THE LOSS OF A CIVILIZATION Destruction of cultural heritage in occupied Cyprus – MFA Republic of Cyprus

“Damage to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to the cultural heritage of
all mankind.”

Preamble to the Hague Convention of 1954 on the Preservation of the Cultural Heritage in the Event of Armed Conflict.

The loss of a civilization

Cyprus is the largest island in the Eastern Mediterranean. It lies at the crossroads of three continents, Africa, Asia and Europe. It has long been a nexus for the intersection of great civilizations.

Given its location and its history, which reaches back to the Bronze Age, Cyprus has an enormous and incredibly rich cultural heritage. Its location, however, has been both a blessing and a curse for the island and its people: on the one hand, it enabled the development of a unique cultural wealth; on the other, it has left them exposed to repeated invasions.

Throughout ancient history and the Middle Ages, important civilizations flourished at this crossroads, including the Assyrian, Byzantine, Egyptian, Greek, Hebrew, Minoan, Ottoman, Persian, Phoenician and Roman civilizations. The intersection and close communication of these civilizations, and their influence upon each other, has resulted in the growth of a brilliant culture in Cyprus, such that the island has become, in the modern era, a large, floating museum.

The island’s natural wealth and strategic position essentially determined the course of its history – for thousands of years, Cyprus has endured invasion, conquest and spoliation by powerful empires. Beginning in the 11th century BC, when its predominantly Greek character took shape, it has enjoyed periods of freedom, but for much of its history it has been subject to the rule of the Assyrians, the Egyptians, the Persians, the Romans, the Franks, the Venetians, the Ottomans and the British.

The Turkish invasion of 1974, however, is unprecedented. Turkey conducted a military invasion of the island and occupied nearly 40 percent of the sovereign territory of the Republic of Cyprus; Cyprus has remained divided by force of arms since the invasion. Turkey used the occupation to implement a geographical separation of the population of the island on the basis of ethnic origin, expelling Greek Cypriots from their homes in the occupied area and moving Turkish Cypriots into the occupied part of the island.

More than a quarter of the entire population of Cyprus is still suffering from the drama of being uprooted – these people are prevented from exercising the most sacred and inalienable of human rights: to live in their own houses, to cultivate their own land, to worship in the village church and to tend their family graves. In addition, the occupying power has been implementing a policy of illegally importing and settling thousands of colonists from Turkey in the occupied areas, thereby altering the demographic structure of Cyprus.

Thus, for the first time in the history of Cyprus, the people of Cyprus have been de facto separated into homogenous racial and religious geographic areas. This has taken place in defiance of a series of resolutions adopted by the General Assembly and the Security Council of the United Nations, by the European Union and by other international organisations that condemn Turkey’s invasion and support the independence and territorial integrity of the Republic of Cyprus.

The forcible division imposed by Ankara in Cyprus was reinforced in 1983 by a “Unilateral Declaration of Independence” by the Turkish Cypriot leadership -at the instigation and with the support of Turkey- in the occupied area, and with the establishment of the so-called “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.” The international community directly and categorically condemned this secessionist action, while the UN Security Council declared the act was “legally invalid” and demanded the revocation of the “Unilateral Declaration of Independence.” As a result, the illegal regime in occupied Cyprus has not been recognised by any state other than Turkey, the occupying power.

Turkey has been committing two major international crimes against Cyprus. It has invaded and divided a small, weak but modern and independent European state (since 1 May 2004 the Republic of Cyprus has been a member of the EU); Turkey has also changed the demographic character of the island and has devoted itself to the systematic destruction and obliteration of the cultural heritage of the areas under its military control.

Thus, in addition to the human, social ethnological and economic consequences, Turkey’s aggression -its invasion and occupation- has brought about a systematic, large-scale cultural destruction which, unfortunately, is irreversible.

This is one of the most tragic aspects of the Cyprus problem and is also clear proof of the determination of Ankara to “Turkify” the occupied area and to maintain a permanent presence in Cyprus.

The occupying power and its puppet regime, from 1974 until today, have been working methodically to erase everything that is Greek and/or Christian from occupied Cyprus. British journalist John Fielding, who documented much of this cultural eradication for television two years after Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus, wrote, “the vandalism and desecration are so methodical and so widespread that they amount to institutional obliteration of everything sacred to a Greek.” (“The Rape of Northern Cyprus,” The Guardian, 6 May 1976).

