Cypriot Culture

Core Concepts

  • Partition
  • Sovereignty
  • Nationalism
  • Honour
  • Honesty
  • Integrity
  • Hospitality

 

The Republic of Cyprus is an island country in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. It is relatively small, measuring 240km long and 100km wide at most. However, its strategic position between the Middle East and Eastern Europe means it has endured many different civilizational periods that inform its culture today. Cyprus has two very distinct ethno-religious communities – the Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots – that share cultural affiliations with Greece and Turkey respectively. Since 1974, the country has been partitioned into two main parts on the basis of these ethnicities. The geography, culture, politics and daily life of Cyprus have become deeply characterised by the ‘Cyprus Problem’. As such, the island has a unique psyche. People tend to be very loyal to their ethnic communities. Nevertheless, Cypriots share strong values of hospitality and personal honour. The increasing globalisation of the island has seen the people become more urban, internationally focused, cosmopolitan and outward-looking. Meanwhile, their expatriate communities across the world are known for keeping strong links with their homeland, preserving their traditions and culture.

 

The Cypriot People

Greek Cypriots

Earliest records show that Cyprus was originally settled by Hellenic Greeks 2,000 years BCE. Throughout centuries of invasion from other empires, the Greek population and influence on the island has remained constant. In 2016, the State Statistical Office estimated that 74.6% of the population was Greek Cypriot, 9.8% was Turkish Cypriot and the remainder were people of foreign nationalities.1 The Greek Cypriot majority are identified as Greek-speaking Orthodox Christians. They share a close cultural affiliation with mainlander Greeks, with most Greek Cypriots seeing themselves as their Hellenic brothers and sisters.

 

Greek Cypriots articulate the combination of history, religion, culture, values, language and nationalism as “ta ethima mas” (our culture and traditions). This shared link of culture through the Hellenic history, Greek language and Orthodox religion means it is often common for Greek and Greek Cypriot expatriate communities to merge in foreign countries. Due to these similarities, many Greek Cypriots live in or visit Greece at some point in their life. A large proportion of students complete their university education in Greece. This encourages further cultural exchange between the two countries.

 

Despite their cultural compatibility, Greek Cypriots tend to draw strong distinctions between themselves and mainlander Greeks. For example, they may wish to distance themselves from the stigma of Greece’s financial situation. Many believe that their Cypriot government is less corrupt and that they have a better economic standing. Others may seek to distinguish themselves culturally. For instance, the dialect of Greek spoken in Cyprus is unique to the island, with about 15% of the words used in Cyprus alone. The Greek Cypriot identity continues to elicit a great deal of pride in people.

 

Turkish Cypriots

In 1571, the Ottoman Turks conquered the island and absorbed it into their empire. This introduced a sizeable Muslim minority to the island’s population. Today, this minority is known as the ‘Turkish Cypriots’. They are generally Sunni Muslims, speak Turkish and use the Latin alphabet. Turkish Cypriots are often described as some of the most secular Muslims in the world (see more under ‘Islam’ in the Religion section).

 

The cultural exchange between the Turkish Cypriot population and Turkey has increased since partition. There is also a strong political relationship as the Turkish government subsidizes the economy of the Turkish Cypriot side of Cyprus and has troops deployed on the ground. Despite this relationship, many Turkish Cypriots see themselves as distinctly different from Turks. It is important to differentiate between Turks (natives of Turkey) and Turkish Cypriots (natives of Cyprus). Some people who have Turkish heritage in Cyprus prefer to be referred to as “Kıbrıslı Türk” in Turkish (meaning ‘Cypriots who are Turks’) instead of the term “Kıbrıs Türkü” (Turks of Cyprus) to emphasise both their Turkish-ness and Cypriot-ness.

 

The Cyprus Problem

It is important to have a general understanding of the events that led to the partition in order to appreciate people’s situations today.  The island was ruled and administered by Britain from 1878 until 1960, becoming an official Crown Colony of the UK in 1925. In the years leading up to Cyprus’ independence in 1960, Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots expressed different visions for the future direction of the country. The Greek Cypriot majority showed increasing interest in the political union of Cyprus and Greece (enosis), which Britain strongly objected to. The country became independent instead, with two British sovereign bases remaining on either side of the island. A power-sharing agreement was reached between Greek and Turkish Cypriots to govern the country. However, tension over the political representation of each ethnicity remained and led to an outbreak of fighting between the two Cypriot communities. The UN sent in a peacekeeping force in response.

