Ottoman Cyprus in the 18th Century


A review of Society and Economy on an Ottoman Island: Cyprus in the Eighteenth Century, by Antonis Hadjikyriacou.

This study analyses the evolution of Cyprus under Ottoman rule from a geopolitical as well as social-economic perspective. The author makes use of a Braudelian conceptualization of the islands in the Mediterranean as ‘insular’ spaces and ‘miniature continents,’ but he also endeavors to show the place of the island in Ottoman and Mediterranean history by drawing on the literature on centralization vs. decentralization in the eighteenth-century-Ottoman world and center-periphery relations. Hadjikyriacou establishes the island’s three distinct settings: Mediterranean (Part I, chs. 1, 2), Ottoman (Part II, chs. 3, 4) and local (Parts III, 5, 6, 7). Accordingly, Cyprus was a microcosm of the empire, reflecting the general trends in social-economic, administrative and fiscal developments both in the empire and the Mediterranean world. The reader is provided with a well-articulated introduction and conclusion that discuss the theoretical framework, literature and the main conclusions of the study. The table of contents reads like a summary of the work. There are six tables and three figures related to a number of themes tackled in the study: the climatic changes, Janissary pays, taxation, organization of the agrarian production and economy, and administration. Finally, the appendices include 3 maps of Cyprus as well as views and plans of some Cypriot towns.

Part I focuses on the background of the transformation in the organization of production.. Following the framework offered by late Faruk Tabak in The Waning of the Mediterranean, Hadjikyriacou narrates the transition to cotton and silk after the Ottoman conquest. Transition to tree fruits (mulberry, vines, olives) was also observed in Cyprus during the ‘Mediterranean autumn.’ Cyprus stopped cultivating sugar in the face of the Caribbean competition and thus sugar and wheat cultivation gave way to cotton and silk. Notably, cotton was a cash crop cultivated by small landholders as opposed to being a plantation crop in Cyprus – a rather arid island. The author explains the pervasiveness of water-intensive agriculture, reminding us of the debates on the little Ice Age; accordingly, possible climatic changes were likely to have made cotton cultivation sustainable in Cyprus. From the 1750s onward, grain cultivation also increased due to the devastating wars with Russia and Habsburg Austria. Cyprus was now required to send grains to distant Danubian theatres of war. Another empire-wide trend that is also observable in Cyprus was the rise in the contraband trade. The geostrategic environment of the Eastern Mediterranean prior to and after the Ottoman conquest receives due attention in this part of the study. The author arrives at the conclusion that the island ceased to be important for Ottoman strategic planning in the long run once the conquerors eliminated piracy and secured the trade and pilgrim routes.

Chapter 3 deals with the seventeenth-century background, which saw the consolidation of the Ottoman administration in the second half of the century. Drawing on the emergent literature on the phenomenon of ‘Ottomanization’ in the provinces, Hadjikyriacou describes how this process unfolded in Cyprus. Growing cotton and silk production led to a struggle for the concentration and export of the cash crop production between different actors such as local elites, foreign consuls, and merchant communities. Thus, assimilation of post-Venetian elites by the 1650s was intertwined with formation of the new poles of economic, social and political power.

Chapter 4 analyzes the logic of imperial administration on the island in the eighteenth century. This was the time when new communication channels between ruler and subjects took shape through various experimentations in administration. It is remarkable that administrative status of the island changed 11 times in 78 years. How should we make sense of this? Hadjikyriacou argues that rapid succession of administrative models reflected the general trends in the empire: bureaucratization and grievance administration. Recently, Ottomanists have come to question the rhetorics of oppression and transgression visible in the petitions submitted by the subjects to the Sublime Porte. Hadjikyriacou also adopts this skepticism about the source material. After all, if the Cypriots were so oppressed at the hands of the local administration, then why was the Ottoman administration sustainable? While historians should not take these local grievances lightly, such complaints were probably a negotiation strategy employed by the subjects. This century was a period of fiscal experimentation; introduction of esham (shareholding) in resource utilization changes the fiscal and administrative setting in which administrative and fiscal responsibilities were separated to an extent and official functionaries were coupled with quasi-official power magnates who built their power on the taxfarming system. This required from Istanbul the regularization of the grievance administration. Hadjikyriacou noted that the Ottoman esham system actually resembles the French system and calls the indigenous character of the institution into question. Interestingly, he also detects that the Central Treasury lost money over esham; while taxes rose by 5%, the interest rate paid to the investors was 12-15%.

Chapter 5 explores communal representation with the emphasis put on the non-Muslim community. This section presents a critical evaluation of the approaches and views on state-community relations. Contrary to the common wisdom, the Church was not always the natural mediator between the community and the state, at least in the case of Cyprus. The dragoman was also an important figure after the 1760s to the extent that Istanbul recognized him as the representative of the Cypriot non-Muslims (reaya vekili). Concession of fiscal authority to quasi-formal local institutions was inevitable in a system that began to rely on the lump-sum system in tax collection (maktu). The need for local knowledge, cooperation and organization for a smooth functioning of the system allowed administrative and fiscal communal bodies to flourish. Although this ran contrary to the Hanefi school of Islamic law that rejects corporate entities, the Ottomans showed flexibility and pragmatism by capitalizing on these local entities. According to the author, the surety system (kefil) of the previous century that had limited to fiscal tasks thus evolved into the representative system (vekil) that embodied administrative duties as well in the late eighteenth century. But it had to remain quasi-formal because of the legal complication mentioned above.