Turkey has therefore illegally changed all the Greek names of areas, towns and villages to Turkish names. The change of toponyms was made in violation of international law, of the resolutions of the United Nations Organisation in Cyprus and of resolution No. 16 of the 3rd International Conference of the UN on the Standardisation of Geographical Names in 1977. Today the Greek language survives in the occupied area only in a very few salvaged ancient inscriptions, on road signs in the sealed-off town of Famagusta, on broken tombstones and crosses in cemeteries and on the lips of the remaining few Greek Cypriots enclaved in the Karpasia area.

Neolithic settlements, such as the one in Apostolos Andreas – Kastros (6th millennium BC), located at the easternmost tip of Cyprus, are being destroyed. Prehistoric and historical towns, including the famous site of Engomi (c.1400 BC) and the ancient city-states of Salamina and Soloi, are left unattended, at the mercy of time and natural elements.

The churches have been subject to the most violent and systematic desecration and destruction. More than 500 churches and monasteries have been looted or destroyed: more than 15,000 icons of saints, innumerable sacred liturgical vessels, gospels and other objects of great value have literally vanished. A few churches have met a different fate and have been turned into mosques, museums, places of entertainment or even hotels, like the church of Ayia Anastasia in Lapithos. At least three monasteries have been turned into barracks for the Turkish army (Ayios Chrysostomos in the Pentadactylos Mountains, Acheropoiitos in Karavas and Ayios Panteleimonas in Myrtou). Marvelous Byzantine wall-paintings and mosaics of rare artistic and historical value have been removed from church walls by Turkish smugglers and sold illegally in America, Europe and Japan. Many Byzantine churches have suffered irreparable damage, and many cemeteries have been desecrated or destroyed.

In the summer of 1974, seventeen foreign and five Cypriot archaeological missions were carrying out excavations in Cyprus
with the permission of and in cooperation with Cypriot authorities – ever since, all legal archaeological excavations in the occupied area have been suspended. Illegal excavations continue, however, as does illicit trade in antiquities, both with the acquiescence of the Turkish occupation forces and the Turkish Cypriot leadership.

The ongoing campaign to protect the cultural heritage of Cyprus and Turkey’s unwillingness to cooperate with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and other international institutions to protect Cypriot cultural heritage is yet another example of Turkey’s deliberate policy of eradicating the historic Greek Cypriot and Christian presence in occupied Cyprus.

International Condemnation

In view of these disturbing developments, the European Parliament, in a resolution on 10 March 1988, “…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…”

The Turkish army of occupation continues to exert complete military, financial and political control in the occupied northern part of the island, preventing the Government of the Republic of Cyprus from maintaining and protecting the archaeological sites – it even prevents UNESCO from taking care of archaeological monuments of prehistoric and historic antiquity, as well as Byzantine and other cultural treasures, for the purpose of restoring them to the extent possible.

With the passage of time the situation is worsening, with no end in sight to this cultural calamity. Many people have raised their voices against this cultural crime by Turkey against Cyprus. Among these voices is that of the courageous Turkish Cypriot journalist Mehmet Yasin, who chronicled the tragedy in a series of moving articles in the magazine, Olay, in April 1982. Yasin warned that “Cyprus is being alienated from itself; its historical, environmental, social and cultural structure is being destroyed…” through Turkey’s policy of cultural obliteration. As journalist and author Christopher Hitchens observed, Yasin’s “eloquent testimony” on the massive desecration in Turkish occupied Cyprus “horrified archaeologists and antiquarians who had been trying to discover what had happened to the Cypriot heritage…For a lover of the island to read his articles (”Perishing Cyprus”) is a very painful experience.” (Hostage to History: From the Ottomans to Kissinger, Third Edition, London and New York: Verso, 1997). Hitchens adds:

Perhaps nothing illustrates the real nature of the Turkish invasion and occupation better than the pillage of northern Cyprus…
Not only did the original landings give the signal for widespread looting, arson and vandalism, in which many Turks orgiastically celebrated their new mastery by destroying Christian and Hellenic monuments; but the resulting occupation has followed a policy of eradication…There is something unbearable in the contemplation of this process, in the knowledge that the beauty and traditions of Cyprus are being defi led beyond repair. But the evidence for it is overwhelming, and constitutes a further proof that the Turkish plan for the island is designed to be irreversible.

