The recent return of a rare 16th The 19th century figurine, stolen in the dark days after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, commemorates the merciless looting of the island’s rich cultural heritage and the ongoing efforts by Cypriot authorities and others to bring back stolen cultural and religious artefacts.
The icon of Christ Enthroned was presented to Archbishop Chrysostom at a recent ceremony in Nicosia 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 a picture of the icon in the online catalog of the art auction house Schuler Auctions in Zurich. The police were contacted and after a dossier proving the icon’s provenance was compiled and submitted to the Swiss Attorney General’s Office, the auction house removed the icon from the auction and the process for its repatriation began.
The icon was found to belong to the Church of Christ Antiphonitis, also known as the Monastery of Christos Antiphonitis (Χριστός Ἀντιφωνητής), located in the mountain village of Kalogrea above Kyrenia in northern Cyprus. As noted Cypriot heritage activist and “icon hunter” Tasoula Hadjifoti wrote, the church looks as if God Himself reached down from heaven to place it there.
Built in the late 12th century and later remodeled in the 15th century – whose name literally means ‘Christ who answers’ – this Byzantine monastery is a domed church resting on eight round columns in the shape of an irregular octagon, and is the only one surviving Example of this type in Cyprus. The entire interior of the church was decorated with fine frescoes and wall iconography, with the central part of the dome being adorned with Christ Pantocrator.
Built in an island octagonal style with a dome, it is the only one of its kind that has survived in good condition in Cyprus
But this Byzantine calm was shattered by the Turkish invasion in July 1974. The Antiphonitis Monastery was not spared in the turmoil of war, occupation and looting. According to British journalist John Fielding, who visited the area in May 1976, the process of wiping out all Greek was carried out methodically. Fielding wrote that the “little treasury of Antiphonitis Monastery” had suffered the most extensive looting and damage, as icons from the 11th, 12th and 15th centuries had disappeared or been destroyed. Icons from the 19th and 20th centuries had also been smashed and furniture broken, and the whole place was littered with rubbish and dirt.
The ornate 16th-century woodcut iconostasis or iconostasisth Century was also destroyed by the looters, who were clearly proud of their work and dated ‘6. March 1975” on the destroyed iconostasis as a sign of 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 attacked. Since the invasion, several dozen murals and mosaics and 15,000 to 20,000 icons have been stolen, and more than 60,000 artefacts may have been looted from Northern Cyprus.
In the words of Irish journalist Michael Jansen, author of the book Cyprus: The loss of a culture heritage, the process of denuding heritage in the north was a “cultural genocide” killing all Cypriots – Greeks, Turks, Armenians, and Maronite – forever.
A central figure was Turkish black-market art dealer and smuggler Aydin Dikmen, who directed much of the systematic looting of ecclesiastical artifacts, including priceless icons, frescoes, mosaics and wood carvings from churches and monasteries. Dikmen, who was based in Munich, had developed strong links with Turkish Cypriot looters and smugglers during the hostilities that followed the Turkish invasion and occupation, and oversaw an operation that resulted in rare religious artefacts being smuggled off the island, laundered and then resold were The illegal art market.
About thirty of the most valuable frescoes were removed from the walls of the monastery between 1976 and 1979 on the orders of the nefarious Dikmen, including the murals depicting the Tree of Jesse (a pictorial genealogy of the Virgin) and the Last Judgment. They were cut off with a power saw (reminiscent of the long saws used by Lord Elgin’s workers in dismantling sculptures from the Parthenon) and removed to be sold to private collectors overseas.
The icon of Christ Enthroned is not the first artifact to be recovered after the looting, wanton vandalism and destruction of Antiphonitis Monastery.
Sixty fragments of these murals were found in Munich and some were repatriated to Cyprus in December 1997. The rest were found and confiscated in Dikmen’s possession.
The main icon of the enthroned Virgin and Child, which was sold in London to a Greek private collector, was in Athens and was returned to Cyprus on September 14, 1998 on the initiative of the then Greek Minister of Culture, Evangelos Venizelos.
In February 1999, a fresco depicting the head of Archangel Michael from the Monastery of Antiphonitis was voluntarily returned to Cyprus by a Greek art collector after its true provenance had been established.
Finally, in 2013, four 16th-century icons of the Evangelists John and Mark and the Apostles Peter and Paul that had been forcibly removed from the church’s wood-carved iconostasis were finally returned after being found in the collection of two Dutch collectors. Although the original court case was lost on purely formal grounds, the Dutch Parliament subsequently passed legislation facilitating the return of cultural property from occupied territories, in line with the principles of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Heritage in Case of War.
The four icons are on display in the Byzantine Museum of Nicosia and have now been joined by the venerated icon of Christ Enthroned.
This latest repatriation has been made possible through the coordinated efforts of the Cyprus Ministry of Antiquities, the Cypriot Law Enforcement Agencies and the Legal Service, in close cooperation with the Cyprus Orthodox Church and the relevant Swiss authorities.
Cyprus Government Minister Yiannis Karousos added that future government plans include setting up a dedicated team within the Ministry of Antiquities to continue the search for missing historical artifacts and arrange for their repatriation in order to protect a vanishing cultural heritage.
The destruction of cultural heritage has had a detrimental effect on the symbolic, historical and cultural landscape in North Cyprus. Reported on the devastating effects of the looting of artifacts during her 2017 mission to Cyprus, the UN Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights poignantly wrote:
“Sacred objects, icons and frescoes were illegally removed from abandoned northern churches and sold on the international market. Looting is widespread and organized in a systematic way, causing a lot of suffering to the people who see their churches, museums and archaeological sites completely looted.”
The return of the icon shows that Cyprus will not let up in its ongoing efforts to restore its rich cultural heritage.
We stand by Cyprus.
George Vardas is a heritage activist and researcher and co-founder of the Acropolis Research Group