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Bare Ruined Choirs

Turkey’s war on the cultural heritage of Cyprus

Feb 1, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 19 • By KATHERINE EASTLAND
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Bare Ruined Choirs

When churches fall completely out of use

What shall we turn them into?

Philip Larkin, ‘Church Going’

Nicosia

Soon after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, the roof of St. Andronikos church in Kythrea caved in and fell into its sanctuary. No one came by to clear the rubble, so there’s a heap of ruins on the ground covered with tangled greenery. From where I stand, on top of that heap, I can see that the walls, once known for their frescoes, have been stripped white and are now marked with black and neon graffiti. In some places there remain a few painted figures, including ones of Saints Peter and Paul, but their faces are chiseled out and their bodies have been pockmarked by bullets. Cars roll by every so often, but the one persistent sound is the hum of bees coming from a smashed clerestory window.

I came across this church off a road near the Agios Dimitrios crossing point on the Green Line, the boundary running through the island of Cyprus and keeping it cloven in two radically disparate parts: the free, government-controlled area of Cyprus, and the upper third of the sovereign territory of the Republic that Turkey seized in 1974. Turkey has since held that part under illegal military occupation, and turned it into a rogue breakaway “state” called the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), recognized by Turkey only. 

Dilapidated churches like St. Andronikos are a common sight here. As the journalist Michael Jansen observes, the north, full of 12,000 years of history at a key crossroads in the Mediterranean, now looks like a “cultural wasteland.”

During and soon after the invasion, museums in the north and private collections were plundered, artworks were burned in pyres, stolen, or illegally exported, 21 major archaeological sites were captured—including the ancient city kingdoms of Salamis, Soli, and Engomi—along with more than a hundred places that had been inspected or were being excavated, four castles, and over 500 churches, chapels, and monasteries, most of them dating to the Byzantine period (4th-15th centuries). From the interiors were removed several major icons, mosaics, frescoes, Bibles, wood carvings, reliquaries, silver and gold vessels, and more. Sixteen thousand icons alone are reported missing.

The Church of Cyprus and the Republic of Cyprus have worked to repatriate, with some major successes, several of these works through local, foreign, and international courts. But the list of damaged items and places keeps growing. As the occupation continues, so does destruction—whether by intent or neglect, or lack of adequate funds.

While much of the damage that took place in the north cannot be visited—most of the art hangs in other countries, was destroyed, or has been secreted away—the 500 religious buildings are still standing, at least for now. They remain as solid memories of a past that is flickering out as a new, and decidedly Turkish, culture develops in the north. The rise of that culture is quickened by the heavy influx of Turkish settlers, who currently outnumber the indigenous Turkish-Cypriot population by two-to-one. This cultural shift is apparent even in the cafés, where the drink of choice is black tea in tulip-shaped glass cups, the sort you can buy in twelve-packs in Istanbul. Town names are now Turkish, and the twin red-and-white flags of Turkey and the TRNC are everywhere—from mountain slopes to the rear windows of vans. Another part of this shift is seen in the churches which, with their ravaged cemeteries, are arguably the elements of Greek Cypriot culture that have suffered the most in the occupation. Divorced from their original use as houses of Christian worship, they are now in ruins or used for other purposes.

Most of the 500 buildings belong to the island’s Greek Orthodox Church, one of the world’s earliest, founded by St. Barnabas in 46 A.D. and decreed autocephalous in 431. Others are Catholic, Maronite, Armenian Apostolic, and Anglican; a few are synagogues. Nearly all of them can be visited; but about 50 are inaccessible since they stand within the U.N.-moderated buffer zone or Turkish military camps, where they are used as barracks, hospitals, cafeterias, and warehouses.

Over a fifth of the northern churches, like roofless St. Andronikos,
have been skinned of their art and left to the elements and foraging animals. About 80 other churches still have a religious use as mosques. Some of them are modest, with creaky mihrabs and sheets thrown over what remains of the iconostasis (a gilt wall where icons once hung). Others are rich, with big-branched chandeliers of glass. In St. Paraskeve in Morphou the gilt bishop’s throne and epistyle have been reassembled into a mihrab and mimbar. Some mosques that were formerly churches have been abandoned.

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