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WRMEA, September 1999 pages 84-85

Cyprus: Coping with a Quarter-Century of Separation

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

By Janet McMahon

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?”

Commenting on the ongoing losses, Ieronymidou told the Washington Report, “They know exactly what they’re doing.” She cited an interview with Aydin Dikman, a Turkish antiquities dealer arrested on charges that he was the mastermind behind much of the trafficking, in which he admitted that just after the 1974 Turkish invasion he paid underlings to attend courses in Byzantine art so they would know what was of value—i.e., what to steal.

Nor is removing mosaics and frescoes from ancient churches a simple task, Ieronymidou pointed out. “You need skilled personnel and you need time to do it...You cannot just ignore people working in a church. [These thefts] could only have been done with the knowledge or silent approval of the Turkish authorities.”

The first 10 years after the 1974 invasion saw an enormous number of antiquities illegally exported. When the Cypriot government began noticing many of these stolen items in the catalogues of Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction houses, the trafficking slowed down somewhat, and moved to the black market—where objects are harder to trace.

She charges, however, that “not much is being done” to halt the destruction of churches in the north, although the Cypriot Ministry of Foreign Affairs notifies UNESCO each time an act of theft or desecration can be documented. “What do they do with the information?” she wondered.

The Republic of Cyprus works with customs officials, curators and museum directors in its efforts to retrieve stolen artifacts, but often its only recourse is “to rebuy our cultural heritage” through auctions, the archeological officer explained. In other instances the only alternative—and not always a successful one—is the courts.

In 1995, for example, four icons from the Antifonitis church in the Kyrenia district were found in the possession of an elderly Dutch couple, who had bought them in good faith from, it is believed, an Armenian art dealer. A Rotterdam court ruled that, because Holland had not enacted the 1954 Hague convention on the return of artifacts stolen during war, the icons did not have to be returned. The Cyprus Church is appealing that ruling.

“This gives me great sorrow to say, but our cultural heritage is being reduced to cases in court,” Ieronymidou sighed. “And it’s not just ours, it’s the world’s cultural heritage.”

She is adamant that the issue is not just one of “destroying objects, it’s destroying culture.” If the Turks insist on eradicating all traces of Greek Cypriot culture in the north, she said, “I would prefer that they whitewash the walls [of the churches]. Why destroy them?”

Nor is the agreement with the deMenil Foundation in Houston [see box] satisfactory—although, Ieronymidou readily admitted, “if I had to choose between destruction and preservation—if it’s the only way to preserve them,” it is of course the better choice. But what began as a temporary arrangement, whereby the American foundation would retain custody, but not ownership, of the mosaics, to be returned to the Church of Cyprus after first 15, then 20 years, looks more permanent as the years go by. “I’m not very optimistic about the whole thing,” she said.

What pains Ms. Ieronymidou most, however, is the fragmentation and dispersion of individual mosaics and frescoes. “The worst thing,” she said sadly, “is to see a hand of Christ in one auction catalogue and the foot in another.”

Janet McMahon is the managing editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.


From Cyprus to Houston: The Perilous Journey of Lysi’s Stolen Frescoes

In 1982, Turkish Cypriot journalist Mehmet Yasin reported in the weekly newsmagazine Olay that Turkish art dealer Aydin Dikman had been detained by security officials in the northern Cypriot town of Kyrenia and was on a police list of antiquities smugglers. Nearly nine years later, Dikman finally was arrested in Munich, following an elaborate sting operation involving his former partner, Michel van Rijn, a Dutch art dealer who claims to be descended from both Rembrandt and Rubens, and who previously had been convicted in France of forging Chagall’s signature.

In Dikman’s possession, according to The New York Times, were 140 icons, 10 fragments of Byzantine frescoes, silver crosses, prayer books and 250 other religious treasures looted from Orthodox churches and monasteries in northern Cyprus.

Two frescoes not among Dikman’s holdings in Europe, because they previously had been purchased from him—and can now be seen at the de Menil Foundation’s Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum in Houston, Texas. The lengths—and expense—to which foundation president Dominique de Menil went to acquire, restore and exhibit the masterpieces gives some indication of the scope of the theft and destruction involved.

An art patron and noted collector of Byzantine art, in 1983 de Menil flew to Munich to inspect personally two Byzantine frescoes which London art dealer Yanni Petsopoulos had alerted her were for sale. Along with her foundation’s curator and director, as well as her personal assistant, she and Petsopoulos rendezvoused in a Munich hotel with Dikman, who told the group he had discovered the frescoes while excavating in southern Turkey.

Suspicious about Dikman’s story, upon her return to the U.S. de Menil requested a search for the fresco’s true owners. Letters of inquiry were sent to the embassies of nine countries, and Cyprus was able to document that the 13th century frescoes were from the Church of St. Themonianos outside the village of Lysi in northern Cyprus.

According to Helen Thorpe’s account in the January 1997 Texas Monthly, de Menil, now aware that the frescoes had been stolen, was afraid that if she reported Dikman to authorities, the 38 fragments into which the two frescos had been carved for removal from the church walls would be sold separately and through the black market.

Instead, she approached the head of the Church of Cyprus, Archbishop Chrysostomos, with an offer to purchase and restore the frescoes in return for permission to house them in the U.S. Clearly, her financial resources were greater than those of the church or the Republic of Cyprus, which could not afford to buy back the frescoes themselves.

De Menil acquired the frescoes on behalf of the church and, in July 1984, entrusted their restoration to leading British conservator Laurence Morrocco. The process of reattaching the fragments in their former configuration, and with the same curvature of the church wall on which they had been painted, took nearly four years of painstaking effort.

In 1997, de Menil and the Autocephalous Church of Cyprus signed a formal agreement whereby the church retains ownership of the frescoes but de Menil won the right to exhibit them in a chapel built especially for the frescoes, and which is consecrated as an Eastern Orthodox church. This agreement is in effect until 2002, when the fate of the frescoes will be reassessed.

In all probability, had de Menil not invested millions of dollars to purchase, restore and house the frescoes of Lysi, the two Byzantine masterpieces might forever have remained in pieces, scattered among private art collectors all over the world. Nevertheless, some fear that the likelihood of their ever being returned to Cyprus decreases with each passing year. Reflecting the recent history of Cyprus itself, it is a bittersweet story without, so far, a happy ending.—J.M.

The Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum is located at 4011 Yupon, Houston, TX 77006, and is open to the public Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.