“Damage to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind”
The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (1954)
Cyprus is situated at the crossroads of civilizations in the Eastern Mediterranean. Its recorded history of more than 11.000 years is considered to be of great importance in the history of European art and civilization. The systematic and deliberate destruction and extinction of the Greek Cypriot cultural heritage is the final touch in Turkey’s policy of ethnic cleansing and colonization of occupied Cyprus. It is a tragic and irreversible consequence of the Turkish invasion. Turkey is in violation of international law and of major international conventions it signed and ratified, including the 1954 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention, and the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The destruction of the Greek Cypriot cultural heritage has been enhanced by:
- The lure of money gain in the black market of objects of art.
- The unwillingness of the occupation authorities to provide the necessary means for the protection of the Greek Cypriot cultural heritage.
- The unwillingness of the occupation authorities to cooperate with UNESCO.
- The effort by the Turkish Cypriot subordinate local administration in occupied Cyprus to gain de fact recognition in return for its cooperation with international institutions.
- The expulsion of foreign archaeological schools working in the northern part of Cyprus until the time of the Turkish invasion.
The deliberate destruction of the cultural heritage, inter alia, includes:
- The destruction of ancient historic sites and monuments
- The looting of museums and other private collections
- The destruction and desecration of important religious sites to Orthodox, Maronite and Armenian Cypriots
- The deliberate name change of historic sites, towns and villages in an attempt to erase the well documented historical past of the island
- The destruction and disappearance of historical ancient artifacts and important movable ecclesiastical material such as icons, sacerdotal vestments, books and precious items used in religious ceremonies
- The removal and illicit sale of invaluable frescoes and mosaics from UNESCO designated and protected religious sites, some dating back to the 6th century A.D. Good examples are the cases of the Antifonities and Panagia Kanakaria churches. The repatriation of mosaics from these churches shows the magnitude of these illicit networks, with the involvement of officials, and the money involved in the black market for objects of art.
The historical wealth of occupied Cyprus is evident through the presence of:
- 31 major archaeological sites and ancient cemeteries
- 11 major fortresses, towers and fortifications
- 37 homes and bridges declared as historic
- 520 churches, monasteries and chapels.
The fate of churches and monasteries (Orthodox, Maronite and Armenian) is indicative of the systematic and deliberate policies of the occupation regime.
- 125 churches have been converted into mosques, an old Islamic tradition in occupied territories
- 67 have been turned into stables or hay barns
- 57 have become museums, cultural centers or hotels
- 17 have become hostels, restaurants and military warehouses
- 25 have been demolished
- 229 have been totally desecrated.
The official response:
In an attempt to limit the destruction of the Cyprus cultural heritage, the Government of the Republic, along with the Church of Cyprus, has expanded their cooperation with foreign museums and auction houses in order to trace and achieve the repatriation of stolen historical and religious artifacts. In cooperation with Cypriot foundations, they have also invested large sums for the repatriation of such items from the international market.
Part of the costly and lengthy recovery process involves the requirements set by foreign courts concerning proof of ownership. This is often difficult because given the lack of access to records and installations in the occupied part of Cyprus; Cypriot authorities have to rely on photographic evidence to identify stolen items.
The Church of Cyprus has also appealed to foreign courts to recover looted religious items. The case of the Kanakaria mosaics in the United States District Court of the Southern District of Indiana in Indianapolis is one such example. The case involved the ownership of looted 6th century Byzantine mosaics from the Church of Kanakaria in the occupied part of Cyprus. The mosaics had been scientifically removed by Turkish antiquity smugglers and sold to an American art dealer for $1.2 million. In a decision that constitutes a legal precedent about the protection of cultural property, the Court, on 3 August 1989, ordered the return of the mosaics to their legal owner, the Church of Cyprus. This decision was upheld by the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit on 24 October 1990.
The Government of Cyprus has also signed various bilateral agreements with foreign governments intended to protect the island’s archaeological and cultural heritage. One such recent example is the Memorandum of Understanding to protect the archaeological and ethnological heritage of Cyprus signed between the United States and the Republic of Cyprus in 2002 and extended for another five years in July 2007.
The unending struggle to protect the Cypriot cultural heritage and Turkey’s unwillingness to cooperate with UNESCO and other international organizations in order to protect the Cypriot cultural heritage is one more example of Turkey’s deliberate policy of expunging the historical Greek Cypriot presence from occupied Cyprus.
“…[The European Parliament] points out that the cultural heritage of each people must be preserved and condemns the systematic policy of expunging the past and the Hellenic and Christian culture pursued by Turkey in the part of Cyprus occupied by its troops, as regards both the imposition of place names and the disappearance or transformation of the island’s cultural heritage…”
European Parliament Resolution, 10 March 1988.
The information presented by independent sources leaves no doubt as to the systematic and deliberate policy of expunging all forms of Greek Cypriot heritage and presence in the occupied areas. These biased policies were directed against Greek, Maronite and Armenian Cypriots because of their ethnicity, religion and language. This constitutes a stigma on the international community at a time when, with support from the Republic of Cyprus, Turkey is engaged in accession negotiations with the EU. Turkey continues to violate its international obligations taking advantage of regional instability and of the support it receives from mighty foreign powers. The violation of human rights, including the protection of the cultural heritage, in the name of economic and political expediencies and security considerations, undermines not only the European human rights regime, but also the European commitment to the rule of law, democracy and human rights. Since 1974, Cyprus remains the testing ground of these principles.
“The political-demographic de facto partition imposed on Cyprus since 1974 thus threatens not only the unity and integrity of a modern nation-state but also the millennial cultural integrity and continuity of the island which has been the crossroads of civilization of the Eastern Mediterranean”
Michael Jansen, “Cyprus: The Loss of a Cultural Heritage”, Modern Greek Studies Yearbook, University of Minnesota (1986).