The recent return of a rare 16e icon of the century stolen during the dark days following the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 recalls the merciless plunder of the island’s rich cultural heritage and the continued efforts of Cypriot authorities and others to repatriate cultural and religious objects stolen.
The icon of Christ enthroned 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 comeback began in September 2014 when a Cypriot museum director came across an image of the icon in the online catalog of art auction house Schuler Auktionen in Zurich. The police were contacted and after a dossier proving the provenance of the icon was compiled and presented to the Swiss Attorney General, the auction house removed the icon from the auction and the process began to his repatriation.
The icon belonged to the Christ Antiphonitis Church, also known as the Monastery of Christos Antiphonitis (Χριστός Ἀντιφωνητής), located in the mountain village of Kalogrea above Kyrenia in Northern Cyprus. As Tasoula Hadjifoti, a well-known Cypriot cultural heritage activist and “icon hunter,” wrote, the church appears to be God Himself descended from heaven to place it there.
Built at the end of the 12th century and then modified in the 15th century, this Byzantine monastery – whose name literally means “Christ who answers” – is a domed church resting on eight round pillars in the shape of an irregular octagon and is the only surviving example of this type in Cyprus. The whole interior of the church was adorned with beautiful frescoes and mural iconography with the central part of the dome adorned with Christ Pantocrator.
It is built in the octagonal “island” style with a dome, and 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 is not spared. According to British journalist John Fielding who visited the area in May 1976, the process of erasing everything Greek was carried out methodically. Fielding wrote that the “little treasury house of the monastery of Antiphonitis” had suffered the most thorough looting and damage, with 11th, 12th and 15th century icons missing or destroyed. 19th and 20th century icons had also been smashed and furniture smashed and the whole place was littered with trash and grime.
The iconostasis decorated with woodcuts or the wall of carved icons in the 16e century was also destroyed with the looters, clearly proud of their work, chalking the date “March 6, 1975” on the destroyed iconostasis as a signature of their barbarity.
The cultural rape and sacrilege of Cyprus was profound. According to the official Greek Cypriot archives, more than 500 monasteries and chapels of Greek Orthodox churches were targeted. Several dozen murals and mosaics and 15,000–20,000 icons have been stolen and possibly over 60,000 artifacts have been looted in Northern Cyprus since the invasion.
According to Irish journalist Michael Jansen, author of ‘Cyprus: The Loss of Cultural Heritage’, the process of stripping the north of its heritage was a ‘cultural genocide’ affecting all Cypriots – Greeks, Turks, Armenians, and Maronites. – for all time.
A central figure was Turkish black market art dealer and smuggler Aydin Dikmen, who orchestrated much of the systematic looting of ecclesiastical artefacts, including priceless icons, frescoes, mosaics and woodcarvings from churches and monasteries. Dikmen, who was based in Munich, had developed close ties with Turkish Cypriot looters and smugglers during hostilities following the Turkish invasion and occupation and oversaw an operation that led to the smuggling of rare religious objects off the island, laundered and then sold on the illicit art market.
Around 30 of the most valuable frescoes were removed from the monastery walls between 1976 and 1979 under the direction of the infamous Dikmen, including the murals depicting the Tree of Jesse (a pictorial genealogy of the Virgin) and the Last Judgment. They were cut with a mechanical saw (reminiscent of the long saws used by Lord Elgin’s workmen to dismantle the Parthenon sculptures) and removed to be sold to foreign private collectors.
The icon of Christ enthroned is not the first artifact recovered from the looting, wanton vandalism and destruction of the monastery of Antiphonitis.
Sixty fragments of these murals were found in Munich and some were repatriated to Cyprus in December 1997. The rest were found in Dikmen’s possession and confiscated.
The main icon of the enthroned Madonna and Child which was sold in London to a private Greek collector was in Athens and on September 14, 1998 was repatriated to Cyprus on the initiative of Evangelos Venizelos, then Greek Minister of the culture.
In February 1999, a fresco with the head of Archangel Michael from the monastery of Antiphonitis was voluntarily returned to Cyprus by a Greek art collector after its true provenance was established.
Finally, in 2013, four icons representing the evangelists John and Mark and the apostles Peter and Paul dating from the 16th century which were forcibly removed from the church’s carved wooden iconostasis, were finally returned after being found in the collection of two Dutch collectors. Although the initial lawsuit was lost on a technicality, legislation was subsequently passed by the Dutch Parliament to facilitate the return of cultural property from occupied territory in accordance with the principles of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection cultural heritage in the event of war. .
The four icons are on display in the Byzantine Museum in Nicosia and have now been joined by the revered icon of Christ Enthroned.
This latest repatriation was made possible through the coordinated efforts of the Cypriot Department of Antiquities, Cypriot law enforcement and the Legal Service, in close cooperation with the Orthodox Church of Cyprus and the relevant Swiss authorities.
Cypriot Government Minister Yiannis Karousos added that the government’s future plans foresee the creation of a dedicated team within the Department of Antiquities to continue the search for the missing historical objects and organize their repatriation in order to protect a cultural heritage in Endangered.
The destruction of cultural heritage has had a detrimental effect on the symbolic, historical and cultural landscape of Northern Cyprus. The UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, during her mission to Cyprus in 2017, documented the devastating effects of the looting of artefacts and poignantly wrote:
“Sacred objects, icons and frescoes have been illegally removed from abandoned churches in the north and sold on the international market. Looting was widespread and systematically organized, causing great suffering to people who saw their churches, museums and archaeological sites completely looted.
The Icon’s return demonstrates that Cyprus will not waver in its continued efforts to restore its rich cultural heritage.
We stand in solidarity with Cyprus.
George Vardas is a cultural heritage activist and researcher and co-founder of the Acropolis Research Group