Cyprus measures up, and delivers a surprise

A visit to the Republic of Cyprus earlier this year delivered sun, sea and snow, as expected, but also came up with a surprise. (Article contributed by Derek Pollard)

Four countries, now members of the EU, were or are users of the Imperial system of measures. Readers of MetricViews are familiar with the UKâ??s two-system mess. The situation in Ireland has been the subject of several comments on the blog, as a result of the metric changeover of the road signs in the Republic of Ireland in 2005. So that leaves Malta and the Republic of Cyprus (RoC).

MetricViews would welcome information on the situation in Malta. I can, however, report, following a brief visit, on the current position on the metric changeover in the RoC.

Cyprus was administered by Britain from 1878 onwards, became a Crown Colony in 1923 and gained independence in 1960. The Republic of Cyprus joined the EU in 2004.

There is evidence of the period of British administration everywhere in the RoC. The cars drive on the left and have British style number plates using the Latin alphabet, the system of land registration is said to be the best in the Mediterranean, and even the electrical plugs are our familiar square pin 13A. But of the imperial system of measures, I found absolutely no trace, on the roads, in shops, in publications, or elsewhere.

The absence of old road signs was particularly surprising. I fully expected on back roads to find some rusty relics of the imperial era. If they ever existed, they had all disappeared.

Australia is said to be the most SI country in the world. Yet, during a visit in 2006, I found many reminders of the time before the metric changeover, not only on private property but also in the public domain. So how has the RoC achieved a clean sweep?

New-found prosperity may be part of the answer. The RoC has now the fourth highest income per head of all EU countries, and much of the infrastructure is recent. But I suggest that Cyprus shows that the success of the metric changeover is not down to money (the UK is up there with the RoC when it comes to prosperity) or to EU membership, but to popular attitudes and to the competence and determination of governments.

Do readers agree?

10 thoughts on “Cyprus measures up, and delivers a surprise”

  1. There is an article in Wikipedia entitled “Maltese units of measurement”. The frist paragraph reads “In modern usage, metric is used almost exclusively in commercial transactions. These units are mostly historical, although they are still used in some limited contexts and in Maltese idioms and set phrases. Many of these terms are directly related to Arabic units. The Weights and Measures Ordinance of 1921 established uniformity in the conversion of such weights and measures. All these measures were defined as simple multiples of the Imperial units then in use in Britain.”

    A few of the now-legacy units described include:

    xiber = 10 5/16 imperial inches
    tomna = 5/18 acre
    garra = 2 3/8 gallons
    ratal = 28 ounces


  2. In addition to standard metric units, the Republic of Cyprus also uses the donum, a unit of area found elsewhere in the Middle East, which is 1,000 square metres.

    When I visited Cyprus in 2004, the guide book indicated that the Republic used metric speed limits, while the Turkish North used mph. In fact I saw nothing but metric everywhere, though some of the left hand drive vehicles in the North are ancient and have pre-metric speedometers. One height limit sign in Nicosia was in feet and inches, but 6 months later this had vanished.


  3. Martin,
    It’s all very well giving us the names of these obsolete units, but could you give us conversions in terms of SI units so that we can relate them to something we all understand.


  4. This is indeed encouraging news!

    One thing that caught my eye was the mention of traces of Australia’s Imperial past that were evident even in the public domain. I wonder if Derek can amplify a little.


  5. No, a donum (also known as a scala) is not 1000 sq m, it is 1338 sq m and derives from the (much longer) period of turkish empire. Cypriots are inclined to believe that the English word for a donum is an acre, which is of course in fact over 3 times this size.

    The donum is disappearing from official use, e.g. title deeds are now generally shown only in sq m.

    Imperial measurements do survive in some aspects of Cyprus law, e.g. the planning rule that a piece of land must be within 600 feet of a registered road in order to get a permit for building.

    Imperial miles have also gone from road signs in the Sovereign Base Areas, which of course are British terriitories not part of the Republic of Cyprus.


  6. Dave,

    I gave the Maltese units in imperial units because that was their legal definition. The approximate metric equivalents are:

    xiber = 262 mm
    tomna = 1125 m²
    garra = 10.80 L
    ratal = 793 g


  7. Thank you George for the clarification of the meaning of donum in Cyprus. Certainly in parts of the Middle East the donum (or dunam) has been metricated as 1,000 m² (i.e. 10 ares or 0.1 hectare) but evidently not in Cyprus.


  8. George,

    According to Wikipedia ( the exact value of the donum depended on the country concerned. Wikipedia lists values of 1000 m² (Isreal, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey), 919.3 m² (Ottoman Empire, British Mandated Palestine), 1337.8 m² (Northern Cyprus) and 2500 m² (Iraq).

    These variations show the need for a standardised system of measure which is what SI is all about.


  9. what Rowlett says about the dunum/donum:

    dunum or donum
    a traditional unit of land area in the Middle East and the Balkans. The unit is of Turkish origin, but it seems to be obsolete in modern Turkey. As it is commonly used today in Israel and Palestine and in Croatia and other areas of the former Yugoslavia, the dunum is a metric unit equal to 1000 square meters or 0.1 hectare. The traditional size seems to have been around 900 square meters. In Mesopotamia and Arabia, the dunum was a larger unit, traditionally in the range of 2500 to 4000 square meters. In modern Iraq, the dunum is now standardized at 2500 square meters.

    As with all historical units that varied considerably, when the countries that used them went metric, the unit names were retained and given rounded metric values.

    When an imperialist claims that non-metric units are still in use, what they fail to include is that only the name is used and the historical meaning has been changed to a more metric friendly size. For example the pound in Europe is 500 g and the pint is 500 mL.


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