Cypriot Archaeology and the Great War

Posted in: Ancient Near East Today
Tags: Ancient Near East Today, ANE Today, ANET, Archaeology, ASOR, classical archaeologists, Cypriot, Cyprus, Great War, Greece, Ottoman Empire, Thomas Davis
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By: Thomas Davis, Professor of Archaeology, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

Cyprus, satellite view.

Cyprus, satellite view.

“Here’s another little baby Queen Victoria has got,
Another little Colony, although she has got a lot.
Another little Island, very wet and very hot,
Whatever will she do with little Cyprus?”

“What shall we do with Cyprus?” E.V.Page, 1879 (Varnava 2009: 285).

The weakness of the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century attracted the covetous eyes of the Great Powers. Cyprus, as an ‘offshore’ possession, was particularly attractive in a time of enhanced naval rivalry. Britain acquired de facto rule over the island in 1878 from the Ottomans primarily to prevent Russia or France from absorbing it. Ostensibly taken to protect access to India (via Mesopotamia) Cyprus had no fundamental strategic raison d’etre in the Empire once Britain dominated Egypt after 1882.

But the acquisition of a “classical” colony sparked the interest of the British intelligentsia. In keeping with the prevailing social and academic milieu was the establishment of the Cyprus Exploration Fund and the involvement of the British Museum in numerous tomb excavations. Despite its geographical proximity to the Asian mainland, the interpretive framework for the archaeology of Cyprus centered on Greece, and classical archaeologists dominated research. Cyprus has had a museum since the late nineteenth century; a new structure was built in the Edwardian period that still houses the primary archaeological museum of the island. The appointment of British architect George Jeffery as Curator of Ancient Monuments in 1903 (a position he held until his death in 1935) laid the groundwork for management of the island’s archaeological resources.

Political map of Cyprus.

Political map of Cyprus.

Courtyard of the British Consulate at Larnaka, 1878.
Franz Von Loher,. Cyprus: Historical and Descriptive. From the Earliest Time to the Present Day. New York: R. Wohington, 1878. p 006a.

Oddly, despite the involvement of the Ottoman and British Empires on opposing sides, World War I did not directly impact the island. The oft-discussed, but never realized, British landing in Alexandretta in Mediterranean Turkey would have used Cyprus as a base, a move designed to once again thwart Russian influence, and became impossible after the disastrous Gallipoli campaign. As one military memorandum in late 1917 summarized “we have made little use of Cyprus for military purposes.” Cyprus’s main contribution was logistical: the island supplied the British Army with provisions, donkeys for transport, and 13,000 volunteers to serve as mule drivers.

Hoisting the British flag at Nicosia on 12th July, 1878. Illustrated London News.

Hoisting the British flag at Nicosia on 12th July, 1878. Illustrated London News.

George Jeffery’s diaries provide an interesting insight into the impact (or lack thereof) of the war upon Cypriot archaeology. The war’s beginning is noted in a laconic entry for August 7: “Beginning of the Great War.” Throughout the war, Jeffery visits sites, churches, and deals with building construction. The bureaucracy of antiquities administration continued throughout; on Nov. 26, 1915, Kyrenia Castle was declared an ancient monument. Occasional references to the effect of the conflict appear amidst the minutiae of management. For example, he went to witness the arrival of wounded ANZAC soldiers after Gallipoli, and records on August 25, 1915 “Great exodus of young men to war.” The final mention of the war is on October 3, 1918: “news of the break up of the infernal war.”

The indirect impact of the war was profound. Two events, caused by the war, had repercussions for Cyprus which continue into the twenty-first century. On November 5, 1914, Jeffery records the administrative change that would lead to modern Cypriot Archaeology in the following words: “Annexation of Cyprus.” Britain had directly annexed the island, along with Egypt and Sudan.

Cyprus Museum. Photo courtesy Thomas Davis.

Cyprus Museum. Photo courtesy Thomas Davis.

The second event (or rather, nonevent) is recorded in this way on November 1, 1915: “During this week occurred the remarkable offer by the Brit Gov of the island of Cyprus to Greece and of its refusal by the Greek government.” The British government had offered Cyprus to Constantine I of Greece on the condition that Greece enter the war on the Allied side. Unwilling to make the commitment, Greece refused. Cyprus became a British crown colony in 1925.

The annexation of Cyprus by the British, contrasted with the recognition by Britain of a desire on the part of the Greek Cypriot population (80% of the island) to unite with the perceived homeland. This created irreconcilable tension that ultimately led during the 1950s to civil war between the Greek majority and Turkish minority, a protracted violent uprising against Britain, and Cypriot independence in 1960.

George Jeffery’s A Description of the Historic Monuments of Cyprus (Cyprus 1918).

George Jeffery’s A Description of the Historic Monuments of Cyprus (Cyprus 1918).

Direct Colonial rule placed Cyprus “on the map” for international travelers in the 1920s. Increased visibility of the island generated increased interest in its rich history and the government quickly grasped the potential tourism benefits. In turn, archaeological interest in the island increased. For the first two decades of rule the British maintained the Ottoman antiquities laws, adopting their own only in 1905. Later, a politically important Cypriot lobbied for change in the laws to allow for the export of archaeological material, with the intention thereby of encouraging international expeditions to come to the island and bring economic development in their wake.

After World War I, the British colonial government based its 1925 Antiquities Laws on the laws introduced by the British Mandatory Government of Palestine in October 1920. The archaeological permit process was much simpler than the old Turkish Firman system and the government retained the power to expropriate land for excavation. The law was strengthened further in 1935 and the Department of Antiquities was established.

The Swedish Cyprus Expedition exemplified the international response to the colonialist modifications of the more restrictive Ottoman policies. Although scores of crates of material were shipped off-island to Stockholm, the major archaeological contribution of Einar Gjerstad and his colleagues was to refine and codify the Cypriot ceramic sequence, an achievement that still today forms the basis of Cypriot ceramic chronology. Consequently, Cypriot pottery could now be used to provide a source for crucial cross-dating of sites in Palestine and Syria. This major contribution to Levantine archaeology can be seen as a direct result of the political changes introduced by World War I on Cyprus.

Einar Gjerstad of the Swedish Cyprus Expedition.


Thomas Davis is Professor of Archaeology and Biblical Backgrounds at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

For Further Reading

Davis, T.W.
2004. Shifting Sands: The Rise and Fall of Biblical
Archaeology, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Georghallides, G.S.
1979.   A Political and Administrative History of Cyprus 1918-1926 with a survey of the Foundations of British Rule. Nicosia: Cyprus Research Center.



Gjerstad, E., Lindros, J., Sjokvist, E., and Westholm, A.
1934. The Swedish Cyprus Expedition, Vol. 1: Finds and results of the Excavations in Cyprus 1927–1931. Stockholm: The Swedish Cyprus Expedition.

Holland, R. and Markides, D.
2006    The British and the Hellenes: Struggles for the Mastery in the Eastern Mediterranean 1850–1960. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pilides, D
2009    George Jeffery: His Diaries and the Ancient Monuments of Cyprus. Vol 1
and Vol 2.
Nicosia: Department of Antiquities.

Varnava, A.
2009    British Imperialism in Cyprus, 1878–1915: The Inconsequential
Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Extra Links: 

Department of Antiquities of Cyprus

Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute (CAARI)

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