A recent survey suggests Cyprus has the most marriages per population in Europe. Alix Norman looks at why residents are rushing to tie the knot, and it’s not a simple love story
Cyprus boasts the highest marriage rate in the EU, with 8.9 marriages per 1,000 people, according to a recent survey. However, that’s not the peak for the Island of Love. Between 1985 and 1989, the country reached an astonishing 9.5 marriages per thousand. And in the past, the rate was even higher!
But just what is it that makes residents race to the altar? Why is Cyprus a matrimonial mecca, a nuptial nexus, a wedding wonderland?!
May, of course, is wedding season. Always in the top three months for marriage, it delivers on both temperature (warm enough for an outside reception, but not so much that sweat patches will spoil the pics) and backdrop (for the obligatory we’re-so-happy-running-through-this-floral-field album). But in the past, the month was also associated with more rough and ready rituals: May Day was once an ancient pagan celebration of fertility. And let’s not forget that numerous studies have proven temperature transforms temperament: as the mercury climbs, so too does our libido!
But that doesn’t explain the high rate of marriage across the entire year. Nor the fact that tying the knot seems to have been residents’ favourite pastime for many a long year!
If the marriage rate had only recently increased, that could easily be put down to the number of destination weddings (another category where Cyprus tops the EU) – if you start including foreigners who ‘I do’ on the island, the rate almost doubles. But among residents, the rate of marriage has always been high: between 1891 and 1960, the number of adults below the age of 50 who remained unmarried was never higher than 7 per cent. And the majority of these were male.
“Cyprus has always had a high rate of marriage,” says historian Antigone Heraclidou, who specialises in the island’s recent cultural heritage.
“Religion and poverty were the driving factors,” she explains. “The majority of residents were either strongly Christian or strongly Muslim; marriage was considered the ultimate destination in both faiths. And Cyprus was never a wealthy nation: as an agricultural society, children were needed to work the land.”
But the history of marriage in Cyprus, suggests Antigone, is really the history of women’s rights. “In the 19th century there wasn’t another choice for women – society dictated that a girl’s destiny was to get married and produce children. Females in particular carried a lot of responsibility: archival evidence proves that women, as well as being housekeepers, cooks, cleaners, mothers and baby sitters, were expected to work in the fields alongside their husbands. And marriage was what they were raised for.”
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, many families saw education for girls as detrimental to the main purpose of securing a husband and producing children. This began to change, Antigone adds, with British rule. But history has its ups and downs and, when the question of independence arose, schooling for women shifted once more…
“Everything was designed to prepare woman to be good wives and good mothers – even the educational curriculum which, when schools were segregated by gender, saw female students focusing on lessons in housekeeping and childcare! By the 1950s, the women of Cyprus were often educated in the importance of inculcating national aspirations in the next generation,” says Antigone. “And marriage was seen as a key part of this responsibility. Similarly, marriage was viewed as a vehicle for social mobility: marrying into a richer, well-known family was seen as good way to increase both the newlywed’s reputation and the standing of his or her own family within the community!”
Compared to the majority of western countries, women’s rights came late to Cyprus. “For a long time, women were taught that their main purpose in life was to marry,” says Antigone. “Their lack of rights supported this: women in Cyprus only won the right to vote in 1960, almost 40 years after Britain, and 67 years after New Zealand.
“There is,” says Antigone, “a disturbing fact from the island’s past. In 1902, a law was passed stating that anyone with property had the right to vote. So, when a schools’ committee election came round, a group of property-owning women showed up to register their votes. As soon as the men realised what had happened, they appealed to the church, and this ‘mistake’ was quickly rectified. It was such a shame!” she adds. “Who knows what would have happened to the marriage rate – and to our society – if Cyprus had taken this early opportunity to pioneer women’s rights!”
In the decades that followed, little changed. Women were still seen merely as wives and mothers, their sole purpose to get married. By the early 1990s, one study found that though this traditional attitude had waned, it was still strongly prevalent in rural areas.
“Even today,” says Antigone, “the island’s high rate of marriage can be attributed to long-entrenched tradition. Yes, people marry later, and the birth rate has fallen. But economic factors also remain in play. Low salaries, high cost of living and soaring rents make sharing the financial burden a more desirable proposition.”
As late as 1988, just 72 children on the island were born out of wedlock, a mere 0.7 per cent of total births. “And 30 years on from that, the belief that you must be married to live together or have a family remains incredibly strong,” says Antigone. “Only recently has the law begun to recognise that unmarried parents have rights in terms of property and children!”
In a society that still sees marriage as the ultimate goal for women, could the high marriage rate be less a testament to the island of love and more a tradition that’s hard to escape? 2024 will, of course, see far fewer weddings on the island – in leap years, which are still believed to be inauspicious for marriage, the rate drops dramatically. But that’s yet another sign of Cyprus’ dedication to tradition. Certainly worth a thought as we gird our loins for multiple May marriages!