If you want to better understand Cyprus, this little book helps explain some basic context, culture, and history.
Cyprus is a single geographical entity, home to two political units.
The Republic of Cyprus officially represents the whole island but does not control the northern section, which is occupied and recognized only by Turkey and is a de facto state.
Forcibly divided in 1974, The Greek Cypriot South is a member of the European Union
The breakaway North Cyprus is administered by the Turkish Cypriots and occupied and recognized only by Turkey.
Cyprus is larger than Hong Kong, Luxembourg, or Malta, and less than half the size of New Jersey or Wales.
The word “copper” comes from the name “Cyprus.”
Romans referred to it as aes cyprium (metal of Cyprus).
Some Christians adopted, superficially and for practical reasons, Muslim worship.
They were referred to as Linobambaki and survive to this day in the North.
In 1878 Britain acquired the lease to Cyprus from Ottoman Turkey.
It had strategic importance as a staging post to India.
Britain replaced the Ottoman system of favors and privileges with legal rights.
Cyprus was still nominally Ottoman territory, but when in 1914 Turkey joined Germany against the Allied Powers, Britain retaliated by formally annexing Cyprus.
After the war the Ottoman Empire was dismantled. Suddenly, Cyprus’ Ottoman Muslims lost their “Motherland,” and their elites felt a great sense of emptiness. Just as educated Greeks had left the island when the Ottomans took over in 1571, now many educated Cypriot Muslims left for mainland Turkey.
In 1923 Cyprus became a Crown Colony.
Intercommunal strife broke out - aggravated by the 1955 anti-Greek pogroms in Istanbul - risking a war between NATO allies Greece and Turkey, which would have weakened the Alliance in the middle of the Cold War.
In 1960 Cyprus achieved independence, with political power shared between the two communities.
In 1961 Cyprus joined the Commonwealth and refused to take sides in the Cold War,
By 1963, intercommunal violence erupted. Around 20,000 Turkish Cypriots had to flee their villages into secure enclaves where they established their own armed and autonomous administration.
In 1983, against all international advice, Northern Cyprus’ leadership unilaterally declared independence as the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (TRNC), a move deemed unnecessary by many Turkish Cypriots. The UN called upon all members not to recognize the self-declared state, thus isolating the North from all international interaction, political, economic, cultural, and institutional. The outcome remains a near-total material dependence on Turkey.
In 2003 the North opened checkpoints along the UN buffer zone (the Green Line), enabling cross-island movement for the first time in thirty years; this signaled a gradual relaxation of the border regime. In 2004 the UN’s Annan Plan for the reunification of the island was put to a referendum. It had both flaws and advantages. Ankara and Athens, backed by the international community, encouraged the two sides to accept it. The Turkish Cypriots voted “yes”; Greek Cypriots said “no.”
Israelis see reflections of their own country with its ethnic and religious divisions, including a “wall,” but with no apprehension of flying rockets.
At airport arrivals, they stand relaxed with their Lebanese and Palestinian neighbors, waiting for their luggage.
The business community over from Beirut is at home with intercommunal barricades and has twinges of regret over how once it was they who were the thriving, cosmopolitan business hub of the region.
The Chinese presence is expanding, especially around Paphos, where they are planning their own school.
They are seen as very insular, especially since many do not even speak English.
Meanwhile, rich Arabs settle into their own private luxuries.
The Russians feel at home in a fellow Orthodox country with its abundance of churches and pilgrimages to take the family to, but with no strongman or harsh winters. Numbering more than 20,000, they are reputed to be the highest per capita population outside Russia. Russian is the second-most important foreign language after English, featuring on financial brochures, church notices, tourist signs, and local wine bottles.
There have been Lebanese and Jordanians settling since their troubles in the 1980s.
The British form a large and established community of predominantly retired persons, comfortable with all the British quirks of the island.
Thousands of the new citizens - most of them respectable, some of them shady - have bought into the convenience of the country’s “invest to obtain your permanent residence and Cyprus passport” scheme.
Cyprus has been a convenient base for espionage since the Crusades.
Guests who are staying for two or three days are called mousafiri. If someone has mousafiri it means they’ll be picked up at the airport if they are flying in, taken care of all day, shown about town, and driven to various sites.
Upon arrival you shake hands with everybody present when introduced before being shown to your seat.
Cypriot people can appear to be abrupt.
In Cyprus thanks are used sparingly.
Not saying “thank you” is not a display of indifference.
“Thank you” is more common in formal situations. When someone offers water, a soft drink, or a house sweet, you can say “náste kalá,” meaning “May you be well.”
But don’t let that put you off from always saying “efharistó” in Greek or “teşekkür ederim” in Turkish.
For greater emphasis in Greek, you can say “sas efharistó,” the polite form of saying “I thank you.”
