The ancient Greeks and Phoenicians colonized Cyprus and it later was part of the Persian and Roman empires. Cyprus changed hands several times after 649, when it was conquered by the Arabs, until 1571, when the Turks won it from the Venetians. Turkey ceded the island to Great Britain in 1878 and Cyprus became a British colony in 1925.

In the 1930's, the Greek population began a movement for enosis, or union with Greece. In the years that followed, the Greek Orthodox Church, under Archbishop Makarios, exerted strong pressure for self-government. The island's Turkish population, who feared Greek domination of the government, and Great Britain opposed it. Undeclared war between the British and Greek Cypriot fighters broke out in 1955 and ended with the withdrawal of the British in 1959. Cyprus became independent (except for two British enclaves) in 1960 with Makarios as president, and joined the British Commonwealth in 1961.

Fighting broke out between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots in 1963. In 1964, a United Nations peace force was sent to the island and secured a cease-fire. The truce was occasionally broken by clashes between the two sides.

Most Greek Cypriots dropped demands for enosis, but Greek extremists began a guerrilla campaign against Makarios to get a government sympathetic to their demands. In 1974, Makarios was overthrown at the instigation of the government of Greece. Turkey, fearing that enosis was imminent, invaded and conquered the northern portion of the island. An autonomous Turkish state was established in 1975. Meanwhile, Makarios returned to power and governed Greekheld Cyprus until his death in 1977.

Negotiations to reunite the island were held between the Turks and Greeks in the late 1970's and early 1980's. Meanwhile, in 1983, the Turkish state declared itself independent as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. In 1985, the republic adopted a constitution. Reunification talks continued in the late 1980's and early 1990's but no progress was made. In 1996, clashes between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriot soldiers occurred along the partition line.