Christian Monuments in the part of Ciprus under Turkish occupation. Evidence of an uninterrupted destruction
For almost 30 years after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus it was very difficult to get information about the condition of the Christian monuments in the occupied part of the island and their remains (icons, manuscripts, consecrated vessels, ancient prints, etc).
Only in recent times has some patchy information become available about the extensive destruction: looting and vandalism in churches, dismantling of monasteries, conversion of churches into stables and thefts of icons and vessels. These reports were corroborated when Byzantine icons from the churches in the occupied areas (for example the Hadjiprodromou collection) began turning up in art warehouses in Western Europe and America.
The Church of Cyprus and the legitimate authority of the Republic of Cyprus, as well as individuals and private foundations, have recently begun to repatriate much of the contraband art held in warehouses and international auction houses. Reports by experts to the Council of Europe, made after visits to some of the monuments occupied by the Turks, clearly show the extent of the destruction and arouse fears by the failure to protect the monuments.
After the partial abolition of restrictions on movement beyond the occupied area (the easternmost boundary, in 2003), the bishop of Kykkos and Tyllerias Nikephoros actively expressed his concern over the fate of the cultural and religious heritage of the occupied areas. The Museum of the Holy Monastery of Kykkos has inserted in its program the first collection of systematic information, including an inventory, a photographic exhibition and an architectural description of the Christian churches occupied. A team of experts has also been appointed to carry out this task. The Museum of the Holy Monastery of Kykkos now possesses an archive of some 20,000 color photographs, comparative photographic materials of the churches before the 1974 invasion and recorded reports of visits to the Christian churches.
Now that the photographic collection of the Christian monuments is complete, the Museum of the Holy Monastery of Kykkos is reorganizing it to present it to a wider public and to the scholarly community so as to reveal the extent of the destruction of the country’s cultural heritage.
The present photographic exhibition consists of some 100 photographs which eloquently reveal the tragic state of churches of the various Christian communities (Orthodox, Christian, Maronite and Armenian) under the occupation of Cyprus. Alongside some recent photographs of the churches are photographs of their state before the 1974 invasion. The comparison makes clear the present situation. The images have captions in three languages: Greek, English and Italian.
The exhibition is divided into four sections. The first presents the work of archiving the contents of the churches of the whole Christian community in the Museum of the Monastery of Kykkos. The second presents the different uses to which churches have been put in the Turkish state (mosques, theaters, mortuaries, barns, stables, clubs, stores, etc.). In some cases they have been demolished. The third part deals with the removal of frescoes and mosaics by the Turks, who are smuggling them abroad, the illegal sales of icons and sacred vessels and thefts in general. The fourth part shows that the Republic of Cyprus is making an effort to take care of the mosques in the free areas of the Republic. In fact, the Antiquities Department is working to repair the damage to Cyprus, with the support of the Government, the mosques and the churches of all religious denominations.
The conclusions, based on the data assembled during extensive research, is tragic and shocking. Monuments with an immense cultural significance have been stripped of their sacred objects, symbols and icons. A gang of smugglers has deliberately ripped out Byzantine mosaics and wall paintings and sold them on the foreign art market. Thefts are continuing on an increasing scale: apart from the furnishings of churches, their bells, doors, window frames, tiles, floors and even the wiring have been removed. Ten bell towers have been demolished, so that the Christian churches are no longer visible in the villages. Some medieval churches decorated with Byzantine frescoes have been demolished (for example the monastery of Avgasides). This has been followed by the expulsion of the Greek population from their ancient homes, the arrival of farmers from the depths of Anatolia and the Black Sea, and the traditional names of localities on Cyprus have been replaced with Turkish place names: this is a growing campaign to completely obliterate the churches and the last visible signs of Christian presence in the northern part of the island.
Now Cyprus, which is a member of the great family of the European Union, is compelled to demonstrate the continuous cultural depredations and destruction of its country, a heritage which belongs not just to Europe but to the world. Religious freedom, the principles of justice, respect for and protection of its past history constitute the fundamental principles of the European Union. The communities on the island (both Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot) ask that the Turkish occupying forces respect them.
The need to intervene in order to protection and restore the monuments is today more pressing than ever before. In this context, the Museum of the Holy Monastery of Kykkos is planning a twofold use of the material it has produced, through the study of early Christianity and the medieval monuments in the occupied zone of Cyprus. At the same time it is keeping the public informed through exhibitions locally and abroad, as well as a series of special publications.