Destruction of Cultural Heritage

The Cypriot and foreign press, as well as the testimonies given to the authorities of the Republic by various sources, prove that more than 500 Greek Orthodox churches and chapels and 17 monasteries that are located in towns and villages of the occupied part of our island have been pillaged, deliberately vandalised and/or torn down. The current location of their ecclesiastical furnishings and items (which include more than 15.000 portable icons) remains unknown to this day. The most significant and priceless of these icons have already been auctioned off and sold by art dealers abroad.

Since the summer of 1974, all the legitimate archaeological excavations in the occupied part of the island in the Districts of Ammochostos (Famagusta), Kerynia and Morfou were interrupted and transferred to the free areas of Cyprus.

Unique archaeological remains dating to all the historical periods of Cypriot civilization, including countless sculptures, ceramics, figurines, statuettes, basins, tools, weapons, manuscripts, historical accounts and other works of art have been stolen and illegally exported to be sold at high prices in the international market. This is a clear indication that illegal excavation of archaeological areas is commoplace.

The Department of Antiquities has both evidence and testimonies of destruction that has occurred not only due to abandonment but also to illegal excavations, looting and/or building activities. This information has reached the Department of Antiquities either via articles in the Turkish-Cypriot press sometimes accompanied with photographs, or via various government sources.

Most sites and monuments have been given Turkish names in an attempt to disassociate them from their origin and context, thus alienating them from their true identity.

In addition to the looting of museums in the occupied areas, illegal exportation of antiquities and smuggling of items permanently exhibited or displayed in the museums or forming part of unpublished material from the storerooms of foreign archaeological missions, was reported. The Department of Antiquities has similar testimonies concerning missing Byzantine icons, ecclesiastical vessels, embroideries and woodcarvings from the Bishopric of Kerynia, as well as all the icons and manuscripts kept, until 1974, in the Centre for the Conservation of Icons and Manuscripts of the Monastery of Agios Spyridon in Tremetousia. These activities are tangible proof for the total lack of respect towards the Greek Orthodox places of worship, and by the Turks in the occupied areas.

Despite being a small island, Cyprus has some of the finest collections of Byzantine art in the world. A large number of churches, chapels and monasteries that are located in the rural and mountainous areas away from large towns, are decorated with wall-paintings that have survived for centuries and are priceless, not only for Cyprus but also for the study of Byzantine art in general, as they portray the development of the art of wall-painting from the 8th-9th century until the 18th century A.D.

A very large number of churches have been converted into mosques and stables; several, were demolished, as for example, the Church of the Avgasida Monastery in the Ammochostos District, dated to the 15th century and decorated with wall-paintings from the same period. In 1989, an expatriated Cypriot who visited this village confirmed the destruction of the church. The whereabouts of the wall-paintings and the beautiful wood-carved iconostasis remain unknown.

Valuable and significant wall-paintings and mosaics decorating the interior of many churches, as well as many exhibits or icons that were looted from museums, churches and private collections have been smuggled out of Cyprus and ended up for sale in markets throughout Europe, America and even as far as Japan. Few of these have ever been repatriated. An example worth mentioning is the case of the Church of Panagia Kanakaria in Lythrangomi. In 1989 the Department of Antiquities initiated repatriation procedures for the return of four mosaics depicting the figures of the apostles (A.D. 520-530), which the Turks had removed from the apse of the church sometime after 1979. They were exported from Cyprus and were eventually located in 1988 in the possession of the American art dealer Peg Goldberg, in Indianapolis, USA. After a lengthy trial that commenced in Indianapolis in 1989 and continued for two years, the court ruled in favour of the legitimate owner, that is the Orthodox Church of Cyprus, and the mosaics were returned to their rightful owners.