More recently, Michael Jansen wrote: “The process of denuding the north of its heritage can be classified as ‘cultural genocide’ affecting all Cypriots – Greek, Turkish, Armenian, and Maronite- forever.” (War and Cultural Heritage: Cyprus after the 1974 Turkish Invasion, Third Printing. Minneapolis: Modern Greek Studies, University of Minnesota, 2010).

In the summer of 2009, the U.S. Helsinki Commission [Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE)] held hearings in Washington, DC on “Cyprus’ Religious Cultural Heritage in Peril.” A well-documented report for the U.S. Congress on the state of the cultural and religious heritage in occupied Cyprus, pointing out that it was indeed “in peril,” was released during the same period. The report by the Law Library of Congress, entitled “Destruction of Cultural Property in the Northern Part of Cyprus and Violations of International Law,” also states that “under conventional and customary law, Turkey, as an occupying power, bears responsibility for acts against cultural property.”

On 28 September 2010, the U.S. House of Representatives (Resolution 1631) called for the protection of religious sites and artifacts from and in areas of northern Cyprus occupied by Turkey as well as for general respect for religious freedom. The resolution specifi cally “Urges OSCE to press the government of Turkey to abide by its international commitments by calling on it to work to retrieve and restore all lost artifacts, to immediately halt destruction on religious sites, illegal archaeological excavations, and traffi c in icons and antiquities, to allow for the proper preservation and reconstruction of destroyed or altered religious sites, and to immediately cease all restrictions on freedom of religion for the enclaved Cypriots.”

These are only a few examples of the global response to Turkey’s war on the cultural heritage of Cyprus.

The official response

Cyprus has been at the crossroads of civilization in the Eastern Mediterranean. Its recorded history of more than 11.000 years is considered to be of central importance in the history of European art and civilization. The systematic and deliberate destruction and obliteration of the Greek Cypriot cultural heritage is the final outrage in Turkey’s policy of ethnic cleansing and colonizing 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 Turkey itself has 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 Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

In an attempt to limit the damage to the cultural heritage of Cyprus, both the government of the Republic and the Church of Cyprus have expanded their cooperation with foreign museums and auction houses to identify and seek the return of stolen historical and religious artifacts. In cooperation with Cypriot foundations they have also invested in the recovery of such items from the international market. In addition, agreements have been reached for the temporary safekeeping of such items abroad, as in the case of the Menil Foundation of Houston.

Part of the costly and lengthy recovery process involves proving ownership in foreign courts. This is often difficult, given the lack of access to records and facilities in occupied Cyprus and the continued reliance on photographic evidence to identify stolen items. The Church of Cyprus has resorted to foreign courts to recover looted religious items. The precedent setting case of the Kanakaria mosaics in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, in Indianapolis, is one such example. The government of Cyprus has also undertaken various bilateral agreements with foreign governments intended to protect its 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, with revisions, for another fi ve years in July 2007 (and again in 2012).

This small publication offers only a very general outline of the methodical, systematic and multi-faceted destruction of the cultural heritage of Cyprus by Turkey. Both the Government and the Church of Cyprus continue to make huge efforts to put an end to this “cultural genocide” and to repatriate the island’s stolen treasures. The struggle is a hard one, however, especially because Turkey, the invader and occupier of Cyprus, systematically ignores even the relevant international conventions which it has itself ratified.

  • 1. Monasteries – Churches
    • Armenomonastero (Sourp Magar Monastery)
    • The Holy Monastery of the Prophet Elias of Maronite Monks
    • Antifonitis Monastery
    • Panayia tis Kanakarias
    • Church of Ayios Themonianos
    • The Church of Ayios Procopios
  • 2. Archaeological sites
    • Salamina
    • Royal Tombs – Salamina
    • Engomi
  • 3. Cemeteries
    • Trikomo Cemetery, Famagusta district
    • Gypsou Cemetery, Famagusta district
    • Marathovounos Cemetery, Famagusta district
    • Rizokarpaso Cemetery
    • Jewish Margo Cemetery
    • Kontea Cemetery

See the entire publication here.