Citizens of Greece and Turkey tend to relate to the island of Cyprus as an integral part of their respective national and cultural narratives.
An outsider who hears the words “Turk” or “Greek” will associate them with the two countries.
In the mouths of Cypriots, these terms enjoy greater nuance according to the context in which they are used and whom they are addressing.
in business it is “Cyprus” and “Cypriot” all the way, and if negotiating in the north, “Northern or North Cyprus.”
Turkey and Northern Cyprus do not recognize the Republic of Cyprus, just “Güney Kıbrıs Rum Yönetimi” or the “Greek Cypriot Administration of Southern Cyprus.”
Official maps printed by the Republic of Cyprus represent the whole island, emphasizing Cyprus as a single unit without boundaries.
North Cyprus maps present their territory as a separate country so they often show only the northern part of the island. The original Turkish place names are kept but the Greek names are changed into new Turkish ones.
Today, both sides can cross the Green Line.
The North is open to shoppers from the South for its fresh groceries, cheaper gasoline, made-to-measure bedding items, and imitation labels.
The South is open to fellow Cypriots from the North as commuter workers and to shop.
Nicosia stands out as the last capital in the world whose fortifications still function as defenses. It is also the last divided capital.
The most poignant nostalgia is how well integrated they used to be.
Poetry is key in Cypriot culture.
A famous poem about Cyprus by Turkish-Cypriot Nese Yasin, “Which Half?”
One must love his homeland
my dad, always, says that
My country has been split in half
One must love, which one of the two halves?
They say that one must love his homeland
my dad, often, says that.
My country has been split in half
Which one of the two parts I have to love?
Pyla is the only village in Cyprus where the original two communities live side-by-side, alongside each other but separately, with their own schools, their own flag poles, their separate Greek and Turkish coffee houses and tavernas.
Many high-income foreign professionals reside around Limassol, earning it the sobriquet “Little Texas.”
The 1960 Constitution: for those Cypriots outside these two groups, Article 3 determined that they could choose once and for all to opt to belong to either the Greek or the Turkish community. There was no option for “just Cypriot.” These other communities are the Armenians, the Maronites, and the Latins. Though small in number, they are equally native and chose to be “Greek”.
Greek Cypriots have strong religious convictions but there is no proselytizing, or even any discussion of their faith.
Ecclesiastical art icons are venerated regardless of artistic merit, and some are considered miraculous. According to St. John of Damascus, “the invisible things of God since the creation of the world are made visible through images.” To reject icons is to reject the humanity of Christ; their presence inside the church counts as the physical presence of the Panagia, Christ, and the saints standing among the faithful.
The most famous mosque complex on the island is the modest but iconic Hala Sultan Tekke, which contains the tomb of Umm Haram, the foster sister of Prophet Mohammed’s mother and wife of Ubadah ibn al-Samit, one of the companions of the Prophet. It is considered the third or fourth holiest place in Islam after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem.
Turkish Cypriots are Sunni Muslims, but mostly in a cultural sense, and they object to Islamic fervor being imposed on them; consequently they can be resented by some Muslims, not least by those Turks who pursue an all-embracing form of Islam.
The Armenian community has a long presence in Cyprus and was boosted in numbers after the 1915 Armenian genocide. Numbering only around 3,500, they are Greek speakers but also have their own language, schools, and churches and play a significant role across the Armenian diaspora.
The Maronite community currently numbers fewer than 6,000. Many arrived on the island centuries ago as Christian refugees from Syria and Lebanon. They speak their own dialect of Cypriot-Maronite Arabic, or Sanna, with numerous Greek loan words, though none have declared it as their first language in the South.
The priorities of life are: family and its hierarchy of age, the extended family, then friends and work. The close friendships and paréa - meaning the happy gang of people one regularly hangs around with.
Many people share the same name and surname, though this does not necessarily mean they are related.
Belts were tightened during the 2013 financial crisis when the banks in Cyprus were briefly closed. People woke up to see their savings lost, gone, and found themselves living on a fifty-euro a day subsidy.
Cypriots are careful with strangers to the point of appearing hesitant.
They are quite reserved and can be clannish.
They can seem moody to someone used to the merry banter and openness of Greece and Italy, or the seriousness of Turkey.
In the spirit of philoxenía (affectionate love for the stranger) they will warm to your presence and the interest you show, only to follow this the next time by displaying a more formal attitude. This is not personal - it’s about confidence-building steps. It is best not to fire questions at them.
When walking into a restaurant it helps to say hello in the local language, “hérete” in Greek, or “merhaba” in Turkish.
In the South, people shake hands and give a small smile.
In the North, the same act is accompanied with a modest inclination of the head, an echo from the days when people bowed.
In the South, the North is regularly referred to as katehómena, meaning occupied lands.
