Cypriot Archeological Officer Deplores Theft and Dispersion of Antiquities from Northern Cyprus

By McMahon, Janet | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September 3, 1999 | Go to article overview

Cypriot Archeological Officer Deplores Theft and Dispersion of Antiquities from Northern Cyprus


McMahon, Janet, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


CYPRIOT ARCHEOLOGICAL OFFICER DEPLORES THEFT AND DISPERSION OF ANTIQUITIES FROM NORTHERN CYPRUS

From its neolithic beginnings nine millennia ago, Cyprus has had one constant characteristic: its location at the crossroads between East and West. This has spawned a legacy of cultural influences from the Egyptian, Phoenician, Persian, Greek, Roman, Arab, Frankish, Venetian, Turkish, and British invaders, traders and travelers who have lingered on this pleasant island in the eastern Mediterranean. Cyprus, in fact, was named for the copper which for most of its history was the mainstay of its trade, much of it in exchange for alabaster.

A visitor to Cyprus can view the legendary birthplace of Aphrodite, the stele where the Apostle Paul was flayed, a Roman amphitheater, and thousands of artifacts in its numerous archeological and historical museums. Indeed, three sites on Cyprus are included on UNESCO's World Heritage List. One is the town of Paphos and its environs, where legend has it that Aphrodite rose from the sea and whose Nea Paphos mosaics UNESCO describes as "among the most beautiful in the world." Another site is a complex of nine painted Byzantine churches and monasteries in the Troodos mountain range. The third world heritage site, so designated in 1998, is the Neolithic settlement of Choirokhoitia, near Larnaca, described as "one of the most important prehistoric sites in the eastern Mediterranean."

Cyprus is perhaps best known, however, for its Byzantine churches and mosaics, which not only are of interest and importance to the world at large but constitute an integral and essential part of the heritage of Orthodox Greek Cypriots. Tragically, the political division of the island has put a part of this heritage at risk, as many Byzantine churches in Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus have been left to decay. Some, in fact, have been partially destroyed, their mosaics cut into pieces and removed, and the stolen fragments sold on the international art market.

Marina Ieronymidou, an archeological officer with the Republic of Cyprus' Department of Antiquities, is responsible for the preservation or restoration of more than 200 medieval and Byzantine buildings and monuments. Since the department has no special officer assigned to monitor the traffic in stolen artifacts, however, she and her eight colleagues also try -- "in between other things" -- to track down and, if possible, recover "an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 icons, several dozen major frescoes and mosaics dating from the 6th to the 15th century, and thousands of chalices, wooden carvings, crucifixes and Bibles" stolen since Turkey's 1974 occupation of northern Cyprus, according to Mark Rose of Archaeology magazine.

It is a daunting -- and haphazard -- task. Unable to physically inspect the Orthodox churches in the north, the archeologists must rely on press or word-of-mouth accounts from tourists. It was a Turkish Cypriot journalist, Mehmet Yasin, who, in his 1982 reports in the weekly magazine Olay, first sounded the alarm about the trafficking in stolen Byzantine art from northern Cyprus and the widespread desecration of Orthodox churches there.

Christopher Hitchens, in Hostage to History: Cyprus From the Ottomans to Kissinger, quotes Yasin as follows:

"Haven't you heard that the 2,000-year-old Christian church in Cyprus, St. Barnabus's Church, has been robbed? Haven't you heard that 35 icons were stolen, that 11 of them were found in Kythrea, that 11 were retrieved at Ankara airport while being smuggled out, and that the rest are lost? …

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