Chapter 6 starts by asking who was able to lay his hands on cotton, silk and grains with a view toward exporting them. This is one way of examining the changing power relations within the island in connection with the growing commercialization of agriculture. One of the seminal findings of this study is the existence of forward contracts (selem/salam, advanced purchase) and in-kind payments in Cyprus. This was the prevalent means of organization of agrarian economy in the Mediterranean world, including the Ottoman Empire. Its very existence is a clear evidence of incorporation of Cyprus into the international markets, as historians usually view selem as a sign of capitalist transformation. In this system, the buyer and the producer had to negotiate the price and volume in advance. Although consular reports claimed that the forward contracts favored the Cypriot producers, the petitions sent by the Cypriot peasants to the Sublime Porte tells quite a different story. On one occasion the villagers sent their petition to Istanbul with special envoys, trespassing the traditional intermediaries, in order to voice their grievances about the system. Obviously, peasants had to take the risk of indebtedness by selling their produce in advance at cheaper prices. It should also be noted that cotton was not marketed wholesale outside but also supported the domestic textile production. Despite the lack of mechanized textile industry, textile production was developed in terms of quantity and quality.

Chapter 7 is based on three case studies on three men of some consequence, an Armenian, a Turk, and a Greek. All cases encapsulate the social transformation the agrarian relations caused in this century. They were all involved in grain, cotton and silk trade. Their properties and estates were confiscated following their death – a clear indication that the state considered these quasi-bureaucrats as the servants of the Sultan. The Armenian consular dragoman-cum-merchant Sarkis began his career in the French consulate and subsequently transferred his loyalty to the British during the War of the Triple Alliance (1798-1800). When the Sublime Porte did not give its consent to his new appointment, the British embassy had to intervene in favor of Sarkis. What had to remain as a minor diplomatic nuisance turned into a matter of grave importance since Sarkis was in fact the connection for the British to the resources of Cyprus. The tax-farmer Abdülbaki, on the other hand, followed the typical career of a local Muslim magnate. He rose from the ranks of irregular soldiers from oblivion to the higher echelons of bureaucracy in Cyprus. He was involved in complicated credit mechanisms and money transfers in the form of bills of exchange. He cultivated close relationship with foreign consuls. In his capacity of tax collector (muhassıl) he was able to accumulate 16,000 purses of kuruş in 9 years. This almost amounted to the half of the annual revenue of the central treasury of the empire. In spite of recurring petitions that complained about his corruption, the Sublime Porte never really punished him; he was apparenly a protégé of the influential Grand Admiral, Cezayirli Gazi Hasan Paşa. Finally, Hadjigeorgakis Kornesios, the dragoman of the palace and the representative of the community (reaya vekili), was granted the right to collect the extraordinary taxes assigned to Cypriots including the Muslims. This was an event with no precedence, for the first time, a non-Muslim held some sort of authority over the island’s Muslims. Thus, fiscal authority that had initially been based on tax-collection gradually turned into communal representation (reaya vekili), finally resembling an institutional identity when Kornesios was appointed the representative of the province (vilayet vekili) in 1804. This thorny issue offended the Muslims and became one of the reasons for the 1804 revolt. Remarkably, the value of his belongings was higher than the taxes to be collected in the island in 1807. The Sublime Porte usually subjected the non-Muslim clerk of an executed Paşa to torture in order to confiscate every penny of the latter hidden from the state authorities. The misfortune of these non-Muslim, often Armenian, money-changers is often taken to be a sign of Muslim fanaticism on the part of the Ottoman state. In the present case, it was Kornesios’ Muslim scribe, Hasan Efendi, who had to undergo this maltreatment during the investigation of the hidden goods of his boss.

In summary, this dissertation is a welcome contribution on a number of fronts. It evaluates the interplay between the economy, society, production, law, fiscal authority, and quasi-institutional structures of representation in an Ottoman province. It reflects many ongoing debates in regional studies (the issue of Ottomanization, the forward purchases), Mediterranean history (proper understanding of islands), center-periphery relations (local power-brokers, communal representation), and rural studies (capitalistic transformation in agricultural production). In this endeavor, Hadjikyriacou utilizes a vast selection of works in various languages (Greek, Turkish, English, French) and consults many archival sources that have hitherto remained unused.

Kahraman Şakul
Department of History
İstanbul Şehir University

Primary Sources

Başbakanlık Osmanlı Arşivi (Prime Ministry Archive), Istanbul
National Archives, Kew, London
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies, Hertford
British Library, London
Archeio Archiepiskopes Kyprou (archive of the Archbishopric of Cyprus), Nicosia

Dissertation Information

School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. 2011. 324 pp. Primary Advisor: Benjamin C. Fortna.


Image: The mansion of dragoman Hadjigeorgakis Kornesios. Echoing the island’s historical legacies, the building combines Venetian/Frankish and Ottoman elements. Image copyright Despo Pasia.

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