The rich Cypriot cultural diversity is the result of the country’s 9,000-year-old tumultuous past. Cyprus has hosted settlers ranging from ancient Phoenicians, to Assyrians, Egyptians, Persians, Macedonian Greeks, and Romans. The oldest remains of Cypriot settlements date back to the Neolithic Age. Civilization grew and flourished in this region over time. During the Bronze Age it became wealthy due to extensive trade, which brought the Greeks, among other traders, to Cyprus. Ancient Cyprus witnessed its golden era under Alexander the Great (356–23 B.C.E.) Several generations of Greek settlers brought with them the Greek language, religion, and customs, and Greek influence continues to play a major part in the Cypriot way of life. Gradually Cyprus came under Roman control. It became a part of the province of Syria in the Roman Empire. During this period Saints Paul (fl. mid-first c.) and Barnabas (fl. midfirst c.) traveled to Cyprus and introduced Christianity to the region. Cyprus was a part of the Byzantine Empire from 395 to 1191 and one of the first countries ruled by the Christian Emperor Constantine (d. 337). The island was valued by the emperor because the tomb of St. Barnabas is situated here. Geographically Cyprus is in Western Asia (or the Near East), but politically and culturally it is considered European. Historically Cyprus, due to its position as a bridge between three continents (Europe, Asia, and Africa) as well as its two religions (Christianity and Islam) has been a pivotal locale, especially during the Crusades. King Richard I (1157–99) of England captured Cyprus, married the Cypriot Berengaria of Navarre (c. 1165/1170–1230), in Limassol, and proclaimed her queen of England. However King Richard sold Cyprus to the Knights Templar, who established the Lusignan Dynasty there. The Knights Templar was a powerful military order formed in 1118 as a result of the First Crusade to protect the kingdom of Jerusalem from Muslim forces as well as to ensure the safety of European Christians who visited the holy city of Jerusalem. Greek Orthodox Christianity was officially replaced with the Catholic faith for a short while and, under the rule of this dynasty, the island flourished as one of the richest countries in the region. In 1489 the last Lusignan queen Catherina Cornaro (1454–1510) ceded Cyprus to the powerful city-state of Venice. The island was to function as a bastion against the Ottoman Empire in Turkey, which conquered Cyprus in 1571 and ruled the island until 1878, when the British began to show interest in its strategic location. The British formally annexed Cyprus when the Ottoman Empire entered World War I in 1914. Turkey renounced all claims to Cyprus under the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923; subsequently the island was declared a British Crown colony in 1925. This vitally strategic island remained a British colony throughout World War II. In 1955 after losing hope of attaining freedom from British rule peacefully, the Armed Liberation Struggle broke out. Cyprus won its independence after five years of struggle. According to the Zurich-London Treaty Cyprus became an independent republic on August 16, 1960. However the two sovereign base areas of Dhekelia and Akrotiri were retained by the United Kingdom. Peace continued to elude this country. In 1974 Turkey invaded Cyprus and occupied most of the northern part of the island. Even though such international bodies as the UN General Assembly, the Non-Aligned Movement, the British Commonwealth, and the Council of Europe condemned this action, Cyprus continues to be a divided nation with two governments in the early years of the 21st century. The city of Nicosia is the only divided capital in the world. Tassos Papadopoulos is the president of the Southern Greek Cypriot Republic, while Rauf Denktash was replaced by Mehmet Ali Talat as president of the TRNC in 2005.
Cyprus lies in the far eastern Mediterranean Sea close to Turkey, Syria, Egypt, and Greece. The nation covers an expanse of 5,748 square miles and is the third largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. The main relief features of Cyprus are the two large mountain ranges separated by the Mesaoria Plain. The Kyrenian Range lies in north Cyprus, and the Troodos Massif is in the center of the republic. Mount Olympus is the highest point on the island. The three main rivers are the Yialias, the Pedhieos, and the Serraghis. Cyprus enjoys a typically Mediterranean climate, with hot summers and dry winters. It is sunny almost all of the year. Rainfall is scarce, and the island has often seen drought years. Cypriots do enjoy a fair amount of snowfall in the higher altitudes of the Kyrenian and Troodos mountain ranges. The island has a variety of plants and animals that are found nowhere else in the world. Citrus and olive groves, pine-forested mountains, and numerous flowering plants abound, and it is often described as a botanist’s paradise. The mountainous areas of the island are home to a variety of Cypriot fauna. Large numbers of griffon vultures, fox, fruit-eating bats, sea turtles, and mouflons (wild sheep with big curling horns) can be seen here. The coastal areas of Cyprus shelter various species of fish, crabs, sponges, and other marine animals. Cyprus is also a popular layover for millions of birds during their migration from Europe to Africa and back.
