Think about the Knights Templar and your mind turns to the Holy Land or western European medieval kingdoms like England and France. But the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus played a huge role in Templar history that is often overlooked. And it’s why Templar fans should make a beeline for this very attractive destination.
Cyprus had been part of the eastern Roman Empire but in the seventh century CE came under attack from the new Islamic caliphate. A Muslim woman called Umm Haram famously died at the Cypriot town of Larnaca in a riding accident. She was the sister of one of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad and a mosque commemorates her death to there to this day. But despite the success of Muslim forces all over the Middle East, Cyprus proved to be a tougher nut to crack.
The eastern Romans – more often called the Byzantines – fought the caliphate to a stalemate. Both sides agreed to an uneasy joint control over Cyprus sharing tax revenues for three centuries. Eventually, under the warrior emperor Basil the Macedonian, the Byzantines took the island back decisively. But despite that, Cyprus proved to be a turbulent place to govern. It retained a rebellious and independent streak.
By the 12th century, the Byzantine governor Isaac Komnenos had begun a concerted attempt to seize the imperial throne in Constantinople but was rebuffed. However, he managed to keep hold of Cyprus with Norman support and while ruling in the name of Byzantium, in reality ignored the emperor.
Unfortunately for Isaac, he then made a terrible mistake. Richard the Lionheart, the crusading king of England, was on his way to fight Saladin in the Holy Land. A princess called Berengaria of Navarre sailed to meet Richard, docking at Limassol in Cyprus. Instead of offering warm greetings to his royal guest, Isaac kidnapped Berengaria to extort some money out of Richard. Big mistake!
A furious Richard the Lionheart landed at Limassol, got his future wife back and imprisoned Isaac. Apparently the Byzantine governor was shackled with silver chains as Richard had explicitly promised not to clap him in irons. Aaaah – that medieval sense of humour!
DISCOVER: Richard the Lionheart – war criminal?
Cyprus was then taken by Richard who promptly sold it to the Knights Templar to raise some ready cash for his crusade. He also married Berengaria at Limassol though their union was very much a political affair and had nothing to do with love. The Templars only held on to Cyprus for a matter of months. Faced with a very restive population, they flogged it to Guy de Lusignan, the King of Jerusalem.
Having recouped their investment, the Templars held on to castles like Kolossi and their presence was very evident on the island right through to the year of their destruction in 1307. For the Knights Templar, Cyprus was well located to supply soldiers in Jerusalem and the other crusader states. But the knights faced a constant simmering animosity from the Cypriot population who resented what was essentially ‘foreign’ domination.
The Templars were Latin Christians from western Europe. The Cypriots were eastern orthodox Christians in communion with Constantinople’s version of Christianity and not that of the Pope in Rome. There was also a minority Muslim population in Cyprus. In 1204, Latin Christian crusaders destroyed much of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade which would have validated the fears of many Cypriots about these knights clad in white mantles and red crosses.
That said, the Templar influence on Cyprus was strong. As was the legacy of the rival Knights Hospitaller. Both military orders left a strong physical and political mark on the island which is still very obvious today. One very spooky reminder is the deserted vilage of Foinikas that was part of a Templar commandery. The house of the Grand Commander can still be seen today.