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Cultural heritage in the occupied areas

The 1974 Turkish invasion and the continuing occupation of Cyprus has caused, apart from the loss of human lives and the uprooting of a large percentage of the population, massive destruction to the cultural heritage of the island. Turkey continues to this day to ignore binding international treaties for the protection of cultural heritage. The Turkish army exercises absolute military control of the occupied territories, preventing the Republic of Cyprus through its competent authority, that is the Department of Antiquities, to protect archaeological sites, monuments and museums.

Destruction is still recorded in all types of cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible. Museums have been looted, as has a large number of private collections. Religious monuments have also been looted and in some cases even demolished. Icons and sacred objects have been stolen, frescoes and mosaics were destroyed or violently removed and in many cases have been traced in illegal antiquities trade markets and in auctions around the world. In only few cases cultural goods have been repatriated, as in the case of the mosaics of the church of Panagia Kanakaria of Lythrangomi after the famous legal battle in the United States or the recent return of the wall paintings of Agios Euphemianos of Lysi. According to the records, it is estimated that more than 20,000 religious icons have been stolen and more than 550 churches and their cemeteries have been looted. Moreover, it is known that many churches are currently used as mosques, stables, military bases, workshops, warehouses, parking lots, hotels, nightclubs etc. Apart from the religious monuments, archaeological sites have also been completely destroyed, while others remain unprotected, neglected and easy prey for looters. Illegal excavations are also carried out by foreign missions without the authorization of the Department of Antiquities of Cyprus. In addition, the rapid tourism and construction development in the occupied areas in recent years increases the chances of destroying unknown archaeological sites, which remain undocumented and unprotected. The lack of control of development projects further facilitates looting and hence smuggling and illegal export of cultural goods from the island, through the illegal airports in the occupied areas. Monuments, archaeological sites and important buildings of folk architecture are enclosed within 'forbidden' zones of the Turkish army and the buffer zone. The illegal regime also attempts to erode the intangible heritage of the island, by altering name and place name in the occupied areas, in a way that the new names in Turkish are completely unrelated to the original.

Archaeological Sites

The invasion of 1974 violently interrupted all archaeological excavations, surveys, restoration and conservation works of monuments and archaeological sites in the northern part of the island. Important excavations conducted at Salamis, Soloi, Enkomi, Apostolos Andreas-Kastros in the Karpas peninsula and elsewhere, were interrupted and in many cases the findings of the excavations have since been missing without being properly studied. After the 1974 invasion, foreign missions conducting research in the northern part of the island, showing their solidarity to the Cypriot state have rejected the invitation from Ankara to resume excavations in the occupied territories. The Department of Antiquities recognizing this solidarity, proposed to these foreign missions new sites for excavation of the same chronological period, some of which are still under excavation to date.

One of the most important prehistoric sites in which excavations were conducted prior to 1974, under the direction of Dr. Alain Le Brun, was the coastal site of Apostolos Andreas-Kastros in the Karpas peninsula, on the eastern tip of Cyprus. The site was literally levelled by bulldozers in 2005, under instructions of the Turkish army, to pave a road, which currently leads to a concrete platform on which the flags of Turkey and of the illegal regime in the north were placed. The archaeological remains were thrown in the sea and the stratigraphy of the settlement was completely disrupted. The event was widely denounced, by the Republic of Cyprus, the University of Cyprus and other Universities abroad. Moreover, in October 2005 the case was submitted by the Cyprus National Committee of ICOMOS to the 15th General Assembly of ICOMOS in Xi 'an in China, which condemned the destruction of the Neolithic settlement.

Another very important Neolithic site is Agios Epiktitos - Vrysi, which was excavated by the University of Birmingham, under the direction of Prof. Edgar Peltenburg. The Turkish invasion put an end to the legitimate excavations on the site and the architectural remains of the settlement that were once in an excellent state of preservation fell in ruins. There is evidence that some of the artefacts from the site were illegally exported from Cyprus. After the 1974 invasion, illegal excavations were conducted, which brought to light thousands of artefacts, some of which are now exhibited in the Kyrenia Castle. Nowadays the surroundings of the Neolithic settlement are unrecognizable, as large hotel units have been erected.

