By Bob Reis
copyright 1991, 1998 by WCN & BOB REIS
The island is smaller than the state of Connecticut, and sits forty miles off the coast of
Asian Turkey and more than 700 miles from mainland Greece. With the population split
eighty-twenty between Greeks and Turks, and with a substantial majority of Greeks
favoring political union with Greece, Cyprus appears to the Turkish government as a
Greek torpedo pointed directly at the soft, underdeveloped southern coast of Anatolia.
The memories of the Greeks and Turks go back a long way. Greeks remember the four
centuries of oppression under the Ottomans. Turks remember the invasion of Turkey by
Greece when the Ottoman government collapsed after World War I. Both recall with
bitterness the forced migration of hundreds of thousands of their ethnics from each
others' countries during the 1920s.
The history of Cyprus, however, is longer than anyone's memory. Neolithic settlements
are known from 3,000 BC. The island was one of the earliest sources of mined copper
(hence its name) for the Egyptian, Phoenician, Assyrian, Mykenaean Greek, and other
early great civilizations of the Mediterranean. Greeks and Phoenicians seized good
harbors and ore rich regions from the original neoliths during the second millennium BC,
and set up permanent colonies to export the copper back to their home cities. The
Cypriot colonists grew rich, and Cyprus attracted the military attention successively of
the Assyrians, Hittites, and Persians before it was brought into the Greek political orbit
by Alexander the Great.
The mined copper was formed into ingots similar in size and shape to a goatskin. These
were standard trade items throughout the Mediterranean basin in much the same way as
standard salt blocks are in Ethiopia and Somalia. A batch of them was recently brought
up from a shipwreck, but as far as I know none have fallen into private hands or appeared
on the numismatic market.
Both Greek and Phoenician lords began striking Greek type silver during the sixth
century BC. Archaic style coins are known from the towns of Lapithos, Amathus, Kition,
Marion, Idalion, Salamis, and Paphos, but which types belong to which location remains
to this day a matter of contention. I have never handled any of the early Cypriot coins. A
quick look through a bunch of fancy European auction catalogs showed a mere handful
of Cypriot offerings, all minor silver of the classical period and all with estimates of
several hundred dollars. The bronze coinage of the late fourth century BC is priced
cheaply in Sear's Greek Coins and their Values, but in my experience they are worse than
scarce. They are rare.
I seem to have misplaced my references, but I believe that Muller (Numismatique
d'Alexandre le Grand) attributed some of the normal Alexander silver types to Cypriot
mints. The big issuers were the Makedonian and Greek mints, and some cities in Asia.
Despite the enormous quantity of Alexander coins which have been dumped on the
market in the last decade people have resisted for the most part the temptation to collect
them by mint. Those with the interest can profit from looking through the bags of
tetradrachmai that the big dealers carry to the big shows.
Ptolemy I took volunteered to administer Egypt for Alexander's successor upon the
conqueror's death in 323 BC. For the most part he stayed out of the wars among
Alexander's Generals which proceed for the next thirty odd years, and when Alexander
IV was murdered he declared himself King of Egypt. As part of his consolidation effort
he seized Cyprus, and the island was held by his descendants until the Roman takeover in
Most people are willing to say that the "ÐA" monogram commonly found on Ptolemaic
silver coins is the mark of the Cypriot town of Paphos, but a minority of students will act
conservative and deny that the connection has been proved. The monogram is known on
coins from the Satrapal period of Ptolemy I (323-305 BC) all the way to the end of the
Ptolemaic line, and is the most common mark on the tetradrachms of the later rulers. It
is the large number of available coins which arouses the suspicions of the conservative
researchers. If older Cypriot coins are rare why are these so common? I, of course, am a
dilettante, and don't even have an opinion.
Bronze coins of the so-called "Greek Imperial" series were struck from the time of
Augustus to the third century AD. Some of them are listed in Sear's Greek Imperial
Coins and their Values with reasonable prices, but hardly anyone ever has them for sale.
When you think of how many Antiochene bronzes are floating around, and how many
silver didrachms of Caesarea in Cappadochia, not to mention the piles of Egyptian coins,
the almost complete absence of Cypriot coins of the period irritates like a toothache. If
the Ptolemaic ÐA coins are indeed Cypriot why did the minters there cut their output
almost to nothing under the Romans?
At any rate, the issue of coins on Cyprus was suspended during or shortly after the reign
of Caracalla (198-217 AD). The island made do with metropolitan coins, most coming
from the nearby Imperial mint at Antioch. This situation continued after the division of
the Empire and well into the Byzantine period.
Cyprus was one of the strongholds of the Heraclii during their revolt against the tyranny
of the Emperor Phocas in 608-610 AD. Emergency copper coins were struck on the
island, probably in Nicosia. They are rare and expensive, and with the success of the
revolt and the crowning of Heraclius Junior in Constantinople the Cypriot mint was
closed. There was no minting activity there for over five hundred years.
