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Friday, 18 January, 2002, 20:07 GMT
Shame of Cyprus's looted churches
Church of Kanakaria in the northern Karpas peninsula once housed some of the most important works of early Christian art in the region
Some churches in the north are now just empty shells
By Chris Morris in Nicosia

Early on a Sunday morning in the heart of Nicosia, the sound of chanting echoes from the Cathedral of St John.

Icons line the walls amid the opulence of Orthodox worship.

Cathedral of St John in Nicosia is a reminder of what churches in northern Cyprus used to look like
In the south their richness is preserved
This is a reminder of what churches in northern Cyprus used to look like. But not any more.

As the leaders of the Greek and Turkish communities of Cyprus begin detailed negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations, they have many emotional issues to deal with.

On the Greek Cypriot side, there is deep anger about the fate of thousands of pieces of religious art which have gone missing since the island was divided 28 years ago.


Turkish troops intervened on Cyprus in 1974, in response to a military coup by Greek Cypriot officers who sought union with Greece.

Map of Cyprus
In the ensuing chaos, up to 200,000 Greek Cypriots fled from their homes in the north.

Since then, more than 500 churches have been under Turkish control.

Some have been destroyed, many ransacked - icons and frescoes have disappeared.

It is one of the most systematic examples of the looting of art since World War II.


The Orthodox Church is central to Greek Cypriot identity, and religious art is central to the faith.

An icon museum has been set up in the north

But over the last 28 years, the heritage of the church in northern Cyprus has fallen into the hands of smugglers and vandals.

In the north, the Turkish authorities have realised belatedly how bad it makes them look.

They have set up an icon museum in a monastery which was abandoned a few years ago, but they admit that the art on display in the chapel is not of great age or value. The smugglers have seen to that.


The Turks say they would do more to help - if they were not under international embargo.

Any international aid to Cyprus has to be channelled through the Government in the south, and the Turkish Cypriot authorities refuse to accept its legitimacy.

We don't have any international support, not even from Unesco

Hassan Tekel

"As you know, because of the politically unrecognised conditions of northern Cyprus we are facing lots of problems", says Hassan Tekel, the director of antiquities in the Famagusta region.

"For example, we don't have any international support, not even from Unesco."

"These antiquities don't belong to any person or any nation," Mr Tekel argues, "they are for all of humanity and we have to do something."

But there is not much humanity on display at the church of Kanakaria in the northern Karpas peninsula.

Fragment left

It once housed some of the most important works of early Christian art in the region.

A man restoring an icon
Art experts often have to rely on old slides

Now it is an empty shell - the doors are locked and the windows have long gone.

Frescoes have disappeared from the walls, and only a fragment of a priceless 6th Century roof mosaic remains.

The Turks say they want the stolen items back. But it is a little late for that.

While Turkish Cypriots complain that Islamic sites on the island have also been desecrated, the scale of the destruction is not really comparable.

Detective work

Under international pressure, the amount of smuggling has dropped dramatically, but most of the damage has already been done.

A fragment of Kanakaria mosaic
Some Kanakaria mosaics have been recovered...
Art experts in the south cannot travel to the north - they have to rely on old slides and photographs, and memories of how things used to be.

But after years of detective work, some of the Kanakaria mosaics have been recovered on the international art market.

They are now on display at the Byzantine Museum in the Greek Cypriot south.

But others are still lost - perhaps in private collections after being bought and sold for a small fortune.

The Greek Cypriots know who they blame.

"Not an individual person only," insists Athanasios Papageorgiou, an expert in religious art who works for the Orthodox Church.

A fragment of Kanakaria mosaic
... and are now on display in the south
"It is the whole [Turkish] regime, and the effort they have made to eliminate the presence of the Greeks in the occupied area of Cyprus."

"We know that frescoes were removed from different churches, but we don't know where they are, which means they have been sold somewhere, to somebody, and the same thing goes for the icons."

And so the struggle to protect what survives is tinged with great anger and bitterness.

Restorers at the Byzantine Museum in Nicosia are working on an icon which was recovered from a church in the northern part of the city, on the other side of the barbed wire.

But it is a rare exception.

Even art and religion have become part of the conflict, as Cyprus tries once again to end its political divide.

See also:

30 Dec 01 | Europe
Cyprus to hunt for missing people
04 Dec 01 | Europe
Cyprus veterans share chemistry
08 Jan 02 | Europe
Turkey foresees Cyprus settlement
18 Jan 02 | Europe
Cyprus: Flashback to 1974
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