • Cobham, C.D. 1908 (reprint 1969). Excerpta Cypria. Materials for a History of Cyprus. Cambridge.

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