An Ancient History of Cyprus

An ancient history of Cyprus. FROM ALEXANDER the Great to Richard, the Lionheart, the island’s history of Cyprus has been conquered by some of the greatest military commanders in history. With evidence of human settlers dating back to the Neolithic Age and written records of all civilisations from the 8th century BC onwards, this island has such ancient tales to tell, of war, of love and of Cypriot life over the centuries.

Indeed, the island of Cyprus was given to Cleopatra by Mark Anthony as a token of his adoration, an island so idyllic and abundant with natural beauty that no woman could resist. Even today the untouched landscape on the north side of the island remains as seductive as when Anthony laid claim to it.

Blessed with natural beauty, but unfortunately cursed by its strategic importance, ancient Cyprus enjoyed only brief interludes of independence. Located in the eastern Mediterranean Sea and surrounded by Greece, Egypt, and Asia, the island was conquered and re-conquered countless times.  Over the centuries ancient Cyprus was occupied by the Assyrians, the Egyptians, the Persians, the Greek and the Romans, to name but a few.

The Cypriot Archaic Era (circa 750BC to 475BC) was an especially problematic time for the island’s inhabitants, as the Assyrians, Egyptians, and Persians succeeded one another as rulers and taxes were often extorted in exchange for promises of independence. However, the full occupation of the island came with the Persians, around 550BC, although Cypriot internal affairs were still left to the ten city kingdoms who continued to strike their own coins and, ironically, wage war with one another.

It wasn’t until 333BC that Cyprus witnessed the overthrow of the Persian Empire by Alexander the Great. Possibly the greatest commander in ancient history, Alexander, King of Macedonia, led his army in a series of victorious battles, creating a vast empire that stretched from Greece to India. Recognising a mutuality of interests, the Cypriot kings supported Alexander, making their fleets available to him and rising up against their Persian overlords. In return for helping Alexander succeed, they were given political independence and relative autonomy. That said, the great commander still considered himself master of the island, abolishing the currencies of the Cypriot kingdoms, replacing them by minting his own coins.

However, the premature death of Alexander put an end to Greek aspirations for global domination, and for the island of Cyprus, another prolonged period of turmoil followed. The island soon became the focus of discord between Syria and Egypt, forcing the Cypriot kings to forge new allegiances, with many dying at the unapologetic hands of those fighting for supremacy.

Ultimately Cyprus fell under the Ptolemaic rule, a dynasty of Greek origin that reigned over Egypt. Known as the Hellenistic period, the face of ancient Cypriot culture changed dramatically, although strong Greek influences had already started to sweep their way across the island during Alexander’s brief reign. Phoenician and native Cypriot traits disappeared, together with the old Cypriot syllabic script. Under Ptolemaic rule there was no autonomy, their rule was rigid and the island’s resources were exploited to the utmost.

The occupation and exploitation of this island continued unabated until the emergence of the Roman Empire over 250 years later, but with the Romans came an even greater struggle. By the 1st century BC, the Romans had established themselves as supreme rulers and following the death of Cleopatra, the last active Pharaoh of ancient Egypt, a Roman conquest of Cyprus was inevitable. Despite being an important Roman province, the island suffered greatly under their rule, with harsh taxes and wars, compounded by a series of natural disasters destroying many cities. When the Roman Empire was eventually divided in the 4th century AD, both the Byzantine Emperors and the island of Cyprus became the target of barbaric Arab raids, not to mention more earthquakes.

Yet, against all the odds, the island remained strong. In fact, ancient Cyprus survived over 800 years of Byzantine rule when it took no less than Richard the Lionheart, the infamous King of England, to defeat the island’s governor at that time. But that is a tale of modern history for another time…