Another example of Turkish barbarism is the removal of the wall-paintings (dated to the 13th and 14th centuries) from the Church of Agios Themonianos at the village of Lysi in the Ammochostos District. In 1984, a Turkish dealer of antiquities sold the wall-paintings depicting Christ Pantokrator and the Virgin with the Archangels, on the pretext that they had been found by accident. After a hard struggle it was recognised that the Orthodox Church of Cyprus was the legitimate owner. The wall-paintings were purchased by Mrs Dominique de Menil of the renowned de Menil Foundation in Houston on condition that the conservation of the works of art would be funded entirely by the Foundation and that, after a period of 20 years, these would be returned to Cyprus. In early February 1997, a ceremony was held to inaugurate the replica of the Byzantine Church of Agios Themonianos in Lysi at the de Menil Foundation in Houston where the wall-paintings were housed following conservation.

There is a plethora of relevant articles in the Turkish-Cypriot and foreign press, particularly in well-known newspapers of international circulation in the UK, USA and Germany. The case of the Church of Panagia Chrysotrimithiotissa, of Middle Byzantine date, one of several churches that the Department of Antiquities was unable to declare an Ancient Monument due to the Turkish invasion in 1974, located on the outskirts of the Trimithi village in Keryneia District was of particular concern. On the 6th of May 1996, Keskin & Smith Sales Agents advertised the sale of the above church in the English Turkish-Cypriot newspaper Cyprus Today for the sum of 32,500 pounds sterling.

Another article in the same Turkish-Cypriot newspaper, dated 11th May 1996, mentioned that the Monastery of Panagia Eleousa in occupied Rizokarpaso, was converted after its “renovation”, into a hostel with a restaurant. Regarding this specific monastery however, permission was granted for the modification of the church into a bar, with the exception of the monastic buildings. In June 1993 the Turkish newspaper Milliyet printed an article that stated that the Turkish government had given permission for all the churches in the occupied territories to be converted into mosques.

Another example is the recent discovery of the wood-carved “royal doors” from the Church of Agios Anastasios in the occupied village of Peristerona in Famagusta District, which were found in the Art College Kanazawa in Japan. Attempts are being made for the return of the “royal doors” to Cyprus with the assistance of UNESCO. In the event that the Japanese do not comply, legal measures will be taken.

In October 1996, four icons from the 16th century that had been removed from the iconostasis of the Church of Christos Antifonitis near the occupied village of Kalograia, were found in the possession of a Dutchman, Willem Otto Arie Lans. In the same month, the Department of Antiquities and the Orthodox Church of Cyprus initiated court proceedings against Mr Lans for the return and repatriation of these important objects.

Another case of vandalism occurred at the historic Armenian monastery of Agios Makarios (Sourp Magar) commonly known as Armenomonastiro, located on the Pentadaktylos mountain range and dating to the medieval period. It is the only existing Armenian monastery in Cyprus and the most significant Armenian ecclesiastical building on the island. It was obvious from photographs taken in 1989, 1992 and 1997 that the monastery was in a poor condition of preservation and they bear testimony to the ongoing destruction in the occupied areas. In January 1998, the Turkish-Cypriot newspaper Kibris (21/1/1998) printed a first-page article about the conversion of the monastery into a hotel. According to the article, the monastery would be converted into a hotel with 50 beds for its excellent view towards the sea and the forests. The cost of the project amounted to 1.000.000 US dollars and was expected to bring in an annual amount of 20.000 dollars. This is another example of many similar cases.

Also there is information regarding the destruction of two other churches, Agios Thomas, Trikomo and Agios Georgios, Rigati. The latter, located on a hill with a view of the area extending to 4km. to the north-east of Filia village, was torn down and a new road was built over it. Also the 9th-10th century wall-paintings that decorated the rock-cut chapel of Chrysokava in Keryneia were destroyed and thirteen icons from the 19th-century Church of Archangelos Michael in Kerynia were stolen (Kibris, 1994).

Icons were also stolen from the Monastery of Panagia Apsinthiotissa near the village of Syhari. The church of the monastery was converted into an animal pen and sections of the wall-paintings (12th-14th centuries) that decorated the church were removed. These have been located in antiquities markets in Europe (Nostra Kibris, 24-30/4/1994).

The Monastery of Agios Panteleimon in Myrtou dating to the 18th century was desecrated and is being used as a military camp.

