CYPRUS: History, People and Culture

When Cyprus became independent in 1960, its population composition was 78% Greek-Cypriots of the Christian Orthodox faith, 18% Turkish-Cypriots of the Muslim faith and 4% other Christians, primarily Armenians and Maronites. This population composition of an overwhelming majority of Greek-speaking population, also reflected the cultural make-up of the island which, in historical terms, can be characterized as Greco-Byzantine in essence with foreign influences reflecting the tumultuous history of the island.

Greek culture was introduced to Cyprus by the Achaean Greeks who settled in the island during the second millennium BC. Since then, Cypriot culture evolved along the Hellenic culture which eventually dominated the Aegean, Asia Minor and the Eastern Mediterranean. Following the conquests of Alexander the Great, Hellenistic culture was the dominant one throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. By then, Cyprus had become source of a rich blend of Hellenic culture. The Greek goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite, was believed to have been born out of the waves at the shores of Paphos, in southwestern Cyprus. The island itself became an important place of worship of Aphrodite. Ancient Greek temples and monuments are found throughout Cyprus.

The language spoken today in Cyprus is called Cypriot dialect (Kypriaki dialectos). It represents a Greek idiom based on the ancient Greek language. Being a dynamic construct, this Greek idiomatic language spoken by the Cypriots evolved through the centuries and was influenced by its environment. This spoken idiom, however, has remained Greek notwithstanding some Latin-Italian and Turkish influences. This is also clearly reflected in the written language of today which is identical to the literary language of Greece. There exists a rich tradition of Cypriot literary production throughout the centuries.

The strategic location of Cyprus at the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East, made the island, throughout history, a target of foreign invasions. The conquerors of Cyprus during antiquity included the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Phoenicians, the Persians, the Ptolemies, the Romans, all of whom left their imprint on the island. In this respect, Cypriot culture has exhibited the elasticity which has characterized Hellenism historically. It has received and absorbed external cultural influences while preserving the essence of Greek cultural characteristics as this are reflected in the language, the Cypriot dialect, and in traditions and customs.

Cyprus was introduced to Christianity in 45 AD by Saint Paul, Saint Mark and Saint Barnabas who preached the religion of Christ in Paphos and elwhere in the island. By the 4th century AD, Cyprus had gradually become Christian, as it came under Byzantine rule.

Greek culture has been complemented by that of Byzantium which itself represented a marriage between Christianity and Hellenism. Cyprus had been under Byzantine rule, or orbit, from the fourth to the 12th centuries. The rise of Islam in the 7th century and the ensuing Islamic conquests rendered Cyprus a borderland between Byzantine Christianity and Islam. As a consequence, Cyprus was subject to repeated raids by the Saracen Muslims between the 7th and the 10th centuries.

The influence of the Hellenized Christianity of Byzantium on Cypriot culture has been profound. Byzantine culture, the traditions and rituals of Eastern Orthodoxy, the splendid art revolving around Christian worship, have left a lasting imprint on Cyprus deeply felt until today. Some of the best Byzantine frescoes are found in old churches throughout Cyprus. Already at the early stages of Byzantine rule, the Church of Cyprus was recognized as an Apostolic Church being founded by Saint Barnabas. Towards the end of the fourth century, Byzantine Emperor Zeno reconfirmed the Autocephaly of the Cypriot Church and granted it certain imperial privilleges. From that time on, and for fifteen centuries--with some periods of decline--the Autocephalus Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus, served as the most important institution in Cyprus, one which represented the Greek community up to modern times. Until today, the Church of Cyprus follows some of the original Byzantines traditions in its liturgy.

As the Byzantine Empire declined, there was an interlude of Lusignian-French and Venetian rule over Cyprus from the 13th to the 16th century. Frankish and Italian influence on Cypriot culture was not insignificant, but still remained secondary to the lasting influence of Byzantium.

The Ottoman Turks conquered Cyprus in 1571, and ruled the island for three centuries, until 1878, when Britain became the new colonial master of the island. It was during the Ottoman period that the first Ottoman Muslim settlers were transferred to Cyprus and formed the basis of what came to constitute later the Turkish-Cypriot community on the island. As they did throughout their empire in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans, the Ottoman Turks brought along with them their Islamic faith and culture which is evident in the mosques and other monuments found in Cyprus today. The Orthodox Christian population of the island was ruled under the millet system according to which the Orthodox Church became the representative of the Christians before the Sultan and the local Ottoman authorities.

