Cyprus and Azerbaijan: Culture on the frontline of conflict

Boy George is in the news again. Not for anything bad or scandalous this time but because he has just returned an 18th Century Greek Orthodox icon looted from the church of Saint Charalambos in Chorio-Kythrea village in the North of Cyprus. The icon of Jesus was stolen from the church after Cyprus was invaded by Turkish troops in 1974. It disappeared for eleven years before the former pop-star purchased it from a gallery in the Kings Road, London in 1985. It hung on the wall of his London apartment until it was spotted by a Cypriot priest watching a Dutch television interview with the singer in his home.

The former Culture Club star was approached and agreed to hand over the icon to Bishop Porfyrios of Neapolis at St Anagyre Orthodox church in north London recently, in a goodwill gesture. The Bishop expressed his “joy and gratitude” at the return of the treasure.

In Cyprus, the head of the Orthodox church Archbishop Chrysostomos II told reporters in Nicosia that “it can be said that he was in illegal possession of the icon but he wasn’t somebody looking to sell it. The moment he learned the icon was stolen he did a good deed and returned it to the Cyprus Church where it belongs. We thank him for this and if he ever comes to Cyprus definitely we will welcome him with hospitality.”

Vandalised graveyard of St. Aigalousa church in Northern Cyprus

In 1974, 35% of Cyprus’ territory was occupied by Turkish forces and as a result, hundreds of thousands of Greek Cypriots became internal exiles, leaving behind their homes and possessions. Churches in the North of the island containing Byzantine icons, frescoes and mosaics were stripped and the antiquities sold on the black market.

One of the many churches stripped bare in Northern Cyprus

In the occupied areas of Cyprus there are 514 churches, chapels and monasteries, many of which were subsequently converted into mosques, museums, storage sheds or pulled down.

Empty Mosque in Nagorno Karabakh allowed to fall into decay. Image taken in 2009

The situation in Cyprus is paralleled in Azerbaijan where between 1988 and 1994, an internal conflict between ethic Armenians living in the South West region of Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan national forces resulting in the eventual partition of the country and a large-scale exchange of populations. Twenty-percent of the country is now occupied by Armenia and as many as 230,000 Armenians from Azerbaijan and 800,000 Azeris from Armenia and Karabakh were displaced as a result of the conflict.

The town of Aghdam, abandoned since the conflict

Captured Azerbaijani soldiers returning from the conflict, reported that they were forced to undertake acts of vandalism by destroying old muslim grave markers and other ancient monuments. They reported acts of vandalism committed by Armenians in the occupied region of Daghlig Garabagh included the looting and burning of Azeri homes and the destruction of many Muslim historical monuments.

According to a speech given by Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev in 2009, all the historical monuments, museums, mosques in the occupied territories have subsequently  been destroyed by Armenians. He is reported to have made this statement at the opening ceremony of Culture Year “Baku – the Capital of Islamic Culture – 2009”.

Aeschylus, Greek tragic dramatist (525 BC – 456 BC) said that Truth is the first casualty of war. If that is so, then culture must be the second.  

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About stevehollier

Steve Hollier is the editor of AZ Magazine, an English language lifestyle magazine based in Baku, Azerbaijan. He began his career working for a firm of stockbrokers in the City of London then went on to attend the University of Essex where he was awarded an MA in Sociology in 1984. After a career in arts and cultural development work, he became a freelance arts consultant, writer and photographer.
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3 Responses to Cyprus and Azerbaijan: Culture on the frontline of conflict

  1. Julia Hawkes-Moore says:

    How moving. Thanks, Steve, I knew nothing about all this.

  2. magsx2 says:

    Hi Steve,
    What an amazing story, you really don’t know what you are buying sometimes, there are a lot of stories about people buying things at Garage Sales etc; that turn out to be something of importance, or something valuable.

    It’s terrible when a place is looted like that, the items that get taken especially with places of history can never be replaced, items in most cases that should be in a museum for everyone to admire and learn about the history of where the item come from.

  3. stevehollier says:

    Yes, you are right Mags. When it comes to artworks, context is very important. Take an object away from where it belongs and it become just “stuff”. I imagine Boy George just wanted something pretty on his wall. Although I am not religious, I think icons should stay in the churches they were designed for or a museum at least…

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