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Destruction of cultural heritage in occupied Cyprus
December, 23 2008

The archaeological heritage of Cyprus suffered considerably from the activities of looters during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when treasure hunters of all kinds, notably Alessandro Palma di Cesnola, hiding behind the mask of ‘archaeological research’, deprived Cyprus of some of her most outstanding archaeological treasures. There has been a tradition of tomb looting in Cyprus for over 3000 years, but never was it systematic before Cesnola. Scholarly archaeological research began during the first quarter of the twentieth century, and since then a wealth of information and archaeological treasures, covering a period of some nine thousand years, from the ninth millennium BC down to the end of antiquity, has been gathered.

The archaeological discoveries and the publicity that followed the research undertaken by the Swedish Cyprus Expedition between 1927 and 1931 increased the interest of rich people in antiquities. Towards the end of the nineteenth century only one Cypriot family owned a private collection, but by 1935, the year of the establishment of the Department of Antiquities, a law had to be enacted stating that each collector had to provide the Director of the Department with a list describing the antiquities in his or her possession. The Department of Antiquities was established as a direct result of the new Antiquities Law of 1935. According to that law all responsibility for the protection of the island’s archaeological heritage was entrusted to this Department (Karageorghis 1986; Hadjisavvas 1995).

During World War II an increase in tomb looting was observed all over the island, and was attributed to the bad economic conditions prevailing at the time. Most of the illegally acquired antiquities were exported by high-ranking officers and diplomats to the United Kingdom. With the declaration of independence in 1960 the people of Cyprus were, for the first time, responsible for the protection of their cultural heritage. Interest in collecting antiquities also greatly increased among Cypriots, due mainly to a pride in the glorious past of their country, now coming to light as a result of the intensification of archaeological excavations.

Between 1960 and 1964, the time of the intercommunal troubles that led to the creation of a number of Turkish enclaves throughout the island, systematic looting was not recorded. Some of these enclaves were outside the legal control of the Republic of Cyprus, and situated in regions very rich in archaeological finds, namely the districts of Paphos, Limassol, Famagusta and Kyrenia. Entire ancient cemeteries and sanctuaries were destroyed in the Famagusta district (Hadjisavvas 1991). Masterpieces of Chalcolithic art from Paphos enriched local collections and world famous museums. From 1964 to 1973 the smuggling of antiquities was so intense that there was even close collaboration between Turkish looters and Greek mediators and collectors.

The Department of Antiquities, in order to control this illegal trade, amended the Antiquities Law in 1973 and allowed for a period of six months in which all antiquities in private possession were to be declared. But during these six months, between June and December 1973, the systematic looting and illegal trade intensified. Private collectors, greedy to acquire more and more antiquities within the allocated period, were not only buying from looters but - in at least one case of a well-known collector in the Famagusta District - were contracting groups of looters in order to obtain rare antiquities of a specified date. In consequence, numerous unique tombs were plundered and important evidence of a relatively unknown period of Cypriot history has been forever lost.

As a result of the 1973 amendment to the Antiquities Law, more than 1250 new private collections were added to the insignificant number created prior to independence. Needless to say, all antiquities acquired were illegal in the sense that they all came from illicit excavations. The most serious disaster, however, to afflict the archaeological heritage of Cyprus was the Turkish invasion of 1974 and the occupation of the northern part of the island.

A well-known case of looting and illegal trade of antiquities is that of the mosaics of Kanakaria, which were removed from the Byzantine church that they once adorned. Following a decision of an Indianapolis court (Papageorgiou 1999a), the mosaics were returned to Cyprus on 30 August 1991 and are now exhibited in the Museum of Byzantine Art in Nicosia, far away from their place of origin, which remains under foreign occupation. The same is true of the wall-paintings of Agios Themonianos close to the village of Lysi, now exhibited in a church built for the purpose of their custody in Houston, Texas (Kyriazidis 1999). Another case is the Monastery of Christ Antiphonitis, originally constructed during the Byzantine period and modified during the fifteenth century AD. Icons from the church have now disappeared and the iconostasis is destroyed. Wall-paintings representing the 'Tree of Jesse' and the 'Last Judgement', well preserved until 1974, have also been removed (Papageorgiou 1999b). In the same context, hundreds of icons have been removed from their original position on the iconostasis of churches in the occupied part of Cyprus.

This systematic and to some extent 'official' looting, with the 'blessing' of the occupation army, is perfectly demonstrated by the archives kept by the Turk Aydin Dikmen. Dikmen was arrested in Munich by German police, acting on information received from the Cyprus Police and from his collaborators. In Dikmen’s apartments, stolen church treasures and other antiquities from the occupied part of Cyprus were found, including more than thirty late fifteenth-century AD wall-painting fragments from the church of Christ Antiphonitis and a sixth-century AD mosaic representing Saint Thomas - one of the missing, at the time, fragments from the apse of the Kanakaria church. The accuracy of Dikmen’s records is surprising: drawings and photographs made before, during and after the removal of the mosaics and the frescoes, and copies of the mosaics to fool collectors buying on the illegal market. Fake certificates issued only for fakes and not for the originals offer ample evidence for a well-organized international crime.