In 1184 Isaac Comnenus revolted against the Emperor Andronicus I and set up a little
court in Nicosia. He struck the crummy cup shaped billon trachea and even crummier
copper tetartera which were the standard coins of the realm at the time. They are not
common, but many dealers refuse to try to identify these wretched coins and purchasers
of bulk lots have a chance to get lucky. There's also an electrum version of the trachy
which is never offered.
KINGS OF CYPRUS
In the reign of Isaac the Third Crusade began, led by Richard Lionheart of England.
Peeved by his lack of clearcut success against the Muslims, the English king used the
pretext of mistreatment of some marauding Crusaders captured by Isaac on Cyprus to
seize the Island. Richard kept Isaac as a hostage, and being in need of capital, sold
Cyprus to the Knights Templars, who in their turn sold it to Guy de Lusignan, the "King
Guy, 1192-94, reestablished the mint on Cyprus, striking billon deniers tournois of the
"normal" Crusader type of Tower of David / Cross. Guy's coins are not as common as
those of some other Crusader lords. His Cypriot issues are available. He was followed
by Amaury, 1194-1205, of whom no coins are known. Amaury's successor Hughes I,
1205-18, struck deniers of the standard type, and gold "bezants" in imitation of
contemporary Byzantine hyperpyra. Hughes' deniers are scarce, his gold is rare. Hughes
was followed by Henri I, 1218-53, who continued with the rare gold and scarcish billon
types, and added a rare copper with his portrait. He was succeeded by Jean I, 1253-84,
whose gold and billon coins are scarcer than Hughes'.
During the reign of Henri II, 1285-1310, Genoese mercantile establishments dominated
trade in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the coins of Cyprus were struck in imitation of
Genoese types. Henri struck rare gold bezants, and a new type, the silver grossi, and its
half. His grossi are among the most common Cypriot coins of the period, but the halves
Amaury II, 1304-10, struck grossi and halves. They can be found, but are not common.
Henri III, 1310-24, struck grossi, halves, and deniers. The grossi and deniers are
reasonably easy to obtain. Hughes IV, 1324-58, struck the same denominations. His
grossi are, with those of Henri II, the most common coins of the kings of Cyprus. The
coins of Peter I, 1358-69, and Peter II, 1369-82, are also relatively easy to obtain, but the
availability situation deteriorates markedly for the next few rulers.
Coins of James I, 1382-98, range from the very scarce grosso to the extremely rare
denier. Despite a reign of more than thirty years, those of Janus, 1398-1432, are all very
rare. Janus introduced a new billon denomination, the six deniers or sezin, which
became a standard coin later in the century. However, only very scarce silver grossi are
known for his successor, John II, 1432-58.
Two of the last three Crusader rulers were women. Charlotte, 1458-63, struck only
scarce grossi in her own name, and a few rare pieces are known with the name of her
husband, Louis of Savoy. James II, 1464-73, issued halves and sezins in addition to
grossi. His coins are scarce. The last ruler was Catherine Cornaro, 1473-89. She struck
grossi only, initially with the name of her husband, James III, joined to her own, and later
with her name only. The former are rare, the latter are scarce. Three anomalous issues
round out the royal period. The first is a scarce series of anonymous deniers with
inscriptions referring to Jerusalem. These have been attributed by Paul Lambros to the
period of Peter I and/or II. The second is a rare denier struck in Famagusta by Genoese
merchants circa 1373-1464. Finally there is a series of fourteenth and fifteenth century
grossi countermarked with a small letter four (and occasionally five) times, evidently to
validate particular weight ranges. These are scarce to rare.
Troops of Venice occupied the whole island in 1489, and remained until 1571 when the
Turks took it away from them. Under the rule of the Doges silver disappeared from the
island, the inhabitants perforce making do with copper coins struck both in Nicosia and
in Venice. The first Venetian issue consisted of anonymous sezins and deniers, attributed
by Paul Gardiakos to the time of Leonardo Loredano, 1501-21. In the time of
Marcantonio Trevisan, 1535-64, a new denomination, the carzia, was issued. This new
coin was tariffed at four to the sezin, which had lost its relation with the denier and had
become simply a small copper coin with a name. Carziae were struck with the names of
Francesco Venier, 1554-56, Lorenzo Priuli, 1556-59, and Gerolamo Priuli, 1559-67. The
last Doge to control Cyprus was Pietro Loredano, 1567-71. Harking back half a century,
he issued, besides carziae, denari and sezini.
Many coins of the Venetian period are reasonably available at reasonable prices. It's
probable that not all types are known. All are very crudely made, and are usually found
in conditions ranging from mediocre to exquisitely bad.
In 1570 the Sultan Selim II decided he'd had enough of this Venetian thorn in his Asian
underbelly, and invaded the island. He quickly overran the defenders. The garrison at
Famagusta held out until the next year, leaving as numismatic mementos emergency
copper "bezants." These are actually fairly easy to find as siege pieces go. As with most
all siege issues, however, they are popular and expensive. There's something about the
thought of someone spending a month of inflated wages on a rat for dinner.
