Sunday, August 09, 2009

Medieval churches being destroyed and looted in Northern Cyprus, experts say

Many medieval churches and buildings in northern Cyprus are being looted or destroyed, according to a report issued last month by the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, an agency of the United States government.

The report, "Cyprus’ Religious Cultural Heritage in Peril" was authored by Byzantine art history experts Dr. Charalampos Chotzakoglou and Dr. Klaus Gallas, as well as by the journalist Michael Jansen, who has written the book “War and Cultural Heritage: Cyprus After the 1974 Turkish Invasion”. They claim that the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which rules the northern third of the island, and the Turkish military, have been supporting the removal of artifacts from abandoned Christian churches and selling them internationally.

There are over 500 churches and other religious sites in northern Cyprus, and the authors state that nearly all of them have been damaged or looted. Michael Jansen states, "The movable property of almost every church was looted. Most of the mural or mosaic decorations were stripped away and a considerable number were located in international art markets abroad."

Dr. Gallas explained that when he visited the Ajios Euphemianos Church, near Famagusta, before 1974, he saw and was "overwhelmed by the glowing colors and expressive features of the Byzantine murals dating from the 14th century." But when he returned to the church in 1989, the frescos from the walls and ceiling had been removed, despite the fact that the site was surrounded by a Turkish military barrack. This case and others, Dr. Gallas points out, "is symptomatic of the organized crime of ripping items of cultural heritage out of their context and, by doing so, destroying them forever."

There have been court cases in the United States and Germany where international art dealers have had artifacts from northern Cyprus taken away from them, on grounds that they had been looted and illegally smuggled out of the island. In other cases, private benefactors have intervened to save artifacts that were being sold internationally.

These include thirteenth-century Byzantine frescoes which were taken from a small chapel in Lysi, Cyprus. These frescos were preserved by the efforts of a museum in Houston - for details of this, please go to the Menil Collection website - after it purchased them for $850 000.

They also point out that many sites are being converted into hotels or other uses. For example, a 13th century Templar church is now being used as a nightclub. Dr. Chotzakoglou points out that other churchs have been turned in "into military camps, mosques, stables, hencoops, ox and sheep stalls. In addition, some are being used today as wheat chambers, storerooms and granaries while a number were rented or sold to private individuals, who use them as art studios, carpentry workshops, parking stations, coffee shops, residences, cultural centers, gym centers, ceramic workshops, hotels, pubs, theaters, nightclubs, museums, Ottoman baths – hamam, sport clubs and dancing schools."

The website has developed a database of the state of churches and mosques on both the northern and southern halves of the island, many of which are abandoned in ruined or deteriotating condition. A pilot project is now underway between representatives of the Greek and Turkish Cypriot governments to each restore one religious building - a church and a mosque - from the other side.

In 1974, Greece, which was then ruled by a military dictatorship, attempted a coup d'etat in Cyprus as part of their efforts to bring the island under Greek control. This led Turkey to invade the island in order to protect its Turkish-Muslim minority. After a short war, a ceasefire left the island divided and saw large numbers of Greek and Turkish Cypriots forced from their homes. Today, only about 600 Greek Cypriots live in the northern part of Cyprus, which is governed by the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

In recent years, politicians from both communities have been searching for a solution to end the conflict and reunite Cyprus. In 2004 the Turkish Cypriot community approved of a United Nations–brokered peace settlement which would have reunified the island, but the Greek Cypriots rejected the plan in their referendum.

For those trying to preserve the history of the island, these efforts might be too late. Dr. Gallas sadly asks, "how many treasures altogether have actually been taken between 1974 and 2009 and are now lost to us forever through having already been sold to collectors in all corners of the world? How many fortunes have the art thieves amassed for themselves in the meantime through these outrageous acts? They must amount to hundreds of millions of dollars. None of the plundered churches will ever sparkle again as they did in the light of days gone by."

Click here to read the report Destruction of Cultural Property in the Northern Part of Cyprus and Violations of International Law.