Cyprus Past and Present
By Ismail Veli…..
The ending of Venetian rule in Cyprus in 1571 was followed by 306 years of Ottoman rule. For the ordinary Cypriots life was often hard and brutal. Under the Venetian feudal system, taxation was an enormous burden and the class system ensured that hardly anyone owned their own property. For all intents and purposes they were simply owned by their Venetian overlords, which being Latin often looked down on the Orthodox Christians. Under Ottoman rule there was a period of relief from the overbearing Latins. By the mid 1700s however with the decay of the Ottoman empire, neglect, drought, pestilence and economic poverty the Cypriot people regardless of their ethnicity were often at the mercy of corrupt officials who only had one purpose in mind, which was to milk every ounce of wealth from the already impoverished peasants.
Just before the invasion of Cyprus in 1570 the Ottomans were very much aware of the severe conditions of the people which made them believe that a willing ally in the Orthodox Church would help them subjugate the island easier than having the whole island against them. The Paroiki/Parici and the Perperiarii classes in particular were downtrodden. The Paroiki (Parici) had to perform 2 days slave labour for the state and their Lords as part of their taxation. In addition they had to hand over anything between 20-66% of the crop they produced on their meagre land even though the land belonged to their Lords, who had absolute jurisdiction over the Parici. They were treated as mere slaves and could inflict any punishment they saw fit short of mutilation and death. The Perperiarii who were the second class had risen from the Parici and had become ”freemen”. Their name derived from the tax which they paid in gold coins called ”hyperpers”. Most of the civil servants and wealthy citizens of Nicosia were from the Perperiarii, this of course did not save them from the wrath of the ruling Venetian lords who looked down on the 2 classes. The third class Lefteri (eleutheroi) were also called Francomati. This class came mostly from the Parici who had become free by making a substantial payment to their lord, but still had to carry on paying 10-20% of their crops to the lord for setting them free. In addition they had to pay tribute to the King in return for privileges. Though nominally free they were still subject to the jurisdiction of the ordinary magistrates.
The Orthodox church was subject to drastic curtailment and was constantly harassed to the point that many of the faith practically saw the Muslims as a better alternative to their Latin masters. It was against this backdrop that when the Ottomans invaded Cyprus in 1570 they found some willing allies from the Greek Orthodox community. This did not mean that many did not fight on the side of the Latin rulers, who in-spite of their oppression of the locals did however put up a heroic defence of the island against the Ottoman army. Nicosia and in particular Famagusta turned out to be extremely bloody sieges which cost defender and attacker immense loss of life. One particular sad and forgotten incident was the massacre of the people of Lefkara who were punished by the Venetians for assisting the Ottomans. The Lefkarites had sent messengers to the hill villagers to come down and assist the Ottoman army and help drive out the Venetians.
Calepio described the massacre as follows;
”The enemy (the Ottomans) meanwhile made various raids and reached Lefkara, guided by a Greek priest of the village. The inhabitants, who had neither walls nor ditches, arms offensive or defensive, were obliged to promise allegiance. The Government was promptly informed, and Captain Meaduce Dimitri Lascari with his company of light horse was sent with orders to give the village to fire and flame, and kill old and young”.
Calepio described Captain Lascari as a ”bold officer” and completely supported the murder of the 400 inhabitants. Such was the hatred of the Latin rulers of their Orthodox subjects.
Once the conquest of the island by the Ottomans was over the tax system was overhauled, which helped ease the burden of taxation. The list below gives some idea of the relief to the poorer classes in particular.
Venetian Period Ottoman period
2 days forced labour One day a week forced labour
60,80 or 90 akche 30 akche from each tax as ispenje tax
Taken as fixed taxes
5 akche per head as salt tax Abolished
60 akche for each mule born Abolished
25 akche for each cow Abolished
1 akche for each sheep yearly Abolished
1 akche for each lamb Abolished
One third share of the crop
In the vineyards Abolished
One and a half akche for
Every donum of land Abolished
25 akche for each mare born Abolished
Not applicable A new tax of 60, 80, 100 akche according to the family’s wealth, was introduced for non Muslims. This was called the Cizye.
