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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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Incomplete reports had been made before Chotzakoglou’s, such as those by foreign journalists visiting the area, and by Turkish-Cypriot journalists such as Mehmet Yasin, who wrote some of the most eloquent testimonies. But the first report, UNESCO’s in 1975, was shelved because UNESCO feared it was too damning! (It has only recently become available, and on a strictly limited basis.) The man who submitted this report—Jacques Dalibard of Canada, who was specially appointed by UNESCO to assess the state of cultural heritage after the 1974 war—was not even allowed access to some of the most damaged churches. Still, he wrote that the whole island of Cyprus should be “regarded as one huge monument,” and that a team of specialists be dispatched solely to protect the remnants of Greek heritage in the north. 

His suggestions were not followed.

Chotzakoglou’s findings were published in a book in 2008 (Religious Monuments in Turkish-Occupied Cyprus: Evidence and Acts of Continuous Destruction; Lefkosia) and will soon be available in an online public database. He has also been tending to a similar project with Greek and Turkish Cypriots on all religious monuments on the island (Muslim and Christian), It is a valuable site, but needs to be updated: Some of the recent destruction, such as the bulldozing of St. Catherine Church in Gerani in the summer of 2008, and its cannibalizing for buildings in the nearby village of Trikomo, has not been noted.

Incidentally, the razing of St. Catherine is not an isolated case: In the past five years 15 churches have been leveled. That such destruction still occurs is especially disappointing because, since 2007, there has been a special government-appointed technical committee of Greek and Turkish Cypriots dedicated to the maintenance and restoration of heritage on both sides of the island. (To be sure, these committees are destined to do only some good as long as Cyprus remains divided: Their success depends on the good faith of both sides to honor promises to restore the other side’s damaged buildings.)

Destruction did occur to Muslim monuments south of the Green Line, mostly in the years leading up to the war, when both communities were fighting and the Turkish Cypriots, in the minority, bore the brunt of the
violence. But the Church and the republic have worked to restore those buildings—no doubt hoping for a gesture of goodwill in return—and since 1989 the government has spent over $600,000 in the effort. So far, 17 historic mosques damaged and looted by Greek Cypriots have been restored. In 2000 the project to restore and protect all Muslim sites in the south began; the Department of Antiquities has recorded all their names and will guard them until they are renovated. This project should be completed sometime this year.

In a recent meeting proposed by the EU, the archbishop met with the mufti of northern Cyprus and said that he would welcome him as his guest in the south to inspect the Muslim sites. If the mufti did not find a site well preserved, he said, then “we as the Church of Cyprus would be willing to take full financial responsibility to restore it.” In exchange, he told the mufti that he wanted him to “facilitate our crossing to the Turkish-occupied area in order to begin restoring our churches with our money. And we will bear any and all costs.”

The mufti declined the offer, and suggested that one church in the north be restored for every mosque restored in the south. Deeming the mufti’s proposal a “worthless gift”—there are far fewer mosques in the south than churches in the north, and it would take, at best, 500 years to renovate the north’s 500 churches and “in 500 years there will be nothing for us to restore”—Chrysostomos rejected the counteroffer. 

The north’s “real policy,” he believes, “is to procrastinate so the monuments themselves might be destroyed in time.”


On the morning before I visited some of the northern churches, I walked through the Archbishop’s Palace museum and looked at the art on view. In one room, I stopped by seven small wooden boxes, each with a glass top and containing a head of a saint, archangel, or Christ rendered in tesserae. The heads rested on white tissue paper that ran around their heads like second halos or bandages.

The master smuggler Aydin Dikmen had raggedly cut these exceptional late fifth/early sixth-century works—some of the few to have survived the rampant iconoclasm of the eighth century—from the walls of the Church of Panagía Kanakariá at Lythrankomí. Efforts at restoration and rocky international flights had weakened them further, causing them to crack. At one point, Dikmen tried to repair the loose tesserae—some with sockets of silver imported from Bethlehem—with Elmer’s glue. While they once reminded a visitor of heaven and immaterial gain, they are now symbols of earth and material loss. Which is painful precisely because, as Chrysostomos says, “these are not just art objects for us.”

The case for the restoration of these churches, and the art within them, is compelling—and the loss to art history and to Cypriot culture is immense and immeasurable. Until the island is one again—which could happen in four months or four decades—its two sides will continue to diverge, becoming more lopsided, with a Turkish culture taking root in the north amid the continuing collapse of its Hellenic heritage.

Whatever happens to Cyprus, there remains an eloquent, otherworldly hope, as expressed by Paul in a letter to the Christians at Corinth at about the same time the Church of Cyprus was founded by his coworker Barna-bas: “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” Paul’s thought is especially poignant when you’re standing inside a church in early ruin, or looking at a torn mosaic—things that were made, at one time, as if to last.



Katherine Eastland is an assistant editor at The Weekly Standard.



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