A case of systematic looting is presented in the Monastery of Christ Antifonitis in Kalograia village. The monastery, which was originally built during the Byzantine period and modified during the 15th-16th century, preserved important wall paintings, in a good state of preservation until 1974. In the years following the Turkish invasion wall paintings, icons and wooden carvings were destroyed and removed from the monastery. The heads of the two archangels in the apse of the church were destroyed and the upper part of the scene of the Nativity was removed. The wall paintings of the Last Judgment and the Tree of Jesse were also removed from the church, during which major disaster occurred. At least sixty sections of the wall paintings were located in Munich and thirty-two sections were repatriated in 1997. The rest were found in 1997 by the Munich police in possession of the Turkish antiquities dealer Aydin Dikmen.


The Turkish occupation forces apart from the systematic destruction of monuments and sites have even proceeded with the total leveling ecclesiastical monuments. The case of the Church of Panagia Avgasida, in Aloa village of Famagusta is characteristic as it was demolished in 1989 by the Turkish army. The church dating to the 14th century had two aisles, with a north aisle added in the 15th century. Important wall paintings were in a good state of preservation condition until the Church was demolished. The wall paintings decorating the dome depicted Christ Pantocrator surrounded by the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist and angels in the Preparation of the Throne of the Second Coming. The fate of the wall paintings and carved iconostasis remains unknown.

A more recent case of complete demolition of a church is that of St. Catherine and its cemetery in the village of Gerani in Famagusta, which was also demolished by the occupation army in 2008.

Illegal Excavations

The Department of Antiquities of Cyprus is the only legitimate authority competent to issue permits to conduct archaeological excavations in Cyprus and responsible for any work carried out on Ancient Monuments in the entire territory of the Republic. In addition, international conventions, such as the Second Protocol to the Hague Convention, provide that excavations in occupied territories are prohibited. Nevertheless, illegal excavations are still conducted in many archaeological sites in the occupied part of the island.

Perhaps the most famous and internationally condemned case, are the systematic excavations conducted in one of the most important archaeological sites on the island, ancient Salamis. The Turkish invasion of 1974, interrupted the excavations at Salamis, directed by Vassos Karageorghis and since 1965 also by the French Mission of the University of Lyon. Apart from the great blow to the development of archaeological research, the invasion and occupation brought even more devastating consequences. The warehouses of the Department of Antiquities at Salamis were looted, as were the ones in Engomi, where documents and archaeological material were kept. The same happened to the warehouses of the French Mission. Looting and illegal excavations were noted on site and the Roman gymnasium functioned for years as a grazing area. The surroundings areas of both ancient Salamis and Engomi were divided into plots, in many cases resulting to extended damages to the Hellenistic and Roman monuments.

In 1998, the so called department of antiquities in the occupied areas together with the “centre of archaeological research” of the of the "eastern mediterranean university" began illegal excavations at Salamis, revealing remains of the Roman settlement. Since 1999 to this day, the University of Ankara, in violation of international treaties and academic ethics, continues to conduct excavations at Salamis under the direction of Prof. Coskun Özguner. The excavations continue despite the protests of the Department of Antiquities of Cyprus, the Cyprus University and other institutions, to UNESCO and other international organizations.

Another relatively recent case of illegally conducted excavations in occupied Cyprus is at the locality “Lofos tou Vasilia” in Galinoporni in the Karpas peninsula. At this site, the illegal authorities, in collaboration with archaeologists from various universities of Germany [Technical University of Freiberg (TUBAF), the Free University of Berlin, the Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen (EKUT) and Curt - Engelhorn Centre for Archaeometry (CE ZA)] and with funding from the German Research Foundation (Foundation Fritz Thyssen Stiftung), begun excavations in 2005. The Republic of Cyprus, through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the University of Cyprus have repeatedly made official complaints about the above illegal actions of the occupying authorities and the German archaeologists and succeeded in the suspension of funding for the work.