Certain 16th-17th century icons, including a Bible inlaid with precious stones, were stolen from the 16th century Franco-Byzantine Church of Agios Mamas in Morfou (Ortam, 24/4/1986).

Wall-paintings dating to the 11th and 12th centuries were removed from the Church of Panagia Pergaminiotissa near the village of Akanthou.

The early Christian basilica of Agia Triada in Karpassia, that has mosaic floors dating to the 5th and 6th centuries, is being used as an animal pen.

The Church of Agios Photios in Gialousa, built on the ruins of an early Christian basilica from the 6th century and decorated with wall-paintings, is also being used as an animal pen.

The wall-paintings from the Churches of Agia Solomoni and Agios Nikolaos in Koma tou Gialou were removed and sold.

Icons and other ecclesiastical items were stolen by Turkish-Cypriot “policemen” from the Monastery of Apostolos Andreas (1992) as well as from the Church of Agia Mavri at Rizokarpaso. The windows of the churches were removed, thus having the 12th-century wall-paintings exposed to the elements (I Simerini, 8/3/1993).

The 12th-century wall-paintings (depicting Agios Georgios, Agios Ioannis Chrysostomos and St. John the Baptist) that decorated the walls of the Church of Agios Filon in the deserted village of Agridia near Rizokarpaso were removed.

The Monastery of Apostolos Varnavas near Salamis, one of the best well-known pilgrimage sites in Cyprus until 1974, was converted into a museum. The original icons from the iconostasis disappeared (Halkin Sesi, 24/8/1991) and, according to the Turkish-Cypriot press, precious icons and crosses were also stolen (News from the North, “Official” Turkish Cypriot Bulletin, 22/5/1980). The surrounding area was divided into individual building plots (Kibris, 21/1/1993 and Yeni Duzen, 13/9/1993).

The Church of Agios Prokopios in Syngrasis village, dated to the 14th century, was desecrated and the 14th-15th-century wall-paintings decorating its interior were removed.

The Church and Monastery of Panagia Tochniou, near the village of Mandres in the Famagusta District, were desecrated.

The famous early Christian mosaics of the basilica in Soloi, also dating to the same period, were removed (Cyprus Times, 2/2/1990) and the architectural remains were severely damaged by development works (such as that of a water supply plant) carried out in the area (Kibris, 14/6/1990; Cyprus Weekly, 22/6/1990). The remains were also damaged due to the overgrowth of wild vegetation and exposure to the elements (Turquoise, Autumn 1990, Issue Eight; Cyprus Times, 8/6/1990, 12/10/1990). A large number of antiquities kept in the storerooms of the Canadian Archaeological Mission excavating at Soloi, were also stolen (The Guardian, 11/8/1976).

The Church of the Monastery of Agia Anastasia in Lapithos was converted into a bar (Milliyet, 29/7/1993). Another article in the Turkish-Cypriot newspaper Avrupa (25/4/1998) mentioned that the church was being converted into a casino and that construction activities were being carried out throughout the area.

For three consecutive years (1999-2001), the University of Ankara continued its illegal excavations at the occupied archaeological site of Salamis. The mission was directed by Professor Ozguner with a team of students from the illegal Eastern Mediterranean University and the Middle Eastern polytechnic. According to foreign scholars visiting Salamis, the illegal excavations were being carried out in the area of the ancient agora and near the early Christian basilica in the Kampanopetra region. Prior to 1974, these sites had been excavated by the French archaeological Mission of the University of Lyon. Archaeological activities were also observed near the basilica of Agios Epifanios, as well as between the Theatre and the Gymnasium. On the strength of the UNESCO Recommendation, New Delhi 1956, that stipulates that archaeological excavations should not be carried out in occupied territories, the Department of Antiquities in co-operation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs initiated proceedings with the various international organisations and the matter was brought to the attention of UNESCO, the United Nations and the Council of Europe.

