March 15th, 2017
The creation of You Got Cyprus! is forcing me to look beyond what I already know about the history of the island and to share my findings here on the blog. One thing is for sure: I can speak about the beauty and the particularities of Cyprus now much more easily than if I had attempted to do it, say 200 years ago … in 1817. Back then, I wouldn’t stand a chance of convincing hardly anyone to visit!!
According to the introduction of the book The Island of Cyprus: A photographic itinerary from the 19th to the 20th century (2007) written by Lucie Bonato, Haris Yiakoumis and Kadir Kaba, “In the beginning of the 19th century, Cyprus was but a mere stepping stone to the Orient. The island was not very well known; some visitors hardly bothered to step down from their vessels but rather contemplated the shore from afar as the vessels approached Larnaca. Later in the century, explorers, scholars, and finally “tourists” discovered the island and its beauties all at once: the deserted city of Famagusta, Nicosia the capital of the Lusignans, the charming and picturesque port of Kyrenia, Limassol where Richard the Lion Heart had landed, and Paphos whose mere name evokes Aphrodite, the most beautiful of all goddesses.”
Why did Cyprus lose the glamour and attractiveness it held for scholars and visitors in medieval times? It seems that the Ottoman administrative style was not what one would call “organized and culturally sensitive”. The siege of Famagusta in 1571, a port town which gained great importance in the 13th-16th century, led to the destruction and abandonment of many of its beautiful monuments.The fall of Famagusta signified the complete domination of the island by the Ottomans, which began with the capture and destruction of the coastal town of Lemesos/Limassol in 1538.
Reading from the book I mention above (I have its Greek version), Cyprus received very few visitors in the 18th century and their reports on the island were contrary to the idyllic descriptions of previous centuries.
This is because, as the authors explain, after 1571 and “for more than 200 years, Cyprus was surviving in misery as part of the Ottoman Empire. Suffering mostly from the neglect and indifference of the government and the highly imposing taxation system“. Apparently, the taxes were collected by those that made the highest bid to the Sultan’s Court and who exploited their position to become even richer. The book continues: “the condition of the peasants was hopeless, much more because in the years of indigence – due to severe droughts and locust attacks – they had to borrow money to pay their taxes and during fertile years the taxation was increased.” It seems that the lack of large-scale ancient ruins, like in Attica and Asia Minor, made Cyprus even less attractive.
Well, doesn’t sound like much of a dream destination to write home about, does it!?
Hold on, it gets worse! In the first half of the 19th century, it was easier to find a 50 euro flight ticket between London and Beijing than to find a ship sailing directly to Cyprus. [You get the picture!] Because of that, commercial exchanges declined significantly. Those who made a short stop in Larnaca on their way to the Holy Land were disappointed upon realizing that the Eastern-like appearance of the locality (with the palm trees and minaret towers) they saw from the boat was nothing more than just a central dusty street with a row of mud brick houses.
There were, however, a handful of adventurous explorers who, “escorted by a dragoman/translator, a cawas/bodyguard, a cook, a donkey handler and 1-2 janissaries,” dared to experience the heat, fevers and dubious accommodation the island had to offer. And all that “luxury” while traveling long distances on top of a donkey. The announcement of the Tanzimat in 1939, whose purpose was to modernize the administrative system of the Ottoman Empire, did not improve the situation of the island, because the governors did not have the means to go forward with the necessary reforms.