The recent return of a rare 16th century icon stolen during the dark days following the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 is a reminder of the merciless plunder of the island’s rich cultural heritage and the ongoing efforts by Cypriot authorities and others to repatriate stolen cultural and religious artefacts.
The icon of the Enthroned Christ was presented at a recent ceremony in Nicosia to Archbishop Chrysostomos and is now on display in the Byzantine Museum.
The story of the icon’s return began in September 2014 when a Cypriot museum director came across an image of the icon in the online catalogue for the Schuler Auktionen art auction house in Zurich. Police were contacted and after a dossier proving the icon’s provenance was collated and presented to the Swiss Proescutor General the auction house removed the icon from the auction and the process begun for its repatriation.
The icon was found to belong to the Christ Antiphonitis Church, also known as the Monastery of Christos Antiphonitis (Χριστός Ἀντιφωνητής), situated in the mountain village of Kalogrea above Kyrenia in northern Cyprus. As the well-known Cypriot cultural heritage activist and ‘icon hunter’, Tasoula Hadjifoti, has written, the church looks as if God himself reached down from heaven to place it there.
Built at the end of the 12th century and later modified during the fifteenth century, this Byzantine monastery - whose name literally means “Christ Who Responds ” – is a domed church bearing on eight round pillars in the shape of an irregular octagon and is the only surviving example of this type in Cyprus. The entire interior of the church was adorned with fine frescoes and wall iconography with the central part of the dome decorated with the Christ Pantokrator.
It is built in the octagonal ‘insular’ style with a dome, and it is the only one of its type to have survived in good condition in Cyprus
But this Byzantine tranquility was shattered in July 1974 with the Turkish invasion. In the chaos of war, occupation and looting, the monastery of Antiphonitis was not spared. According to the British journalist John Fielding who visited the area in May 1976, the process of obliterating everything Greek was carried out methodically. Fielding wrote that the “little treasure house of Antiphonitis Monastery” had sustained the most comprehensive looting and damage with 11th, 12th, and 15th century icons having vanished or destroyed. Nineteenth and twentieth century icons had also been smashed and furniture broken and the whole place was strewn with rubbish and filth.
The ornate woodcut iconostasis or wall of icons carved in the 16th century was also destroyed with the looters, clearly proud of their work, chalking the date ‘March 6 1975’ on the wrecked iconostasis as a signature to their barbarism.
The cultural rape and sacrilege of Cyprus was profound. According to official Greek Cypriot records, over 500 Greek Orthodox churches monasteries and chapels were targeted. Several dozen wall paintings and mosaics and 15,000-20,000 icons have been stolen and possibly more than 60,000 artefacts have been looted from northern Cyprus since the invasion.
In the words of the Irish journalist, Michael Jansen, the author of “Cyprus: The loss of a cultural heritage”, the process of denuding the north of its heritage was a ‘cultural genocide’ affecting all Cypriots - Greek, Turkish, Armenian, and Maronite- forever.
A central figure was the Turkish black market art dealer and smuggler, Aydin Dikmen, who masterminded much of the systematic looting of ecclesiastical artefacts, including invaluable icons, frescoes, mosaics and wood carvings from churches and monasteries. Dikmen, who was based in Munich, had developed close connections with Turkish Cypriot looters and smugglers during hostilities in the wake of the Turkish invasion and occupation and oversaw an operation that led to rare religious artefacts being smuggled off the island, laundered and then sold on the illicit art market.
Some thirty of the most precious frescoes were removed from the walls of the monastery between 1976 and 1979 at the direction of the nefarious Dikmen, including the wall paintings representing the Tree of Jesse (a pictorial genealogy of the Virgin) and the Last Judgment. They were cut off with a mechanical saw (recalling the long saws used by Lord Elgin’s workers in dismantling sculptures from the Parthenon) and removed to be sold to overseas private collectors.
The icon of the Enthroned Christ is not the first artefact recovered from the looting and wanton vandalism and destruction of the Antiphonitis Monastery.
Sixty fragments of these wall-paintings were found in Munich and some were repatriated to Cyprus in December 1997. The rest were found in the possession of Dikmen and confiscated.
The main icon of the enthroned Holy Virgin and Child which was sold in London to a private Greek collector was located in Athens and on 14 September 1998 was repatriated to Cyprus at the initiative of Evangelos Venizelos, the then Greek Minister of Culture.
In February 1999, a fresco with the head of the Archangel Michael from Antiphonitis Monastery was voluntarily returned to Cyprus by a Greek art collector after its true provenance was established.
Finally, in 2013, four icons depicting the Evangelists John and Mark and the Apostles Peter and Paul dating to the 16th century which were forcefully removed from the church’s wood-carved iconostasis, were finally returned after being found in the collection of two Dutch collectors. Although the initial court case was lost on a technicality, legislation was subsequently passed by the Dutch Parliament to facilitate the return of cultural property originating from occupied territory consistent with the principles of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Heritage in the Event of War.
The four icons are on display in the Byzantine Museum of Nicosia and have now been joined by the revered Icon of the Enthroned Christ.
This latest repatriation was made possible after the coordinated efforts of the Cyprus Department of Antiquities, Cyprus law enforcement and the Legal Service in close cooperation with the Orthodox Church of Cyprus and the competent Swiss authorities.
The Cyprus Government Minister, Yiannis Karousos, added that future government plans include the establishment of a dedicated team within the Department of Antiquities to maintain the search for missing historical artefacts and to arrange for their repatriation in order to protect a perishing cultural heritage.
The destruction of cultural heritage has had a detrimental effect on the symbolic, historical and cultural landscape in Northern Cyprus. The UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights in her 2017 mission to Cyprus reported on the devastating effects of the looting of artefacts and has poignantly written:
“Sacred objects, icons and frescoes have been removed illegally from abandoned churches in the north and sold on the international market. Looting has been widespread and systematically organized, causing much suffering to people who have seen their churches, museums and archaeological sites completely plundered.”
The return of the Icon demonstrates that Cyprus will not waver in its ongoing efforts to restore its rich cultural heritage.
We stand with Cyprus.
George Vardas is a cultural heritage activist and researcher and co-founder of the Acropolis Research Group