When Ottoman rule came to an end in 1878 and Britain took control of Cyprus, the population composition of the island was: Greek Orthodox 74%, and Muslim Turkish 24.5%. This, according to a British census conducted in 1881.

Up until independence, Cyprus was a traditional society and remained as such throughout British colonial rule (1878-1960). Most population lived in villages and engaged in agriculture. At the time of independence in 1960, 65% of the population lived in rural areas while 35% lived in cities. Urbanization was slow and cities maintained a parochial character. The middle class was small and consisted of merchants, professionals such as doctors and lawyers and the upper level civil servants working in the colonial administration. Social customs and culture were interwoven to religious traditions. For the Greek Cypriot majority, the Autocephalus Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus was a central social institution. Life in villages especially, revolved around the church and its traditions and rituals. Moreover, the Church played an important role in education in urban and rural areas alike. For the Turkish Cypriot minority, Islam was a way of life. Ataturk's secular reforms in Turkey had a certain influence on Turkish Cypriots especially on the educated urban class. The majority of Turkish Cypriots, however, were peasants and Islam remained a major axis around which life in the village revolved.

While religion played a very important role in coloring Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot culture respectively, there were areas where the Christian-Muslim dichotomy was not as clear as one migh have thought. There were several villages throughout Cyprus were religious syncretism was practiced. There were a few thousand Turkish Cypriots, known as crypto-Christians, who professed the Muslim faith but also engaged in Christian religious practices. Furthermore, over 60% of the Turkish Cypriot population lived in mixed villages and many Turkish Cypriots spoke Greek and communicated with their neighbors in Greek. In mixed villages Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots patronized each others coffee shops. The two groups cooperated closely in the economic field. This was especially the case in the agricultural sector given the interdependence among Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot farmers. The two groups also cooperated closely in the labor and cooperative movements throughout Cyprus. Overall, notwithstanding occasional crises, there was a considerable degree of Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot symbiosis, as the two communities lived peacefully side by side during British colonial rule and up until the aftermath of the Second World War.

At the time of independence, in 1960, Greek-Cypriots constituted 78% of the population and Turkish-Cypriots 18%. In other words, four fifths of the population were Greek Cypriots of the Christian Orthodox faith and one fifth were Turkish Cypriots of the Muslim faith. Generally speaking, after 80 years of British rule, Cyprus had a large majority of a Greek-speaking population and Greek Orthodoxy was interwoven to local idiosyncracies to produce what is known as Cypriot culture. There were, though, obvious British influences on Cyprus, especially in the realm of its legal system and its public administration which affected culture and the way of life. The earlier Ottoman administrative system, did have an effect on the island, particularly in land distribution, social stratification, and in the administration of the Church through the millet system. Moreover, Ottoman presence was evident through the existence of the Turkish minority whose members lived around the island. Still, Britain left its mark on Cyprus. The British legal system and methods of public administration gradually superseded and replaced the Ottoman ones, and created a Cypriot civil service which emerged as perhaps the most efficient in the Eastern Mediterranean. Moreover, Britain introduced Cyprus, gradually and always in the context of colonialism, into the path of capitalist economy. Notwithstanding the colonial and periodically repressive character of British rule, Greek-Cypriots felt much more affinity to Britain's western culture, economic system and British ways in general, compared to the Ottoman Muslim culture and the Oriental despotism of the Ottoman Turks.

