The many kingdoms of Cyprus

The island of Cyprus was never under the direct control of the Assyrian empire. But during the reign of Sargon II (721-705 BC), its rulers dispatched a diplomatic delegation to the Assyrian king in an attempt to lessen the control of Tyre over the island.

The copper isle and its inhabitants

In antiquity, Cyprus was prized for its rich copper deposits, and from this metal the island takes its Greek name. But to the Assyrians, it was known as Ya' Adnana or Yadnana, the "island of Adnana". The inscriptions of Sargon II of Assyria stress that this name was entirely unknown to his predecessors. Indeed, when Cyprus had been part of the international trade and diplomatic network of the Late Bronze Age, in which Assyria had also participated, it had been known as Alašiya. The new name links the island and its inhabitants to the Sea Peoples of the dnn (known from Egyptian sources of c. 1200 BC), the dnnym inhabiting the nearby Cilician coast (according to local alphabetic inscriptions from the 8th century BC) and Homer's Danaoi.

The political geography of Cyprus in the 8th century BC. From D. W. Rupp, 'Puttin' on the Ritz: Manifestations of High Status in Iron Age Cyprus', in E. Peltenburg (ed.), Early Society in Cyprus, Edinburgh 1989, 347 fig. 38.5. View large image.

Homer uses Danaoi as an alternative designation for the Greeks, and this can be connected with evidence for the use of the Greek language in Cyprus which is attested there from the 11th century BC onwards, initially written in the local syllabic script [] and later also in the Greek alphabetic script. Information on the Greeks in Cyprus is also available from Assyrian sources of the 7th century. Says Esarhaddon (680-669 BC) in a building inscription from Nineveh:

"I summoned the kings of Hatti and Across the River (Syria-Palestine): Baʾalu king of Tyre, Manasseh king of Judah, Qaʾuš-gabri king of Edom, Muṣurī king of Moab, Ṣil-Bēl king of Gaza, Mitinti king of Ashkelon, Ikausu king of Ekron, Milki-ašapa king of Byblos, Mattan-Baʾal king of Arwad, Abī-Baʾal king of Samsimurruna, Būdi-il king of Bīt-Ammon, Aḫī-Milki king of Ashdod - twelve kings from the shore of the sea; Akestor (Ekištūra) king of Idalion, Philagoras (Pilagurâ) king of Chytroi, Kīsu king of Salamis, Etewandros (Itūandar) king of Paphos, Erēsu king of Soloi, Damasos (Damāsu) king of Kourion, Admetos (Admēsu) king of Tamassos, Damysos king of Qarti-hadasti (= "Carthage", meaning "new town" in Phoenician), Onasagoras (Unasagusu) king of Ledrai, Buthytes (Buṣusu) king of Marion (Nuria) - ten kings of Yadnana in the midst of the sea; in total, twenty-two kings of Hatti, the seacoast, and the midst of the sea." (Esarhaddon, Nineveh 1 [] V 54-73)

The names of seven of the ten rulers of Yadnana mentioned here can be explained as Greek: Akestor of Idalion, Philagoras of Chytroi, Etewandros of Paphos, Damasos of Kourion, Admetos of Tamassos, Onasagoras of Ledrai and Buthytes of Marion. The names of the remaining three rulers can be explained as West Semitic, possibly Phoenician.

Cyprus, its overlord Tyre and the war of 709 BC

The Phoenician kingdom of Tyre had already maintained close contacts with the communities on the island for at least two centuries before a permanent colony was established in the 9th century. The Tyrian settlement at Kition in Cyprus' southeastern corner was embedded in the network of small city-states ruled by local kings and was meant to ensure Tyre's control over the copper exports.

Sargon's Kition Stele, which the king had "erected [facing Mount] Ba'al-harri, a mountain [towering ab]ove the country of Adnana" (III 52-53), possibly to be identified with Mount Stavrovouni to the northeast of Kition. The basalt stele was discovered in 1844 at the ruin site of Bamboula near the old harbour of Larnaka where more recent archaeological work has brought to light the ancient Phoenician settlement of Kition with the temple of the goddess Ashtarte. Vorderasiatisches Museum Berlin, VA 968. From M. Yon, Kition dans les textes (Kition-Bamboula 5), Paris: Édition Recherche sur les Civilisations, 2004, 353 fig. 43. View large image.

By the second half of the 8th century BC, Tyre dominated the political system of Cyprus since it was able, according to Assyrian testimony, to treat the local principalities as its vassal states. In 709 or possibly 708 BC, Šilṭa king of Tyre called on Sargon II of Assyria to assist him with his army in disciplining his rebellious vassals, the rulers of Cyprus. Bound by treaty, it was the Assyrian empire's duty towards its allies to respond to such a summons, and already some years earlier, in 715 BC, Sargon had given military assistance to Tyre when Ionian pirates were threatening its commercial interests. What is described in Sargon's inscriptions, following the conventions of this text genre, as an Assyrian-led military campaign is really a conflict between Tyre and the Cypriot kingdoms, with Assyria's army giving military assistance to its ally. At that time, Assyria did not have a fleet and its troops were of course transported by Tyrian war ships. All reconstructions of the history of Archaic Cyprus need to consider the war of 709 (or 708). The invasion of Assyrian troops at the prompting of Tyre casts a dark shadow over what is usually reconstructed as a time of peaceful and profitable co-existence between the Phoenicians and the local inhabitants of Cyprus.

