The largest island in the Mediterranean


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The largest island in the Mediterranean occupies a position which ensured its political, strategic, cultural and commercial importance. In the bronze age, a distinctive Cypriot culture (with influences from Crete, Egypt and Ugarit, reflecting the island's multi-racial population) flourished briefly. Mainland Greek influence, which was eventually to dominate in Cyprus, soon began with the arrival of the Mycenaeans. But the island was not a unit - individual cities existed independently of each other.


This independence was ended in 8th century BC when Cyprus was conquered by the Assyrians - as evidenced by a stele of Sargon dated to 709 BC. When the Assyrian empire fell, the cities, mostly ruled by kings, resumed their squabbles. In 570 BC, Cyprus came under Egyptian rule, which in turn ended with Persian conquest in 526 BC.

Persian rule

Cyprus joined the Ionian Revolt against Persia in 499 BC, but was brutally crushed. Despite this, the Persians allowed the local kings to carry on ruling themselves, minting their own coinage and even fighting each other, as long as they paid tribute and provided ships when required. 150 ships from Cyprus fought unsuccessfully for Xerxes in 480 BC. In theory Cyprus was part of the Eber-Nari satrapy, but in fact Greek cultural influence grew during the period of Persian rule. Phoenician deities had for a long while begun to be replaced by Greek ones - for example Astarte became Aphrodite - born in Cyprus (hence "Venus ,the Cyprian" of the poets") according to some versions of the myth of her birth.

Aphrodite of Cnidos

Restored version of the most famous image of Aphrodite in antiquity: Aphrodite of Cnidos by Praxiteles, 4th century BC.

Struggles for independence: Evagoras

The attempt to join the Ionian revolt had failed utterly. In 411 BC Evagoras, who claimed descent from Teucer, son of Telamon, became king of Salamis. His plan was for a united all-Greek independent Cyprus.

He inherited a thoroughly barbarized city which, because of Phoenician rule, had neither been visited by Greeks nor acquired cultural skills, having neither market nor harbour. He put all that to rights: he extended the territory of Salamis, threw walls round the city, built triremes and put up civic buildings. In this way he advanced its power so that it was generally viewed with fear rather than, as formerly, with contempt.Isocrates 9, Evagoras, 47

He made friends with the Athenian general Conon, and calmed Persian fears by sending Cypriot ships to help Athens and Persia eliminate Spartan ambitions in the Aegean at the battle of Cnidos in 394 BC . A decree found in Athens calls him "a Greek on the side of Greece". But Persia, thanks to his enemies in Cyprus, saw what he was up to. It took them ten years, but Evagoras was - despite help from Egypt - eventually crushed at sea in 381 BC. He'd had a good run, capturing at one time cities in Cilicia and Phoenicia. He was allowed to remain king of Salamis though he had to acknowledge the Great King as overlord. He was assassinated in 374 BC.

But a generation later, Cyprus again tried to throw off Persian yoke, as the Egyptians had recently managed to do. But again they were crushed, by Artaxerxes III in 344 BC. And when Alexander appeared, the Cypriots saw yet another opportunity for independence. They put their fleet at Alexander's disposal, and were most useful to him in his successful siege of Tyre.

Rule by Ptolemy, and then the Romans.

But the Cypriots' hopes of an independent future were soon dashed. Cyprus was too important strategically to be ignored by Alexander's successors, and they fought fiercely over it. The winner in the end was Ptolemy, and Cyprus was ruled from Egypt until the Roman conquest in 58 BC. It became a province (linked with Cilicia until 22 BC), and remained in the Roman empire until the Arab conquest in 649 AD: remarkably the Arabs left in 688, creating a unique condominium which shared power with Constantinople for the next 300 years.

Byzantines, Cyrpriot kings and Venetians

Around 695 AD the Byzantines retook the island, but were unable to hold it against the Crusader king of England, Richard I ('The Lionheart'). His s rule was brief : he sold it to the Knights Templar who sold it on to one Guy de Lusignan, whose successors ruled an increasingly prosperous island, intermittently encouraging ambitious crusaders and warring with various European factions and the Mamelukes in Egypt. The last of the Lusignan kings abdicated in 1489 in favour of the Venetians.

Ottomans and after

The Ottomans invaded Venetian Cyprus in 1570 with overwhelming force, followed by massacre of Christians on a huge scale. Despite the victory of the Pope's coalition Don John of Austria over the Ottoman fleet at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, Cyprus remained under Turkish rule. By the 19th century Greek Cypriots began their long struggle for closer ties with Greece: but in 1878 the sultan made a secret deal with the British, allowing Great Britain to take over Cyrpus (now strategic once more because of the new Suez Canal) in return for support for Turkey against Russia (1877-8).

The role of Cyprus as a prize for those wanting to control Egypt is a consistent theme in the complex history of the island.