Friday, February 06, 2009

Antiquities trade, Turkey-Cyprus: Syrian Orthodox Bible

Derek Fincham noted Simon Bahceli's article about the trade in antiquities (here, a Syriac Bible) from Turkey to/through Cyprus (a trade being reported in archaeological news, librarian and information science news, medieval news, arts journals and the Huffington Post, and discussed by Aramaic and Syriac scholars, early Jewish and biblical researchers, historians, religious scholars, Syriac, Assyrian, Chaldean diaspora, Iraqi Christians and the general public).

(Syriac Bible, (c) Ktisti and Bahceli, 6th February 2009)

(Syriac Bible, (c) China Daily, 7th February 2009)

Turkish Cypriot police arrested nine local looter-smugglers at Famagusta Bus Terminal, but the antiquities trafficker and one other suspect escaped. According to another Cyprus Mail article, another three people have been arrested, but that may have been a different operation.

Northern Cyprus

The antiquities trade is largely controlled by illicit organisations. It seems that this gang were part of that illicit trade, both smuggling artefacts through northern Cyprus and looting artefacts in northern Cyprus and smuggling them out: 'a Christian prayer statue and a carving of Christ were found in the Karpas village home of one of the suspects. Five sticks of dynamite were also found, which police believe were to be used for later excavations by the suspects.'

During the three later arrests, Turkish Cypriot police recovered an antique church bell. (There was also a vague reference to the theft of a Bible from the Monastery of Saint Barnabas (Apostolos Varnavas), but '[t]he Cyprus Church has made no comment'.) Realistically, this was part of the Turkish deep state's illicit antiquities trade.

South-eastern Turkey

Prof. Charlotte Roueche judged that the ancient (and valuable) Syriac Bible was 'very likely to come from the Tur-Abdin area of Turkey'. Professor of Religion Jim Watts highlighted that the Bible probably wasn't ancient, although it would still have been valuable, as a relic and as an antiquity. The History Blog pointed out that Reuters gave as much weight to the Turkish Cypriot police's opinion as it did to the experts', and ignored the political context of the trade.

William Dalrymple (2005 [1997]: 96) found them poor and trapped between the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and Turkish Hizbullah and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), but there is still a small Syriac-speaking community in south-eastern Turkey. Bahceli observed that, although William Dalrymple feared that 'the community "could die out within one generation"', since then, the Turkish Government had improved protection for religious minority communities.

Yet the community is at risk again. Theologian and historian of the Syrian Orthodox Church, Gabriel Rabo appears to date this trouble to 2001. In 2003, he wrote,
They are worried again about their future in an area that is nowadays increasingly under the influence of radical Islamic activists. About 2 years ago the Syrian community of Diyarbakir was caught in a political row, when the priest Yusuf Akbulut was tried before a Turkish court.

The priest had spoken about the genocide of 1915 in Turkey that killed huge numbers of not only Armenians but Aramaeans (Syrians) too. Journalists of the Turkish newspaper "Hürriyet" recorded his discussion in secret and later they depicted him as a "traitor among us". In this manner they fanned up hatred toward the Syrian Aramaean minority amongst the Turkish people.
Rabo reported a previous case of intercommunal violence/antiquities theft:
During the night of January 7th 2003, the Syrian Orthodox Church of the Mother of God (known as "Meryem Ana" in Turkish) in Diyarbakir was broken into by unknown Muslims and vandalized...., the burglars stole invaluable liturgical items: among these were a large handwritten Gospel-Lectionary from the 18th century..., three silver crosses... and a very old icon of the Mother of God..., as well as two rare 18th century silk and golden liturgical veils.... Iconographic pictures of saints were thrown to the floor.
Again via Gabriel Rabo, I learned that, on the 17th of April 2003, 'another Syriac Gospel was robbed [wurde ein weiteres syrisches Evangeliar geraubt]', a 300-year-old, handwritten Gospel. As Şeyhmus Edis reported, the 'police found the thieves' fingerprints in its place [polis olay yerinde hırsızların not defterini buldu]', but they didn't find the thieves.

Apparently, reconciled Turkish and Kurdish officials are together targeting the Syrian community. In news I picked up from Simon Maghakyan, Ibon Villelabeitia detailed that,
Turkish government land officials redrew the boundaries around Mor Gabriel and the surrounding villages in 2008 to update a national land registry. The monks say the new boundaries turn over to the villages large plots of land the monastery has owned for centuries, and designate monastery land as public forest. Christian groups believe officials want to ultimately stamp out the Syriac Orthodox monastery....

A local prosecutor in August 2008 initiated a separate court case against the monastery after [Kurdish] mayors of three villages [Yayvantepe, Eğlence and Çandarlı, allegedly 'in cooperation with influential members of the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP)'] complained the monks were engaged in "anti-Turkish activities" and alleged they were illegally converting children to the Christian faith.

Monks say the mayors are instigating anti-Christian feelings by accusing Mor Gabriel of being against Islam. Villagers in neighboring Çandarlı, a settlement of 12 humble houses with no paved roads, said they had nothing against Christians and accused the monastery of taking land they need for cattle.
The Assyrian Democratic Organization, Assyrian Chaldean Syriac Alliance and Syrian Orthodox Church of Göteborg alleged that '"the head of the village Yayvantepe threatened to burn the monastery and raze it to the ground in front of the military personnel and the state prosecutor," with impunity'.