The Assyrian intervention in aid of Tyre would have been instrumental in restoring Tyre's control over the Cypriot kingdoms. However, it also brought the Assyrian king's power to the attention of the Cypriot rulers who promptly dispatched a diplomatic delegation to Sargon II, then residing in Babylon, in order to pledge their service. But although Sargon had a stele erected on the island in order to commemorate this encounter, it is extremely unlikely to have changed the existing set-up, with Tyre exercising control over the Cypriot kingdoms: as long as Tyre was considered a dependable ally able to guarantee the loyalty of its vassals on Cyprus there was very little reason to expect any kind of local Assyrian representation on the island itself, or even a direct line of communication. For reaching the island independently was beyond the powers of Assyria, which did not command a navy at the time. Perhaps not surprisingly, therefore, there is no mention of Cyprus in Sargon's state letters.

The Cypriot rulers as client kings of the Assyrian empire

The relationship between Assyria and the Cypriot kingdoms changed under Sargon's successors of the 7th century BC. According to the inscriptions of Esarhaddon (see above) and Assurbanipal (668-c. 627 BC), the rulers of the ten Cypriot kingdoms of Idalion, Chytroi, Soloi, Paphos, Salamis, Kourion, Tamassos, the New Town ("Carthage"), Ledrai and Marion assisted in renovating Esarhaddon's armory in Nineveh and later in mustering Assurbanipal's army set for Egypt.

Such activities fell under the duties expected of allied rulers and would indicate that there was now a direct and more permanent link between the Cypriot kingdoms and Assyria. Tyre was no longer managing these relationships. Indeed, Ba'alu, the king of Tyre, is named in the quoted passages together with the Cypriot kings as an equal rather than their superior and as fulfilling the very same roles. That Esarhaddon concluded a treaty with at least one Cypriot ruler is demonstrated by an oracle query (SAA 4 92) referring to this arrangement.

Phoenician war galley with two rows of oarsmen, as illustrated in depictions of the Assyrian campaign to the Mediterranean coast in 701 BC under Sennacherib (704-681 BC). Detail from the wall decoration of the South West Palace (Room VIII (S), slab 11) at Nineveh. British Museum, ME 124772. Photo by Marty Robertson []. View large image.

It was Esarhaddon's annexation of the Phoenician principality of Sidon in 677 BC that enabled Assyria to exercise a more active role in the Mediterranean. This valuable harbour, second only to Tyre in importance and trade volume, was turned into an Assyrian port and renamed "Esarhaddon's Harbour" (Kār-Aššur-ahu-iddina). For the first time, Assyria was in a position to take to the sea on its own. Moreover, Esarhaddon lost much of his trust in Tyre's loyalty during the wars with Kush over Egypt, when Tyre repeatedly put its commercial interests before the strategic considerations of the empire. It was at that time, we can assume, that the Assyrian empire's direct link with the Cypriot kingdoms was formally established, to the detriment of Tyre, and this new set-up ultimately allowed the Tyrian colony of Kition to gain its independence from the motherland and proclaim itself a separate kingdom.

The Assyrian military aid lent to Tyre and the invasion of 709 (or 708) BC marked an important step in the emancipation of Cyprus from Tyrian rule. The demonstration of Assyrian power on the island alerted the Cypriot rulers to the fact that the king of Tyre was himself a vassal of the Assyrian empire, and provided the stimulus to dispatch a Cypriot delegation directly to Sargon II, bypassing the traditional intermediary, Tyre. The subsequent erection of his stele at Kition commemorated this event and ensured that this first link between Assyria and Cyprus, at that time symbolic rather than concrete, endured until the alliance between Assyria and the Cypriot kingdoms became a political reality a generation later. This relationship finds its physical expressions also in Cypriot material culture, with sculptures in the "orientalising" style and luxury objects such as chariots and furniture from the so-called Royal Tombs of Salamis [] highlighting the extent to which the Assyrian imperial court served as a model for the local elites.

Further reading:

Na'aman, 'Sargon II and the rebellion of the Cypriote kings', 1998.
Na'aman, 'The conquest of Yadnana', 2001.
Radner, 'The stele of Sargon II of Assyria at Kition', 2010.

Content last modified: 5 Nov 2012.

Karen Radner

Karen Radner, 'The many kingdoms of Cyprus', Assyrian empire builders, University College London, 2012 []

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