The history of Cyprus via cartography

Before advancements in transportation made traveling easier and the development of photography brought images of distant places to a wider public, people had few ways of knowing what the world looked like. Maps were one of these few, a tool that offered an expansive window into the world, though also sometimes difficult to use and understand. Despite a justifiable claim to empirical knowledge and scientific value, maps were colored by the historical ideology of the time in which they were produced, not only in how they represented regions but also by what regions were selected for documentation. They were useful representations of the known world but also expressed how people were prepared to consider the rest of the world at any given time. This double nature comes through in «Sweet Land of Cyprus: The European Cartography of Cyprus (15th-19th century),» an exhibition from the collection of Cypriot Sylvia Ioannou, which is currently on view at the Benaki Museum. An adamant collector of maps, rare books and manuscripts on Cyprus, Ioannou has since the 1970s, tracked down historical documentation on her country. The rare maps shown in the Benaki exhibition comprise the most important aspects of her collection. The exhibition follows the history of Cyprus in parallel with the development of cartography and the interest that Westerners gradually took in the island. Structured in chronological sections with thematic sub-sections, the exhibit charts the entire history of the island from Frankish and Venetian rule to the Ottoman occupation, as well as British rule well into the 19th century. Late Renaissance atlases and nautical charts from the late 16th to 19th centuries are presented in separate sections. The exhibition is also supplemented by an informative and beautifully presented catalog written by historian George Tolias and Artemis Scutari (Maria Iacovou and Leonora Navari have participated on the book’s research committee). The interest that Western cartographers took in Cyprus is linked to the antagonism between Christians and Muslims over control of the Eastern Mediterranean, which goes back to late medieval times when the island was under Frankish domination. The earliest, independent maps of Cyprus were drawn in the 15th century, during the island’s Venetian rule. Caterina Cornaro, the widow of the last king of the Lusignan Dynasty, which ruled the island from the 12th century on, bestowed the island as property to the Most Serene Republic of Venice in the late 15th century. From a medieval kingdom, Cyprus became part of the republic of Venice and remained under its rule until its conquest by the Turks in 1571. The first printed maps of Cyprus began to circulate in the 16th century. They were both nautical and topographical but in both cases were usually in manuscript form and not actual printed maps, probably in order to keep sensitive information secret. The war with the Turks, in particular, sparked off a proliferation of maps, many of them serving as a kind of a cartographic war report. The Ioannou collection includes several maps of this kind: One of them shows the siege of Famagusta and was drawn in 1571 by cartographer Balthasar Jenichen from Nuremberg (apparently a press center at the time). A similar map was printed by Simon Pinargenti to keep the Venetians informed of course of the war. What also attracted Renaissance cartographers to Cyprus was the island’s mythological past and its heavy symbolism as the birthplace of Venus. References to the myth of Venus’s birth are inscribed in motifs, such as that of two swans leading the goddess in her chariot to Paphos, and recur in maps of the island up to the 18th century. The strongest impact on Renaissance cartography, however, came from the discovery of Strabo’s «Geographica» and Ptolemaeus’ «Cosmographia.» Updated reproductions of maps derived from these ancient sources abounded. (They included corrections of regions of the ancient world and the addition of new regions). The Sylvia Ioannou collection includes several, including a map of Cyprus and a reprint of a Ptolemaic map that appeared in a two-volume publication edited by Giovanni Antonio Magini in 1597. One of the best pieces is an early 17th century reprint of a Ptolemaic map, one of the 27 maps included in the first bilingual (Latin and Ancient Greek) edition of Claudius Ptolemaeus’s eight-volume «Geographike Hyphegesis.» Gerard Mercator, one of the most eminent cosmographers of the Renaissance period, engraved all of the maps that illustrate the book. Renaissance cartography also produced the so-called «isolaria,» a distinctive genre of cartography that were encyclopedic atlases comprising exclusively descriptions and maps of islands. Within the isolaria, maps were the illustrations for extensive texts. The genre became popular in Italy from the 15th-17th centuries. Benedetto Bordone’s (a Paduan engraver) isolario of Cyprus from 1534 is one of the most important isolaria of Cyprus. Cartography thrived in the Renaissance and on through the 17th century; they were a reflection of the Renaissance taste for organizing knowledge and building a universal understanding of the world. The emergence of atlases (a complete and analytical presentation of the world, consisting of a series of regional maps) are another indication of the advances made by late Renaissance cartography. The genre was established by Abraham Ortelius and Gerard Mercator almost simultaneously. The Ioannou collection contains several of their atlases. During the 17th and 18th centuries, most maps of Cyprus were reproductions of Renaissance maps. Because Cyprus was under Ottoman rule, Western cartographers were less concerned with its present than with its recent past, therefore reminding people that the island was once an independent Christian kingdom. An interesting simultaneously produced sub-genre are the nautical maps which were usually drawn by seamen based on empirical knowledge. However, most printed nautical maps that circulated in the 17th century presented an outdated, standardized image of the region they charted. An exception are the «portolan» maps that were printed in the early 17th century in the Netherlands. Accurate and interesting depictions of Cyprus, either on its own or as part of the eastern Mediterranean basin are included in those nautical charts. By the 18th and into the 19th century, however, new developments and technical knowledge helped to advance cartography. The dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the distribution of its lands renewed interest in cartography, particularly from the British into formerly Ottoman-occupied regions, such as Cyprus. British and French maps of the time illustrate this renewed political and cartographic interest. The 19th century maps in the Sylvia Ioannou collection conclude the narration of Cyprus’s history as seen through Western eyes from the 15th century onward. It is fascinating narration, perhaps hard to follow through the coded language of cartography but filled with interesting information, not only on Cyprus but on the biases and knowledge of the narrators.