Thorsten Kruse (University of Münster)

The Fate of Abandoned Religious Heritage: the Case of Cyprus

The island of Cyprus, located in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, gained its independence from Great Britain in 1960. The constitution of the Republic of Cyprus was characterised by a consensual approach and cooperation between the governmental representatives of the majority (Greek Cypriots, 80%) and the minority (Turkish Cypriots, 18%). But just a few years later the joint government failed and the island experienced politically unstable times. The political conflict between Greek and Turkish Cypriots was transferred to the civil society and led in the further course to a civil war-like situation in Cyprus. The violent conflict between both sides reached its peak in summer 1974, when Turkey intervened militarily. The results of the intercommunal fights and the Turkish intervention were catastrophic: in August 1974, the island was divided into two parts, both sides suffered tragic losses of life and there was an internal displacement of thousands of Cypriots. The division also led to the persistent spatial separation of Greek and Turkish Cypriots on the island – with the Greek Cypriots in the southern part of the island and the Turkish Cypriots in the northern part.

In most cases the internal refugees not only left most of their properties and belongings behind, but also their religious and sacred spaces such as churches / mosques and cemeteries as well. A large number of these important religious places and sites are now abandoned for more than 45 years, and as a consequence, many of them were exposed to deterioration or destruction by natural or other forces. Some of these places have already disappeared, others are on the threshold of vanishing or complete destruction. Unfortunately, there has never been a comprehensive and publicly accessible documentation on the fate of the religious heritage of both, the Muslim and the Christian communities on the island.

Against this background in 2018 a project was initiated by the author, a research associate of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Cypriot Studies (University of Münster) in cooperation with the Foreign Ministry of the Kingdom of the Netherlands which aims at stocktaking these important places and sites as part of the cultural / religious heritage of Cyprus. The project’s first part with the title “The religious heritage of Cyprus: a survey in the districts of Kyrenia and Larnaca” was started in September 2018 and will be finished by the beginning of October 2019.

The overall objective is to provide a comprehensive database of the major religious sites in the towns and villages in the southern and northern part of Cyprus – sites which were left behind by their original owners due to the tragic events of 1974.

The paper to be presented at the conference will start with an overview of the results of the project’s first part: the stocktaking of 38 villages with former Christian or mixed population in the northern part of the island and of 27 villages in the southern part which had an exclusively Muslim or a mixed population before the events of 1974.

The paper’s second part will focus on the project’s objectives in the area of digital cultural (and religious) heritage.

The project aims at:

a) providing a platform for people of both sides of the divide to get information on the fate of their religious heritage, even if they are not able or willing to visit the so-called other side (due to health issues, political reasons etc.); this includes of course the possibility to locate these sites;
b)     creating a basis for new initiatives to bring both sides together (e.g. restoring religious places, which are massively affected by deterioration, decay, vandalism etc.);
c) presenting an interactive platform and thus allowing the users to contribute themselves (e.g. by adding historic photographs of the religious places and sites etc.);
d) trying to protect the religious sites against further destruction via detailed documentation;
e) informing interested tourists about the religious sites which are located in the areas they are planning to visit (e.g. implementing this information in special holiday or local apps etc.).

Although the topic of digital cultural (and religious) heritage is of prime importance for Cyprus, it is often difficult to implement this topic in the island’s society. One has to consider that the cooperation with official bodies of both sides is difficult due to the fact that the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), proclaimed in 1983, is a de facto state recognised by Turkey solely. International bodies (like UN etc.) are still considering the northern part of Cyprus as an integral part of the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus, whose access area in turn is limited only to the southern part of the island.

Furthermore, one has to deal with problems occurring due to this issue (e.g. the current status and the structures regarding the ownership of religious sites; the dispute over the names of some of the affected places and villages; the considerable impact by different laws as well as different cultural and political obligations and prohibitions).