Another major threat in the occupied territories is the uncontrolled construction development in sites, which have not been excavated and in which archaeological surveys prior to 1974 located important archaeological remains. The Karpas peninsula for example, is an area particularly rich in monuments and unique natural landscapes, which are threatened by an increasing construction development. Recently, plans concerning the building of an "annex" to the so-called "american university in Kyrenia" in Agios Philonas were announced. The location of the development was situated in the vicinity of the proposed region to be included in the European network of nature protection, Natura 2000. The Republic of Cyprus, through coordinated efforts and official representations in the European Union and UNESCO, was able to prevent the development.

Illicit trade of antiquities

Movable antiquities in the occupied territories were rampantly plundered by looters and members of the Turkish armed forces especially during the early years of the Turkish occupation. The primary concern of the Department of Antiquities immediately after the 1974 invasion was the evacuation of the antiquities kept in the Cyprus Museum in Nicosia. Many museums were looted and their collections were scattered. Pottery, sculptures, gold jewellery, silver objects and other antiquities were stolen from the Famagusta District Museum, the Museum of the Kyrenia Ancient Shipwreck in Kyrenia Castle and from the Folk Art Museum in Kyrenia. Objects were stolen from the warehouses of foreign archaeological missions, as well as from the archaeological sites. In addition, it is estimated that more than 20.000 ecclesiastical icons and liturgical objects were stolen.

The same happened to many private collections, which remained in the occupied territories. Consequently, thousands of items, many of which were extremely rare, were stolen and most probably exported from the island to reach the antiquities black market, mainly in Europe and the USA. The most famous and characteristic case of theft and smuggling of Cypriot antiquities from the occupied areas, immediately after the 1974 invasion, is that of the Hadjiprodromou private collection in Famagusta. The collection included 1254 objects, many of which seem to have been exported from Cyprus, while about 850 antiquities are currently exhibited in the Monastery of Agios Varnavas in occupied Famagusta. The first official indication of this looting occurred in 1976 when six picrolite figurines from the collection were offered for sale by Christie's auction house in London. Other items from this collection have appeared in the markets of Lyon, in London, Basel and Zurich, while the case of the antiquities found in the possession of a Turkish antiquities dealer in Dover is well known. So far, 43 objects have been repatriated through the efforts of the Republic of Cyprus. It is worth noting that another 150 private collections of antiquities were recorded prior to 1974 in the occupied territories, which numbered thousands of antiquities. The Republic of Cyprus does not have any data on the fate of these objects.

The Department of Antiquities in cooperation with the Cyprus Police, the Law Office of the Republic, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Customs Department, and when it comes to ecclesiastical cultural goods, the Church of Cyprus, is working hard to identify and repatriate cultural objects illegally exported from Cyprus.

An important recent example of repatriation is the return of the 13th century wall paintings that were removed after the Turkish invasion from the church of Agios Euphemianos (or Themonianos) in the occupied village Lysi. In 1984 a Turkish smuggler sold parts of the wall paintings that were supposedly found accidentally abandoned in a church in southern Turkey. The Department of Antiquities proved that the wall paintings were violently removed from the church of Agios Euphemianos in Lysi and, following lengthy negotiations, it was accepted that they belong to the Orthodox Church of Cyprus. The paintings were recovered in 1984 by the Menil Foundation in Houston, Texas for the Church of Cyprus. In 1992, the Church of Cyprus and the Menil Foundation signed a protocol, which entailed that the Foundation undertook the guardianship of the wall paintings for twenty years beginning in February 1992. After nearly three decades in the United States, the wall paintings were repatriated on 16 March 2012 and were placed in a specially designed area in the first room of the Byzantine Museum of the Archbishop Makarios III Foundation.