The Cypriot economy is small, yet diverse and prosperous. The island enjoyed a rise in gross domestic product (GDP) during the late 1980s, only to suffer a lag after that due to the Gulf War. Tourism suffered a major setback during this period. In spite of such losses, the World Bank named Cyprus a developed country during the mid1990s. The major industries are tourism, the cultivation of fruits and vegetables, wine production, cement, clothing, and shoe manufacturing. The service sector contributes 62 percent to the GDP and is very important to Cyprus. Agriculture contributes 6 percent to the country’s GDP. The major crops are potatoes, vegetables, barley, grapes, olives, and citrus fruits. Cyprus possesses excellent ports such as Famagusta, Kyrenia, Larnaca, Limassol, and Paphos, and has been a crucial trading center since ancient times. The country enjoys good trade relations with many nations, including Russia, Bulgaria, the United Kingdom, Greece, Japan, Germany, and Turkey (North Cyprus only). The island exports citrus fruits, potatoes, grapes, wine, cement, clothing, and shoes and imports consumer goods, petroleum, lubricants, food and feed grains, and machinery. Cyprus is a destination country for women trafficked from Eastern and Central Europe for the purpose of sexual exploitation. Traffickers who force women into prostitution continue to recruit victims fraudulently telling them they can work as dancers in cabarets and nightclubs on short-term “artiste” visas, in pubs and bars on employment visas, or illegally on tourist or student visas. The Cypriot economy is prosperous but highly susceptible to the vagaries of the tourism industry and the region’s political instability. The Turkish Cypriot economy is much smaller than that of its Greek counterpart, because it is not recognized by international bodies and depends on Turkish patronage. Greek Cyprus was admitted to the European Union (EU) in 2004, and efforts to reunite the two regions of the country continue.
Cyprus is truly a divided nation. The cultural differences between the northern and southern regions of the island are very pronounced. While northern Cyprus reflects everything Turkish, the south exudes an essentially Greek culture. Ancient Greek temples, medieval frescoes, and Roman mosaics abound. Pottery, traditional copperware, weaving, and Lefkara lacework also reflect the region’s rich Greek heritage. The music and dance forms here, moreover, differ significantly from those of Greece. Instruments such as the violin and laouto (a four-stringed lute played with the quill of an eagle or vulture) are used for accompaniment. Most dance forms are performed as a suite and face-to-face. Dancers often perform during wedding ceremonies, depicting the traditional courtship rituals conducted by young Cypriot villagers. Cyprus enjoys a high degree of freedom of worship. Although the majority follows Greek Orthodox Christianity, other Christian denominations and other faiths, such as Islam, are found here. The Cypriot Church ranks fifth in eminence among the Orthodox Churches, after the patriarchates of Constantinople (Istanbul), Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Thus it ranks above the patriarchates of Russia, Greece, Serbia, Romania, and others. Since Cyprus is close to the Holy Land, it is not surprising that it is one of the earliest countries to have adopted Christianity. One of the earliest methods of spreading Christianity in this country was through monasteries set up across the island. Many of these monasteries, situated in the midst of orchards and vineyards, can still be seen today. Some have been producing wine for centuries.
Cypriot cuisine is essentially Mediterranean. Traces of European and African influences are present, but Greek and Middle Eastern influences are prevalent. Regional herbs, local ingredients, and olive oil characterize Cypriot cooking. Seafood and meat are especially popular. Cyprus is famous for kleftiko (oven-baked lamb) and mezedes (snacks). The mezedes, “little delicacies,” are small plates of savory dips, vegetables, fish, or meat dishes. These dishes are much more than traditional hors d’oeuvres and often compose a major part of the Cypriot meal. Apart from the classic Greek food, it is easy to identify variations of Greek salads, moussaka—the traditional Greek dish of ground meat and eggplant—and souvlaki, kebabs of pork, lamb, and chicken. Other Cypriot dishes include loukanika (sausages soaked in red wine and smoked), koupepia (grape leaves stuffed with minced meat and rice), tava (a tasty stew of meat, herbs and onions), and lountza (smoked pork) served in sandwiches. Popular seafood dishes include calamari (octopus in red wine), barbouni (red mullet), and sea bass. Cypriots also enjoy vegetable preparations of potatoes in olive oil and parsley, pickled cauliflower and beets, zucchini, kolokasi (a sweet potatolike root vegetable), and asparagus. Cypriot desserts are mostly made of fresh fruit, served alone or with a selection of sweet pastries. Fruit preserved in syrup is also popular. Loukoumades (Cyprus doughnuts with honey syrup), daktyla (ladyfingers with almonds, walnuts, and cinnamon), and shiamali (orange semolina cakes cut into squares) are also preferred sweet dishes in the country. A traditional sweet treat known as loukoumia (sugar-coated gelatin cubes flavored with rose water) is a favorite. The traditional Cypriot wines are rich and strong. The island’s sherries are also favorites.
Cypriot weddings are relatively informal, unlike weddings in other European cultures. A large number of people are often present to take part in the affair. Having 3,000 wedding guests is not unusual in Cyprus. Formal invitations are not distributed; everyone is invited verbally. The wedding is solemnized in a Greek Orthodox Church, where the bride and the groom, along with the wedding party, attend a special prayer service. The service may be long, but it is not formal. Guests often wander in and out of the church without hesitation. The bride and groom, bedecked with flowers, are made to stand in the center of a circle, and the priest and other participants dance around them. The wedding reception follows the church ceremony and can continue until the early hours of the next day. The reception often takes place in a big hotel, where guests gather to congratulate and bless the couple. The father of the bride usually gives a house or some ancestral property to his daughter.