The region is very poor. Frustration with poverty and exclusion are being misdirected away from the wealthy and powerful and deliberately channelled into ethnic and religious nationalism. I do not think it is a simple state policy. More than a decade ago, Mar Gabriel Monastery's Brother Yacoub explained to William Dalrymple (2005 [1997]: 117) that,
In the villages the Christians had the best land; now the Kurdish agahs - the tribal chieftains - have just walked in and taken it from them, to distribute among their own people.... There is nothing we can do. The government needs the support of the agahs if they are to win their fight with the PKK, so they never interfere.
That was during a convoluted, dirty war. For example,
In February 1993 the State of Emergency Coordination Council decided that outlying settlements which might support the PKK should be evacuated,... it appears to have been routine for all or most of the houses in these villages to be burned.... [T]he graveyard of the village of Midyat Bulbuk was bombed under the pretext that it may have hidden a secret PKK arms cache. When the Ogunduk village police station was attacked by the PKK on July 21, 1992, the Turkish military burned the entire surrounding [Assyrian] village and fields.... The [Assyrian Chaldean Catholic] village [Kovankaya] was burned down by security forces in 1990 [and again in 1994] for refusing to participate in the village guard system.
But the ağas of the Village Guard, the radical Islamic Turkish Hizbullah, other deep state agents within the TSK and the PKK are all still active.

With the poor tricked into being nationalists, deep state agents - wealthy, powerful and ideologically extreme people, who have some influence in the local communities and some in the bureaucracy - can then run the antiquities trade freely (literally, because it funds itself and nationalist extremist violence).

There may be another possibility. I learned via Jim Davila that the Bible may have been a forgery. Aramaic translator Steve Caruso judged that it was 'probably either a work no earlier than the 15th century, or a modern forgery', and Aramaic and Syriac scholar David Taylor believed that it was 'one of a large number of fake Syriac manuscripts currently being produced in northern Iraq and southern Turkey'; though Hebrew and Aramaic scholar Erica Hunter observed that there were also similar, 'genuine [Bibles] (albeit of recent production)'.

Syriac Bibles are being stolen. This one could be a genuine, antique (but not ancient) Bible; or it could be a genuine, modern Bible; or it could be a fake, modern Bible.

Southern Cyprus

According to Simon Bahceli, 'questions are being asked why such a valuable item would have been smuggled into the north from Turkey. Some reports said the bible may have been destined for a buyer in the south of the island'. It may have been; but it may have been smuggled into northern Cyprus because it could be smuggled out again, into Europe, either directly or through southern Cyprus.

Trafficked antiquities move along criminal organisations' established and secure routes, even if they are longer or slower routes; the same organisation can traffic illicit material from Turkey to Britain, some through Bulgaria, some through Greece, some through Cyprus. Nevertheless, the Bible might have been stolen and smuggled from Turkey through northern Cyprus for an Orthodox Christian art connoisseur in southern Cyprus. If so, they would probably have been funding the conflicts in south-eastern Turkey, which are part of the same overarching conflicts that consume Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey, Cyprus, Kosovo and Bosnia.


I understand that the Bible was going to a buyer in southern Cyprus, but I don't know whether the buyer ordered it (and the smugglers went and got it), or whether the smugglers offered it (and the buyer said they wanted it). Whether it was from Tur Abdin, or whether it was from Famagusta, the buyers would have been funding the same overarching conflicts that consume Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey, Cyprus, Kosovo and Bosnia.

Former Director of the Republic of Cyprus Department of Antiquities, Vassos Karageorghis (2000: 217) stated that 'the government, the Church... salvage... stolen cultural heritage' (see also Hofstadter, 1994: 59-64), if necessary buying them back off the market with money from the Leventis family/Leventis Foundation and the Greek Cypriot Orthodox Church (Karageorghis, 2000: 215; 218; see also Karageorghis, 1990: 6-7; 9; 1998: 15). Jean Christou (2008) reported one tragic case that implied that Church and State secretly bought antiquities directly from smugglers and dealers.

As mentioned earlier, a Bible was stolen from St. Barnabas Monastery, but '[t]he Cyprus Church has made no comment on the seizure of a bible or whether or not anything matching its description had once belonged to, or was stolen from any church building in the occupied areas'. Perhaps neither Church nor State made any comment about the Syriac Bible for the same reason neither Church nor State made any comment about Stephanos Stephanou...

Bahceli, S. 2009: "Nine arrested over 2,000 year-old Syrian bible". Cyprus Mail, 4th February. Available at: (Also available in the Assyria Times, at the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA) and the U.S.-based but internationally-minded Lawyers' Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation (LCCHP).)

China Daily. 2009: "'Ancient' Syriac Bible found in Cyprus". China Daily, 7th February. Available at:

Christou, J. 2008: "What really happened to our father?" Cyprus Mail, 26th October. Available at:

Cyprus Mail. 2009: "More antiquities arrests in the north". Cyprus Mail, 8th February. Available at:

Dalrymple, W. 2005 [1997]: From the Holy Mountain. London: Harper Perennial.

Edis, Ş. 2003: "Kiliseden 300 yıllık İncil çalındı". Zaman, 18. Nisan. Şu adreste bulunabilir:

Hofstadter, D. 1994: Goldberg's angel: An adventure in the antiquities trade. New York: Farrar Strauss Giroux.

Karageorghis, V. 1990: The A. G. Leventis Foundation and the cultural heritage of Cyprus. Athens: the A. G. Leventis Foundation.

Karageorghis, V. 1998: The A. G. Leventis Foundation: The first 20 years. Athens: the A. G. Leventis Foundation.

Karageorghis, V. 2000: "The repatriation of Cypriot antiquities (1974-1997)". In CPCHC (Committee for the Protection of the Cultural Heritage of Cyprus), (Ed.). Cyprus: A civilization plundered, 214-221. Athens: The Hellenic Parliament.

Ktisti, S and Bahceli, S. 2009: "'Ancient' Syriac Bible found in Cyprus". Reuters, 6th February. Available at:

[Updated on the 8th and 17th of February, and the 8th and 18th of March 2009.]

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