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The Commonwealth



Did you know:

It is one of only three Commonwealth member countries located in Europe, all of which are island states and members of the European Union.

Cyprus has one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the Commonwealth: 997 infants survive every 1,000 births.

Key facts

Joined Commonwealth: 1961
Population: 1,141,000 (2013)
GDP: 0.9% p.a. 1990–2013
UN HDI: world ranking 32
Official language: Greek, Turkish
Timezone: GMT plus 2–3hr
Currency: euro (€)


Area: 9,251 sq km
Coastline: 648km
Capital city: Nicosia
Population density (per sq. km): 123

Cyprus is an oval-shaped island with ‘pan-handle’ north-east peninsula in the eastern Mediterranean. Its closest mainland neighbours are Turkey (to the north) and Syria and Lebanon (to the east).

Main towns:

Nicosia (Lefkosia, capital, pop. 334,120 in 2011, with a further 61,378 in the occupied north), Limassol (239,739), Paphos (91,200), Larnaca (53,500). In the occupied north, other main towns are Famagusta (40,920), Kyrenia (33,207), Morphou and Lefka.


There is a good road network in the Republic, extending to 12,480 km (65 per cent paved), with motorways between Nicosia, Limassol, Paphos and the Famagusta area; comprising 2.2 per cent of the total network. Cyprus has no railway.

Major ports are at Larnaca and Limassol.

Nicosia airport was closed in 1974. There are international airports 5 km south of Larnaca, and 15 km east of Paphos.

International relations:

Cyprus is a member of the Council of Europe, European Union, Organisation internationale de la Francophonie, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, United Nations and World Trade Organization.


The Troodos Mountains, in the central and western part of the island, rise to 1,951 metres at Mt Olympus. The Troodos, of infertile igneous rock, are characterised by steep slopes, narrow valleys and precipices. The Kyrenia Mountains (also known as the Pentadaktylos range), along the north coast, rise to 1,024 metres and are mainly limestone. Passes and valleys allow access to the north coast. The fertile Messaoria Plain lies between them. About half of its 186,000 hectares is irrigated. Most water sources are in the south – all major rivers originate in the Troodos and flow east, south or west. Many rivers dry up in the summer. There are sandy beaches on the south of the island and some rugged rocky coastline in the north.


Mediterranean type. Hot dry summers (June to September) and mild wet winters (November to March).


The most significant environmental issues are limited water resources – due to lack of rain in the summer and pollution of the island’s largest aquifer by sea water; water pollution by sewage and industrial wastes; coastal degradation; and loss of wildlife habitats due to urbanisation.


Mediterranean scrub, succulents and pine woods, adapted to the dry summers, with 1,800 species and subspecies of flowering plants. Forest covers 19 per cent of the land area. The mountains are forested and less than 15 per cent of the land is arable and permanently cropped, about 20 per cent of which is irrigated. The occupied north is generally more thickly vegetated and fertile.


The only large wild animal is the agrino, a species of wild sheep, which is now protected. Snakes, once so abundant as to give the island its old name Ophiussa (‘abode of snakes’), are now comparatively rare.


The civilisation of Cyprus, recorded through archaeological finds, myths and later written history, can be traced through 9,000 years. The island, perfectly placed as a strategic base for the great civilisations of the Near-Eastern ancient world, has been much fought over. It was subject to the empires of Assyria, Egypt, Persia, Macedonia and Rome in the BCE period. Its population has been predominantly ethnically Greek since then. After the collapse of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, it was ruled by Byzantium, the Franks, the Venetians and the Ottoman Turks. It was during the Ottoman period that the ancestors of the Turkish Cypriots settled on the island. Through these rich and varied influences, Cyprus acquired a great archaeological legacy.

In 1878, Britain concluded an alliance with the Sultan on Cyprus, and gained effective control. When Turkey sided with Germany in World War I, Britain annexed the island. In 1925, Cyprus became a Crown colony.

From the 1930s, Greek Cypriots campaigned for enosis (union with Greece), a movement that came to be led in the 1950s by Archbishop Makarios. The UK proposed instead (in 1948, 1954 and 1955) various forms of internal self-government, all of which were deemed unacceptable by the Greek Cypriot Ethnarchy Council. In 1955, the National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters (EOKA) began armed resistance against the UK. Turkey helped the Turkish Cypriot leaders establish the Cyprus Is Turkish Party and the Turkish Resistance Organisation, and the fighting became intercommunal.

In 1960, the UK negotiated an independence agreement with Greece and Turkey, under which the three powers guaranteed to protect the integrity of Cyprus, which was to be allowed neither to unite with any other country nor to be partitioned. Cyprus, which had not taken part in these negotiations, became independent as the Republic of Cyprus.

