The Island of the Knights
Text: Charalambos Nikopoulos
From the moment crusaders set out on their mission to “liberate” the Holy Land and secure safe passage for Christians traveling the holy routes, these knights became sui generis, a class of warriors in a league above all others (God’s armies). However, protection came at a high price. Soon, these militant orders amassed great wealth in the acquisition of land throughout parts of Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. For good or bad, Cyprus became the property and fiefdom of two of the most iconic crusading orders in history. The first to arrive were the Templars, followed by the Hospitallers. For over two centuries, Cyprus served as a base of operations for both. Headquartered in Jerusalem with the bulk of their military might, the Templars and Hospitallers waged holy war against the armies of Islam. These mounted, warrior-monks stood out on the battlefield in their respective surcoats, the Templars in white bearing a red cross, the Hospitallers in black bearing the Rhodian Cross. In time, accusations arose telling of wanton bloodshed, heresy, and broken vows. For the Templars especially, these conspiratory intrigues became impossible to overcome and are still a point of scholarly contention. Interest in the origins and history of these orders has only grown through the centuries, as has their legendary status. Stories abound, blurring the line between fact and fiction. However, the fashion in which they found themselves in Cyprus was a game of chance.
In the summer of 1190, King Richard I of England, the Lionheart, departed for Akra (Acre) by sea. It was the beginning of the Third Crusade, a continuation of a holy war unfolding in Palestine with a script filled with countless twists and turns. After a few months at sea, storms forced Richard to sail his ships to Limassol, where his reception from the tyrant Isaac Doukas Komninos, a usurper to the throne of Cyprus, was less than cordial. Isaac, the nephew of Emperor Manuel A΄ Komninos, came by the throne through unsavoury means, sanctioned outright oppression, and severed political and religious ties with the Byzantine Empire by way of succession. Isaac made no attempt to hide his character upon Richard’s arrival, refusing his requests for food and shelter, and mounting attempts to drive England’s king out of Limassol’s port. Without much effort, the Lionheart conquered Cyprus, captured the tyrant, and immediately sold the holdings to the Templars in the summer of 1191 for 100 thousand dinars in 24-karat gold coins (a huge sum of money at the time). This was a shrewd transaction on Richard’s part, as it ensured that the strategically positioned island would remain in the hands of devout Christians sworn to securing and defending Christendom in the Holy Land. Moreover, with such a massive sum, Richard could continue to fund his military operations.
The Purchase of Cyprus
The stubborn, Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and Defenders of the Temple of Solomon, a reference to the Knights Templar, may have answered to the Pope in principle, but in practice imposed their own rule of law in territories they occupied. Heavy taxation was commonplace. Concerning Cyprus, the Templars considered the island a key strategic asset in consolidating their regional influence. However, the unbearable nature of taxation on Cypriot inhabitants soon stirred popular dissent. Accusations of religious oppression took root among the people. The Templars stood accused of habitually insulting their deep religiousness by attempting to impose Roman Catholicism. That the inhabitants were Greek Orthodox and had been loyal vassals of the Byzantine Empire since 330 AD were facts that meant little to the order. Thus, those that welcomed Richard’s intervention and removal of the tyrant Isaac now stood in opposition to the Templar regime. Dissent turned into a bloody uprising in the spring of 1192. The outcome persuaded the Templars to relinquish their control of the island to Richard, citing an “unruly” populace as their excuse (a unique event in Cypriot history)! The Templar’s sudden departure from Cyprus led Richard to sell the island’s holdings once more, this time to Guy de Lusignan of France. This event marked the founding of the Lusignan dynasty and, subsequently, the Frankish occupation. This new “Kingdom of Cyprus” would be ruled by the French and their feudal system until 1489.
The Establishment of the Knights Hospitaller
In Cyprus, the Templars were replaced by the Hospitallers following the coronation of Amory in 1194, the successor to Guy. The Knights Hospitaller founded their order in Jerusalem shortly after its capture in 1099 by Christian armies in the First Crusade. The Hospitallers (derived from “hospitality”) maintained a guesthouse across from the Holy Sepulcher for the boarding and care of pilgrims. Theirs was the first among their order to accommodate bank loans, a practice that gained them remarkable influence. This cavalry order, undoubtedly more moderate than their Templar counterparts, would assist in the establishment of the Frankish occupation and played a major role in the development of Cyprus as a fortified island. Almost a century later, in 1291, persecution by Muslims forced the order to move its headquarters to Limassol after the sack of Jerusalem by Saladin’s armies. In the same year, the city of Akra also fell to Saladin, forcing the Templars to flee en masse. Both Orders returned to Cyprus after Saladin’s victories in 1291, established headquarters, and fomented a peculiar balance of opposing influence and political intrigue. Finally, after years of extreme accusations of heresy, witch trials, imprisonment, and torture, the Knights Templar were effectively dissolved by 1313, thereafter passing into the annals of history and theological conspiracy. All Templar assets on Cyprus were inherited by the Hospitallers.
No matter the case, both Templar and Hospitaller left behind substantial traces of their existence on the island. The gothic castle of Kolossi in Limassol and the three castles in Pentadaktylos (Ayios Hilarion, Voufavento, Kandara) are the most recognizable from that era, but certainly not the only ones of their kind. Local place names such as Spitallin in Nicosia derive from Hospitallers. Names of villages such as Templos derive from Templiers (Latin templum for sanctuary or temple), but also medieval observatories that resemble small castles, such as Koulas located in the village Alaminos near Larnaca, are proof of the crusaders’ influence. Even Commandaria, Cyprus’ most famous wine, takes its name from the Knights Hospitaller. Commanderie is the fertile region full of vineyards where the Hospitallers had their headquarters. That is why most labels on bottles of Commandaria include the knightly emblem of a cross or a likeness of St. John the Baptist.