Cyprus, from Venice to Constantinople

The 15th century was the moment when everything changed for the Cyprus of Lusignan. Masters of the island since the end of the 12th century, the Latin lords bow to the combined pressures of Genoa and the Mamluk sultanate. Their choice to turn to Venice leads them to their doom: on the death of Jacques II, it is his wife the Venetian Catherine Cornaro who ascends the throne, before she finally gives way to the government of the Serenissima, in 1489. Cyprus becomes a Venetian colony for almost a century, until it whets the appetites of Venice's great rivals, the Ottomans.

A contested Venetian domination

The Republic of Venice did not wait to have effectively full power over the island of Cyprus to develop its colonization project. From the end of the 1470s, plans to send settlers were set up, but stopped because they were considered too expensive.

Once Catherine Cornaro has been removed, Venice sets up its system of government on the island. At its head a governor and two advisers, who reside in Nicosia. A Grand Council is also created while the military governor is installed in Famagusta. However, Cypriot society retains an important part of the feudalism inherited from the time of the Lusignans. The great aristocratic families are still mostly of Latin origin, while the Venetians are mainly represented among the bourgeoisie. The rest of the Cypriot population is divided into “classes” like the parèques, close to the serfs of the medieval West, and the Francomats, free peasants. Some can also buy the special status of “White Venetians” for 300 ducats.

To increase the population, Venice encourages the arrival of immigrants from its other colonies as well as from other regions such as Slavs, Albanians or even Syrians of Christian rite. The majority are intended for agricultural work, the island benefiting from great assets in this field. Thus, the population rose from 100,000 inhabitants in 1490 to 200,000 in 1570. Agricultural production increased. However, this does not prevent tensions and crises. First, the island suffers from several calamities and natural disasters, periods of famine and epidemics which strain the government of Nicosia. Some try to take advantage of it, like the Cretan Iakovos Diassorinos, who is even ready to ally with the Ottomans. In vain. Despite everything, some historians believe that beyond these difficulties, the Venetian power has never been fully accepted by the Greek Cypriot population. A “black legend” thus developed around the Venetian presence in Cyprus, which would explain the alliance of part of the Cypriots with the Ottomans in 1570-1571. It seems certain in any case that on the eve of the Turkish attack, the island was badly governed and plagued by corruption.

The Turkish threat

The second half of the 16th century, despite peace with Suleiman the Magnificent, saw the Turkish threat increase around Cyprus. The government therefore decided to modernize the fortresses, particularly Nicosia and Famagusta, the latter being seen as "the strongest of all cities" by a French traveler in 1567.

The great works of Nicosia, led by the architect Giulio Savorgnano, cause the destruction of a large number of buildings from the Frankish era, the worst being that it is wasted since the city will eventually fall quite quickly.

The Turkish threat intensified with the coming to power of Soliman's son, Selim II. Pushed by his entourage, the new sultan issues an ultimatum to Venice so that it cedes Cyprus peacefully to him. He claims sovereignty over the island accredited by the tribute that the republic has always paid him, tribute in fact existing since the Mamluk era.

The Venetians did not really know how to react at first, two opposing parties, between resorting to diplomacy and calling for war. The Serene is looking for allies, in vain, its relations being too bad with its Spanish rival, Philippe II. This does not prevent the Venetian Senate from rejecting the Turkish ultimatum. The Ottoman offensive can then begin.

The conquest of Cyprus by the Ottomans

The first raids hit the island in June 1570, and Turkish troops landed the following month near Larnaca. To the great misfortune of the Cypriots, they are ruled by an incompetent, Nicolo Dandolo. The latter, taking refuge in the brand new fortress of Nicosia, can do nothing, and the city falls on July 25. The governor is beheaded.

After leaving four thousand janissaries in the capital, the Turks ravage the rest of the island and then lay siege to Famagusta. This is much better commanded and defended, and trouble begins for the pashas.

On the Christian side, the Turkish offensive has awakened everyone. First Venice, which finally accepted help. Pope Pius V then, very motivated by the fact of stopping the Muslim expansion. Resurrecting the spirit of crusade, he convinced Philip II to ally himself with his Venetian rivals and thus set up a Holy League. The goal is to launch a fleet capable of defeating the Turks. However, the problems are not resolved, the rivalries remaining within the Christian alliance.

It is in fact the fall of Famagusta on the 1er August 1571 which allows the League to unite. The circumstances of the death of Marcantonio Bragadin, humiliated and tortured before being flayed alive, his body exhibited in front of the Turkish army, shocks Christians. The fleet sets off. It crushes the Ottoman fleet at Lepanto, October 7, 1571. However, the crushing victory has little strategic significance. The sultan's fleet was reconstituted and improved a few months later, and above all the Ottoman Empire kept Cyprus, which was finally ceded by Venice in 1573.

This makes the Grand Vizier Sokullu Mehmet Pasha say, addressing the Venetian ambassador: “By taking Cyprus from you, we cut off your arm; by beating our fleet, you shaved our beards. A cut arm cannot grow back, but the beard, once shaved, grows back with more force than before ”.


- A. Blondy, Cyprus, PUF, 1998.

- K. P. Kyrris, History of Cyprus, Nicosia, 1985.

- G. Hill, A History of Cyprus, Cambridge University Press, 2010 (reed).

- "Cyprus between East and West", Religions & History, special issue 8, October 2012.

- F. Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean world at the time of Philip II, Paris, 1993 (reed).

- J. Norwich, History of Venice, Payot, 1986.

- A. Zorzi, History of Venice, Perrin, 2005.

- R. Mantran (dir), History of the Ottoman Empire, Fayard, 1989.

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