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History lost July 19, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Arts Exhibitions Cyprus, Cyprus Nicosia.

The looting of ancient sites is the biggest threat faced today by archaeology. It is also the subject of a travelling exhibition at the Cyprus Museum in Nicosia.

‘You have been robbed,’ reads a large banner outside The Cyprus Museum in Nicosia.

Why? I have to ask, slightly bewildered. The answer is rather dire, throughout the country, over 100 archaeological sights have been looted. The destruction of Cyprus’ cultural heritage begun in the 19th century and intensified after the Turkish invasion as the antiquities trade spiralled out of control in the occupied part of the island.

It is estimated that 15,000-20,000 Byzantine icons, mosaics and wall paintings in total have been stolen. “In the northern occupied parts of Cyprus there is a particular problem as illegal trade prospers and more and more archaeological sights are continually being damaged to this day,” said Andreas Apostolides, Greek director and writer on the illicit trade of antiquities around the world. “Thousands of icons from churches in northern occupied Cyprus have been sent all around the world, with Munich standing as the main illegal centre where there are connections with the Turkish mafia”.

This is not just a problem for Cyprus however, as the looting of ancient sites for commercial gain has become the most serious threat to the world’s cultural heritage as a whole. In fact, the majority of antiquities that appear for sale on the art market have been illegally dug and smuggled out of the country of origin. As the admiration of ancient civilization grows in the west, the theft and destruction of archaeological sites around the world intensifies. The steadily increasing number of museums in the US and the rising demand for antiquities by private collectors in Europe, North America, Japan and Australia have exhausted the supply of legal antiquities.

As trade relies mainly on trafficking, theft and pillage, we will never know why certain items were created, and what they have to say about our past. Taken out of context, they have completely lost their historical value. “The main problem is the complete loss of knowledge. If a specific site is looted, you cannot trace the exact context and background which surrounds them,” said Apostolides.

In general, the international trafficking of antiquities flourishes in countries where political instability or war prevails. The illicit excavation and theft of antiquities has been especially severe in Lebanon, Somalia, Cambodia, Afghanistan and Iraq. “Every country that is rich in archaeological sights faces the problem of looting, but political instability simply makes the problem far worse as it has done in Cyprus,” Apostolides explained.

The escalating plunder of the world’s archaeological heritage has not gone unnoticed by the international community. In 1972 UNESCO adopted a convention for prohibiting and preventing the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property. Today, 109 countries, including the US and the UK, have signed the convention. After the UNESCO Convention however, museums, collectors and dealers still trading in antiquities of unknown provenance began to use forged documents to cover their actions. As it was becoming increasingly difficult for Western museums to buy antiquities, new large museums were formed containing previously unseen antiquities of unknown provenance. These collections in turn, were exhibited, borrowed, or bought by important museums in the West.

‘History Lost’, the current exhibition at The Cyprus Museum, transports the visitor from the looting of the Baghdad archaeological museum and the destruction of statues in Cambodia, to the illegal sale of Cypriot and Greek antiquities in US auction houses.
A visit to the museum also provides a historical overview of the birth and evolution of the antiquities trade from the 18th century and the creation of the first large antiquity collections of the Louvre, the British Museum and of European aristocrats with a passion for classical antiquity.

Extracts of documentaries on the trade of antiquities from all over the world are screened continuously throughout the day. Two interactive games and a touch screen with a world map can also be used. Photos accompanied by small texts provide an insight into the history of Cyprus and of other countries across the globe. “The problem of extensive looting is so far not very well known among the general public,” said Apostolides. “It’s an awkward problem that many governments don’t acknowledge and is often hidden from public knowledge. This exhibition should fill you in on things you may have never realised”.

History Lost
A multi-media travelling exhibition about the illicit trade of antiquities in Greece, Cyprus and the world. Until August 25. The Cyprus Museum, Nicosia.
Monday-Saturday 9am-5pm. Sundays: 10am-1pm. Tel: 22-865801

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