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Culture & People

Greek & Turkish Cypriots

Greek Cypriots formed the island's largest ethnic community, nearly 80 percent of the island's population. They were the descendants of Achaean Greeks who settled on the island during the second half of the second millennium B.C. The island gradually became part of the Hellenic world as the settlers prospered over the next centuries. Alexander the Great freed the island from the Persians and annexed it to his own empire in 333 B.C. Roman rule dating from 58 B.C. did not erase Greek ways and language, and after the division of the Roman Empire in A.D. 285 Cypriots enjoyed peace and national freedom for 300 years under the jurisdiction of the Eastern Empire of Byzantium. The most important event of the early Byzantine period was that the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus became independent no in 431. Beginning in the middle of the seventh century, Cyprus endured three centuries of Arab attacks and invasions. In A.D. 965, it became a province of Byzantium, and remained in that status for the next 200 years.

The Byzantine era profoundly molded Cypriot culture. The Greek Orthodox Christian legacy bestowed on Greek Cypriots in this period would live on during the succeeding centuries of oppressive foreign domination. English, Lusignan and Venetian feudal lords ruled Cyprus with no lasting impact on its culture. Because Cyprus was never the final goal of any external ambition, but simply fell under the domination of whichever power was dominant in the eastern Mediterranean, destroying its civilisation was never a military objective or necessity.

Nor did the long period of Ottoman rule (1570-1878) change Greek Cypriot culture. The Ottomans tended to administer their multicultural empire with the help of their subject millets, or religious communities. The tolerance of the millet system permitted the Greek Cypriot community to survive, administered for Constantinople by the Archbishop of the Church of Cyprus, who became the community's head, or ethnarch.
However tolerant Ottoman rule may have been with regard to religion, it was otherwise generally harsh and rapacious, tempered mainly by inefficiency. Turkish settlers suffered alongside their Greek Cypriot neighbours, and the two groups endured together centuries of oppressive governance from Constantinople.

In the light of intercommunal conflict since the mid-1950s, it is surprising that Cypriot Muslims and Christians generally lived harmoniously. Some Christian villages converted to Islam. In many places, Turks settled next to Greeks. The island evolved into a demographic mosaic of Greek and Turkish villages, as well as many mixed communities. The extent of this symbiosis could be seen in the two groups' participation in commercial and religious fairs, pilgrimages to each other's shrines, and the occurrence, albeit rare, of intermarriage despite Islamic and Greek laws to the contrary. There was also the extreme case of the linobambakoi (linen-cottons), villagers who practiced the rites of both religions and had a Christian as well as a Muslim name. In the minds of some, such religious syncretism indicates that religion was not a source of conflict in traditional Cypriot society.

The rise of Greek nationalism in the 1820s and 1830s affected Greek Cypriots, but for the rest of the century these sentiments were limited to the educated. The concept of enosis--unification with the Greek motherland, by then an independent country after freeing itself from Ottoman rule--became important to literate Greek Cypriots. A movement for the realisation of enosis gradually formed, in which the Church of Cyprus had a dominant role.

During British rule (1878-1960), the desire for enosis intensified. The British brought an efficient and honest colonial administration, but maintained the millet system. Government and education were administered along ethnic lines, accentuating differences. For example, the education system was organised with two Boards of Education, one Greek and one Turkish, controlled by Athens and Constantinople, respectively. The resulting education emphasized linguistic, religious, cultural, and ethnic differences and ignored traditional ties between the two Cypriot communities. The two groups were encouraged to view themselves as extensions of their respective motherlands, and the development of two distinct nationalities with antagonistic loyalties was ensured.

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