 

In 1974, the mainland Greek army engaged in a coup designed to unite the island with Greece. Turkey responded by deploying troops on the island with the stated purpose of protecting the Turkish Cypriot communities. The Turkish forces gained control of over a third of Cyprus. A cease-fire was brokered by the UN, which remains in effect to this day. The two-thirds of Cyprus that were unoccupied by Turks was separated from the northern part. The UN polices a buffer zone, or ‘Green Line’, that divides the two communities despite the infrequency of present-day violence.

 

In 1983, the Turkish Cypriot leader declared the Turkish occupied area as its own country – the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Turkey is the only country that recognises the northern side’s claim to independent sovereignty. The international community recognises the entire country as the Republic of Cyprus. The southern Greek Cypriot side is thought of as the government-controlled area, whilst the northern Turkish Cypriot side is regarded as the non-government-controlled area.

 

Current Attitudes

The daily lives of Cypriots are still largely dominated by the country’s partition. Almost two generations have grown up as citizens of the ‘Cyprus Problem’, with a consistent domestic and international focus on the issue.2 It is hard to determine someone’s position on the matter without creating tension. The mention of partition and history can easily arouse passion. Generally, both communities want to see the island reunite. Many people are tired of the political manoeuvring and desire harmony and a final resolution. However, there are conflicting visions of the nature of this reunification. Differences of opinion are found within both the older and younger generations.

 

Decades of partition have also developed stereotypes and mistrust of the other ethnicity. Many Greek-Cypriot children learn that the island was and ‘will always be Greek’, while Turkish Cypriots learn that ‘the island is Turkish and should go back to Turkey’.3 There are essentially two different ‘truths’ circulating as each ethnicity perceives the events differently. For example, Greek Cypriots see the Turkish intervention as a catastrophic invasion, whilst Turkish Cypriots see it as a peacemaking operation and celebrate it as ‘Peace and Freedom Day’.

 

It should be noted that animosity between the two ethnic groups is primarily based in nationalism and arguments over political representation and not religion and culture. The two groups had coexisted for hundreds of years before partition. A study showed that only 28% of Greek Cypriots and 32.5% of Turkish Cypriots believe that ethnic-religious-cultural differences between the two groups caused the conflict.4 The majority blame errors committed by leadership and the intervention of foreign states for the creation and perpetuation of the conflict.5 The vast majority of day-to-day interactions between people belonging to each ethnicity are friendly and peaceful.

 

In 2003, the Green Line was opened to make it easier for people to travel to the other side of the country. This has increased interethnic interaction and understanding. It also gave many people the opportunity to visit land that they had been displaced from for the first time in decades, igniting hope that they may one day be able to return home. Indeed, the older generation tends to hold a lot of nostalgia for what was lost (in terms of land and lifestyle). Meanwhile, many of the younger generation tend to be more resigned to partition, as they have never known a united Cyprus.

 

Demographic Shifts and Settlement Patterns

Cypriots traditionally lived rural lifestyles. It was common for people to have their own farmland, which they grew seasonal harvests from. A gradual movement towards urbanisation began in the 20th century but was fast-tracked by partition. The partition of Cyprus encouraged large numbers of Greek and Turkish Cypriots to move north or south of the divide. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced and forced to migrate to the side of their respective ethnicity. As the Greek Cypriot population was far larger than the Turkish Cypriot population, this created a disparity in population density.

 

The Greek Cypriot population has been compressed to the southern two-thirds of the island. It is estimated that 80-90% of the entire island’s population lives on this side.6,7 Due to this high population density, there has been a dramatic shift from rural living to urban living. Many apartments have been built for those Greek Cypriots that were displaced or forced to leave hometowns in the north where their family and community had lived for generations. Therefore, much spare land has been put to use.

 

Meanwhile, the northern third of the island is sparsely populated. Immigrants from Turkey have continually arrived in order to increase the total labour force and population. These were often Turks from the lower social demographic that migrated to the vacant land in hope of a better life. Despite the influx of Turkish mainlanders, the northern economy has not experienced the same economic growth as the south and continues to be subsidised by the Turkish government. Many Greek Cypriots still have property on this side of the divide, which has been repurposed for Turkish housing, demolished for resorts or left vacant. Therefore, the issue of land redistribution continues to be a very sensitive issue.

 

Cyprus also has a big culture of emigration, in part prompted by the political upheaval. It is estimated that there are just as many Cypriots living abroad as there are on the island. For example, roughly half a million Greek Cypriots are presumed to be living outside the country, with major concentrations in the United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa, Greece and the United States.8 There is a general impression in Cyprus that people living outside of the country are doing exceptionally well. Today, many people move to other countries in Europe for their tertiary education.

