Over 9,000 years ago, Neolithic settlers who did not yet know how to produce metals or pottery arrived on Cyprus from the Near East, probably from the north Syrian coast. By the sixth millennium B.C., villagers in scattered settlements along Cyprus’s northern and southern shores survived by fishing, hunting and farming, and some lived in curvilinear homes made of river stones and mudbrick, like those at Kalavasos-Tenta (see photo of curvilinear homes in the main article). Metal objects, pottery and cruciform-shaped stone figurines, such as the 3-inch-tall figure above, began to be produced on Cyprus during the fourth millennium B.C. These figurines have been recovered from graves and ruined buildings in the southwestern part of the island.

By the middle of the 16th century B.C., most of Cyprus—except the mountainous areas—was inhabited. Cypriots established new commercial ties with the eastern Mediterranean, Egypt, the Near East and the Aegean world, exchanging their timber, pottery and copper for pottery from Minoan Crete, metals from Anatolia, and faience beads and ivory from Egypt. The islanders adapted a Minoan script (now called Cypro-Minoan script), and they used a system of weights similar to that used in the Near East and Egypt. Around 1200 B.C., settlers from the Mycenaean world—perhaps associated with the Sea Peoples mentioned in Egyptian texts—introduced new burial customs and the Greek language to the island. This period of cultural cross-fertilization and expanding international commerce spurred the growth of new urban centers—Paphos, Salamis, Kition and Enkomi—which grew wealthy from trading pottery and oxhide-shaped copper ingots (above), which were alloyed with tin to make bronze.

Ten autonomous city-states ruled the island during the 11th century B.C., with Salamis replacing Enkomi as the dominant city in eastern Cyprus. Phoenicians colonized the harbor town of Kition during the ninth century B.C.; soon sophisticated Phoenician motifs (often reflecting the influence of Egypt) began appearing in Cypriot metalwork, pottery and luxury goods, such as the open-work ivory plaque shown above, which once adorned a throne found in Salamis’s royal necropolis. The island’s growing prosperity, based on the export of copper and pottery, attracted unwanted attention from a succession of foreign overlords. Sargon II of Assyria (722–705 B.C.) boasted in an inscription found in Kition that the cities of Cyprus paid him tribute, and an inscription left by the Assyrian king Esarhaddon (680–669 B.C.) lists “ten kings from Cyprus [Iadnana] amidst the sea” under his yoke. During the mid-sixth century B.C., Egyptians briefly ruled the island, followed by Persians who remained in control for two hundred years, using Phoenicians as local administrators. Following Alexander the Great’s defeat of the Persians in 333 B.C. at the Battle of Issus, the Cypriots voluntarily submitted to their new Greek rulers.

When Alexander died in 323 B.C., the Cypriot kingdoms became enmeshed in a power struggle between two of his Macedonian Greek generals: Antigonus, who sought to reunite the empire under his own rule, and Ptolemy, who claimed Egypt as his share of the empire. After annexing Cyprus in 294 B.C., Ptolemy set out to abolish the island’s city-states. He accused Nicocreon, the king of Salamis, of siding with Antigonus, and then besieged Salamis and put Nicocreon’s palace to the torch. Nicocreon and the rest of the royal family committed suicide rather than submit. (The fourth-century B.C. life-size marble head of Aphrodite above was found in the ruins of Salamis.) The Ptolemies ruled over a unified Cyprus for the next 250 years.

Cyprus was incorporated into the Roman Empire in 30 B.C. as a province of Syria after the conquest of Alexandria, Egypt by Octavian (later to be acclaimed Emperor Augustus). The Romans levied huge taxes on the island and exploited Cyprus’s copper and timber resources. In the year 45 A.D., the apostle Paul and his Salamis-born, Jerusalem-raised disciple Barnabas traveled to Cyprus and converted the Roman proconsul (a governor of senatorial rank) Sergius Paulus to Christianity—making Cyprus the first Christian-ruled country in the world. The city of Paphos became the Romans’ administrative capital during this period, although the second-century A.D. Roman emperors Trajan and Hadrian continued to favor Salamis, where they built a theater, gymnasium and colonnaded palaestra, or exercise ground (above).

With the rise of the emperor Constantine (274–337 A.D.), the Roman Empire became officially Christian. After Constantine’s death, Cyprus remained under the jurisdiction of the Eastern Roman Empire, whose capital was Constantinople (which was built on the site of an earlier settlement called Byzantium). After a devastating earthquake struck the island in 365 A.D., Cyprus was rebuilt as a thoroughly Christianized culture. The rise of Islam in the middle of the seventh century led to frequent Arab incursions into the eastern Mediterranean over the next 300 years, and Cyprus became a haven for Christian refugees from Syria and Palestine. The Arabs, however, never occupied the island; they struck a deal with Constantinople and received the island’s taxes as a form of tribute. By 965 A.D. Cyprus was once again under the control of the Byzantine Empire, and Byzantine dignitaries sponsored the building of new churches. Chapels like the early 12th-century Church of Panagia Phorviotissa at Asinou (above) were decorated with sacred wall paintings (see photo of wall painting from the Church of Panagia Phorviotissa at Asinou). This artistic floruit was interrupted in 1191 when England’s Richard the Lionhearted conquered the island en route to the Holy Land during the Third Crusade.