The importance of Cyprus to the crusader states can hardly be overstated. Cyprus protected the sea lanes to the Levant. It provided a staging ground for offensive action and a place of refuge in defeat. It provided many of the lords and knights of Outremer with the rural estates so important to raising and training both men and horses for medieval warfare. Yet first and foremost it was the wealth of Cyprus, the resources it could put at the disposal of the mainland crusader states, that made it such a valuable addition to the Latin East. Today I look more closely at the components of its economy.
|Ruins of a 13th century Sugar Factory at Kolossi; sugar was an immensely lucrative cash crop throughout the Lusignan period from the start of the 13th century to the end of the 14th.|
Notably, excavations show that Cyprus employed the cutting-edge technology of the age, notably highly sophisticated waterworks to power its mills and then reuse the water to irrigate surrounding fields. Leading crusades scholar Nicholas Coureas concludes:
The sophistication of Cypriot agriculture is best seen in the Lusignan plantations around Potamia south of Nicosia. The recently excavated system of wells, waterwheels, canals and mills irrigated the fields and processed produce of the royal estate. ("Economy" in Cyprus: Society and Culture 1191 - 1374, editors Angel Nicolaou-Konnari and Christ Schabel [London: Brill, 2005] 113.)
In contrast to the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the kings of Cyprus maintained a monopoly on minting coins and also established kingdom-wide standards for a variety of wares. They instituted some price controls (notably on bread) and maintained control of public highways. Perhaps most important, they granted far fewer privileges to the Italian city-states than did the crusader states on the mainland.
Last but not least, Cyprus was home to a shipbuilding industry and banking, two of the most important economic sectors of the age. The former was concentrated in Famagusta and grew up mostly after the fall of the shipbuilding centers on the Syrian coast, banking was centered in Nicosia, which became a major center for money lending. So much so, in fact, that it attracted the outrage of the Church by the introduction of a variety of shady measures designed to evade laws against usury. Coureas notes that despite the de facto high interest charged, customers were clearly prepared to borrow anyway, a strong indication of just how lucrative commercial activities on Cyprus were in the thirteenth-century.
This positive picture is marred by the fact that Cyprus clung to Byzantine traditions in another, less admirable, way also: slavery was practiced on the island. While in the 12th and 13th century most slaves were Muslim war captives, as the influence of the Italian city-states grew so did the number of slaves procured from other regions. This was because the Italian city-states were the principle slave-traders of the age, engaged primarily in bringing slaves from northeastern Europe to the voracious slave-markets of the Arab world. After the fall of the mainland crusader states, a major slave market developed on Cyprus itself, a fact that evidently encouraged the purchase and employment of slaves directly on Cyprus particularly in labor-intensive industries such as sugarcane production and viticulture as well as for domestic work.
In retrospect, the first two hundred years of Lusignan rule was a "golden age" for Cyprus, characterized by independent government and economic prosperity. Neither Venetian nor Ottoman rule delivered so many benefits nor such high standards of living for the population at large -- including peasants but excluding slaves -- as did the centuries of Lusignan rule.