There are no regional or national data available to show what percentage of archaeological sites have been looted. It is estimated by the Cyprus Police that since the Turkish invasion of 1974 more that 60,000 ancient artefacts have been illegally transferred to different countries of the world. To this number one should add approximately 16,000 icons and mosaics stolen from at least 500 churches in the occupied area. Only a few cases, however, are reported in the Turkish Cypriot Press (Bozkurt 1982; Birlik 1984). Some cases have also been reported in the international press (Guardian 1977).

The large number of Cypriot antiquities appearing in auction houses should also be mentioned. In one case an auction house in London offered stolen antiquities from a registered private collection of Famagusta; the most recent case, however, was the large number of Cypriot antiquities sold by two London dealers in April 1999. The information provided in the one catalogue was as follows: 'The following 95 lots (1-95) are from a private collection formed mainly in the early 1970’s but continued to be added to into the mid 1980s ... Many of these pieces originated from the Lawrence and Cesnola Collections, names synonymous with Cypriot archaeology and collecting'. The end statement, whether valid or not, is an attempt to legitimize the obviously illegal provenance of the antiquities as Peter Watson stated in the Sunday Times a few days before the April auction (Watson 1999).

Christie’s, in their catalogue for the 21 April 1999 auction, give no information about the provenance of the large number of important Cypriot antiquities. Under the title 'The property of a European Gentleman', these were described as a private collection of Cypriot antiquities, inherited legally by the present owner (Christie’s 1999a, 135-58). In October 1999, the same auction house under the same title 'The Property of a European Gentleman’ etc. advertised the auction of more than 350 Cypriot antiquities (Christie’s 1999b, 138-58).

Like so many other collections of this type these objects were originally acquired through illegal means. It is evident that all the pottery is from tomb groups, some from the Karpasia region, now under Turkish occupation, which produced a unique pottery type during the Middle Bronze Age. Any efforts on behalf of the auctioneers to regularize the provenance of these antiquities are without substance.

Yet the Cypriot antiquities appearing in the catalogues of eminent auctioneers represent only the tip of the iceberg of the illegal trade. Thousands of antiquities illegally excavated in the occupied part of Cyprus have found their way to foreign markets (Kibris 1999a,b). The channels through which the works of art are sent to the West remain basically the same. Frankfurt has become the main destination for 'hot merchandise', from there it reaches antiquities lovers with purchasing power in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxemburg, Spain, Switzerland, Great Britain, the United States and Canada. Only a few people - usually Cypriots living abroad - inform the Cyprus Department of Antiquities of unlawful sales. In one such case a well-known Cypriot collector residing in Europe turned down an offer of about a thousand ancient ceramic vessels for the price of only a few thousand pounds.

Two other Cypriots, one in Cambridgeshire (United Kingdom) and the other in the United States, have formed respectively two of the largest collections of Cypriot antiquities outside Cyprus. They both declare that they acquire these antiquities in order to save them, although they know that they are the product of illicit activities in the occupied part of Cyprus.

In the free area of Cyprus where the Antiquities Law is implemented, looting is sporadic and there are only three cases where the same cemeteries are in constant danger. Two are in the Paphos District and one is in Limassol. Measures have recently been taken but the collection of information to file a lawsuit is extremely difficult owing to the fact that there is a strong solidarity among the villagers, dating back to the time of the liberation struggle.

Although it is very difficult to estimate the extent of the knowledge lost, it is possible to attempt an estimate using as evidence sporadic finds that have come to the attention of the Department of Antiquities.

For instance, impressive finds from the Chalcolithic cemetery in the enclave of Souskiou village are evidence of important burial customs and tomb architecture which have now been lost. Another case is the looting of Hellenistic chamber tombs in the village area of Pegia which uncovered what are, in Cyprus, unique sarcophagi. However, no finds associated with the sarcophagi are reported anywhere and this impedes the accurate dating of the sarcophagi and tombs. No association between an inventory once reported to have come from a tomb and the tomb itself can be established.

Another group of questions is related to the economic structure of the illicit trade. Naturally the final goal of any illegal activity is profit. It is not certain how much a particular stele or a pot could fetch as this depends on the basic rule of free market economy: supply and demand. However, the money made by locals from their discoveries is a very small portion of the final price made in an auction house. This is explained by, among other factors, the risks of exportation and the percentage taken by mediators. Some very recent cases show that there is a relation between illicit trade in antiquities and drugs in the sense that the same people, mostly mediators, are dealing with both.

