Ottoman Period in Cyprus
Ottoman Conquest of the island of Cyprus

Ottomans conquering the Limassol Castle

From the late 15th century the Ottoman Empire began to extend its control over the Aegean islands. The conquest of Egypt in 1517 and of Rhodes in 1522 put Cyprus on the front line. The delay in the Ottoman invasion was due to the embroilment on other frontiers and to Venice's punctual payments of tribute. 

The accession of Selim II in 1566 saw a switch in Ottoman priorities due, according to a mischievous folk tale, to the Sultan’s obsessive fondness for Cypriot wine. In planning the occupation of Cyprus, the Ottoman high command was more wary of the Christian fleet than the fortifications in Cyprus. An alliance between Spain, Venice, and Papacy had put a fleet of 200 ships into the eastern Mediterranean. 

Ottoman fleet In the spring of 1570, the Ottoman fleet divided into three squadrons, crisscrossed the Aegean to hide its intentions and then united to carry the occupation force across to the southern coast of Cyprus, but in the background was the continuous expectation on both sides of intervention by the Christian fleet based at Crete. 

It came in October 1571 when virtually entire Ottoman fleet was destroyed at Lepanto, 10 weeks after Famagusta had fallen to a 13-month siege. 

At the peace negotiations two years later, the Grand Vizier told the Venetian ambassador, `by conquering Cyprus we have cut off one of your arms, but by defeating our fleet you have only shaved our beard. You can not expect another arm to grow to replace the cut one, whereas the shaven beard always grows again and even more abundantly'.

Ottoman liberation and Turkish settlement

Ottoman Sultan Selim II

Sultan Selim II of the Ottoman Empire

The conquest of 1571 of the island by the Ottoman Turks was a liberation for the bulk of the Greek Orthodox population. Indeed, in some areas, such as Lefkara, there had been local risings against the Venetians in support of the Ottoman forces. Serfdom was abolished and the peasant families were given the freehold of the land they had worked for centuries. 

The Orthodox Church was also freed from centuries of control by the Latin hierarchy and its previous tradition of independence reasserted under a revived archbishopric. On the other hand, the Catholic Church of the Crusader and Venetian rulers were expelled. Its building were confiscated and converted into mosques, or were sold to the Orthodox Church. Catholics on the island were given the choice of conversion (either to Islam or Orthodoxy) or exile.

At the same time a number of soldiers, and craftsmen from Anatolia, were settled on the island. Apart from a reservation within the walls of Famagusta, there was no strategic placement of these immigrants, and they were fairly evenly distributed around the island. The policy was energetically pursued until about 30,000 Muslim Turks had been settled on the island amongst a population of perhaps 150,000 Greek-Cypriots. This proportion, around, 1:5, is still true today.

Ottoman Cyprus in the 16th and 17th centuries
Sultan's firmanThe Ottoman conquest of Cyprus coincided with the gradual stagnation of the Near Eastern economy due to the discovery of the Atlantic trade routes in the mid-15th century. Within a century, the busy waters of the eastern Mediterranean had become a neglected backwater. Many of the islands profitable crops, such as sugar, were also ruined by American competition in the 17th century. This was partly offset by cotton plantations which tied in well with a tradition of producing fine textiles. Morphou exported linen, the Marathasa valley was known for its woolens and Nicosia famed for its silks and gold embroidery.

Throughout this period there was a series of armed tax-revolts which often united both Greek and Turk against an especially avaricious governor or an over-mighty community leader. The system of selling the office of governor (pasha), the collection of taxes by ethnic group or -millet- and the farming, or auctioning, of taxes, helped established a powerful body of community leaders on the island. 

The actual governor of the island, though he commanded a small garrison of 3,000 troops, was relatively powerless. He held authority for a brief period and was principally concerned with recouping the purchase of his office with the minimum of fuss and maximum profit. He was only able to do this through the -aghas- (community leaders) of the Turkish community and the bishops of the Greeks. 

The archbishop grew particularly influential, and in 1660 became recognised as the official representative of the Greek Cypriots, with the rights of direct access to the Sultan's palace in Istanbul. In 1754 the archbishop was made responsible for the collection of taxes and later gained the right to appoint the dragoman of the serai, who was the head of the civil service. By the early 19th century the archbishop had almost become of greater consequence than the governor.

Cyprus: from 1821 Greek War of Liberation to mid-19th century
The gradual and promising developments were reversed in 1821. In 1818 Archbishop Kyprianos became a member of the Philike Hetaireia, a secret organization that planned to establish an independent Greek state out of the Ottoman Empire. Kyprianos was fully aware of Cyprus’ isolated position and its resident Turkish garrison, and only felt able to promise financial and material support.

In 1821 revolts broke out all over the Greek-speaking provinces of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish governor of Cyprus, having previously requested reinforcements from Syria, received permission from the Sultan to launch campaign of crackdown. The archbishop and other prominent members of the secret organisation were hanged on grounds of treachery. The crackdown  effectively destroyed the Greek Cypriots chance of joining the Greek rebellion. It also indelibly stamped Greek Cypriots with a loathing of the Ottoman administration and a desire for Enosis, or union with the independent Greece that was born of this traumatic period.

After the peace of 1830, the Ottoman Sultan, Mahmud II, and his son, Abdülmecid I, made an attempt to reform the administration of the Empire. Taxes were now collected directly, but few of the well-intentioned new laws that aspired to turn the Ottoman Empire into a multi-ethnic commonwealth were put into practice.
End of the Ottoman Rule
Apart from a few eccentric travellers and a medieval king, Britain had no involvement with Cyprus before 1878. But the island’s sudden and peaceful absorption into the British Empire is not difficult to explain. The keystone of the British imperial policy in the 19th century was to protect the sea route to India, and to support the Ottoman Empire against the ambitions of an ever-expanding Russia. The Crimean War of 1853-6 had been fought for just such a purpose.

In 1875 British policy took a vital shift when Benjamin Disraeli purchased a key block of Suez Canal shares. Three years later the Congress of Berlin was convened to defuse another crisis caused by Russian ambitions over the disintegrating Ottoman Empire. While Otto von Bismarck skillfully assumed Britain's old role as the Ottoman Empire's honest broker, the British prime minister began to show signs of distinctly predatory interest in the area nearest to the Suez Canal. During these negotiations in 1878 Cyprus was acquired by Britain as a -Place of Arms- in order better enable Britain to assist the Ottoman Empire. The nature of that assistance was to be more fully revealed four years later, in 1882, when Britain absorbed into her own Empire the old Ottoman province of Egypt. 

Cyprus had been a mere stepping stone to the greater prize and within four years of occupation by Britain, the island had become a colonial backwater. The island remained under the nominal sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire until it was formally annexed in 1914 and given the status of a British crown colony in 1925.

  • From: Rogerson, B., (1994), "Cyprus", Cadogan Books.



Chronological History