By Ismail Veli……..
I often find it sad that today’s political problems and prejudices often cloud views of the past. Cyprus is a perfect example. The enmity between the Turks and Greeks is seen as an ancient enmity, in some respects it is, but we also hear the giveaway signs from the same people when they admit ”we lived happily together for hundreds of years”.
No doubt the relationship has been one of mistrust, enmity, at times cordial BUT there was a time when Greeks and Turks fought side by side against what they considered to be the bigger villain. In this article I will go back to the period before and after the Ottoman conquest of Cyprus using contemporary and independent sources as they saw the events prevailing in the period or studied the situation. Perhaps re-visiting history is a tired old method that sometimes serves little purpose and can often be futile, however there are also lessons to be learned. If of course one wants to learn.
”Owing partly to the subjection of the Orthodox Church to the Latins, partly to the severe conditions under which the serfs (Paroiki & Parici) lived there prevailed among the peasants of the island a widespread discontent with the ruling class”. (1)
‘When the Ottomans declared war in 1570, it is true that Venice decided to grant all Parici their freedom in return for an indemnity, but it was too late”.(2)
‘When the Turkish army set foot on the Island, the Venetians began to worry earnestly about the probability of an uprising of the Greeks. A movement against the Venetians was observed at Lefkara. In order to prevent it from spreading to the rest of the Island, the Venetians suddenly made a surprise attack and put some 400 men to the sword”. (3)
Calepio went on to describe 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”.(4)
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.
As a result of the Lefkara massacre by the Venetians the Ottomans subsequently omitted Lefkara from paying any tax for many years. To say that some Greeks did not die fighting the Ottomans would be stretching the truth. Many in particular died defending Nicosia. But one particular source which is 100% Greek viewpoint is the the Archbishop of Cyprus Kyprianos who wrote the following.
”Leave then was given to those people at a very small ransom to hold land, and cultivate it as their own, and without further charge to hand it down to their children, being bound only to pay so-called third of produce”. (5)
Not everything was cosy however, quite often officials which included Greek and Turkish appointees were corrupt and abuse of the peasants was often widespread. The Turkish peasants were not immune to abuse and very often together with Greeks they would rise up and protest against such abuse of corrupt officials. Drought, malaria, cholera and other diseases all played a part in the suffering of ordinary people. Just a quick glance at the Ottoman population censuses brings us to the stark realization that things were not all rosy.
The first official Jizye (Christian) Ottoman census completed on the 18 September 1572 recorded 33.947 households. Between 1604-1608 this dropped to 30.000. In 1621 25.000 and 1631 it dropped further to around 20.000 households. (6) The fall was steady but dramatic. Kyprianos attributed this fall to the constant changes of Pasha’s on the island and though initially after the Ottoman conquest, taxation was reduced, these corrupt officials often increased local taxation, as a result many Cypriots began to migrate to Anatolia and Syria. The massive drought and diseases of 1640-41 played havoc on the population. As a result the Sultan ordered the removal of the corrupt officials and began to give low tax incentives in order to encourage Cypriots to return to the Island (7)
Initially the tax reductions by the Ottomans and in particular the right to land ownership was highly popular. The cizye (Christian tax) may to modern readers sound harsh but this was more than made up by the fact that Christians were exempt from national service which was in medieval times an even more dangerous duty as the Ottomans were constantly at war and the death rate was immensely high. This gave many Christians the opportunity to establish their own business, and many thrived, while the Muslims lack of experience often meant that economically they lagged behind.
The decline of the Ottoman empire after the 1700’s brought immense hardship as the reduction in population reduced the ability of Cypriots to keep up with the tax imposed on them. Corruption by both Greek and Turkish officials was endemic to the point that many left the Island. There was even suspicions that the 1777 census undertaken by Archbishop Kyprianos – who for all intents and purposes was the effective overseer of the Island on behalf of the Sultan – deliberately showed the Christians much lower so as to keep the tax for the Church. The population was shown to be 84.000.
The interesting point is that the Muslim population was shown to be higher. The drought, earthquakes and disease from the mid 1730’s to the 1760’s had taken their toll. New migrants began to arrive in the late 1700’s to the early 1800’s but whether this was sufficient to overturn the ratio of Greek to Turkish population is debatable. The most comprehensive Ottoman census carried out in 1831 showed the Christian population to be the majority on a 70 to 30% ratio. Clearly the 1777 census must have been doctored. Strangely many Turks claim that the Muslim population was once higher than the Christians, personally I cannot see how we can take the 1777 census seriously. The 1831 census, even allowing for new migrants, completely discredited the figures. It’s clear the Church benefited by the privileges bestowed on them by the Ottoman Sultan. The corruption of Ottoman officials became so endemic that by the mid 1700’s taxation in Cyprus became one of the highest per capita in the Ottoman empire.
George Hill quoting Mariti from 1760-67 writes the following:
‘”In all the Turkish dominions (he says), there is probably no place where the dues paid by their subjects are heavier; amounting, as they sometimes do to 200 piastres, which make 100 Florentine scudi, yearly per head, without distinction of larger or smaller means”. (8)
As can be seen from the above the love/hate relationship between the Ottomans and Cyprus has no clear line. With the advantages of owning their own land and homes after the Ottoman conquest as opposed to the feudal Venetian system that only benefited the Lords, a new hope that the new conquerors may alleviate the situation may have originally been welcomed by the Greeks. But as with all occupations things often turn sour.
This article does not have the scope to advance to the 20th century problems of the Island. Suffice it to say that very often Turks and Greek peasants did indeed live cordially for hundreds of years and even stood against corruption and despotism shoulder to shoulder. The desire for Enosis or Union with Greece by the Greeks dramatically changed the balance from one of co-existence to that of mistrust. While the Greeks dreamed of a greater Greece the Turkish Cypriots saw this as nothing but an enslavement or possible expulsion from the Island.
This however is a story for another day! Information quoted above can be found in the following books:
(1) George Hill, A History of Cyprus, III (pages 839-41)
(2) George Hill, A History of Cyprus, III (pages 798-800)
(3) Ibid, page 961-62
(4) Excerpta Cypria page
(5) Excerpta Cypria page 345 and CF. Makhairas, I pages 89-91
(6) Dr Recep Dundar History Studies. International, Journal of History. Page 132
(7) Dr Recep Dundar History Studies. International, Journal of History. Page 132
(8) Viaggi, 1(1769), pp.14f.,24f.(Cobham ,pp6f.,9f) George Hill Volume 4 page 79