Medieval Cyprus through the eyes of travellers‏

By Ismail Veli…….

If there is one habit that Cypriots have had since I can remember, it’s that they enjoy a debate about anything and everything.  We often discuss our culture, history and politics. In particular we enjoy comparing other cultures with our own. No doubt after the usual admission that we are not perfect we then start to explain why our family values,  culture, history and way of life is somehow better than most. This can often be humorous, and even delusional.  But who cares? we are Cypriots after all. No doubt there is good and bad in every society, no one has a monopoly on the truth. What I would like to look at however is how travellers in history saw the Cypriots on their short visits to Cyprus. Modern travel is of course well known and often talked about in a positive context as people are always relaxed and at their best on their  holidays.

What  I would like to look at is how travellers in the past viewed the Cypriots. As we know centuries ago travel was often rare and normally undertaken by writers, soldiers or adventurers.  Mostly  people fled war. Not that much has changed in that respect.  As we all know life in medieval Cyprus was completely different to that of today. Many of us still look at history with nostalgia however and often gloss over the positive as opposed to the negative aspects of our island’s past way of life. So how did others see the Cypriots in days of a bygone era? I have compiled a short list of travellers eyewitness accounts of how they saw Cypriots and our way of life from their perspective.  Tragic, humorous, harsh and even prejudiced, call it what we may. It was their view and I would like to share it with many whom I know enjoy the history of our island.

Martoni landed in Famagusta on November 27 1394 his personal observations give us a vivid account of the state of the island at the time.

”The city of Famagusta has a pretty fine harbour, protected from every wind. and in this harbour in front of the city gate is a wooden jetty, a stone’s throw in length. and  vessels come up to this jetty, and there from merchandise is carried to the vessels.

In this city live a certain number of Genoese, and a large number of Greek, Because the whole island of Cyprus is peopled by Greeks; and there is made a great quantity of camlet. There is one custom in force in this city, and throughout the island. that no woman can go out of the city of Famagusta without the leave of the Commandant, and cannot escape giving  bail in the Commandant’s court for her return to the city: and this is rarely granted to any woman. The reason alleged is that men cannot live in that city but for the women who spin and prepared wool for the camlet, for they have hardly any other means of living. There is another reason too for keeping up the men in the city, which for decency’s sake I pass over in silence. The air of the city is very bad; at all seasons of the year there is mortality and men die in great numbers, of the Genoese far more than the Greeks”.

It’s clear in his description of the Women’s dress by Martoni that many were probably refugees from Acre. Sadly not much seems to have changed in human nature around the world insofar as refugees from war are as common today as they were in 1394.

”And hence comes a custom that all women, as well of that town of Famagusta as of the other towns of the island, wear black mantles on their heads so that their faces can hardly be seen. And this custom began and has been followed on account of the sorrow and dire grief for the loss of that city of Acre and other cities of Syria, and the greater part of the city of Famagusta was made up of the people of Acre”.

Fra Francesco Suriano  who came from a rich ”patrician” family of Venice visited Cyprus  in August 1484. His description of Cyprus is of a completely different order. No doubt religious superstitions played some part in visitors’ accounts of what they saw. The area around the city of Limassol (or Lymiso as he writes it) seems to have been infested by snakes, only the mass number of cats seemed to keep them under control. The area in question is of course  Cape of Cats.  No doubt  the sheer number of cats and snakes  in the area may have surprised  visitors. His explanation on events is  however  fascinating.  The following is his account:

Fra Francesco Suraino

Fra Francesco Suriano . ”Of the miracle of the cats in Cyprus”.

”I heard a marvellous thing, from the said city of Lymisso, up to this cape the soil produces so many snakes that men cannot till it, or walk without hurt thereon. And were it not for the remedy which God has set there in a short time these would multiply so fast that the island would be depopulated. At this place there is a Greek Monastery which rears an infinite number of cats, which wage unceasing war with these snakes. It is wonderful to see them, for nearly all are maimed by the snakes: one has lost a nose, another an ear, the skin of one is torn, another is lame: one is blind of one eye, another of both. And it is a strange thing that at the hour for their food at the sound of a bell all those that are scattered  in the fields collect in the said monastery. And when they have eaten enough, at the sound of the bell they all leave together and go and fight the snakes. On this account the monastery  has large revenues”.