 

Ethnic Diversity

Cyprus is becoming increasingly multicultural in the 21st century. Due to the British colonial influence on the island (and the fact that there are still two British sovereign bases), so a substantial English population has been a consistent feature of the country. Almost all Cypriots speak English as a second language, and it has become the unofficial universal language that crosses ethnic barriers. There is also a small group of Cypriot Arabic-speaking Maronite Christians, and some who speak Armenian. However, the expatriate population is growing and becoming more diverse. There are increasing numbers of migrants from Asia and the Middle East moving to Cyprus seeking work. This has changed the demographic of people in service jobs. Furthermore, the tourism industry is one of Cyprus’ biggest sources of economic growth. This has attracted more young travellers to the country.

 

The State Statistical Office estimates that 15.6% of Cyprus’ population consists of foreign residents.9 These population figures were taken by the Greek Cypriot government and exclude the number of Turkish mainlanders residing in the north of the country. Therefore, the proportion of non-Cypriots living in the country is likely much higher. In 2016, the majority of marriages performed in Cyprus involved people of foreign nationality.10 There is some apprehension about the loss of traditional lifestyles and culture among the growing population of ‘xenos’ (‘stranger’/’foreigner’ in Greek). However, for the most part, Cypriots have been very tolerant to change.

 

Nationalism

Some have called Cyprus “the Slave of the Mediterranean”, as it has had a long history of invasion and foreign occupation that informs its culture today. Its strategic position between Eastern Europe and the Middle East saw it conquered repeatedly over thousands of years. It was ruled by the Assyrian, Egyptian, Persian, Byzantine, Venetian, Ottoman and British empires (among others), before gaining independence for the first time in 1960. Even since Cyprus gained independence, there continues to be a constant military presence on the island. It remains compulsory for all men to complete military service in the Cypriot National Guard; most do so in early adulthood. 

 

This history has created a sense of defensive nationalism. Cypriots often see themselves as heroes of history. There are many national legends of Cypriots achieving single-handed defeats against conquerors. People tend to be very protective of their citizenship, as their sovereignty has been repeatedly threatened. Cypriots also tend to be strongly opposed to outside interference – especially considering Greece, Turkey and Britain’s roles in creating the current situation of partition. 

 

Honour, Integrity and Trust

The concept of personal honour (‘philotimo’ in Greek or ‘onur’ in Turkish) is deeply embedded in Cypriot culture. People take deep pride in their hospitality, generosity and honesty, as these are qualities thought to determine their integrity as a person. Honour is derived from doing things for others that are beyond one’s own self-interest, whether it be for their family, friends or country. This part of the culture influences the Cypriot psyche to see everyone as ‘brothers’ or ‘sisters’ and help them as such. In Cyprus, people share a cohesive understanding of heritage, ethnicity and culture that forms a very strong community network, encouraging generosity and hospitality on a daily basis. This can partly explain why expatriate communities are so closely-knit overseas.

 

A sense of honour and trust is deeply important to friendships. Cypriots generally need to feel that another person has an honest character before developing a lasting relationship. The importance Cypriots place on personal integrity can explain many cross-cultural differences in the way they uphold social contracts. For example, people are often comfortable relying on each other’s word rather than written agreements as they trust that another person’s sense of honour and pride will assure their reliability. Indeed, dignity and pride is a strong motivator to fulfil one’s social responsibility and duty, as a loss of integrity or trust can take a very long time to regain. Many Cypriots say that this sense of honour is the reason why there is such a low crime rate in Cyprus. 

 

As one’s honour is very important, Cypriots can be sensitive to comments that imply they lack integrity. For example, to call someone a ‘tzampatzis’ (‘free rider’ in Greek) or to imply they are lazy would likely be perceived as an accusation upon his or her integrity and taken to heart. There can be a lot of pressure on individuals to save face and protect their personal reputation. This can mean that some Cypriots may be reluctant to admit errors. In some cases, disagreements can turn into long-standing grudges as both parties try to protect their pride. It may be difficult to detect when you have offended someone, as people may try to hide when you have hurt their pride. For example, if you offend a Cypriot, they may not make it known immediately, but instead make it hard for you to contact them. Indeed, Cypriots are often considered quite stoic people. For example, if someone has a health complication, they may not complain or mention it until it gets to a quite serious point. 

 

_____________________

1 Statistical Service of the Republic of Cyprus, 2017: These population figures exclude Turkish migrants residing in the north of the country. 
2 Lee & Quintero, 2015
3 Hadjipavlou, 2007
4 Hadjipavlou, 2007
5 Hadjipavlou, 2007
6 Statistical Service of the Republic of Cyprus, 2017
7 International Crisis Group, 2010
8 Papadakis, 2011
9 Statistical Service of the Republic of Cyprus, 2017
10 Statistical Service of the Republic of Cyprus, 2017
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