One of the great disasters regularly striking Cyprus from the mid 13th century onward through the end of the 17th was the plague. Plague, really a disease of rats and similar rodents, passed to humans by their fleas. Frequently new plagues have found their way to the Middle East, and Cyprus, via land and sea routes from central Asia or India [Ronald Jennings, 1992]. Italian pilgrim Nicolas de Martoni who visited Cyprus in 1394, mentioned: “throughout the island, there are so many fleas that a man cannot sleep at night, and this on account of the pigs which they keep in their houses” [Claude Delaval Cobham, 1895].
George Hill paid careful attention to such occurrences. In the period before the Venetian Rule, he mentions plague [in Cyprus] in 1268, 1348-1349, 1362-1363, 1392- 1393, 1409-1410, 1419-1420, 1422, 1438 and 1470. Michael Dols lists several of those and an additional one in 1460 [Ronald Jennings, 1992]. Catalan traveller Pero Tafur was in 1436 in Paphos and mentions another one [Claude Delaval Cobham, 1895]. A “serious epidemic” is mentioned by Mas Latrie for 1372 as well [George Hill, 1948].
- Cyprus shared with the rest of the world the Black Death of 1348. It was said to have carried off from half to two-thirds of the population [George Hill, 1948]. According to Macheras (15th cent.), the doctors were unable to treat this disease [Leontios Macheras, 15th cent.].
- For the plague of 1392-1393, there is no mention of great casualties. Sakellarios wrote that: “a great disease occurred in 1393 in Larnaca and Akanthou, and from there it was transferred to all the island, but with the assistance of the hospital, with hygiene methods and by burning all the infected clothes, within a short time the island got rid of the disease” [Athanasios Sakellarios, 1890].
- For the plague of 1419 Sakellarios wrote that: “In 1419 a great plague occurred of which ‘many’ people died” [Athanasios Sakellarios, 1890].
- One plague, which started in June 1438, was said to have lasted for seventeen months and to have been most destructive [Leontios Macheras, 15th cent.].
- Another started in 1470 and lasted for two and a half years; according to the chronicler, George Voustronios “of the men in the island three parts died [he means the three of the four quarters]” [Georgios Voustronios, 15th cent.].
Malaria is a very severe disease long-standing in Cyprus. Certain coastal areas of Cyprus became malarial, most notably Famagusta. After its pestiferous nature became known in the 14th century, it declined rapidly. Of the towns on the island, only Nicosia and Kyrenia seem free from malaria In Cyprus, large salt lakes near Limassol and Larnaca fed by winter rainfall and snow in the Troodos had dimensions which fluctuated with the season. The vast swampy area and marshes in the Mesaoria west of Famagusta affected a much more extensive area. The eastern Mesaoria is very flat, making drainage into Famagusta bay extremely slow. That region has small lakes and seasonal streams which also contribute to its swampy nature. Since no attempts were made to keep the mouths of streams clear, and the land was so flat, they silted up, causing inland water to build up even more. Malaria has greater and lesser periods of virulence. According to Braudel, the late 15th century was one of particular virulence, and then there were fresh outbreaks of virulence late in the 16th century when virtually all of the Anatolian and Syrian ports were malarial. Famagusta faced virtually the same fate [Ronald Jennings, 1992].
As early as 1394 the pilgrim N. Martoni found Magosa located near a marsh and, hence, “wholly destroyed.” “And it is held that on account of that marsh, and the great number of courtesans, a bad air affects the men who dwell in that city.” Even earlier the royal family, the nobility, and the wealthy merchants had moved from there to Nicosia, because the latter was more healthful, according to Ludwig von Suchen in 1350. The first good account of the malaria problem in Cyprus was written by Pero Tafur, the Catalan adventurer who travelled between 1435 and 1439. Tafur sailed to Paphos, which he found uninhabited because of its “bad air and water”; then Famagusta, under Genoese control, was depopulated because of bad air and water also. Nicosia, the capital, was one of the healthiest places on the island, although the tiny port of Kyrenia actually was the healthiest of all because it was exposed to the west wind. Another pilgrim, a gentleman from Padua named Count Gabriele Capodilista, in 1458 visited a village where the Venetian Cornaro family had established model agricultural cultivation, particularly sugar cane. There they disembarked “…at this place Episcopia; the air there is very bad, and they all got ill, one of fever, another of a flux, except M. Gabriele who remained well; but for fifteen days his chest and stomach suffered from nausea from having imbibed that foul and almost pestiferous air; and some of his companions died.” When the Dominican monk from Ulm Felix Fabri visited Famagusta in 1483, he found that “…ruin threatens the city and all that is in it. It is said that no man can stay long there on account of the corruption of the air.” The German pilgrim Sebalt Rieter of Nuremberg, who visited the island in July 1480, reached Pafos, where the air was bad, and Limassol, “…where we lay all night on the galleys because of the bad air which is on the land of the island.” That pilgrim, too, had encountered malarial seaports. Hans Tucher, in 1479, a near-contemporary German pilgrim, found bad air in Pafos [Ronald Jennings, 1992].