Following seven decades of British colonial rule, the Greek-Cypriots launched, in 1955, a guerrilla campaign against the British at a time when colonialism was retreating in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. This campaign (1955-1959) was carried out by EOKA (National Organization of Cypriot Fighters) under the leadership of George Grivas- Digenis, and aimed at the right to self-determination and Enosis, or Union with Greece. The Greek Cypriot struggle for Enosis represented a manifestation of Greek nationalist ideology. The political leader of the Greek Cypriot nationalist movement was the charismatic Archbishop Makarios, the Ethnarch, who enjoyed overwhelming popular support. At the same time, Turkish nationalism and Kemalism--the ideology of Kemal Ataturk--were becoming a force especially among the Turkish Cypriot educated class. Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot elite rejected the principle of self-determination for Cyprus or any form of self-government leading to majority rule. The years 1957 and 1958 saw the first widespread violent conflict between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots and for the fist time during the British rule, the symbiotic relationship between the two groups suffered a serious blow as the two communities moved towards polarization. A compromise settlement was reached in 1959, known as the Zurich-London Agreements, and thus, Cyprus became an independent state in 1960. Serious conditions were imposed, though, on Cypriot sovereignty, reflecting NATO strategic interests in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The life of Cyprus in the exercise of independence and statehood was shaken in 1963. Unable to reach a political modus vinendi due to a cumbersome and dysfunctional constitution, unique in the annals of constitutional history, the Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots were drawn into a bloody inter-communal conflict with catastrophic results. This conflict precipitated the militarization of Cyprus and led to polarization along ethnic lines. Greek Cypriots formed a National Guard and, in order to deter a Turkish invasion, an army division from mainland Greece was sent to Cyprus in 1964 to be withdrawn in 1967. On their part, the Turkish Cypriots formed territorial enclaves under their control, covering 3-4 percent of Cypriot territory. Turkish Cypriot defense was at the hands of Turkish officers who eventually came to control the civic and political affairs of the Turkish Cypriot community as well. In the spring of 1964, a United Nations Peacekeeping Force (UNFICYP) was dispatched to Cyprus and is still there.

In 1974, Cypriot independence was shattered as Turkey invaded the island republic. The Turkish invasion was precipitated by a military coup against the President of Cyprus Archbishop Makarios. The years 1970 to 1973 saw increasing political cleavages and violence within the Greek Cypriot community which was divided into pro-Makarios and anti-Makarios factions. In this regard, the Greek military junta, which came to power in Athens in 1967, played a highly divisive and destabilizing role in Cyprus. These internal divisions culminated in a military coup against Makarios staged on July 15, 1974. The coup was engineered by the Greek junta and carried out on its orders by the Cypriot National Guard under the command of Greek officers. Five days later, on July 20, 1974, Turkey invaded Cyprus.

Turkey claimed that the invasion, which was precipitated by the coup , was aimed at the restoration of constitutional order in the Republic and at protecting the Turkish-Cypriot minority. Constitutional order was essentially restored in Cyprus on July 24, when Speaker of the House Glafkos Clerides became Acting President of the Republic, as stipulated by the 1960 Constitution. (Constitutional order was fully restored when Makarios returned to Cyprus and assumed his post as President in December 1974.). On August 14, 1974, the Turkish military launched the second round of its invasion of the island. By the end of this round, Turkish forces had reached what they called the " Attila Line," capturing the northern 37% of the island's territory and forcibly expelling the local population from their homes. As a result of the invasion, about 200,000 Greek Cypriots became refugees and were forced to move to the south, while 40,000 Turkish Cypriots were transferred from the government controlled southern part of Cyprus to the Turkish-occupied north. Thus, Cyprus was de facto partitioned through the force of arms.

The Turkish invasion of 1974 represented a watershed for Cypriot history and had a profound effect on the small island Republic. The Turkish army effected the de facto partition of the island along the Attila Line. The invasion and ongoing occupation have also resulted in radical changes in the ethnodemography of Cyprus as tens of thousands of Turkish mainland settlers have been colonizing occupied Cyprus. (see Turkish-occupied territory). The economy of Cyprus was seriously affected as well(see Economy) .

In social, economic and cultural terms there is a clear dichotomy along the territorial division of the Attila line. Since the 1974 invasion, the free southern part of the island Republic has become a prosperous place enjoying the highest per capita income in the Eastern Mediterranean. The impressive economic growth, the rapid urbanization, the high standards of literacy, and the massive influx of tourists, have affected Cypriot culture in a variety of ways. It is becoming more cosmopolitan and Europeanized while at the same time local traditions and customs are under the intense pressure of rapid modernization which is also affecting adversely the island's natural beauty.

The occupied territory on the other hand, is a highly militarized and tightly controlled society which, as time goes by, is increasingly resembling Turkey's cultural and political landscape. (See Turkish-occupied territory).


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