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Saturday, 2 February, 2002, 16:03 GMT
Searching for lost heritage of Cyprus
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, BBC Europe correspondent

If central casting were looking for someone to play the role of international detective, Athanasios Papageorgiou wouldn't immediately spring to mind.

His thick-framed black glasses, Chairman Mao cap and academic expertise in Byzantine art don't really fit the Hollywood bill.

Map of Cyprus
But over the years, Mr Papageorgiou has immersed himself in a shadowy world of art smugglers and backroom deals, searching for his country's lost heritage scattered around the world.

Thousands of pieces of religious art - frescoes, icons and mosaics - have disappeared from churches in northern Cyprus since Turkish forces took control of the region in 1974.

Mr Papageorgiou, a former director of antiquities for the Greek Cypriot government, has dedicated his life to getting them back.

"It is hard work," he told me, as we wondered through the Byzantine Museum next to the Cathedral of St John in Nicosia. "But it's worth it. Just look at these."

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
On the wall, behind glass, the faces of the saints stare out from ancient mosaics.

They came originally from the 6th century church of Kanakaria in the north of the island. But they were looted in the 1970s.

They were recovered much further from home: some during a lengthy court case in the American mid-West, others in a classic sting operation which entrapped a Turkish smuggler in Munich.

Parts of the mosaic are still lost, hidden perhaps in private collections. The same goes for thousands of icons and frescoes, early bibles and chalices.

An icon museum has been set up in the north
"We know they were taken from our churches", Mr Papageorgiou reflects, "and we know someone must have them somewhere. We have to keep looking".

Nowadays, the Kanakaria church is shuttered and empty. An old man on a tractor appears with a bunch of keys. He spends several minutes trying each one, before the lock finally opens.

Desolate interior

Inside, only the shell of the building remains. The walls have been stripped bare, the life has been drained from an ancient place of worship.

When the Turkish army intervened in northern Cyprus, Greek Cypriots flooded south in their tens of thousands.

A man restoring an icon
Art experts often have to rely on old slides
They took with them what little they could, but their churches were abandoned with no one to protect them.

For the next few years, looting and smuggling were rife.

Since then, the Turkish Cypriots have taken steps to clamp down on this illegal but hugely profitable trade in religious art. But much of the damage has already been done.

'Green line'

Mr Papageorgiou can't even travel a short distance across the island to see what's left. He lives on the other side of the line which divides Cyprus.

The Turkish-controlled north is strictly off-limits, and he blames the Turkish authorities for coordinating the plunder of Greek heritage. An enormous amount has been lost.

A fragment of Kanakaria mosaic
Some Kanakaria mosaics have been recovered...
The Turks in turn hurl similar accusations in the opposite direction. Mosques in the south have been turned into car parks, and there have been arson attacks on sacred Islamic sites.

It is an endless squabble about who is doing more to eradicate a competing culture, the Orthodox Greeks or the Muslim Turks.

Cultural collision

Another clash of civilisations? The truth of course is that Cyprus was a crossroads of the ancient world.

A succession of armies and kingdoms put down roots and left their mark here, from Egypt to Persia, Venice to Rome.

A fragment of Kanakaria mosaic
... and are now on display in the south
But recent history has been dominated by the bitter dispute between Greeks and Turks. And that complicates efforts to protect the cultural treasures that remain.

Because politics comes into everything in Cyprus, even when it comes to art and antiquities.

In central Nicosia, a 16th century Venetian wall is in danger of crumbling because the two sides cannot agree on how to repair it.

The wall straddles the United Nations buffer zone which cuts the city in two.

Lack of cooperation

The UN has suggested that the Greek Cypriots restore the facade, while the Turkish Cypriots take care of the top of the wall - but no one can agree where no man's land begins and ends.

Nothing is ever simple.

Other historic sites in the north are also in desperate need of repair, but there's not enough money for the work to begin.

The Turkish Cypriots and their self-declared state are under international embargo, and they refuse to accept funds which are directed through the Greek Cypriot government in the south.

So history is held captive by the present.

And the political division of the island is putting its unique cultural heritage at risk. It doesn't take a great detective to work that one out.

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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