From the establishment of Ottoman rule and destruction of the Venetian aristocracy, Cypriot class structure was free of vast disparities of wealth and status. Venetian estates were broken up and given to Turkish settlers, who soon were indistinguishable from their Greek Cypriot neighbors, until one heard them speak. A small Ottoman bureaucracy governed the island, aided by the Greek Orthodox clergy, who, under the millet system, were the leaders of their people. Some Greek Cypriots engaged in commerce, but the island's population consisted mostly of small farmers. This pattern continued until the early decades of this century, when, under British rule, living standards slowly began to rise.
A small Greek commercial class formed, often drawing its money from working for the British. In addition to profiting from government service and increased commerce, some acquired wealth as moneylenders. Taking advantage of frequent droughts and plagues, moneylenders could become dominant figures and landowners in the countryside. Their fortunes were relatively small, however, for Cyprus was a poor country, with most people living at subsistence levels. The founding of the cooperative movement in the early years of the twentieth century and British reforms in later decades broke the power of these small financiers and permitted farmers to repay their debts at reasonable rates. The cities had no wealthy class, but only more prosperous groups that earned their living in government service, the professions, and business.
From the 1950s to the invasion of 1974, the Cypriot economy bloomed, and many prospered. The average living standard increased markedly in both the countryside and the city. Workers commuted to urban areas for employment, yet lived in their home villages; thus, no slums were created. Some businessmen in the cities earned substantial amounts of money through hotels, real estate, and commerce. Although some of these businessmen became quite wealthy, their money was new. Fortunes in Cyprus rarely went back beyond a generation.
The substantial economic growth of the Republic of Cyprus since the mid-1970s furthered these trends. All government-controlled areas benefited from the prosperous economy, and new modern houses were seen in every village. Land become very valuable and fortunes could be earned from land earlier regarded as worthless. Many became rich from the explosive growth of the tourist industry. Fortunes were also earned from manufacturing, trade and shipping, and financial services, and at the beginning of the 1990s the republic had a highly visible class of the newly wealthy.
The republic's prosperity was widely shared, however. The average standard of living matched those of some other West European countries. At the beginning of the 1990s, even workingclass Cypriots regarded vacations abroad as necessities. A welfare system along West European lines supported Cypriots in need.
Education was a common means of rising in social status, and most Cypriots respected higher education and white collar professions. The expanding economy allowed many Cypriots to have more sophisticated work than their parents. To move in one generation from farmer to urban professional became, if not the rule, at least not extraordinary. Given the small size of the republic, and the still strong tradition of the extended family, virtually all Cypriots could number among their relatives farmers, teachers, government employees, small businessmen, and other professional workers.
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