There is also an overlap between looting and faking, not only in the sense that in some cases the smugglers replace stolen icons with copies in order to gain time, but also because some collectors include in their collection fakes in order to sell them on to other collectors as authentic. Some of the items found in the possession of Aydin Dikmen in Munich originally came from a private collection in Cyprus. The original collector sold some of these antiquities to another collector in Holland, providing certificates of authenticity based on thermoluminescence dates. It is well known, however, that a recently produced object containing crushed archaeological ceramic material, originally belonging for example to the Bronze Age, will give a false early date if tested. Some of these apparently fake objects, now in Munich, are accompanied by certificates, whereas authentic material is not.

Concerning trade routes out of the country, it is thought that most of the illicit trade from the occupied part of Cyprus passes through Turkey to Western Europe and America. This is illustrated by the Kanakaria mosaics case in 1989, the Aydin Dikmen case in Munich in 1997 and the most recent trial in Holland, February 1999 (Bozkurt 1982; Guardian 1997; Georgiou-Hadjitofi 1999). There is some information concerning illicit trade in the free areas of Cyprus via marinas but this is not confirmed. The Cyprus authorities do not monitor visits by members of the legal trade from abroad unless they are in receipt of information about smuggling.

The Antiquities Law in Cyprus prohibits the undertaking of any kind of archaeological excavation without a permit from the Director of Antiquities. Recent excavations by the University of Ankara at the occupied site of Salamis constitute an illegal act, and have raised a massive protest (Fileleftheros 1999). They contravene the provisions of the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural property in the Event of Armed Conflict, signed by Turkey, and are also in violation of the 1956 UNESCO Recommendation on International Principles Applicable to Archaeological Excavations (General Conference in New Delhi). The University of Ankara expedition is digging an area for which the French Expedition of the University of Lyon had an excavation permit. The export of antiquities from Cyprus was allowed up to 1996 with the provision that a written licence had to be issued by the Director of Antiquities. The Law was amended in 1996, however, and since then the export of antiquities from the island has been prohibited. Only temporary permits are issued for exhibitions abroad or for scientific analyses.

In April 1999 a bilateral agreement regarding the trade of antiquities was signed between the United States and the Republic of Cyprus. Under this agreement any import into the United States of Byzantine antiquities from Cyprus without a permit issued by the Government of Cyprus is prohibited. The agreement was signed within the framework of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

The Cyprus Police has established a specialized team dealing with stolen works of art. Members of the team participate in relevant seminars and conferences and support those efforts of the Department of Antiquities which are directed towards eradicating tomb looting. Campaigns of public awareness concerning cultural heritage are undertaken both by the Department of Antiquities and the Ministry of Education and Culture. The people of Cyprus, or at least a great proportion of the people, feel very proud of their rich cultural heritage. The public is very sensitive regarding any artefacts belonging to the past, especially those with a religious significance, and has strong feelings about these objects being either destroyed or illegally exported.


Birlik, 1984. Antiquities have been confiscated worth millions of lira. 11 May.

Bonhams, 1999. Antiquities: Thursday 22 April 1999. London: W. & F.C. Bonham.

Bozkurt, 1982. Cyprus Art Association continues its effective efforts: campaign started for the preservation of antiquities. 4 July.

Christie’s, 1999a. Important Antiquities: Wednesday 21 April 1999. London: Christie’s Fine Art.

Christie’s, 1999b. Important Antiquities: Wednesday 20 October 1999. London: Christie’s Fine Art.

Committee for the Protection of the Cultural Heritage of Cyprus (ed.), 1999. Cyprus: a Civilization Plundered. Nicosia: The Hellenic Parliament.

Fileleftheros, 1999. Smugglers looting ancient Salamis. 17 October.

Georgiou-Hadjitofi, T.L., 1999. Cyprus: the long return home, in Committee for the Protection of the Cultural Heritage of Cyprus (ed.), 222-35.

Guardian, 1977. Stolen pottery returned. 28 February.

Hadjisavvas, S., 1991. Katavoles. Nicosia, 62, 101.

Hadjisavvas, S., 1995. Cyprus Department of Antiquities. Report of the Department of Antiquities Cyprus, 1-9.

Karageorghis, V., 1986. Archaeology in Cyprus 1960-1985. Athens: A.G. Leventis.

Kibris, 1999a. Antiquities found in Gypsou. 21 April.

Kibris, 1999b. Antiquities found in Aghios Sergios. 27 April.

Kyriazidis, E., 1999. The Church of Saint Themonianos at Lysi, in Committee for the Protection of the Cultural Heritage of Cyprus (ed.), 168-79.

Papageorgiou, A., 1999a. The Church of the Virgin Kanakaria at Lythrangomi, in Committee for the Protection of the Cultural Heritage of Cyprus (ed.), 154-67.

Papageorgiou, A., 1999b. The Church of Christ Antiphonetes in the Village of Kalograia, Kyrenia, in Committee for the Protection of the Cultural Heritage of Cyprus (ed.), 180-213.

Watson, P., 1999. Many antiquities in auctions are looted. Sunday Times, 18 May.


Source: The Department of Antiquities

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