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Medieval Cyprus and the Lusignan period

Physical map of Cyprus Most of the pottery from this exhibition comes from the so-called Lusignan period in Cyprus (1192-1489 AD). Before this, from the 7th to the 12th century AD Cyprus was claimed and in one way or another 'shared' by the Byzantine emperor and the Arabs. In the mid-12th century the island came fully under the control of Byzantium. The last Byzantine governor, Isaac Comnenus, declared independence in 1185. However, on his way to the Holy Land in 1191, King Richard the Lionheart of England, one of the leaders of the Third Crusade, defeated Comnenus and occupied the island.

Soon after his conquest, Richard sold Cyprus to the Knights Templar who, a year later, sold it on to the deposed King of Jerusalem, Guy de Lusignan. He established his kingdom on the island and was followed there by a large number of aristocrats and nobles who rapidly transformed Cyprus from a Byzantine province to a Medieval (French) feudal kingdom that lasted for three centuries (1192-1489). During this time, there were repeated attempts by the Sultan, the Venetians and the Genoese to take over the island, which was recognised to be a key strategic location with several sheltered harbours. The Lusignan period came to an end in 1489 when the Venetian queen Katerina Cornaro, widow of the last Lusignan king of Cyprus James II, reluctantly handed the island over to her native state.

During the Lusignan period the indigenous people were completely downtrodden and exploited by their Frankish rulers, just as they had been by their Arab and Byzantine predecessors. However, the Franks did adapt to some extent to local ways of life; they appreciated the climate, landscape, flora and fauna of the island (especially its suitability for hunting); most of them learned to speak Greek and they regarded Cyprus, christened 'the sweet land' by a contemporary writer, as their native country. The Lusignans and their Venetian successors left their mark in place-names, art and music and gave the island a more cosmopolitan identity; but in the end their traditions too were assimilated into the ever-changing culture of Cyprus.

This period also saw the beginnings of a synthesis between the traditions of the eastern Mediterranean, Greece and western Europe. This may be seen as a real precursor of what was to become the Renaissance.