More on Cyprus during the 7th Century

This past week I’ve been catching up on some of my reading on 7th and 8th century Cyprus for an article on settlement in the these centuries that I’m preparing for an edited volume. I’ve particularly enjoy three contributions by Luca Zavagno from 2011, 2012, and 2013. Read together, they provide a short-book-like overview of the pressing issues in understand the social, economic, and political situation on the island during a tremendously tumultuous period in its history.

Economically, Zavagno goes to great lengths to demonstrate that Cyprus was hardly in the state of economic collapse or stagnation during the 7th century. While the Persian wars, revolt of Heraclius, Arab conquests, and subsequent raids on the island disrupted economic activity to some extent, the basic economic structure of the island and its relationship with neighboring regions survived intact. He details the fragmentary evidence for economic ties to Asia Minor, the Levant, and Egypt throughout the 7th century and argues that these reflect the persistence of longstanding patterns of economic connectivity. The difficulty in recognizing these patterns stems not from their absence, but from the difficulties in consistently identifying and dating ceramics from these periods. In an extensive 2011 treatment of coinage on the island in Byzantion, Zavagno demonstrated that not only did the Cypriot economy continue to function into the 7th century, but it continued to be monetized with a range of both local and region, official and irregular currency appearing on the island suggesting both markets, trade, and small scale exchange continued on the island.

These, of course, observations are not new, but our struggle to identify consistently the archaeological evidence for activity during the 7th century has shaped how we understand settlement in Cyprus for decades. One of the strengths of Zavagno’s work is that he synthesizes the fragmentary evidence for settlement activity across the island. The reconstruction of buildings at Salamis-Constantia, evidence from Paphos, Polis, Soli and Kourion, and difficult, but widely accept evidence from architectural change on the Karpas peninsula paints an increasingly expansive picture of settlement throughout the 7th century. The evidence for fortification at Salamis, Paphos, and Amathus as well as the less well-understood sites along the Kyrenia range suggests that there was some effort to invest in defense of vulnerable populations after the raids of the 640s and 650s. Finally, Zavagno deals with the tricky issues of an Arab garrison stationed at Paphos. It would be interesting to understand how this garrison was supplied and whether it was large enough to influence the structure of local settlement.

Along similar lines, Zavagno argued that Cyprus played a key role in Byzantine military strategy in the region, and it would be interesting to consider how this might have influence settlement. If we understand the “busy countryside” of the 6th century as at least partly the result of Cypriot agricultural products moving north through the Aegean to troops stationed on the Danubian frontier, then we might want to reflect on how the strategic requirements of the fleet and troops moved to Cyprus as a staging area influences local markets and production patterns.

The most significant political issue in Zavagno’s work is the exact nature of the famed “condominium” which evidently stipulated that both Arabs and the Byzantines could govern and extract taxes from the island. In his 2011/2012 contribution to Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Zavagno makes clear that our understanding of the 7th century and the condominium is inexorably linked to the current political situation on the island. One might take this even further to argue that sorting out the 7th and 8th century on the island is a product of the narrative of nationalism that looks to Late Antiquity as a seminal moment in the formation of national identity. To be fair, much of this derives from the West where scholars have looked to the fall of the Roman Empire and the Early Middle Ages for the rise in both ethnic communities and polities that formed keys aspects of national myths.

The relationship between political hegemony on the island, related economic relationships, and settlement remains a difficult and open area question. The continued prosperity of the church, the ability of the two states to collect tax revenue, and the persistence of local elites suggested that the political situation did not adversely affect the economic realities of the island and this has meaning for how we understand the productive environment of Cyprus and, in turn, settlement. Luca Zavagno’s work has moved us closer to sorting out the economic, political, and settlement structure of the island during this tumultuous and opaque era.

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