Cyprus Issue

Destruction of Cultural Heritage

The destruction of Cyprus' 9.000 year old civilisation constitutes one of the tragic and unfortunately irreversible consequences of the Turkish invasion and occupation of the island.

Ever since the Turkish invasion and occupation of almost 36% of the territory of the Republic of Cyprus, archaeological sites, religious treasures and many private collections situated in the occupied area, were left at the mercy of the invaders.

Churches, constituting the most obvious and recognisable symbols of the cultural identity of a region, have been subjected to the most violent and systematic destruction. Dr Athanasios Papageorgiou, a former director of the Cyprus Antiquities Department, who is now serving as Byzantine expert to the Cyprus Church, said in a recent interview that "all but five of the 500 churches in the north have been looted".

"The five are shown to visitors. Ten have been demolished, the rest are used as toilets, storehouses, clubs and cinemas. . . all have been desecrated. Silver and gold are sold as metal. Only the hand remains of a mosaic of the Archangel Gabriel. UNESCO has done nothing. . . A mission of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe paid a three-day visit several years ago but it only went to a few of the most well known churches." Even its report did nothing to stop the trade in looted art.

Unfortunately UNESCO's 1970 convention "on the means for prohibiting and preventing the illegal importation and transport of ownership of cultural property" has been treated contemptuously by Turkey who continues its systematic destruction of Cyprus' cultural heritage.

The methodical destruction of archaeological sites, cultural monuments, churches and historical artefacts, are part of a premeditated policy of eradicating every trace of Cypriot history and culture and transforming the occupied region into yet another Turkish province in an attempt to make it totally Turkish.

British journalist J. Fielding had ascertained as early as 1976, after a visit to the occupied area, that:

"The vandalism and desecration are so methodical
and so widespread that they amount to
institutionalised obliteration of everything sacred to a Greek."
("The Rape of Northern Cyprus", The Guardian 6.5.1976).

This is further corroborated by both the arbitrary replacement of ancient Greek place names with Turkish ones that are entirely unrelated to the history of the place, as well as the settlement in the occupied area of over 115.000 Turks from Turkey.

Over the years information has emerged that historic and religious monuments in various regions in the occupied area are being destroyed, looted and vandalised. Illegal excavations have been carried out and artefacts have been stolen from museums, archaeological sites and private collections, smuggled out and sold abroad.

The Kanakaria mosaics

One of the most widely publicised cases of examples of Cypriot art treasures being stolen and sold on the international black art market was that of the Kanakaria mosaics.

It occurred in 1989 when the government of Cyprus took an American art dealer to court for the return of four rare 6th century Byzantine mosaics. The mosaics, each measuring about two square feet and composed of hundreds of jewel-like bits of glass, marble and stone, are unique specimen that survived an edict by the Emperor of Byzantium, imposing the destruction of all images of sacred figures. They depict Christ as a young boy, the apostles Matthew and James and an archangel and are part of a larger mosaic from the apse of the church of Panayia Kanakaria in the village of Lythrangomi.

Cyprus discover the fate of the mosaics ten years after they were ripped from the apse of the church in around 1976, when an Indianapolis art dealer, Peg Goldberg, offered them to the J. Paul Getty museum in Malibu, California, for $20 million. The museum's curator contacted the authorities in Cyprus. The Republic of Cyprus and the Autocephalous Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus sued Goldberg and her art dealer, to recover the mosaics.

The trial, which began on 30 May 1989 attracted widespread international attention. Cyprus won the case. US District Judge James E. Noland ruled that the mosaics were the property of the Church of Cyprus and that Goldberg must return them, a decision hailed at the time as opening the way for recovering stolen archaeological treasures world-wide. The mosaics were eventually repatriated.

Ms Goldberg had bought the mosaics from a Turk living in Germany, called Aydin Dikmen, who claimed he was a former archaeologist for the self-proclaimed "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus". Dikmen is believed to have been selling stolen artefacts from Cyprus on the black market for years and the Cyprus government has been keeping an eye on his activities for a long time.

Recovery of Cypriot mosaics, frescoes and icons

In October 1997 Dikmen was finally arrested in Germany in a police raid that was the culmination of an eight-month operation in collaboration with Cypriot security forces. Several boxes and suitcases filled with stolen Cypriot works of art were found hidden in fake walls, ceilings and floors of two Munich apartments belonging to Dikmen. The stash consisted of mosaics, frescoes and icons dating back to the 6th, 12th and 15th centuries worth over 50 million dollars.

The mosaics, depicting Saints Thaddeus and Thomas, are two more sections from the apse of the Kanakaria Church, while the frescoes, including the Last Judgement and the Tree of Jesse, were taken off the north and south walls of the Monastery of Antiphonitis, built between the 12th and 15th centuries.
Dikmen was also responsible for selling frescoes stolen from the chapel of Ayios Themonianos in the village of Lysi, to a wealthy American patron of the arts, Ms Dominique de Menil. After an agreement was reached with the Church of Cyprus, Ms de Menil was allowed to keep the frescoes on loan, although ownership of them was turned over to the Church. She had them restored and housed in a specially built chapel museum in Houston, Texas, where they will be displayed for a period of time as their original chapel is under Turkish occupation.

Dr Papageorgiou said that Mr Dikmen supplied galleries in Britain, Germany, Holland, Austria and Switzerland with stolen art from round the world.

"The Cypriot artefacts he handled were looted soon after the Turkish invasion and stored in Kyrenia castle from where they were shipped to Munich for sale - with the collusion of the archaeologists responsible and the authorities. ...There is only one entrance to the castle which is under Turkish army control. ... All those who co-operated with Dikmen became millionaires," observed Dr Papageorghiou. "Unfortunately the most important icons have not been found. They have been sold and are now in private collections where they cannot be traced and recovered."

For Cyprus these cases are just two instances among many in its fight to recover the many archaeological and cultural treasures that have disappeared from the occupied part of Cyprus, ever since Turkey invaded the island in 1974. On the rare occasions that these have resurfaced as stolen goods on the international market in antiquities, the Cyprus government has found itself on numerous occasions in the position of having to buy back its own national heritage.

Entry Date 10/8/2001