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Rhodes and Cyprus: medieval gems of the Mediterranean

history hunter's report

When I first began research for the Sea and Stone Chronicles, I focused on 15th-century Rhodes, Greece, during the rule of the Knights Hospitaller of St. John. I was particularly interested in how ordinary people, especially women, coped under the dominion of the knights. I soon learned there was very limited information available about daily life in Rhodes at that time. I found plenty of resources about the knights themselves, but only rare glimpses of the people who served them, aided them, profited off them, or were enslaved by them.

[The above 19th-century painting depicts the famed “Colossus of Rhodes” in Rhodes Town harbor. Public domain image.]

Who were these others, though?

As I dug deeper into the past, I began to tease out shadowy figures inhabiting the knights’ world. I discovered notaries, scribes, translators, falconers, tavern owners, ship-builders, sea captains, privateers, pirates, prostitutes, money lenders, goldsmiths, artists, lawyers, merchants, slaves, monks, nuns, physicians . . . Finally, the 15th-century Mediterranean society I was chasing after came to life. Using the treasure trove of resources I discovered, I developed the first two novels in the Sea and Stone Chronicles: Island of Gold and Sea of Shadows.

Cyprus and the Kings of Lusignan

At the same time, I kept a parallel line of research dedicated to the island of Cyprus. This was because the Knights of St. John were power players in Cyprus during the medieval era. As I did my research, I constantly found references to the knights’ activities on that island. Digging deeper, I soon realized I’d stumbled upon a rich chapter of history in Cyprus: the medieval rule of the French court of the Lusignan Kings. The knights were allies of the Lusignan Kings and their histories were intertwined. What’s more, the court of the Lusignans was rife with intrigue, murder, and revenge. As I devoured one jaw-dropping detail after another, I realized I had to set the third book in the series in Cyprus to take advantage of all that juicy drama.

Below is a birdseye view of Cyprus and its harbor city of Famagusta, which played a pivotal role in the decline of the Lusignan court. (Photo by Datingjungle for Unsplash.)

To whet your appetite for Book 3 (I have a working title, which I’ll reveal soon), I’ll be publishing a series of History Hunter’s Reports about medieval Cyprus and the court of Lusignan.

I’ll set the stage by giving you a few details about the islands and the social and political setting of the era.

Where are Rhodes and Cyprus?

Rhodes, in the Dodecanese chain of Greek islands, is just a few miles away from the shores of Turkey. During medieval times, merchant ships and galleys took anywhere from a few days to a week to sail from Rhodes to Cyprus, depending on the winds. Cyprus, for its part, is the eastern-most point of Europe, in the farthest reaches of the Mediterranean Sea. It’s a stone’s throw from the Middle East and close to Africa and Asia. The following map, made for the Sea and Stone Chronicles by designer Tracey Porter, shows how the eastern Mediterranean looked in the 15th century.

What were these islands like during medieval days?

Medieval pilgrimage routes typically took people from ports in Western Europe to Rhodes, then Cyprus, then Jerusalem, so there was a thriving “tourist” industry serving these travelers in both islands. Rhodes and Cyprus were also stopover points for merchants from Asia, the Middle East, and Africa who sold spices, cotton, rugs, and other goods to Europeans.

The below painting by Vittore Carpaccio depicts medieval pilgrims preparing to leave for their Mediterranean tour. (Public domain image)

Accademia – Incontro e partenza dei fidanzati – Vittore Carpaccio

Rhodes and Cyprus have both hosted various maritime civilizations over thousands of years. During the era of the Sea and Stone Chronicles, the Knights Hospitaller seized control of Rhodes in the early 1300s and ruled it for the next two centuries, attempting to protect and expand Christendom. But the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turkish ruler Sultan Mehmed II in 1454 cast a shadow of fear over the island. From that point on, the knights frantically reinforced their massive stone walls and readied their cannons for the inevitable siege from Turkey.

Meanwhile, the tiny and mighty Lusignan Court of Cyprus—dating from the 12th century—was in its twilight during the 1450s. King Jean II was by all accounts a weak and ineffectual leader who was deeply in debt to various allies. His fiery Greek wife, Eleni Palaiologina, dominated the court and did her best to raise their daughter, Charlotte, as a Greek.

The Order of St. John had a strong presence on the island and counted on the revenue from their slave-powered sugar plantation, Kalossi, to fund their war efforts. At the same time, attacks by various enemies—the Genoese, the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt, and pirates galore—were chipping away at the wealth and infrastructure of the kingdom.

Below, the ruins of a church built in the medieval era in Kyrenia, Cyprus. (Photo by Ozkan Guner for Unsplash.)

Where fact and fiction intersect

Crumbling infrastructure, dwindling resources, constant attack, and an unstable monarchy—Cyprus was in a precarious situation in 1457, when my fictional heroine Estelle de Montavon sails from Rhodes to Cyprus to join the royal court as a French tutor to Princess Charlotte. Ostracized and lonely, she quickly discovers that nothing in the treacherous court of Cyprus is as it seems. In desperation, she plots her escape from the island. But the princess has other plans for Estelle. The young Frenchwoman finds herself on a dizzying ride to power—and somehow must survive the inevitable, terrifying fall.

Stay tuned for the next history hunter’s report, which will go deeper into the bizarre world of the Lusignan court of Cyprus during the medieval era.

*Featured photo at the top of the page is by Irina Shishkina for Unsplash.

1 Comment

  1. Julie Cassin says:

    Can’t wait!!! So thrilling… and obviously we’ll researched!

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