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The history of Commandaria, a sweet wine from Cyprus

The traditional sweet wine of Cyprus which was a contemporary of the sweet Byzantine wine of Monemvasia – the Frankish Malvasia – became known in Mediterranean ports and the major markets of the West under the Frankish name of Commandaria. The name is connected with the island’s medieval history and the Knights of St John of Rhodes and Malta. Cyprus and some other islands, such as Karpathos, comprised one of the Asian themes of administrative regions of the Byzantine state, which was occupied for a long time by the Saracens, then reconquered by Nikiforos Fokas in 965. At the end of the 12th century, Isaac Comnenus was appointed lord of Cyprus, but he anointed himself king. When Richard the Lion Heart was on his way to the Third Crusade, bad weather forced him to take refuge in the port of Limassol. He soon clashed with Isaakios, and in 1191 he occupied Cyprus, which he sold to the Knights Templar, a religious order of knights founded in 1118 by French Crusaders to give the Holy Land armed protection from the infidels. The Knights Templar soon realized that they could not retain power in Cyprus, so they rescinded their agreement and left. Richard then gave the island to the Frenchman Guy de Lusignan, the so-called King of Jerusalem, who was the progenitor of a dynasty which ruled Cyprus for three centuries (1192-1489). The year 1192 marked the beginning of a new period of social and political history in Cyprus which, together with the period of Venetian rule (1489-1570), comprised the period of Frankish rule. During the reign of the Lusignans, colonists settled on the island, chiefly Catholics descended from the Crusaders, who received land and privileges so as to develop the feudal kingdom. Among them were the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, an order founded in the late sixth century. The villages of the land they were granted became the fiefdom of the Grande Commanderie of Cyprus, based in a castle west of Limassol, now known as Kolossi Tower. The feudal system was established under the Lusignans and three main classes came into being: the nobles, the bourgeoisie (merchants, tradesmen and artisans) and the military. The merchants, most of whom were foreign, had special privileges, and some of them, such as the Venetians and Genoese, had their own colonies which were states within a state. Cyprus was favorably located for doing business with Asia, and the port of Ammochostos developed into one of the biggest commercial centers of the East. Thus, a very rich urban class evolved alongside the feudal lords. But the foreign colonies turned out to be an internal blight, as dangerous as the wars against the Arabs that depleted the state coffers. First, the Genoese forced the State to hand over Ammochostos to them in 1365. When the last Lusignans died, the Venetians organized the succession in such a way that the flag of St Mark flew over Cyprus in 1489. For the Venetians, however, unlike the Lusignans, Cyprus was simply a base for them in the East. In 1571, this base fell to the Turks after a heroic months-long defense of Ammochostos. A century later, Venetian-ruled Crete suffered the same fate when Handakas fell in 1669. The chief crops in the Grande Commanderie were sugar beet, cotton and vines. The wine from the vineyards was made by the colonists, Greek Cypriots who staffed the feudal estate and, along with the perpyrarioi (1), were responsible for most of the island’s agricultural output. The Cypriots made sweet wine from grapes dried in the sun, according to a Byzantine technique. This was natural; changes on the political and social scene did not change the traditions of the rural Greek population. In his Geographica, Strabo called Cyprus rich in wine, and we know from Pliny that Cyprus produced sweet wine in antiquity – sweet wine which the Crusaders made known in the West as Cyprus wine when Cyprus was still a Byzantine island. During the period of Frankish rule, the sweet wine was sold by foreign merchants, chiefly Venetians and Genoese, who named it Commandaria, not because it came from the villages in the knights’ fiefdom, but because of the prestige chivalry could claim among the Catholic peoples of Western Europe and the pilgrims who used to call in at Cyprus on the way to the Holy Land, where ships and travelers took on supplies of sweet wine. The foundation of Latin states in the erstwhile Byzantine provinces of the East, and the settlement of Frankish knights in Syria not only gave new impetus to trade in the eastern Mediterranean, and beyond it to India, but also gave travelers new guarantees of protection from pirates. Venice, which had a great number of ships going to all the ports in the East, was practically the sole point of embarkation for the thousands of travelers who went on pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Travel agencies were organized and pilgrims signed contracts with shipowners concerning both parties’ obligations during the voyage, says K. Simopoulos in his book Foreign Travelers in Greece. (2) These contracts included the stipulation, before breakfast, of a glass of sweet Greek wine, which was a tonic and strengthener, food and medicine in one, according to Galen, a Greek doctor who lived in the second century and was seen in the West as an authority during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Records in Venetian archives indicate that Santorini was used as a main way-station for ships traveling from Venice to Crete and the Middle East (3). Given that it did not have a large, safe harbor, and there was little drinkable water and a shortage of wheat, the choice of Santorini can only have been due to its only commercial product, sweet Vin Santo, which the weary traveler prized above water at a time when drinkable water was rare. Supplies of sweet Malvasia were taken on in the ports of Crete, while in Cyprus, the equally sweet Commandaria was taken on board. Three traditional sweet wines, to which the wine trade of the time gave Frankish names of origin, became known practically simultaneously in the ports of the East and the markets of the West. 1) Perpyrarioi – freed serfs who paid for their liberty in gold Byzantine perpyra coins.