Intercommunal fighting broke out again a few years after independence, leading to some 500 deaths and more than 1,000 casualties. British troops imposed order and a plan centred on a ceasefire line known as the Green Line. In 1964, the UN Peacekeeping Force (UNFICYP) succeeded the British troops. A UN force remains in the same position today. However, hostilities continued, with the Greek and Turkish military becoming involved, and very nearly led to war between the two countries. Archbishop Makarios began negotiations towards a settlement.

But in 1974, a military coup in Cyprus overthrew Makarios and installed a fervently nationalist government, led by Nikos Sampson, favouring enosis. Turkey invaded twice, taking control of the northern 36 per cent of the country. Greece, in confusion after its own military coup against President Makarios, was unable to intervene. About 180,000 Greek Cypriots fled from their homes in the north, and came south as refugees; 45,000 Turkish Cypriots were similarly uprooted.

Intercommunal talks under UN auspices began in 1975. In November 1983, the Turkish Cypriot assembly in the north, under the leadership of Rauf Denktash, voted for independence and in 1985 approved a new constitution. Independence has subsequently been recognised solely by Turkey, but condemned by the UN Security Council and other international organisations.

The 1988 presidential election in the Republic brought to power George Vassiliou, on a platform of conciliation. He was not the first leader openly to seek compromise: Makarios had accepted the concept of federation in 1977, and concluded the first high- level agreement with Denktash; and President Spyros Kyprianou had signed the second high-level agreement with Denktash in 1979 and accepted the notion of bizonality proposing the demilitarisation of the island. But Vassiliou was prepared to go further. In 1993, he went to the elections stating his willingness to accept, as a basis for further negotiations, a UN proposal for a federal republic. However, he lost the election by a narrow margin to Glafkos Clerides, who took a more cautious view of the UN plan.

Parliamentary elections in the Republic held in May 1996 – the first to be held since the adoption of proportional representation – returned the Democratic Rally–Liberal Party coalition (supporting President Glafkos Clerides) with a majority of one seat.

There was optimism that real negotiations might be about to begin when in July 1997, Clerides and Denktash met for the first time in three years at a UN-sponsored meeting in New York. Subsequent meetings were held in Nicosia and Glion (Switzerland) over the next six weeks. However, tension was mounting with successive military exercises on the island by Greece and Turkey, and when it became clear that the EU negotiations would proceed without reference to the occupied north if a settlement had not been reached in the meantime, and also that Turkey was not at this period invited to join the EU, Denktash left the talks and the process was stalled.

The first round of the presidential elections in February 1998 was inconclusive. President Clerides narrowly won the second-round contest with George Iacovou with 51 per cent of the votes. Clerides then formed a broadly based coalition administration, to prepare for further negotiations with the Turkish Cypriots and the accession talks with the EU.

Talks with the Turkish Cypriots continued during 1999 and 2000, but progress remained stalled because the parties were unable to agree on future constitutional arrangements. While the Greek Cypriots, with the support of the international community, were seeking a return to a bi-communal independent federation with a central government, the Turkish Cypriots were insisting on a confederation of two equal states.

Accession negotiations with the EU began in November 1998 and the accession treaty on formal entry of Cyprus and nine other candidate countries in May 2004 was signed in April 2003.

Talks between Greek and Turkish Cypriots continued during 2001–02 and, from January 2002, these were UN-mediated talks between Clerides and Denktash, ending in March 2003 when the two leaders were unable to agree on putting the UN’s settlement proposals to referendums in their communities, though both sides agreed to continue negotiations.

Referendums on the UN reunification plan were held simultaneously in the two communities in April 2004. Greek Cypriots were overwhelmingly against the plan and Turkish Cypriots strongly for it. Among the reasons for the plan’s rejection by Greek Cypriots were that it would give them only limited rights to return to and recover their original homes, and that it would allow tens of thousands of Turkish settlers to stay and Turkey to maintain a garrison. Turkey would also maintain its status of guarantor power, with the right of unilateral military intervention.

The Republic of Cyprus became a member of the European Union in May 2004. The application of the acquis is suspended in those areas of the Republic of Cyprus in which the Government of the Republic of Cyprus does not exercise effective control.

The Island of Cyprus - National Geographic

Cyprus-Britains grim Legacy

The Cyprus Problem, Still Divided 1974

Learn more about Cyprus on The Commonwealth site Society, Economy, Constitution & politics, History and Travel.

A short account of its history and present state by Green, A. O. (1914) (pdf)

Cyprus then and now
by Home, Gordon

Ancient Cyprus: Its Art And Archaeology
by Casson, Stanley (1937) (pdf)

My experiences of Cyprus
Being an account of the people, mediæval cities and castles, antiquities and history of the island of Cyprus: to which is added a chapter on the present economic and political problems which affect the island as a dependency of the British empire by Stewart, Basil, (1880) (pdf)

Digging the Past in Search of the Future

Cyprus Vacation Travel Video Guide

Documentary of Northern Cyprus

Business in the Commonwealth
Web site of the Country

Return to our Commonwealth Page


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