NEW YORK—A nation’s cultural cleansing is a destruction of its history, a “rape of its culture,” stated Tasoula Hadjitofi, to an overflow crowd at the Zohrab Information Center of the Armenian Diocese, in New York.
The Greek Cypriot refugee, who was born in Famagusta, Cyprus, now under more than four decades of military occupation by Turkish forces, related her spine-tingling story of orchestrating one of the most riveting European art trafficking stings since World War II, She has meticulously detailed her engrossing 40-year detective work in her newly released book, The Icon Hunter.
The art sleuth was introduced on Feb. 2, by Zohrab Center Executive Director, the Very Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan, who called her book “a memoir of entry into the international art trafficking of icon antiquities from the monuments and monasteries of Cyprus, belonging especially to the Orthodox Christians.” These precious relics, many of which were disfigured and partially destroyed, have now been restored and returned to Cyprus, including a priceless 14th century Armenian manuscript gospel.
The author, who has spent the last 40 years in this detective work, used a power point presentation demonstration to illustrate what she called the “most beautiful island in the Mediterranean—Cyprus.” She emotionally related how she at the age of 14, and her family were forced to flee in 1974 when Turkey invaded and occupied 40 percent of the island, including her “beloved” home city of Famagusta.
“I woke up to the sound of planes roaring, and bombs exploding,” she related. “Many of my classmates were raped and killed. During the invasion, my mother was kneeling and praying for three days. I saw war through the eyes of a child. Where was the United Nations? Where were the British and the Greeks who had once occupied the island? Where were the American cowboys?”
She went to England, working to pay for her studies, and eventually became a successful entrepreneur, and started a family. Her life’s work of becoming the “art Sherlock” was just beginning. During the Turkish occupation of Cyprus, hundreds of churches were desecrated and destroyed, and thousands of religious icons were stolen, sold or destroyed. Greek place names were changed.
Greed, Power, Money Dominate
“In every war, there is the pillaging of history of a country or region. Greed, power and money dominate. It has been so from the earliest times of mankind and it continues today,” she said. “There is no greater loss than one’s culture,” she stated with emphasis. “Every penny that I have earned is to be used to chase, find and retrieve the icons around the world.”
During her intensive work, she worked closely with Archbishop Chrysostomos I of the Orthodox Church of Cyprus, as well as Dutch art dealers, Canadian sellers, and German detectives and police, at times forced to play “cat and mouse”. She was targeted by art traffickers. Fearing for herself and her family’s life, she finally had to pay for private security.
The four decades long journey finally all culminated in the dramatic and climactic arrest of Turkish art trafficker Aydin Dikmen by the well-known Interpol group in the famous “Munich Case.” Sixty million dollars of stolen icons and other treasures from Cyprus, and from around the world were recovered.
During a robust question and answer session, the speaker detailed more of the history of Cyprus, and emotionally spoke of her return trip there. “I used my cultural heritage as my right to go home. I walked into the crystal-clear sea to see my city, now destroyed and empty, even though Turkish soldiers were pointing guns at me. I shed all my 40 years into that water.”
The Walk of Truth
Hadjitofi and her assistant Dr. Marina Mkhitarian have established the Walk of Truth NGO, in efforts to continue the work of tracking down and preventing the art smugglers, war profiteers, and terrorists who today are continuing to steal countless cultural from artifacts from vulnerable war-torn countries, including Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and several African nations.
“The Walk of Truth gives me a platform to continue the idea that culture can be what connects us, not what divides us. The cultural history of the world belongs to each of us which is why we must all contribute to protect it,” she declared with emphasis.
At the reception following her presentation, attendees lined up to have the author sign her book. All proceeds from the sale of The Icon Hunter will benefit the Walk of Truth NGO, which raises awareness and rallies governments, political figures, museums, and cultural organizations in stopping art trafficking and protecting cultural heritage in war torn countries and areas of conflict.
In international politics, it is never “cultural cleansing” (or “cultural genocide”) if it is you or your allies or fellow ideologues doing it – it is only cultural cleansing if your enemy or their allies or ideologies doing it. The Taliban in Afghanistan or IS in Syria and Iraq have no international political influences or allies or PR agencies or slush funds or UNESCO memberships – so their acts of cultural destruction are immediately condemned. But if it is Nato doing in Kosovo, or Azerbaijan doing it in Nakhchivan, or Turkey doing it in Syria or to Armenian monuments in Turkey, or ideology-driven Americans doing it to Civil War-related monuments, in those instances there is just silence.
Until these double standards are ended, cultural genocides will continue to occur because there will always be new groups arising who consider the continued existence of the past works (or present-day lives) of other groups to be an outrage, an outrage remedied only by destruction.
A friend, from Istanbul, of my Armenian language teacher, Dikran, who was born in Cyprus told him the following: THE KAPALI CHARSHI (THE FAMOUS COVERED BAZAAR OF ISTANBUL) WAS OVERFLOWING WITH STOLEN MERCHANDISE FROM CYPRUS. TO CROWN IT ALL, AFTER THE WAR THE PEACE KEEPING UN FORCES LOOTED THE HOUSES THAT WERE ABANDONED BY THE GREEKS AND ARMENIANS AND HELPED THEMSELVES TO THE CONTENTS. As Dikran said: “What a just world!”
Ellen Sarkisian Chesnut