Cyprus, a beautiful island in the eastern Mediterranean, is now mainly known as a popular holiday destination. With its pleasant beaches, beautiful mountains and bright sunshine, it is difficult to imagine that this island was once the heart of the sugar industry that supplied western Europe. Before the medieval period, honey was the source of sweet flavouring. The cultivation of sugar cane probably originated on the islands of the south Pacific, gradually spreading to India and China. It slowly expanded westwards, to Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean, and by the 10th century there is evidence of a sugar industry in Cyprus.
Sugar cane growing in Egypt (left) and before processing
When western armies went on crusade to the Holy Land, they encountered sugar cane for the first time. Gradually, sugar became known in Europe, initially as a medicine.Honey continued as a sweetener for most people, because sugar was a very expensive luxury import, but a taste was acquired for this strange new substance. In England in 1226, King Henry III asked the Mayor of Winchester to obtain 3 pounds of Egyptian sugar, ‘if so much is to be had at one time’, at Winchester’s huge fair on St Giles’s Down, which was one of the largest in Europe. Sugar also appears in the 13th-century household accounts of Eleanor de Montfort, Countess of Leicester.
When the Crusaders lost control of the eastern Mediterranean at the end of the 13th century, some of them moved to Cyprus and set up sugar-cane plantations and factories. The island became a major exporter of sugar, and in 1494 Pietro Casola, an Italian traveller on his way to Jerusalem, wrote: ‘The abundance of sugar-cane and its magnificence in Cyprus are beyond description. The patrician, Francisco Cornaro of Venice, has at Limassol a great estate, Episcopia, where so much sugar is made that I believe there must be enough for the whole world.’ The port town of Limassol is on the south coast of Cyprus, and the Venetian Cornaro family had extensive sugar plantations a short distance to the west of the town, at Episkopi, while the Knights of St John had plantations around their castle at Kolossi, which was closer to Limassol.
The keep of Kolossi castle, near Limassol, Cyprus
As the medieval sugar industry in Cyprus grew in importance, a factory and watermill were built in the grounds of Kolossi castle. This castle was originally built in the 13th century, though the structures seen by tourists today are of mid-15th century date. After harvesting, the ripe sugar cane was stripped of its leaves and chopped into pieces, which were crushed between two millstones in a watermill powered by a massive aqueduct carrying water from the Kouris river. A thick sweet black liquid was released, which was boiled in the nearby factory to produce a black syrup, and repeated boiling then refined the syrup so that it became increasingly white in colour.
Ruins of the sugar mill (foreground) at Kolossi castle, Cyprus, with the factory behind
The boiled sugar was next poured into conical clay moulds that had a wide mouth and narrow perforated base, and these were set up over clay syrup jars. This allowed any liquid to drain slowly into the jars, leaving solid cones of sugar in the moulds, known as a sugar loaves or sugar cakes – the form in which sugar was sold. The liquid in the jars might be boiled yet again and the process repeated. The jars and moulds were washed clean in basins of water, though many moulds broke, so that thousands of pottery sherds have been found in archaeological excavations of sugar factories. The produce of Cyprus reached all parts of Europe via the Venetian trade networks, making the island the heart of the sugar industry.
The sugar factory viewed from Kolossi castle, Cyprus
In 1488, the Knights of St John lost control of the area to the Cornaro family, and the following year the Venetians took control of Cyprus. This lasted until 1571 when the Ottoman Turks seized the island. The sugar industry then began to decline in the face of cheaper sugar from South America and subsequently the Caribbean. Nowadays, the remains of the early settlements, castles like Kolossi and the ruins of sugar factories are of historical interest, and Cyprus is a honey-pot for tourists.