Cyprus, as I Saw It in 1879

Author: Samuel White Baker


I do not intend to write a history of Cyprus, as authorities already exist that are well known, but were generally neglected until the British occupation rescued them from secluded bookshelves. Even had I presumed to write as a historian, the task would have been impossible, as I am at this moment excluded from the world in the precincts of the monastery of Trooditissa among the heights of ancient Olympus or modern Troodos, where books of reference are unknown, and the necessary data would be wanting. I shall recount my personal experience of this island as an independent traveller, unprejudiced by political considerations, and unfettered by the responsible position of an official. Having examined Cyprus in every district, and passed not only a few days, but winter, spring, and summer in testing the climatic and geographical peculiarities of the country, I shall describe "Cyprus as I saw it in 1879," expressing the opinions which I formed upon the spot with the results of my experience.

Although I have read many works upon this island, I have no books with me except that interesting record of the discovery of antiquities by General di Cesnola, and the invaluable compilation for the Intelligence Branch, Quartermaster-General’s Department, Horse Guards, by Captain Savile, 18th Royal Irish Regiment. It is impossible to praise the latter work too highly, as every authority, whether ancient or modern, has been studied, and the information thus carefully collected has been classed under special headings and offered to the reader in a concise and graphic form which renders it perfect as a book of reference. I must express my deep appreciation of the assistance that I have derived from Captain Savile’s work, as it has directed my attention to many subjects that might have escaped my observation, and it has furnished me with dates, consular reports, and other statistical information that would otherwise have been difficult to obtain. The study of M. Gaudrey’s able report to the French government upon the agricultural resources and the geological features of Cyprus, before I commenced my journey, guided me materially in the interesting observations of the various formations and terrestrial phenomena. The experiences of the late British Consul, Mr. Hamilton Lang, described in his attractive volume, together with those of Von Loher, Doctors Unger and Kotschy, have afforded me an advantage in following upon footsteps through a well-examined field of discovery.

Before I enter upon a description of my personal examination of the island, it will be advisable to trace a brief outline of the geographical position of Cyprus, which caused its early importance in the history of the human race, and which has been accepted by the British government as sufficiently unchanged to warrant a military occupation in 1878, as a strategical point that dominates the eastern portion of the Mediterranean, and supplies the missing link in the chain of fortified ports from England to the shores of Egypt.

In the world’s infancy oceans were unknown seas upon which the vessels of the ancients rarely ventured beyond the sight of land; without the compass the interminable blue water was a terrible wilderness full of awe and wonder. The Phoenicians, who first circumnavigated Africa by passing through the then existing canal between Suez and the Nile, coasted the whole voyage, as did in later years the famous Portuguese, Vasco di Gama, and stations were formed along the shores at convenient intervals. Hanno the Carthaginian coasted to an uncertain and contested point upon the western shores of Africa, but no ocean commercial port was known to have existed in the early days of maritime adventure. The Mediterranean offered peculiar advantages of physical geography; its great length and comparatively narrow width embraced a vast area, at the same time that it afforded special facilities for commerce in the numerous ports and islands that would form a refuge in stress of weather.

The countries which surrounded this great inland sea were rich; the climate throughout its course combined the temperate with almost tropical, according to the changes of seasons; accordingly, the productions of the earth varying upon the northern and southern coasts, were all that could be required for the necessities of the human race. In this happily situated position commerce was first cradled, and by the interchange of ideas and natural productions, artificial wants were mutually created among the various countries around the great sea margin; the supply of these new requirements and exchange of commodities established trade. With the development of commerce, wealth and prosperity increased; nations became important through the possession of superior harbours and geographical positions, and the entire maritime strength and commercial activity of the ancient world was represented by the Mediterranean. The Phoenicians of Tyre and Sidon were the English of to-day; the Egyptians and the Greeks were followed as the world grew older by the Venetians and Genoese, and throughout the world’s history no point possessed a more constant and unchangeable attraction from its geographical position and natural advantages than the island of Cyprus, which in turn was occupied by Phoenicians, Greeks, Egyptians, Persians, Romans, Byzantine rulers, Saracens, Byzantine rulers again, English, Lusignans, Venetians, Turks, and once more English in 1878.