Of the condition, in particular of the people of the island  however Fra Francesco Suriano is not so complimentary.  One senses some prejudice in the underlying tone of his description of the local population.

”The island produces meat in plenty so that one may get twelve or fourteen sheep for a ducat. It is poor meat and unwholesome. The air is very bad, hence you never see a creature with a natural colour in his face, it is all art. Almost every year it is smitten with locusts, and the result is great barrenness and death. when the locusts do not come they harvest grain enough for four years. It produces plenty of sugar and good cotton, plenty of cheese, ladanum, honey, wool, the finest camlets known, and samite. The inhabitants are few and lazy.  In the summer season on account of the sun’s great heat they work and travel by night. By day they lie idle in huts of reeds open at the ends. In the winter they dress in cloth, but in summer in skins of polecats, foxes and sheep. If one exposes oneself to the cool air one falls at once into long and dangerous sickness. The horses are born amblers. The women are lewd. The country and climate of themselves incline to fleshly lust, and nearly everyone lives in concubinage.  In the days of King Jacques the women went about attired in a seductive manner like nymphs. Now they go decently dressed”.

Contrary to what many of us think multicultural societies are not just a modern phenomenon. No doubt modern travel and mobility have greatly increased the level of immigration to new heights. Prisoners of war leading to mass slavery. The uprooting and resettlement of conquered people in the past often led to massive social and religious problems which are not much different to the modern world and Cyprus was no exception to the rule. Very often traders and their families including refugees fleeing nearby wars meant that the towns in particular often saw a diversity of people. No doubt his views clearly not only show a level of prejudice in his own views but also existing  racial attitudes in Cyprus at the time. While giving us a vivid description of what people thought of each other he pulls no punches in his comments. Elias of Pesaro’s letter written in Famagusta on October 18, 1563 addressed to his brother in Venice gives us an idea of the circumstances and attitudes in Cyprus prevailing at the time. Elias’s original plan was to emigrate to the ”Holy land” with his family, but news of a terrible plague in Syria persuaded him to remain in Cyprus.

Map of cyprus 1

The following text is an edited sample of his observations of Cyprus and Cypriots at the time.

”I have seen here a large and fine synagogue supported by a community of about twenty five families, Levantines, Sicilians and Portuguese. Hatred, discord and jealousy reign among them.

As soon as the Christians see a fresh Jew arrive to stay here they ask him if he wants to lend money. If he says yes, they are kindly towards him, and he need not fear that the other Jews will look askance at him as though he were poaching on their preserves.  They even beg the newcomer to lend to their friends whom they cannot oblige themselves. Sometimes sums as great as 50.000 ducats are lent for more than 6 months . It is an essential condition, and a good custom it is that the borrower before he receives the loan, makes some present in proportion to the sum he asks, a chicken or two, a lamb or goat or calf, some wine, cheese or oil.

The advantages and inconveniences of this country, such as I have seen them with my own eyes. The Christians who live in Cyprus, Candia (Crete), Corfu, Zante or Constantinople are mostly Greeks, and are in no way wise like Italians. They differ from those of all their fellow Christians. Their churches have no bells, and in many other of their customs they differ from the Italians. For instance, on feast days some shops remain open, some are closed: some keep the feasts others work. The Greeks eat meat on the other days of the week as well as Sunday. They keep a Lent three times a year, abstain from all animal products, even  from fish and eggs. Most of the Greeks are workmen. For all the gold in the world they would not eat anything that a Jew has touched, and would never use his cooking utensils. Suppose a Jew wishes to buy anything from them he must not touch it but must describe what he wants: anything he touches he must keep. They reject as though it were, carrion, the flesh of an animal which has had its throat cut, and hate their Italian fellow Christians much as we do the Karaites. They do not allow their women to show themselves in the town by day; only by night can they visit their friends and go to church. They say this is by way of modesty, but it is really to avoid the frequent adulteries, for their rule of life is thoroughly perverse. They are all liars, cheats and thieves. Honesty has vanished from their midst.”

Following the medieval period, the next visitors to Cyprus were the Ottoman’s