Geography and Early History
Early Cyprus History
Cyprus’ geographic location, at the convergence of Asia, Africa, and Europe in the Mediterranean Sea, has made it a perennial crossroads for commerce, culture, and politics. The rich human histories that have traversed and converged on the island—the third largest in the Mediterranean—began in the Neolithic era. [1,2]
The first Greek settlers colonized the island by 1300 BC, bringing along their language, religion, and culture—Hellenizing the Cypriots in the process. Capturing the Greek imagination, Cyprus held an important place in the country’s early mythology and was said to be the birthplace of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty.
While the island has been imbued with Greek culture through the centuries, control of Cyprus has also been contested by other powers over the course of history—several of them leaving traces of their influence. At various times the Egyptians, Phoenicians, Persians, and Romans were among those who sought to establish control of the island.
In 330 AD, the emperor Constantine moved the seat of the Roman imperial government from Italy to the Greek city of Byzantium, renaming it Constantinople and making it the capital of the empire. For the next seven centuries, Cyprus would be ruled from this city. Over time, the territory governed by the new Roman empire shifted eastward and modern historians have adopted the name "Byzantium" to distinguish this new phase of the Roman empire, with its Christian faith, Greek capital, and eastern Mediterranean geography, from the earlier, pagan phase of the empire centered in Rome.
Byzantium developed the Orthodox Church, centered on the Greek language and distinct from the Catholic Church, centered on Latin and the popes in Rome. The influence of Byzantium furthered the fusion of Greek and Christian traditions, which have remained central to the island’s identity and character to this day. Under Byzantine rule, the Church of Cyprus acquired a unique position. During the Third Ecumenical Council held in Ephesus in 431 AD, the Cypriot Church was recognized as an autocephalous, or self-governing, entity.
Persevering for Independence
Following centuries of fierce competition for Cyprus’ control, fights began anew in 1955, when Greek Cypriots began a four year struggle to break free from British rule (having been declared a colony in 1925) and unite with Greece. In 1959, the Zurich-London Agreements established Cyprus as an independent republic, and Cypriot independence was formally declared on August 16, 1960. By 1963, internal fractures amongst the island’s different religious groups lead to a constitutional impasse and bloodshed between the island’s Greek and Turkish communities ensued. In the spring of 1964, this inter-communal conflict became serious enough to require the dispatch of a United Nations peacekeeping force (UNFICYP), which is stationed on the island to this day.
Following unrest in Greece and the overthrow of the democratically elected President of Cyprus in 1967, Turkey invaded the country, resulting in army occupation of over one-third of the island republic in the north—including the Famagusta district in which the Lysi Chapel, and its frescoes, resided. This forced the island’s Greek population to flee to the southern government-controlled territory. A subsequent agreement resulted in the transfer of the Turkish Cypriot population of the south to the Turkish-occupied north, creating a partitioned Cyprus.
The separation of the Greek and Turkish communities has left many places of worship abandoned. A number of mosques were left abandoned in the southern part of the island; yet many more churches were left abandoned in the north, where nearly two millennia of Christian habitation had dotted the landscape with some 580 churches, monasteries, and chapels. Left without communities to use and maintain them, and amid a new population that did not share their traditions, these buildings were vulnerable to deterioration, vandalism, reuse, and erasure. Art thieves took advantage of their derelict condition, prying out icons and wall paintings as they did at the chapel at Lysi. As many as 400 churches have suffered damage, defacement, or demolition, resulting in the loss of some of Cyprus' most valued and sacred architecture and artifacts. The Menil’s work with the Orthodox Church of Cyprus to rescue the Byzantine frescoes looted from the chapel at Lysi is imbued a respect for the spiritual power of art and commitment to the struggles of nations around the globe to protect cultural patrimony and advance human rights efforts that lies at the heart of many Menil projects.