A History of Cypriot Multiculturalism

This post is part of a series on the Cypriot financial crisis.
Cyprus has been representing for centuries what the European Union aims towards: to be a place of free movement and neutral identity, a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural community. Cyprus has been a place of multicultural and multiethnic exchange for centuries. Two articles, “Ports of Call” by Sharon Kinoshita & Jason Jacob and, “Noi Siamo Mercatanti Cypriani” by Sharon Kinoshita, analyze Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (1350c) in order to make a claim about medieval Mediterranean connectivity and cultural exchange. Their work suggests that proclaiming oneself a “Cypriot merchant” in the 14th century Mediterranean came with a vague and indefinite connotation about who this person actually was in terms of his religious, cultural and “national” identity.

In Boccaccio’s Decameron Cyprus was a place of connection and accommodation, a crossroad for ships and merchants of many nations, languages and religious affiliations (Kinoshita & Jacobs 183). The island was a true center of trade where maritime routes from Latin Europe met the land routes coming from central Asia, the Indian Ocean and beyond. By the turn of the 14th century merchants, bankers and ship owners from Genoa, Pisa, Venice, Florence, Piacenza, Ancora, Padua, Barcelona and Provence and their businesses were thriving on the island. Everyday, from dawn to dusk, one could hear “the tongues of every nation under heaven” in the ports of Cyprus. With its francophone kings, its majoritarian Greek-speaking majority, Italian merchant colonies and its Arabic-speaking Levantine Christian communities, its visiting Provencal and Catalan merchants, Cyprus was a multilingual, multiethnic and multi-religious place (Kinoshita 50).

The story of Saladin in Boccaccio’s Decameron exemplifies the vagueness of the Cypriot identity. Saladin, Sultan of Babylon (Cairo), disguised himself as a Cypriot merchant, traveling from East to West, at the time of the Crusades, to gauge the West’s level of preparedness for the upcoming Crusade (Kinoshita 44). On his way, he arrived in Pavia, Italy and met townsman Masser Torello. Having been asked who he was, Saladin did not want to reveal his true identity, fearing persecution for his religious and ethnic affiliation as a Muslim Babylonian. The anonymous “Cypriot merchant,” that is a recurring figure in Boccaccio’s Decameron, served as a plausible disguise for Saladin as it was a term that was deliciously vague (Kinoshita 49, 50).

To be a “Cypriot” at the time of the Crusades was to be ethnically anyone. “Cypriot” was a symbol of peace and friendship, bridging the differences between the East and West. You could have been an Egyptian, a Greek, an Italian, a Spaniard, or a Frank but you could call yourself a “Cypriot” and acquire an overarching international status. But the “Cypriot” in Decameron was not only a symbol of vague and indefinite identity. Cyprus allowed Saladin to choose “Cypriot” as a “nationality” suggesting he was arriving as an ally and friend.

Boccaccio’s image of the Cypriot is relevant today. Due to the unceasing movement of immigrants, asylum seekers, entrepreneurs and soldiers over their land, Cypriots are accustomed to intercultural exchange. In 1946-49, under British colonial government, 51,000 Jews from the Balkans and Eastern European countries immigrated to Cyprus and lived in refugee camps there. In the early to mid-1980s many affluent Arabs (mostly Lebanese and Palestinians) came to Cyprus following the collapse of Beirut. These business people utilized the infrastructural, tax and offshore incentives that Cyprus had to offer to develop their own businesses (Demetriou & Trimikliniotis 2005: 9). Cyprus accommodated asylum-seekers from Nigeria, Cameroon, the Palestinian territories, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Pakistan throughout the second half of the 20th century and beginnings of the 21st century. Russian Pontians came to Cyprus as permanent residents from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s. With a total population of approximately 1 million people, the island is now filled with immigrants from many different countries. Trimikliniotis and Demetriou (2005) show that 80,000 immigrants from Greece, the United Kingdom, Russia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Vietnam, Poland, Bulgaria and Romania lived in Cyprus in 2004, which is equal to the number of Turkish Cypriots. British, Swedish and other Northern European retirees reside today in its picturesque villages. British and American soldiers work at their countries’ military bases on the island, along with the United Nations multiethnic units that have guarded the buffer zone since 1964.

Blumenfeld-Kosinski, R. & Petkov, K. (ed.) (2012). “Noi Siamo Mercatanti Cipriani. How to do things in the Medieval Mediterranean.” Philippe de Mezieres and His Age. Piety and Politics in the Fourteenth Century. Brill: Leiden – Boston.

Kinoshita, S. & Jacobs, J. (2007). “Ports of Call: Boccaccio’s Alatiel in the Medieval Mediterranean.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 37:1.

Demetriou, C. & Trimikliniotis, N. (2005). “Active Civic Participation of Immigrants in Cyprus.” Country Report prepared for the European research project POLITIS, Oldenburg.

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About Maria Hadjipolycarpou

Training and development / Research / Global Communications
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