The Department of Antiquities is adopting measures aiming at the mitigation of illicit trafficking and looting and when notified of such cases of illegal activities in the occupied territories the necessary steps are taken at once. Articles published in the Turkish Cypriot press often prove a significant source of information and actions are undertaken through the appropriate channels with the assistance of all relevant governmental departments. The Department of Antiquities also follows many antiquities auctions conducted online. Whenever Cypriot antiquities are traced on the internet or at auction lists, they are checked in relation to the digitized archive available that includes photographs and other data on antiquities whose fate is unknown as a result of the 1974 invasion and occupation. Although it is usually extremely difficult to prove that an antiquity has been illegally exported from Cyprus, the Department of Antiquities always informs the police and the Attorney General for each object traced. In cases where there is information of trafficking and illegal export, the Cyprus section of INTERPOL communicates with auction houses and requests the withdrawal of such items from the auction. In other cases, the Department of Antiquities communicates with the auction houses requesting additional information on the history of acquisition of an object, since these houses have an obligation to exercise due diligence when acquiring an antiquity. The Department of Antiquities has also provided INTERPOL with a digital archive of photos and other information concerning Ancient Monuments and movable objects in the occupied areas.

Another important step in the fight against trafficking and illegal export of antiquities is the Memorandum of Understanding in force between Cyprus and the United States America for imposing restrictions on the United States to import specific Cypriot cultural objects. The MoU was signed in 2002 under Article 9 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention and was renewed for a further five years in 2007, this time including coins, which are of particular value to archaeologists and at the same time, a vulnerable category of cultural goods. The MoU was recently renewed for another five years, extending to ritual and ethnological objects dating up to 1850. This extension is of particular importance for Cyprus, since the restrictions now cover the majority of the movable objects, which can be found in ecclesiastical monuments in the occupied territories. The introduction of these items into the United States is allowed only if the objects are accompanied by an export licence from the Republic of Cyprus.

In the same context, the Department of Antiquities has signed similar agreements with other states such as China (2010) and Switzerland (2013).

The Department of Antiquities also participates in the European Programme Mobility of Collections in the framework of the Open Method of Co - ordination and has actively participated in the sub-group dealing with the illegal trafficking of antiquities and in particular, the online illegal antiquities trade. Research among Member States, undertaken by the Cypriot delegation, has shown that the majority of Member States either have insufficient means to control cultural property auctions conducted on the internet or have no control at all. There is thus a serious need to develop standardized procedures, to train personnel dealing with the issue and to introduce some kind of import control.

The election of the Department of Antiquities in 2011 as a full member of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its countries of origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation, is also considered important in the efforts to combat illicit trafficking.

Cyprus has also been elected a member of the 12-member Intergovernmental Committee of the Second Protocol to the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict for the period of 2007-2011 and contributed substantially to the drafting of the Guidelines for the implementation of the Second Protocol. In 2010, Cyprus together with Italy, were the only countries that managed to place monuments under Enhanced Protection, in the case of Cyprus the three Cypriot World Heritage Properties.

Other actions of the Department of Antiquities that contribute to the protection and improvement of research of the cultural heritage of Cyprus is the digitization projects that have been implemented, such as the research and digitization programme titled "Tombs of Enkomi (British Excavations) in the Cyprus Museum" and the «Cyprus Archaeological Digitization Programme ». The digitization of archival material within the framework of the later program, which is ongoing, contributes to the integration of the various archives of the Department of Antiquities, enhances protection and provides an efficient management tool. In the case of the Ancient Monuments and objects in the occupied areas, the program operates as an invaluable mechanism for their timely and more comprehensive monitoring and management.

Raising public awareness on the issue of cultural heritage protection is a priority for the Department of Antiquities and to this end workshops on illicit trafficking and educational programs are organized and information material is published in the form of pamphlets and notices.


Last Update: February 2013

Source: The Department of Antiquities



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