Cyprus 1190-1570: A Good Idea Gone Wrong, or Why I Should Be in Video Game Development?

I’ve been pestering my brother-in-law ever since I came out to Seattle to buy Assassin’s Creed for his XBox 360. I actually wanted him to get the original even though the sequel is out, because I’m an obsessive compulsive purist when it comes to video games, and I wanted to play the series from the start, regardless of the known issues of the original game.

But my brother-in-law bought Assassin’s Creed II instead, because he wanted to run around Renaissance Italy, a period and location that both he and my sister are familiar and fond of, which I respect. Its fun to run around a simulation of place you’ve been in real life, particularly if its a good simulation, which AC II most certainly is. So for the past two days I’ve been watching him run around a stunningly well-depicted Firenze, with his Mom who is also visiting and who recently biked through the region pointing out landmarks, even the building that she stayed in. He’s racing through the game, because he really wants to get to Venezia, where he and my sister went last year for Carnival, at which point I expect his critique of the game to increase exponentially, though so far he seems quite pleased.

Now, when I play games I never race through them. I fit so squarely within the “explorer” paradigm of game players that I don’t even bother playing any sort of game on rails. They drive me bonkers. And while I watched him running through the streets of Florence, as I had previously watched friends run through the streets of Jerusalem in the previous installment of this series, all I wanted to do was grab the controller out of his hands and search all the nooks and crannies he was ignoring. And I was also thinking about how incredibly cool it would be if they set one of the Assassin’s Creed games in Cyprus.

Obviously, I’m partial to Cyprus. One might even say unfairly biased. I’ve worked there on two different excavations and two different surveys, as well as basing my Master’s thesis on the Bronze Age mortuary landscapes of the island, and spending a good chunk of time in the lovely Ottoman period mansion that now serves as the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute in Nicosia. In total I’ve spent nearly 6 months on Cyprus, and in that time I’ve managed to squeeze in a fair bit of a sightseeing, and Cyprus is the island for it, most particularly for the periods addressed in the Assassin’s Creed mythos. Forgetting the amazing archaeological sites that stretch from the far recesses of prehistory through the Roman period, the island is littered with Crusader castles, monasteries, and venetian walled cities.┬áNot to mention major holy sites that the folks back then loved to squabble over (oh, wait that hasn’t changed much, has it?) including the burial place of Lazarus (the second time he died, I guess Jesus wasn’t around to bring him back) and of the prophet Mohammed’s wet nurse, Umm Haram, who fell off a donkey in a battle during the Arab invasion of Cyprus in the 7th century.

Agios Lazaros Church in Larnaca, Cyprus
Hala Sultan Tekke, the Mosque of Umm Haram
Hala Sultan Tekke, the Mosque of Umm Haram

None of this is surprising if you look at a map! If somebody feels like invading or controlling the Holy Land, Cyprus is THE place to stage yourself. Heck, the same holds true today, with nearly 15% of the island designated as British military bases, and with the Turkish army having invaded as recently as 1974, leaving the island a divided political and strategic nightmare.

Particularly as befits the Assassin’s Creed series, the Templars spent some time on Cyprus after Richard I of England (the Lionheart) sold them the island after the Third Crusade. The Templars set up their base of operations in the city of Limassol, but they didn’t fare so well there either, and after a rather bloody insurrection on Cyprus in addition to their loss of the island of Arwad off the coast of Syria to the Egyptian Mamluks, they also took flight, selling the island to the Guy de Lusignan, in 1192, who was pretty much homeless after having lost Jeruslaem in 1187, being denied entry to Tyre in 1190, and failing to win the siege of Acre in 1191. Cyprus remained a crusader kingdom in the hands of the Lusignan family until 1489.

Kolossi Castle, built 1210, home of the Hospitaller Knights
St. Hilarion Castle, summer home of the Lusignan kings

The last queen of the Kingdom of Cyprus was the Nobil Donna, Caterina Cornaro. Her father had been a Patrician of Venice, and had produced four Doges. Her husband, James II (‘the Bastard’) died shortly after their marriage, and after her son died under suspcious circumstances, she became sole ruler of the island, but in 1489 she was forced by the ruling merchant class to abdicate her sovereignty to the Republic of Venice. It is reported that she and her former subjects wept when she was forced to leave the capital, which by this time had been moved from Limassol to Nicosia.

The Venetian fortifications still stand around Nicosia

The Venetians rebuilt the fortifications of the Lusignans as well as many of their own during their reign which would last less than 100 years, as they were deeply hated by their Cypriot peasants who supported, almost gleefully, the successful Ottoman invasion in 1570.

So what’s my point here? My point is that Cyprus during the Middle Ages was awesome. The architecture is stunning, and a lot of it is still standing! The politics of the period are as convoluted and fascinating as one could wish, perfect fodder for a game about assassins and intrigue. Free running through Limassol or Larnaca or Nicosia? Awesomeness. Racing up and down the cliffs and tiny back hallways of St. Hilarion? Trying to save (or kill) the Black Prince? Defend the monarchy from the avarice of the venetian merchants? Or running your own merchant vessels out of Kyrenia and Famagusta harbours? Protecting your castle from inevitable sieges, while building up your salt mines or sugar cane plantations? So many cool options, the mind simply boggles!

So, the day after I had the brilliant idea, I was milling around the kitchen while simmering a nice pumpkin curry for lunch when I picked up the January 2010 issue of Game Informer, to discover that someone had done it already. Seriously. There’s a new PSP game called Assassin’s Creed: Bloodlines, that takes place on Cyprus. Only problem is that apparently it sucks. Combat sucks, plot development is poor (how?! Its Cyprus for god’s sake! Who were your writers?!?!), you only get to visit Limassol and Larnaca (no Nicosia? or Famagusta? What crack were you smoking and did you bother to do any kind of real location research?) and well, its on the PSP which is ALWAYS a bad idea. Epic fail. I’m totally bummed.