Nicosia (mod. Lefkosia) was the capital of Cyprus from the late Byzantine period and continued as such under Latin (1192-1489) and Venetian (1489-1570) rule.
As a well-watered town, with the river Pediaios running through its center and with numerous cisterns, springs, and conduits, Nicosia compared favorably with the coastal cities of Cyprus in being free from malaria. Under the kings of the Lusignan dynasty it was the seat of government and developed rapidly. The royal palace, the palace of the Latin archbishops of Nicosia, the Latin cathedral of St. Sophia, and the various courts, such as the High Court, the Court of Burgesses, the court of the Syrians, and the Latin ecclesiastical courts, were all located there. In the thirteenth century the Franciscans and Dominicans and in the fourteenth century the Carmelites, Augustinians, and Crutched Friars established houses there. Their presence helped Nicosia become a regional intellectual center, with libraries and schools, and the Franciscan house was successful enough to be considered a studium generale by 1374. The Benedictines and Cistercians had monasteries and nunneries in the city, and the military orders of the Temple, the Hospital, and St. Thomas of Canterbury all had churches and establishments there. The Greek Church, despite suffering dispossession at the start of the Latin conquest, also came in time to establish monasteries and nunneries in and around the city.
At the time of the Latin conquest Nicosia was not walled, although it possessed a fortified citadel that was strengthened under King Hugh II. The construction of a circuit of walls began under King Peter I and was completed before 1373, but the new walls did not prevent the Genoese from capturing Nicosia in the wars of 1373-1374. Following the Genoese invasion the Margarita Tower was constructed on the perimeter of the walls under King Peter II, but the most radical reorganization of the city’s defenses took place under the Venetians. In 1567 they demolished the old circuit of walls and constructed new ones, forming a perfect circle, with eleven bastions designed to withstand artillery bombardment. Many Latin and Greek churches and monasteries around the perimeter of Nicosia were demolished to make way for the new walls and to provide a clear field of fire for the artillery emplacements on the new walls, and numerous houses of the poor were also demolished in the process, leading to popular discontent.
Nicosia experienced political tribulations, social unrest, ecclesiastical strife, and natural disasters. An uprising of the Greeks against the Templars immediately after the Latin conquest in 1192 was bloodily suppressed, although it impelled the Templars to depart from Cyprus, which was then purchased by Guy, the founder of the Lusignan dynasty.
During the civil war of 1228-1232 between Latin noble factions, Nicosia was fought over by both the imperialist and the pro-Ibelin parties, and the former plundered churches, monasteries, and the houses of military orders. In 1261 Greek priests supporting the terms of the Bulla Cypria, which placed the Greek Orthodox Church under the jurisdiction of the Latin Church, were forced to take refuge in the palace of the Latin archbishop, and in 1312 an irate crowd of Greeks came close to storming this palace because of differences between the Greek bishops and the papal legate Peter ofPleine Chassaigne.
In 1373 Nicosia was sacked and pillaged by Genoese invaders. Mamlûk invaders did likewise in 1426 when they captured the city and destroyed its sumptuous royal palace, and in 1460 they captured it once again during the civil war between Queen Charlotte and her illegitimate brother James II, whom they supported.
As regards natural catastrophes, special mention should be made of the drought of 1296; the floods of 1330; earthquakes in 1303, 1453, 1478, 1481, 1491, 1508, 1524, and 1569; and plague in 1348, 1390-1392, and 1470-1472. These disasters did not fundamentally affect the expansion of Nicosia. On the eve of the Ottoman conquest of 1570 Nicosia probably had around 25,000 inhabitants, making it the most populous city in the Greek world.
Nicosia was not only the center of the kingdom’s political, judicial, ecclesiastical, and intellectual life; its development owed much to its lively economic activity. Agricultural products such as wheat, wine, fruit, and meat were brought to its markets to provide for the growing population, and the supply and pricing of wheat in particular was subject to strict regulation. Textiles, silks, leather, wax, sugar, silver, and gold were produced and marketed in Nicosia, and the Venetians, Genoese, and Pisans all maintained loggias (merchants’ lodgings) in the city. In 1483 the Dominican Felix Faber witnessed Christian and Muslim merchants from all over the world buying and selling spices, perfumes, dyes, and medicines there. The ground floors of the houses of the nobles generally had rooms serving as storage spaces for wine, wheat, oil, and other goods, with the living quarters on the upper floors. Although the streets were winding and narrow, legislation was passed and measures were taken to keep them clean of refuse, and in 1546 the Czech visitor Oldrich Préfat commented on the cleanliness of the streets.
Nicosia had a cosmopolitan population, comprising not only Latins and Greeks but also Maronites, Jacobites of the Syrian Orthodox Church, Melkites and Nestorians originating from Syria, Copts and Ethiopians originating from Egypt and Africa, and Armenians who had come over from Cilicia. The members of all the above confessions maintained their own churches and monasteries in and around Nicosia, and under the Venetians the Armenians were prominent in the defense of the city, making up two of the six companies of soldiers guarding the palace of the Venetian lieutenant in 1507.
Neither the new Venetian walls nor the forces Venice had stationed there, reinforced by the local militia, prevented the powerful Ottoman army from storming Nicosia on 9 September 1570, after a siege lasting five weeks. The extent of the destruction that followed can be gauged from the fact that the Ottoman census of 1572 for Nicosia recorded no more than 235 tax hearths, or a population of 1,000 people remaining out of 25,000, leading one to conclude that over 20,000 of the city’s inhabitants had been either killed or, for the most part, sold into slavery following the Ottoman conquest.