In the North, references stress that the South is Greek and therefore something of a separate entity.
Idle talk about the Cyprus problem can hurt and alienate people for whom the trauma of the conflict has left a lasting sense of betrayal.
To drink KEO beer can still indicate that you support the left-wing parties, while Carlsberg beer shows an alignment with the right-wing parties DISY and DIKO.
A must-try-several-times drink is the typically Cypriot liqueur Zivania.
Cypriots build houses as though they’ll live for ever.
Two-thirds of the population is urban.
The shift from country to town is so recent that Cypriots identify their origin by their parental village.
Jobs are for life, “unless you kill someone and then you are fired.”
Cyprus is one of the most militarized places in the world. National service in both communities.
Military service is mandatory for all male citizens.
Called up yearly for one or two days until their fiftieth birthday.
Cypriot high society saw the island as the Cinderella of the arts world and are only gradually making it their home.
Cypriots take a wild, one-night break to the bouzoúkia, those nightclubs where popular urban Greek music is played live and plates are smashed at the feet of impassioned dancers.
Gambling is not an unusual pastime, unlicensed.
FOOD: Flaoúna reflects Cyprus in all its layers, contradictions, and dimensions. Flour, eggs, mint, sultanas, halloumi.
Older men play távli (backgammon) at the coffee shop
Tsiatistá is a style of popular poetry reminiscent of African-American rap but much older.
Cyprus has an open economy, presents itself as an EU outpost, an investment hub, and a logistics center.
To attract non-EU investment, it has established the Fast Track Business Action Mechanism for non-EU nationals.
Foreign direct investment is absorbed by banking, shipping - where Cyprus has the largest crew management center in the world - and real estate.
Turkey bans Cypriot-flag vessels from entering its ports.
Business in Cyprus is based upon relationships that develop slowly.
Potential partners will wish to meet your family, if applicable, to have an idea of where you are coming from, what sort of a person you are.
Until the 1990s the typical business outlook was very local, with an attitude of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” mainly because the economy was locally based on agriculture and the export of minerals.
How is respect shown? A serious, or poker, face is best. Forced social smiling is a cultural trait alien to Cypriots.
When you meet, stand up, shake hands, keep eye contact.
Err on the side of formality.
“Midday” does not mean twelve noon but something between 1:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m.
Likewise, appointments are not on the dot, but a ten-to-fifteen-minute slot when your counterpart may arrive.
However, it is a matter of courtesy for an outsider to be punctual.
The company is often treated as a second family or even an extension of the family if owned by one of its members.
Usually first names are used when speaking to foreigners in English. The same people will introduce newcomers by their title followed by their surname.
Teamwork has all the bearings of a “flat hierarchy,” and in Cyprus there is no such beast.
Hierarchy is vertical all the way to the top, and that is where the final decision is taken.
Small businesses remain small by choice because they are their own boss.
This is an aspect of Cypriot individualism: “no one will make decisions for me.”
In both situations, hierarchy and “own-boss,” there is no collective decision-making.
Cypriots are used to defending themselves against foreigners, against a superior, and against each other.
A foreign-born Turkish-Cypriot designer who moved to Northern Cyprus observed, “It feels like a no-man’s land because they believe no one is watching.”
Clearly there are laws and social order, but, he said, “the law here is not a strict procedure.”
Northern Cyprus has no direct air or sea links with the rest of the world. Consequently, imports and exports need to go through Turkey.
Reliance on Turkey is pervasive, with local banks and telecoms able to function only by integrating with Turkish companies.
Casinos and gambling are illegal in Turkey, transforming Northern Cyprus into its Las Vegas.
“Halal-friendly” tourism, observing certain tenets of Islam such as separate beaches for the sexes and a no-alcohol policy.
Relatively small societies such as that of Cyprus are prone to problems with transparency and accountability, and the favoring of relatives and professional associates in the process of governance.
Conflicts of interest arising as a result of failing to segregate those judged from those judging.
The official languages of Greek dominates in the South, Turkish in the North. English is the language of business.
The “tut” sound (done by snapping the tip of the tongue against the back of the upper two front teeth), accompanied by the raising of the eyebrows, means “no.”
If that sound is repeated two or three times, it means “out of the question.”
Repeated several times in succession while slowly shaking the head means “what a pity,” “what a shame,” or expresses disapproval, as in “you shouldn’t have done that.”
36 percent of Cypriot adults smoke.
Personal space in Cyprus is closer but with a “British-style” reserve when it comes to physical contact. Handshakes linger a little longer.
Cypriots are not overly animated.
83 percent of Cypriots have active social media accounts, ranking the Republic of Cyprus third-highest in the EU.
The percentage of individuals using the Internet to interact with public authorities, to obtain information, and to download and fill in official forms, is lower than the EU average.