With the fall of Famagusta the island was firmly under the heel of the Turks. Turkish
provincial government was built around what I'll call the "Extortionate" philosophy, by
which I mean to imply the thought of taking as much as possible and giving nothing in
return. Under three centuries of the malign neglect of the Ottomans Cyprus sunk ever
deeper into isolation and poverty. No coins were issued, and few of the miserable little
copper mangirs and silver akjes which composed the Ottoman circulation made it to the
In 1878 the Sultan Abdul Hamid II found himself between a rock and a hard place. He
had just lost disastrously in a war with Russia. By the terms of settlement Romania,
which had been partially detached previously, became totally independent, and Bulgaria
started the same process, thus losing him the bulk of his European possessions. In
walked the British with offers of a defensive alliance. He signed the papers on June 4 of
that year. Of course the British needed a forward base from which to provide their
"defense." They took Cyprus for "Administrative Purposes."
As was their custom throughout their empire at the time, they issued coins almost
immediately, using the facilities at London and Birmingham to keep the business at
home. They set the value of their piastre at a bit more than half of the Ottoman piastre to
keep the money on the island. The coins circulated heavily.
Victorian coppers are fairly scarce and usually come in low grades, often with some
damage. Uncirculated coppers with the lady's portrait are extremely rare. Her silver 4½
and 9 piastres are her most common coins, usually occurring in fine or worse. All of the
coins of Edward VII are scarce in any grade, and almost impossible in uncirculated.
Coins of George V are a little better, though his big early coppers are just as difficult in
high grade as those of his predecessors. His copper-nickel coins can be found fairly
easily in grades up to extremely fine. The silver coins are available, especially the 45
piastres crown, which is actually common and shows up regularly in XF-AU and
occasionally in uncirculated.
All the coins of George VI are available, though only the copper piastres and halves of
1949 approach ubiquity. Except for these two, his coins are tough in true uncirculated,
and there is also what I call the "George VI Problem" by which I mean to indicate that
you can usually get into an argument over whether a coin is AU or Unc. This is not a
problem for the 1949 coppers though. There are plenty around in undisputable red BU.
Elizabeth's coins, in a slow approach to decimality, were struck in mils rather than
piastres. All are easily available as types. The 3 mils was heavily exported to coin
wholesalers who used it in packets: "10 different," 50 different," etc. It still turns up in
"poundage." The other coins were not so treated and must be found one at a time. These
comments apply to 1955 dates only. the 1957 100 mils is a very difficult coin, and the
1956 5 mils, despite its low catalog value, is in reality no better.
The Republic was cobbled together against the wishes of the indigenes by a tripartite
agreement between Britain, Greece, and Turkey. The Greek Cypriots were heavily in
favor of union with Greece. The Turks couldn't stand the though, and preferred to remain
under British protection. Britain wanted out and rammed through an agreement in 1960.
The discord continued and in 1974 Turkish troops invaded the northern half of the island
to protect their ethnics. The next year a Turkish Republic was declared, which no nation
other than Turkey recognizes, and Turkish troops have remained in occupation to this
I don't know what kind of money they use in the Turkish zone. As far as I know don't
issue their own. Someone knows. Please write a letter to the paper and tell us.
The Republic issued mil denominated coins between 1963 and 1982. 1963 is the only
common date. The 1 and 5 mils coins were exported in bulk to the wholesalers. The
other coins are one at a time pieces. Dates other than 1963 can be elusive. Some have
low mintages. Anyone attempting a date set will experience long periods of frustration.
A series of 500 mil coins was issued between 1970 and 1981. All exist in copper-nickel
as circulation strikes and as silver proofs. The commonest of these is the 1970 FAO coin
in copper-nickel. All of the silver versions are fairly difficult. A 1 pound coin struck in
1975 for refugee relief is easier to find than it's companion 500 mils. The only official
gold coin, the 1977 Makarios 50 pound, is not too hard to find.
From 1983 they dropped mils in favor of cents. The 1983 minors set was stocked by
wholesalers, but as all the types are animals it was popular and everyone sold out. Later
dates are rather difficult. There are several commemoratives struck both in base metal
and silver. The commonest at the moment are the 1989 sports pound with the archaic
style Hermes and the 1988 mountain sheep pound. Most difficult to find is the 1989
bronze 20¢ in proof.
Proof sets have been made on and off since 1879. 1955 is not difficult, and 1963 is easy.
The others range from difficult (1983) to impossible (all the others). Mint sets have been
issued since 1955. Again, 1955 and 1963 turn up all the time, and the others hardly turn
up at all.
There are a handful of Cypriot collectors who eagerly snap up the ancient and better
medieval coins whenever they appear. Small hoards of old material continue to come
out of the island. They are always quickly dispersed. The broad mass of collectors does
not appear to have developed a serious interest in the country. In my experience those
modern coins which are available are slow sellers.