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An Island in Transition: History of Cyprus in the Early Middle Ages (ca. 500–800 AD)

Luca Zavagno, Eastern Mediterranean University, Summer Fellow 2011

Research on medieval Cyprus has always lingered on a chronological tripartition, which focuses on the late antique "golden age" (fifth to seventh century) and the so-called Byzantine reconquista (post-965) while overlooking the period in between, labeled as the Condominium era. The latter has been regarded as a phase during which local society became ruralized, deurbanized, and rarefied in terms of density of settlement as a result of the dislocation brought about by the seventh-century Arab raids. But as Hegel put it in the Phenomenology of Spirit, the standard by means of which we measure the situation and establish that it is problematic is itself part of the problem and should be abandoned.

My research has indeed tried to reject “the usual standards” and to propose a complex but coherent picture of the fate of Cyprus in the passage from Late Antiquity to the early Middle Ages. As for this very period, the analysis of Arab, Syriac, and Byzantine sources, the data from archaeological excavations, a recently published survey on local and imported ceramics, and already existing publications on coins and seals reveal the persistence of an imperial landowning elite (like the so-called eighth-century Fraggoummenoi, who took part in a Byzantine diplomatic mission to the caliph); this elite commanded the local administrative and fiscal structures as integrated into the Byzantine political-military system of governance (seals of local archons and droungarioi of the Kibyrraiotai) and enhanced a degree of political control which paired with the continuous religious importance of the island as center of an important archbishopric and as pilgrimage hub.

The notion of condominium as a blank slate stemming from both the silence of documentary and literary sources and the idea of the Arabs and Byzantines sharing the local fiscal revenues of an impoverished island are clearly to be rejected. In this sense, my research has also proposed a comparison with other Mediterranean islands under the Byzantine sway (Sicily and Crete, but also the Balearics and Malta), allowing me to highlight a degree of persistence in the Cypriot economy. Here the tailing off of bronze coinage implies (incidentally as in Syria and Palestine) a “realigning and adaptive economic strategies by local communities.” As in Sicily (and possibly in Crete), the disappearance of Byzantine petty coinage reflects the introduction of a new imperial fiscal system (as stemming from the loss of Egypt). Indeed, Cyprus also retained its strategic relevance as commercial hub (mirrored in the presence of the so-called Arab-Byzantine coins and in the reassessment of pottery previously overlooked). The results of my research will be published in the form of an article to bolster the completion of my forthcoming book.