The advantages which had thus possessed a magnetic influence in attracting towards this island the leading nations of the world were in ancient days undeniable. When vessels directed their course only by well-known landmarks, or by the position of certain stars, it was highly necessary for a maritime power to occupy a continuous chain of stations, where, in case of danger from a superior force, a place of refuge would be near. Cyprus from its peculiar geographical position commanded the eastern portion of the Mediterranean. The harbour of Famagousta was only a few hours’ sail, with a favourable wind, to the coast of Asia Minor. The bays of Larnaca and Limasol were roadsteads with a safe anchorage, and Paphos (Baffo) was a convenient harbour upon the south-western portion of the island, capable of protecting a considerable number of the small vessels of the period. Thus Cyprus possessed two harbours upon the south coast in addition to good roadsteads; while upon the north, Cerinea (Kyrenia) and Soli, although never large, were serviceable ports of refuge, exactly facing the coast of Caramania, plainly visible. The lofty mountains of the Carpas range which overhang these harbours command the sea view at an elevation of between three and four thousand feet, from which the approach of an enemy could be quickly signalled, while the unmistakable peaks of the rugged sky-line formed landmarks by which vessels could steer direct to the desired ports. The same advantage of descrying an enemy at a distance from the shore exists in many parts of Cyprus, owing to the position of the heights; and the rocky nature of the coast (with the exception of a few points such as Limasol, Morphu Bay, &c.), rendered the landing of a large force extremely difficult. As a strategical point, there was no more formidable position than Cyprus; it formed a common centre within immediate reach of Alexandria and all the coasts of Syria and Asia Minor. It was not only a military place d’armes, such as Malta and Gibraltar now are, dependent upon maritime superiority for the necessary provisions, but it was a country of large area, comprising about 3500 square miles, with a soil of unbounded fertility in a high state of cultivation, a population sufficiently numerous for all requirements of the island, and forests of timber that was in great request for the architect and ship-builder. In addition to these natural sources of wealth, the mineral productions were celebrated from the earliest history, and the copper of Cyprus was used by the Phoenicians in the manufacture of their celebrated bronze.

The Chittim wood of Scripture, imported to Syria from Cyprus (the ancient Chittim), was probably a species of cypress at that time composing the forests which ornamented a considerable portion of the surface. There are two varieties of cypress in the island: that which would have been celebrated grows upon the high mountains, and attains a girth of from seven to nine feet, the wood being highly aromatic, emitting a perfume resembling a mixture of sandal-wood and cedar; the other cypress is a dwarf variety that seldom exceeds twenty feet in height, with a maximum circumference of two feet; this is a totally different wood, and is intensely hard, while the former is easily worked, but durable. The derivation of the name Cyprus has been sought for from many sources; and the opinions of the authorities differ. English people may reflect that they alone spell and pronounce the word as "Cyprus." The name of the cypress-tree, which at one time clothed the mountains of this formerly verdant island, is pronounced by the inhabitants "Kypresses," which approximates closely to the various appellations of Cyprus in different languages. The Greek name is Kypros, and it is probable that as in ancient days the "chittim-wood" was so called from the fact of its export from Chittim, the same link may remain unbroken between Kypros and the tree Kypresses.

The geographical advantages which I have enumerated are sufficient to explain the series of struggles for possession to which the island has been exposed throughout its history; the tombs that have been examined, have revealed the secrets of the dead, and in the relics of Phoenicians, Persians, Assyrians, Egyptians, and the long list of foreign victors, we discover proofs of the important past, until we at length tread upon pre-historical vestiges, and become lost in a labyrinth of legends. From the researches of undoubted authorities, we know that Cyprus possessed a written character peculiarly original, and that it was occupied by a people highly civilised according to the standard of the early world at so primitive an era, that all records have disappeared, and we are left in the darkness of conjecture.

The changes in the importance of certain geographical positions, owing to the decline and fall of empires, which at one time governed the destinies of the Eastern world, have been strikingly exhibited on the shores of the Mediterranean; Tyre, Sidon, Carthage, Cyprus, had lost their significance upon modern charts, even before the New Worlds appeared, when America, Australia, and the Eastern Archipelago were introduced upon the globe. The progress of Western Europe eclipsed the Oriental Powers which hitherto represented the civilisation of mankind, and two points alone remained, which, shorn of their ancient glory, still maintained their original importance as geographical centres, that will renew those struggles for their possession which fill the bloody pages of their history—Egypt and Constantinople.

No country had been more completely excluded from the beaten paths of British travellers than the island of Cyprus, and England was startled by the sudden revelation of a mystery connected with the Treaty of Berlin, that it was to become a strategical point for a British military occupation!

