Cyprus is home to a multitude of historical sites from the Neolithic (9th millennium-1520 B.C.), Bronze Age (2500-1050 B.C.), Archaic (750-480 B.C.), and Classical periods (480-310 B.C.). As a nation that can trace its history and culture back to the first signs of civilization in the seventh millennium BC, Cyprus has attracted the attention of both archeologists and looters for centuries. The island’s location between the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa has helped to create a heritage influenced by Greek, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian, Ottoman, and British cultures. It is a nation full of rich cultural and historical value which has been severely damaged over the centuries by illegal excavations and vandalism.

It is vital that we work together to protect Cyprus’ cultural heritage. Here’s why…

Cypriot urns recovered from smuggling ring

Urns recovered from antiquities smuggling ring

In 1974, Cyprus was invaded by Turkey, which resulted in a division that continues to persist. The northern region of the island is currently occupied by Turkish Cypriots while the southern is home to Greek Cypriots. The divide has led to a myriad of problems concerning Cyprus’ cultural heritage. The invasion itself led to deliberate destruction, looting, and pillaging of Cyprus’ ancient monuments and antiquities. Museums on occupied Cyprus have been plundered, and many churches have been converted into stables, mosques, and military bases. The Turkish citizens have ignored internationally binding treaties to protect Cyprus’ cultural heritage. Instead, they continue to carry out illegal excavations and sales of Cypriot artifacts. Illegally excavated items from Cyprus have been found all over the world, in catalogues, and on sale at prestigious auction houses.

Read here for more information on Cyprus’ cultural heritage in the occupied areas.

Cyprus has had several successes in its ongoing efforts to protect its heritage. The Cyprus Department of Antiquities was established in 1935 for the purpose of protecting and preserving the island’s vast archeological heritage. It works to promote the island’s tourism-a major economical asset of the nation, maintain the museums, and conduct archeological surveys and excavations.

The Department of Antiquities, in cooperation with the Cyprus police force, the Church of Cyprus, and several art and antiquities collectors, is dedicated to informing INTERPOL, other police forces around the world, and the international art market about stolen or looted items. This ambition and persistence has led to the recovery of many items stolen from occupied Cyprus.

More recently, the Department of Antiquities has taken important steps to protect Cyprus’ underwater cultural heritage. The Department’s primary goals are to form an Underwater Antiquities’ Ephorate, to establish permanent laboratories for the conservation of underwater antiquities, and to create permanent exhibition centers for these artifacts.

Cyprus was the first country in the Mediterranean region to seek the help of the United States in protecting its cultural property. On July 16, 2002, the governments of the U.S. and the Republic of Cyprus entered into a bilateral agreement, or Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), to impose import restrictions on categories of Pre-Classical and Classical archeological objects from Cyprus. On August 17, 2006, the MOU was amended to include the Byzantine ecclesiastical and ritual ethnological material that had been protected by an emergency import restriction in 1999. On July 16, 2007, the amended MOU was extended for a term of five years. This MOU was again extended for a term of five years in 2012. At the same time, the historical time frame of the agreement was extended to include the ecclesiastical and ritual ethnological material of the Post-Byzantine period, c. 1500-1850 A.D. To learn more about the CPAC Public Hearing on January 18, 2012, click here.

In 2007, Cyprus fought to protect its coins. For the 2007 extension of the MOU between the U.S. and Cyprus, the question of whether coins should be included in the new agreement arose, and the Committee sought public comment on the issue. The proposal was to include in the new bilateral agreement coins found in Cyprus that are more than 250 years old.

Because Cyprus considers coins to have considerable archeological significance when found in context and be vulnerable to pillage and illegal export, they asked that coins be included in the MOU.

The reasons for the inclusion of coins are numerous. Coins found in excavations are not merely loose change. They are important archeological documents that can tell the archeologists much about the dating and context of a site. For example, if a coin is found under a sealed floor, archeologists can securely date the floor to a time after the date of the coin. Sometimes hoards of coins are found, and are sometimes sealed in jugs — how? when? why? — important questions to which the archeologists may offer an answer, but ONLY if found in situ. 

An excellent example of the importance of coins in our understanding of the past is the case of the Elmali Hoard, looted in Turkey during the 1980′s and restituted to the Republic of Turkey in 1999. The Elmali Hoard contained more than 1,600 coins, including at least 14 Athenian decadrahms, which are among the rarest of ancient coins. But that is where the story ends — because this precious historical evidence was ripped out of its context.

SAFE launched a campaign urging everyone to send letters to CPAC supporting the inclusion of coins. Thankfully, when the bilateral agreement was extended on July 16, 2007, coins were included in the import restrictions.

Kourion, Colonnade of the Sanctuary of Apollo