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Destruction of Cultural Heritage

As a result of the Turkish invasion of 1974 the rich cultural heritage of the occupied part of the island has suffered considerable damage and is in danger of complete destruction. Hundreds of churches and monasteries have been desecrated, turned into mosques, hotels and recreational sites or otherwise reduced to stables, hay stores and places of public convenience. The Turkish army has also used them as arsenal and ammunition depots, hospitals, dormitories and playgrounds.

From the information readily available it has been confirmed that 133 churches, chapels and monasteries have been desecrated, 77 churches have been converted into mosques, 18 are used as depots, dormitories or hospitals by the occupation forces, 13 are used as stockyards or hay barns, the church of Agia Anastasia in Lapithos (Kyrenia region) has been converted into a luxurious hotel and the church of Panagia Chrysotrimithiotissa in Trimithi (Kyrenia region) is used as a school of fine arts.

Click here to read a recent article about the destruction of cultural heritage in occupied Cyprus.

Read about author and journalist Michael Jansen's recent book and events in Washington DC regarding the cultural destruction in Cyprus here.

Out of a total of 502 registered churches and 17 monasteries in the occupied areas, mass is still celebrated only in a selected few, for the needs of the enclaved Greek Cypriots and Maronites. In the Apostle Andreas Monastery, mass is celebrated once or twice a year, subject to permission granted by the occupation regime. The illegal occupation regime has maintaining only the following churches as museums for icons:

  • The monastery of Apostle Varnavas (where looted objects from private collections are also on exhibit) and the church of Agios Ioannis, both in Famagusta.
  • The church of Archangelos Michael in Kyrenia.
  • The Church of Agios Mamas in Morphou.
  • The shrine and interior of the monastery of Apostle Andreas and the churches of Panagia Asproforousa in Bellapais (Kyrenia) and of Panagia in Trikomo (Famagusta) are preserved in descent condition.

Museums, private collections, art galleries and libraries have been looted of archaeological objects and artefacts. The entire occupied area, which abounds in archaeological wealth, has since the Turkish invasion been the scene of clandestine, illegal digging of ancient sites, settlements and cemeteries. This heritage has reached art dealers and museums in Western Europe, the United States and Japan. The most well known case, with international repercussions, has been the removal and sale abroad of the Kanakaria mosaics, a rare work of the 6th century A.D., depicting Christ as a child on the lap of his mother and surrounded by the twelve Apostles in medallions. A lawsuit filed by the Orthodox Church of Cyprus in the United States District Court of Indianapolis resulted in a judgement in 1989 whereby the mosaics were returned to their rightful owner in Cyprus in 1991.

Quoting Lord Byron's poem The Siege of Corinth, the closing remarks of the presiding judge in the Appeal Court are indicative of the significance of Cyprus's cultural heritage:

"As Byron's poem laments, war can reduce our grandest and most sacred temples to mere 'fragments of stone'. Only the lowest of scoundrels attempt to reap personal gain from this collective loss. Those who plundered the churches and monuments of war-torn Cyprus, hoarded their relics away, and are now smuggling and selling them for large sums, are just such blackguards. The Republic of Cyprus, with diligent effort and the help of friends has been able to locate several of these stolen antiquities; items of vast cultural, religious (and, as this case demonstrates, monetary) value."

The Armenian Church of Cyprus has also been a victim of such plunder. Icons and manuscripts of the only Armenian monastery on the island, Sourp Magar, a place of worship not only of the Armenian community of Cyprus but also of the Armenian Church in the Middle East and of the whole of people of Cyprus, have been sold to collectors all around the world. The occupation regime aimed at converting the monastery into a hotel; it was only after the concerted efforts of the Republic of Cyprus, the Armenian Prelature of Cyprus and international bodies that this blatant violation of international legality has been stopped. A similar fate has befallen upon Manonite places of worship. Maronite icons, which belong to the Syrian tradition and are different from the more austere Byzantine icons, have been pillaged from the churches of the Maronite community in the occupied areas and have found their way to the international market.

This destruction has not been limited to items and sites of religious worship. Part of the arcade on the Venetian walls of Famagusta has been turned into an ammunition storehouse by the Turkish army. The ancient city of Salamis, capital of Cyprus for almost a thousand years, has likewise not been spared. Salamis, following the excavations of the Gymnasium, the theatre and cemetery and discovery of a wealth of objects had been on the most important excavation sites not only of the island, but also of the whole Mediterranean region. In the words of Sir Mortimer Wheeler, a famous British archaeologist, the examination of the Salaminian tombs showed "something of the extend to which Cyprus was at the time not merely an outpost of the Western Greek world but was likewise a point of entry for the Levant and its Egypto-Assyrian contacts." Since 1999, the University of Ankara, violating all international conventions and demonstrating no aspect to scholarly ethics and previous excavators (Cypriot and French), organises archaeological excavations at Salamis.

The protection of the cultural heritage of Cyprus is not a matter for the people of Cyprus alone. It is also a matter affecting the entire international community, which has been voicing its growing concern and has laid down in binding conventions and recommendations the rules for the safeguarding of creations of human ingenuity which mark not only the history of every country but also of mankind in general. For example, the UNESCO recommendation on International Principles Applicable to Archaeological Excavations under Article VI (32) of Excavations in Occupied Territory clearly stipulates that

"in the event of armed conflict any Member State occupying the territory of another State should refrain from carrying out archaeological excavations in the occupied territory. In the event of chance finds being made particularly during military works, the occupying Power should take all possible measures to protect these finds, which should be handed over, on the termination of hostilities, to the competent authorities of the territory previously occupied, together with all documentation relating thereto".

The international agreement most important in the case of Cyprus is the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict to which both Cyprus (1964) and Turkey (1965) are contracting parties. This Convention provides a wide and detailed definition of cultural property, which covers movable or immovable property of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people, such as monuments of architecture, art or history - whether religious or secular - archaeological sites, works of art, books, manuscripts and other objects of historic and archaeological interest, as well as collections of the above property. In addition, the Hague Convention, which covers all cases of armed conflict – war, civil war, etc. – stipulates the obligations of the high contracting parties towards cultural property. Article 4(3) stating that the occupying power undertakes to "Prohibit, prevent and, if necessary, put a stop to any form of theft, pillage or misappropriation of, and any acts of vandalism directed against, cultural property".

Many other Conventions have been adopted for the protection of international cultural heritage or the return of such priceless inheritance to those to whom it rightfully belongs. Among these, are the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property and the 1995 Unidroit Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Property, the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and its Protocols, which is relevant to the refusal of the occupation authorities to permit the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Cyprus, as the legal owner, from having access to its property, as well as the European Convention on the Protection of Archaeological Heritage and several directives of the European Union.

In an age when the legal safeguarding and respect for the different cultures and civilizations has become a matter of paramount importance, the continued pillage of Cyprus' cultural heritage amounts to an affront to the efforts of the international community to protect the common cultural heritage belonging to all mankind. The plunder and the destruction of Cyprus' cultural heritage in the occupied part of the island is an injustice that must be stopped.

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