Cyprus – a meeting and mixing of cultures

It is probably its long history as a place where cultures meet and mix that gave the people of Cyprus their dynamism and charm, including a touching hospitality, but above all an eagerness to strike up a conversation, rare in a country suffering under partial occupation. The most recent political developments perhaps herald an end to this tragedy.

Abandoned house close to the demarcation zone, Nicosia, 2008.

The history of Cyprus goes back a long way, with traces of human settlement discovered on the island as early as the 9th Millennium BC. Six thousand years later, people had developed now mastering the techniques of copper working. Cyprus in fact lent its Latin name (cuprum) to this metal. But the real foundations of Cyprus were laid with the arrival in around 1200 BC of the Mycenaean Greeks who brought their language, culture and skills. Greek culture was to continue to dominate the island, albeit with ups and downs.

Quickly developing into a centre of Greek culture, Cyprus mixed the heritage of the motherland with inputs from many other cultures, all of them still present today in this melting pot of a country. Another major contribution came with the arrival of the Phoenicians in the 9th century BC, after being driven from their land (present-day Lebanon) by the Assyrians. This period brought a new flourishing of culture notably thruogh excellence in creating ceramics and fine jewellery, appreciated on Cyprus to this day. A succession of conquerors followed, with the Assyrians in the 8th century BC and the Egyptians in the 6th. The Persians arrived in 525 BC and held the land in an iron grip. This lasted until the victory of Alexander the Great in 333 BC, marking the official entry of Cyprus into its Hellenic era, which continued until 30 BC and the beginning of the Roman period that ended in 330 AD. The country then became a province of Byzantium and remained so for nine centuries, despite successive Arab raids. This period infused Cyprus very markedly with the culture of this Eastern Roman Empire. The Cypriot Orthodox Church became autocephalous at the end of the 5th century, thus appointing its own head.

Richard 1st (the Lionheart) seized the island at the end of the 12th century, ceding it to the Knights Templar whose regressive and dictatorial reign was followed by Venetian domination in 1489 and Ottoman occupation in 1570. This lasted until 1878 when Cyprus, which was still in theory part of the Ottoman Empire, was ceded to British administration in exchange for protection against the Russian threat.

One of the 20th century’s tragedies

In 1914, as a reprisal measure for Turkey aligning with Germany, Great Britain annexed Cyprus. The country officially became a British colony in 1925. The annexation was relatively well accepted as supporters of the first enosis (union with Greece), who made up the majority of the population and saw it as a timely opportunity. Disappointment was to follow and uprisings which were quickly quelled. After the Second World War, there was no recompense for the Greek Cypriots who had enlisted in large numbers (60,000) alongside the British troops.

In 1955, they embarked on an armed struggle. Thanks to US intervention, in 1959 the Greek and Turkish leaders reached an agreement on the terms of independence for Cyprus that ruled out any union with Greece and any partitioning of the country. A right of veto was granted to the Turkish Cypriot minority (about 20 per cent of the population) on a number of sensitive issues, as well as a guaranteed 30 per cent representation in the civil service. A final agreement was reached between the two parties and Great Britain. The agreement inter alia permitted Great Britain to retain its military bases on the island, which became independent on 16 August 1960. Its first president was Archbishop Makarios, one of the great non-aligned leaders of the Third World.


The most determined members of the two communities were dissatisfied with the independence agreements and successive clashes prompted the UN Security Council to send a peacekeeping force to the island in 1964. The island’s partition had already begun when Turkish Cypriot ministers were resigning from the government and fellow members of their community were increasingly moving to the north of the island.

The military junta that had seized power in Greece in 1967 helped fuel a coup against President Makarios. In response to this and in the absence of any reaction from the third power guaranteeing the independence, i.e. Great Britain, Turkey seized the occasion to send in its army on 20 July 1974.

It was soon to occupy 35 per cent of the territory, representing what was the most economically developed part of Cyprus at the time, with an economic potential estimated to be 70 per cent. A line of demarcation was traced that ran right through the city of Nicosia. Today this remains the world’s only divided capital. About 140,000 Greek Cypriots, a quarter of the island’s population, were forced to abandon their homes and flee to the south. About 1,500 also disappeared. Only a few hundred Greek Cypriots and Maronites remained in the north.

Hope reborn

It took the population of the Republic of Cyprus just 20 years to rebuild their economy and regain past splendours, to such a degree that Cyprus was able to meet the criteria for EU membership. For the European bodies, this accession implied prior reunification of the island in accordance with the UN’s Annan Plan that was to be adopted by a referendum held simultaneously in both parts of the island. Whereas it won 65 per cent of the votes in the ‘occupied’ part of the island, it was rejected by 76 per cent of the Greek Cypriots, thereby closing the door on Europe for northern Cyprus. This was a rude awakening for the European institutions and caused resentment among the Turkish Cypriots. However, the reality was much more complex. Despite the intent it did not seem that the Greek Cypriots were seeking revenge but simply regarded the Annan Plan as unbalanced with too many constraints for them and too many prerogatives for the Turkish Cypriots, if not for Turkey itself.

The election as president of Dimitris Christofias, the AKEL (Communist Party of Cyprus) candidate on 24 February this year, shows clearly that the Greek Cypriots had no desire to prolong the disagreement. The amended corrections to the Annan Plan requested by Christofias earned him the support of the principal election loser, former President Papadopoulos. He had been eliminated in the first round despite his economic and social successes, a fact which seemed to reflect that his uncompromising opposition to the Annan Plan was not widely supported.

Dialogue resumed immediately following the election of Dimitris Christofias who entered into negotiations with Mehmet Ali Talat, President of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (a state not recognised by the international community). The first symbol of these thawed relations was the opening of a Ledra Street crossing point in the demarcation line. Ledra was the original name of Cyprus.


Hegel Goutier

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