We will soon be reissuing Sir George Hill‘s magisterial four-volume History of Cyprus. This is an important event for the Collection for two reasons. Unusually, the books are still in copyright, and we are very grateful to the current rights holder for giving us permission to reissue a work first published by Cambridge University Press between 1940 and 1952; and this is the first work that we have brought out on the recommendation of a visitor to our website. (The second work will be equally monumental, and was also originally published by Cambridge: A.B. Cook’s Zeus.)
Hill’s ‘job title’ in his ODNB entry is ‘numismatist’, but he was clearly much more than that. He was born in 1867 in Bengal, his parents being missionaries, and like his elder brother, who became a distinguished mathematician, was sent ‘home’ to be educated at the School for the Sons of Missionaries at Blackheath (now Eltham College). He then went to University College School, and University College London; thence to Merton College, Oxford, where apparently his double first in classics was easily obtained. Instead of going on to teach at Oxford, he applied in 1893 for a post in the coins and medals department of the British Museum. He remained at the museum until his retirement in 1936, and in 1931 he became the first non-librarian to be appointed Director.
The four volumes of the History of Cyprus were published to great acclaim (the final volume, taking the story to 1948, was completed before his death but published posthumously) and are still a standard work of reference. Volume 1 begins at the beginning, with an introductory overview of the physical geography of the island, and covers its history from the Stone Age, through the Greek and Roman periods, when Cyprus was a major trading centre, to its mixed fortunes as a province of the Byzantine Empire and to the extraordinary and almost forgotten incident of Richard the Lion-Heart’s engagement to one princess and marriage to another in Cyprus in the course of the ill-fated Third Crusade.
Volume 2 covers the first part of the so-called ‘Frankish period’ from 1192 to 1432, during which the fortunes of Cyprus were very much bound up with the rise and fall of the Crusader Kingdoms of the east; and Volume 3 continues the story through the period of Venetian dominance (including the history of Caterina Cornaro, married at the age of 14 to the King of Cyprus by the will of the Venetian Senate, who hoped by this means to plant a Venice-favouring dynasty on the island) until the Turkish conquest of 1571, which was preceded by the long siege of Famagusta and the terrible torture and death of the Venetian defenders. Volume 4 covers the period of Ottoman rule until 1878, when in a secret deal between the ‘sick man of Europe’ and the British government, Cyprus was ceded to Great Britain in return for British support of Turkey during the Congress of Berlin; and the island’s subsequent history as a British colony up to 1948, including a long chapter on the issue of ‘enosis’ – unification with Greece – which still bedevils the politics of divided Cyprus today.
The volumes are furnished with ample footnotes, which provide references as well as many interesting digressions, and comprehensive indexes. But apart from their unimpeachable scholarship, they are a fascinating read, whether for the scholar, the student or the holiday-maker intrigued by the wealth of evidence of a complex past still visible all over the island.