The island of Cyprus, already important during Antiquity, became a major stake during the Middle Ages. The richness of Cyprus's history is nourished by the various influences imported by those who conquer it, even partially, but the Cypriot identity remains strong and original, while still being very “Byzantine”. In the first part of the Middle Ages, it is precisely between Byzantium and the caliphates that the island swings, then at the heart of the Crusades it becomes a Latin State, refuge of the last crusaders after the fall of Acre, before Venice s 'imposes at the dawn of modern times.
The Arab-Byzantine "condominium"
At the beginning of our academic Middle Ages, in the 5th century, Cyprus obtained a special status from Constantinople: its Church in fact became autocephalous, following the Council of Ephesus, in 431. Cyprus is already showing its originality.
His relationship with the Byzantine Empire are complex in the seventh century, when the emperor must face the threat of Arab conquerors. While Heraclius fights in Syria and Palestine, it would seem that he does not especially rely on the Cypriots to support him in his defense of the Empire, against the Sassanids first and then against the Arabs. The latter wait to have conquered the Levant and Egypt in part to turn to the big island at the initiative of Mu'awiya. The future caliph struggled to convince Omar to raise the first great fleet in Arab history, and he had to wait for the advent of Othman so that his project finally saw the light of day.
The first Arab raids intervened in 648-649, then in 650-653. It is at this time that a first treaty is evoked, signed between the Arabs and the population, or perhaps the Empire. Sources are scarce for this period, but it seems that tensions were high and that the Arabs did not really settle in large numbers on the island, except for a garrison in Paphos.
It was at the end of the 680s that what historians later called the "condominium" would have come into being. Arab and Greek chroniclers agree on the terms of a treaty stipulating the neutrality of the inhabitants of Cyprus in the conflict between Byzantium and the caliphate, and the payment of tribute to both parties. From that moment, the island therefore enjoys an original status. This does not prevent recurring tensions and Cyprus is regularly torn between the two belligerents, or even involved in internal conflicts in the Byzantine Empire, such as the iconoclastic crisis.
During the 8th and 9th centuries, the Cypriot population had to undergo forced displacement, in the Sea of Marmara on the order of the basileus, in Syria on the order of the Caliph. Naval or land raids are launched when one or the other of the two great powers of the region considers that the treaty of 680 has been broken. This does not prevent it from being regularly renewed! But with the exception of a short period at the end of the 9th century, during which Basil I transformed it into a theme (administrative district), Cyprus never fell completely under the domination of one or the other of the two camps, and retains its original status. It was not until 965 and Nicéphore Phocas that the Byzantines recovered the island completely.
This long period did not leave a lot of traces, however, and it is ultimately difficult to really know how the cohabitation between Greeks and Arabs happened. Arab or Muslim remains are also quite rare. The whole surrounds this period of the Arab-Byzantine “condominium” with a mystery that will be difficult to fully elucidate.
Cyprus, from Richard the Lionheart to the Lusignans
The reconquest of Cyprus by the Byzantines opened a period of prosperity and artistic wealth, so much so that it was considered the peak of Byzantine art, in the 11th century in particular. However, the island becomes again a political and strategic stake and the refuge of opponents to the power of Constantinople at the end of the 12th century, at the same time when on the continent the crusaders are experiencing great difficulties vis-à-vis Saladin. In 1184, three years before Hattin and the reconquest of Jerusalem by the sultan, Isaac Comnenus declared himself despot and emperor of Cyprus. It is therefore not surprising that Constantinople did not budge when, a few years later, the King of England Richard the Lionheart, on his way to his crusade, decides to conquer the island.
Cyprus then briefly passed into the hands of the Templars, then into those of Guy de Lusignan, deposed king of Jerusalem. The family of Poitou origin will reign for nearly three centuries on the big island. This welcomed Saint Louis during his first crusade, then remained the last Latin state after the fall of Acre in 1291. This did not prevent it from experiencing several internal crises, from the first half of the 13th century, when Frederick II tries to impose its party there, then regularly during the following centuries. The situation is complicated with the appetite of the Mamluks, but also that of the Italian cities, Genoa in the lead.
However, it was in the first half of the 14th century that the Lusignan royalty experienced real prosperity, both economically and artistically. The last fire was the expedition against Alexandria in 1365, but the Cyprus of Lusignan was already in decline. The sovereigns had to cede Famagusta to the Genoese, and soon pay tribute to the Mamluk sultan.
At the end of the 15th century, King Jacques II succeeded in expelling the Genoese from Famagusta, not hesitating to ask the Mameluks for help to ascend the throne. But to stay there, he turned to the Venetians. The union between the Serenissima and the Latin royalty of Cyprus is sealed by the marriage between Jacques II and Catherine Cornaro in 1472. It is however the beginning of the end for the domination of Lusignans.
Less than a year after his marriage, Jacques II died, probably poisoned. His wife then reigns under the Venetian tutelage, which she cannot resist for long. On February 26, 1489, she had to abdicate in favor of the Serenissima. From then on, Cyprus became a Venetian colony for almost a century.
- A. Blondy, Cyprus, PUF, 1998.
- K. P. Kyrris, History of Cyprus, Nicosia, 1985.
- G. Hill, A History of Cyprus, Cambridge University Press, 2010 (reed).
- "Cyprus between East and West", Religions & History, special issue 8, October 2012.