On the 4th June, 1878, a "Convention of Defensive Alliance between Great Britain and Turkey" was signed, which agreed upon the following articles:-


"If Batoum, Ardahan, Kars, or any of them, shall be
retained by Russia, or if any attempt shall be made at
any future time by Russia to take possession of any
further territories of His Imperial Majesty the Sultan
in Asia, as fixed by the definitive treaty of peace,
England engages to join His Imperial Majesty the Sultan
in defending them by force of Arms.

"In return, His Imperial Majesty the Sultan promises to
England to introduce necessary reforms, to be agreed
upon later between the two Powers, into the government,
and for the protection of the Christian and other
subjects of the Porte in those territories; and in
order to enable England to make necessary provision for
executing her engagement, His Imperial Majesty the
Sultan further consents to assign the island of Cyprus
to be occupied and administered by England.


"The present Convention shall be ratified, and the
ratifications thereof shall be exchanged, within the
space of one month, or sooner if possible.

"In witness whereof the respective Plenipotentiaries
have signed the same, and have affixed thereto the seal
of their arms.

"Done at Constantinople, the fourth day of June, in the
year one thousand eight hundred and seventy-eight.



It was eventually agreed between the contracting Powers:-

"That England will pay to the Porte whatever is the
present excess of revenue over expenditure in the
island; this excess to be calculated and determined by
the average of the last five years."


"That if Russia restores to Turkey Kars and the other
conquests made by her in Armenia during the last war,
the island of Cyprus will be evacuated by England, and
the Convention of the fourth June, 1878, will be at an

I knew nothing of Cyprus, but I felt sure that the Turks had the best of the bargain, as they would receive the usual surplus revenue from our hands, and be saved the trouble and onus of the collection; they would also be certain of a fixed annual sum, without any of those risks of droughts, famine, and locusts, to which the island is exposed, and which seriously affect the income.

Although there would only be a wildly remote chance of Russia ever relinquishing her Asiatic prey, the bare mention of the words "will be evacuated by England" was a possible contingency and risk, that would effectually exclude all British capital from investment in the island. I could not discover any possible good that could accrue to England by the terms of the Convention. If Cyprus had been presented as a "bonus" by the Porte to counterbalance the risk we should incur in a defensive alliance for the protection of Asia Minor, I could have seen an addition to our Colonial Empire of a valuable island, that would not only have been of strategical value, but such that in a few years, money and British settlers would have entirely changed its present aspect, and have created for it a new era of prosperity.

If England had purchased Cyprus, I could have understood the plain, straightforward, business-like transaction, which would have at once established confidence, both among the inhabitants, who would have become British subjects; and through the outer world, that would have acknowledged the commencement of a great future.

But, if we were actually bound in defensive alliance with Turkey in case of a war with Russia, why should we occupy Cyprus upon such one-sided and anomalous conditions, that would frustrate all hopes of commercial development, for the sake of obtaining a strategical position that would have been opened to our occupation AS AN ALLY at any moment? On the other hand, if we distrusted Turkey, and feared that she might coquet with Russia at some future period, I could see a paramount necessity for the occupation of Cyprus, and even Egypt; but we were supposed to be, and I believe were, acting in absolute and mutual good faith as the protector of Asiatic Turkey, in defensive alliance with the Sultan. In that position, should we have entered into a war with Russia, there was no necessity for the occupation and responsibility of any new position, as every port of the Ottoman dominions, even to the Golden Horn of Constantinople, would have welcomed our troops and boats with enthusiasm.

Turkey is a suspicious Power, and the British government may have had to contend with difficulties that are unknown to the criticising public; it may have been impossible to have obtained her sanction for the occupation under other conditions. The possibility of future complications that might terminate in a close alliance between the conquered and the victor, may have suggested the necessity for securing this most important strategical position without delay, upon first conditions that might subsequently receive modifications. At first sight the political situation appeared vague, but I determined to examine the physical geography of Cyprus, and to form my own opinion of its capabilities.



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Chicago: Samuel White Baker, "Introduction," Cyprus, as I Saw It in 1879 in Cyprus, as I Saw It in 1879 Original Sources, accessed December 7, 2022,

MLA: Baker, Samuel White. "Introduction." Cyprus, as I Saw It in 1879, in Cyprus, as I Saw It in 1879, Original Sources. 7 Dec. 2022.

Harvard: Baker, SW, 'Introduction' in Cyprus, as I Saw It in 1879. cited in , Cyprus, as I Saw It in 1879. Original Sources, retrieved 7 December 2022, from