Two Hegemonies, One Island: Cyprus between the Byzantines and the Umayyads, 650–850 C.E.

Friday, January 6, 2012: 9:30 AM
Michigan Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Luca Zavagno, Eastern Mediterranean University
Located astride the shipping routes linking southern Asia Minor with the coasts of Syria, Palestine and Egypt, the island of Cyprus has always functioned as a hub of cultural and economic communications in the eastern Mediterranean. Through the mid-seventh century the island increased its relevance as both a hub on the “eastern tax spine” through which Egypt fed Constantinople, and a way station on the long-distance trade routes that moved luxury goods by sea.  The Arab conquest of the Levant changed this situation permanently. Cyprus suffered two devastating naval raids on the part of the Muslim governor of Syria Mu’awiya (649 and 653 C.E.), becoming a ‘no-man’s land’ on the border between the two main polities of the Medieval Mediterranean: the Umayyad Caliphate and the Byzantine Empire.
This paper aims to assess the political and cultural status of the island of Cyprus as the only place within the Mediterranean where the Christian heirs of the Romans and the Muslims shared the local tax revenue to create a buffer zone between two empires. Geographically isolated between the Constantinopolitan and Damascene hegemonies, and marginalized by emperors and caliphs alike, the development of Cyprus was destined to take a unique, and perhaps problematic, trajectory.
Detailed examination of archaeological material (mainly seals, coins and ceramics) suggests a different interpretative scheme to the one traditionally adopted to interpret the declining fate of Cyprus after the Muslim raids. Instead, I propose, Cyprus and its cities were frequented from late antiquity through the early Middle Ages, preserving a variable but still traceable degree of economic vitality, which infers the maintenance of complex political, commercial and cultural relations between the Byzantine Empire and the Umayyad Caliphate.
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