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Cyprus: Historical Setting
Library of Congress Country Study 

Ottoman Rule

Throughout the period of Venetian rule, Ottoman Turks raided and attacked at will. In 1489, the first year of Venetian control, Turks attacked the Karpas Peninsula, pillaging and taking captives to be sold into slavery. In 1539 the Turkish fleet attacked and destroyed Limassol. Fearing the ever-expanding Ottoman Empire, the Venetians had fortified Famagusta, Nicosia, and Kyrenia, but most other cities were easy prey.

In the summer of 1570, the Turks struck again, but this time with a full-scale invasion rather than a raid. About 60,000 troops, including cavalry and artillery, under the command of Lala Mustafa Pasha landed unopposed near Limassol on July 2, 1570, and laid siege to Nicosia. In an orgy of victory on the day that the city fell--September 9, 1570--20,000 Nicosians were put to death, and every church, public building, and palace was looted. Word of the massacre spread, and a few days later Mustafa took Kyrenia without having to fire a shot. Famagusta, however, resisted and put up a heroic defense that lasted from September 1570 until August 1571.

The fall of Famagusta marked the beginning of the Ottoman period in Cyprus. Two months later, the naval forces of the Holy League, composed mainly of Venetian, Spanish, and papal ships under the command of Don John of Austria, defeated the Turkish fleet at Lepanto in one of the decisive battles of world history. The victory over the Turks, however, came too late to help Cyprus, and the island remained under Ottoman rule for the next three centuries.

The former foreign elite was destroyed--its members killed, carried away as captives, or exiled. The Orthodox Christians, i.e., the Greek Cypriots who survived, had new foreign overlords. Some early decisions of these new rulers were welcome innovations. The feudal system was abolished, and the freed serfs were enabled to acquire land and work their own farms. Although the small landholdings of the peasants were heavily taxed, the ending of serfdom changed the lives of the island's ordinary people. Another action of far-reaching importance was the granting of land to Turkish soldiers and peasants who became the nucleus of the island's Turkish community.

Although their homeland had been dominated by foreigners for many centuries, it was only after the imposition of Ottoman rule that Orthodox Christians began to develop a really strong sense of cohesiveness. This change was prompted by the Ottoman practice of ruling the empire through millets, or religious communities. Rather than suppressing the empire's many religious communities, the Turks allowed them a degree of automony as long as they complied with the demands of the sultan. The vast size and the ethnic variety of the empire made such a policy imperative. The system of governing through millets reestablished the authority of the Church of Cyprus and made its head the Greek Cypriot leader, or ethnarch. It became the responsibility of the ethnarch to administer the territories where his flock lived and to collect taxes. The religious convictions and functions of the ethnarch were of no concern to the empire as long as its needs were met.

In 1575 the Turks granted permission for the return of the archbishop and the three bishops of the Church of Cyprus to their respective sees. They also abolished the feudal system for they saw it as an extraneous power structure, unnecessary and dangerous. The autocephalous Church of Cyprus could function in its place for the political and fiscal administration of the island's Christian inhabitants. Its structured hierarchy put even remote villages within easy reach of the central authority. Both parties benefited. Greek Cypriots gained a measure of autonomy, and the empire received revenues without the bother of administration.

Ottoman rule of Cyprus was at times indifferent, at times oppressive, depending on the temperaments of the sultans and local officials. The island fell into economic decline both because of the empire's commercial ineptitude and because the Atlantic Ocean had displaced the Mediterranean Sea as the most important avenue of commerce. Natural disasters such as earthquakes, infestations of locusts, and famines also caused economic hardship and contributed to the general condition of decay and decline.

Reaction to Turkish misrule caused uprisings, but Greek Cypriots were not strong enough to prevail. Occasional Turkish Cypriot uprisings, sometimes with their Christian neighbors, against confiscatory taxes also failed. During the Greek War of Independence in 1821, the Ottoman authorities feared that Greek Cypriots would rebel again. Archbishop Kyprianos, a powerful leader who worked to improve the education of Greek Cypriot children, was accused of plotting against the government. Kyprianos, his bishops, and hundreds of priests and important laymen were arrested and summarily hanged or decapitated on July 9, 1821. After a few years, the archbishops were able to regain authority in religious matters, but as secular leaders they were unable to regain any substantial power until after World War II.

The military power of the Ottomans declined after the sixteenth century, and hereditary rulers often were inept. Authority gradually shifted to the office of the grand vizier, the sultan's chief minister. During the seventeenth century, the grand viziers acquired an official residence in the compound that housed government ministries in Constantinople. The compound was known to the Turks as Babiali (High Gate or Sublime Porte). By the nineteenth century, the grand viziers were so powerful that the term Porte became a synonym for the Ottoman government. Efforts by the Porte to reform the administration of the empire were continual during the nineteenth century; similar efforts by local authorities on Cyprus failed, as did those of the Porte. Various Cypriot movements arose after the 1830s, aimed at gaining greater selfgovernment , but, because the imperial treasury took most of the island's wealth and because local officials were often corrupt, reform efforts failed. Cypriots had little recourse to the courts because Christian testimony was rarely accepted.

The Ottoman Turks became the enemy in the eyes of the Greek Cypriots, and this enmity served as a focal point for uniting the major ethnic group on the island under the banner of Greek identity. Centuries of neglect by the Turks, the unrelenting poverty of most of the people, and the ever-present tax collectors fueled Greek nationalism. The Church of Cyprus stood out as the most significant Greek institution and the leading exponent of Greek nationalism.

During the period of Ottoman domination, Cyprus had been a backwater of the empire, but in the nineteenth century it again drew the attention of West European powers. By the 1850s, the decaying Ottoman Empire was known as "the sick man of Europe," and various nations sought to profit at its expense. Cyprus itself could not fight for its own freedom, but the centuries of Frankish and Turkish domination had not destroyed the ties of language, culture, and religion that bound the Greek Cypriots to other Greeks. By the middle of the nineteenth century, enosis, the idea of uniting all Greek lands with the newly independent Greek mainland, was firmly rooted among educated Greek Cypriots. By the time the British took over Cyprus in 1878, Greek Cypriot nationalism had already crystalized.

 

Cyprus: Historical Setting
Library of Congress Country Study

The Lusignan and Venetian Eras <<< Contents

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