In addition the Churches of Panagia in Makrasyka and Agios Theodoros in Lapithos were pillaged. The Churches of Panagia Evangelistria in Gerolakkos, Profitis Zacharias in Pano Dikomo, Panagia Chryseleousa in Katokopia, Metamorfosis tou Sotiros in Akanthou, Agia Anna in Syrkania, Agios Ioannis Theologos in Mia Milia and Agios Georgios in Exo Metochi were all converted into mosques and some of these, such as the Churches of Panagia Chryseleousa in Katokopia, Archangelos Michael in Rizokarpaso and Agios Afxentios in Komi Kepir were also pillaged. The Church of Agios Mamas in Gerolakkos was converted into a cultural centre.

According to an article printed in the Turkish-Cypriot newspaper Kibris (9/2/2001), antiquities dating to the Middle Bronze Age were discovered during illegal excavation carried out by the so-called “Department of Antiquities and Museums” between the villages of Korovia and Galinoporni. The excavations were initiated following the information given by Anders Arvidsson from Sweden, who appeared to be a regular visitor to the occupied areas under the guise of a travel agent.

The immediate surroundings of significant Gothic monuments of the medieval town of Famagusta are in great disrepair, overgrown with wild vegetation and rubbish creating a high fire risk factor (Halkin Sesi and Ο Politis, 28/6/2001).

The so-called “Police” of the illegal state discovered several ecclesiastical items and other antiquities in the possession of a German who resides in Karmi village (Kibris, 14/4/2001).

According to an article published in the Turkish-Cypriot newspaper Cyprus Today (28/7-3/8/2001), the area of the 17th-century Church of Panagia Thermiotissa in Thermia -where pottery of the Bronze Age- may be indicative of older remains, would be used for the construction of a restaurant. Another article however, in Kibris (7/8/2001) mentioned that the building activities concerned with this site had been halted.

According to another article in Kibris (4/9/2001) an Archaeological Mission from the Turkish University of Mersina had been carrying out illegal excavations in the Rizokarpaso region. The excavations were said to have continued for a period of three years; in the first year the remains of a Byzantine church were unearthed.

According to an article of the Anglophone Greek Cypriot newspaper Cyprus Mail 11/6/2004, the Early Bronze Age necropolis of Vounous near Kazafani in the Kyrenia District was bulldozed to the ground by a private construction company for the construction of luxury houses.

Information in the daily press reports the discovery of tombs in various occupied villages such as Livadia in the Famagusta District, Rizokarpasso, Galinoporni, Kazafani and Agios Andronikos.

A very recent article in the Turkish Cypriot newspaper Halkin Sesi 23/5/2005, mentions that the medieval Walls of Famagusta are neglected and in danger of collapse.

The Department of Antiquities, in an effort to deal with the above-described situation and in order to restrict the extent of illegal trafficking of looted objects and to locate prospective markets abroad, is working in collaboration with international organisations while members of the Department participate in international conferences on the subject and are making efforts to cultivate public awareness on the matter.

After the opening of the barrier in 2003 this phenomenon was observed to increase and one of the measures taken in cooperation with the P.I.O. was to publish a pamphlet in various languages informing the public that it is illegal to purchase antiquities in the north and that looting is further encouraged if a market is provided for these objects.

On September 3, 2003 the United States extended for another three years, an emergency import restriction of Byzantine ecclesiastical, ritual and ethnological material from Cyprus, a restriction originally initiated in April 1999 at the request of the Government of Cyprus. The import restriction applies to “objects of metal, wood, ivory and bone, textiles, stone (mosaics), and frescoes (wall paintings)” ranging in date from approximately the 4th century A.D. through approximately the 15th century A.D., unless such material is accompanied by an export permit from the Government of Cyprus.

In July 2002 a Memorandum of Understanding was signed to protect Pre-Classical and Classical archaeological material from Cyprus. This material includes objects of ceramic, stone and metal including vessels, sculpture, mosaics, inscriptions, architectural elements and jewellery, ranging in date from approximately the 8th millennium B.C. through to ca. 330 A.D.

Source: Department of Antiquities, Cyprus.