Perhaps the most far reaching reform was the fact that the land or properties the peasants owned was that they were allowed to keep the land they owned on a perpetual lease basis with the right to pass the inheritance to their children. The Cizye for non Muslims obviously divided the status of the 2 religions but one advantage for the Christians was that they were not obligated to do national service with the result that they carried out their business and trade at a higher level than the Muslims who were often sent abroad to die and had less time to improve their family farms. Some Christians did no doubt find this not to their liking and some conversions to Islam were undertaken. This was mostly among the remaining Latins who found themselves facing the backlash from their Orthodox neighbours and their new Ottoman masters. Conversion was a way of saving their lives and provided some security in their daily lives. After a few years the persecution declined in some areas and like Athienou village the Latins were allowed to practice their faith, but were only permitted to work as hired muleteers. To this day Turkish Cypriots call Athienou by the name of ‘Kiraci koy’, which simply means the hirers or tenants.
Perhaps one community that often gets overlooked in Cypriot history are the Maronites. Brought over from Syria (present day Lebanon) in successive waves from the 8th century, they derived their name from Saint Maron 350-410 A.D. During the Lusignan period their population increased as they served as mercenaries and helped guard the mountain and coastal areas of Cyprus, this gave them a privileged position on the island. They continued to assist their Venetian Latin allies when they took control of Cyprus in 1489. During the 1500’s they were said to number at least 50.000 spread across 60 villages. Their Latin religion and support for the Venetians cost them immensely however and it is estimated that they lost over 30.000 dead in defending the island against the Ottomans. When in August of 1596 and March of 1597 (only 14-15 years after the Ottoman conquest) Girolamo Dandini, S.J., Professor of Theology at Perugia in Italy went to Cyprus. His mission was to investigate the condition of the Maronite community in Lebanon. The report he left us on the Maronites of Cyprus included the names of 19 settlements. The Maronites were often seen as treasonous, and due to immense pressure from both the Orthodox Greeks and Muslim Ottomans their numbers were reduced even further. In the 1960 census they only had 4 main villages and numbered only 2752.
The condition of the Cypriot population across all ethnic groups began to deteriorate dramatically in the early to mid 1700s. Drought, locusts, disease, pestilence, corruption and over taxation all took its toll. By 1777 the population according to the census carried out by Archbishop Kyprianos had been reduced to no more than 84.000. Whether figures were accurate or not one thing is clear, the heavy migration during the plague and large death rate due to the disease at the time caused an immense drain in Cyprus. By the mid to late 1700s new waves of immigrants began to settle on the island. Whether many admit it or not many of the Cypriot population can possibly be from this new wave which started two centuries ago and this helps comprise a healthy percentage of today’s Cypriots.
In the final analysis one thing is certain, the Cypriots regardless of their ethnicity or religion have suffered immense hardship during their history. Foreign rule often paid little heed to the local people’s needs. As a result most Cypriots are generally and rightfully very suspicious and resentful of foreign powers. Perhaps Cypriots themselves are often their own worst enemy, even as recent as the 1950’s instead of dreaming of an independent island for themselves they opted to shed blood to hand the island to another country, Greece. The reaction from the Turkish community was they preferred to join Turkey, while the Colonial power Britain tried every trick in the book to hang on to Cyprus. It’s clear however that many Cypriots are either confused about where they wish to end, or delude themselves that every single ill that has befallen the island has nothing to do with their own aspirations. As a result they find it much more expedient to blame everyone but themselves for the 60 years of tragedy that has seen massive loss of life and uprooting of a massive chunk of the population. Tragedy almost seems to have become entrenched in their psyche, as a result solving the islands actual problems seems to be beyond their capacity. It’s not that they don’t want to, but simply lack the courage to accept responsibility in taking the right steps to finally bury the hatred. Prejudice entrenched in their educational curriculum and psychological makeup convinces many Cypriots of their undying faith in their own righteousness Perhaps one day we will all wake up and say ”Good God the nightmare is finally over”. That dream however seems as elusive today as it ever was.
”It’s not good enough that we do our best; sometimes we have to do what’s required”.