Cyprus Mission

Photographs of damaged cultural property from Jacques Dalibard's Cyprus missionDamaged cultural property from UNESCO mission

In 1974, Dalibard was contacted by UNESCO to evaluate the destruction of cultural property in Cyprus, following the outbreak of fighting between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. His task was to investigate claims by the Greek Cypriot government that Greek cultural properties in Turkish-controlled areas were being systematically destroyed. Dalibard was asked to drop everything and come to Paris where he was briefed, then flown overnight to Akrotiri, a British military base in Cyprus.

On arrival in Akrotiri, Dalibard was shown the anti-personnel mines he might encounter, before passing through the “Green Line” dividing the Greek- and Turkish-occupied parts of the island. The politics behind his mission became clearer as he realized that Greek Cypriots had always been in charge of the Department of Antiquities and wished to retain control, rejecting collaboration with their Turkish counterparts. He noted “it is worth mentioning that certain individuals within the [Greek] Government of Cyprus had been hoping that the destruction of antiquities in the Northern part of the island would be on such a disastrous scale so that they could use this fact for political propaganda.”

On the Turkish side, however, he encountered considerable obstruction. His ability to verify Greek claims rested in the hands of an uncooperative Turkish army, which denied him freedom of movement and turned him away from sites he had been given permits to inspect. Of particular concern was the safety of antiquities recently discovered during archaeological expeditions that had been interrupted by the conflict.[1]

Photograph of paintings and icons stored at St. Spyridon in NicosiaPaintings and icons stored at St. Spyridon in Nicosia

Dalibard used his ICOMOS contacts to find a Turkish antiquities specialist who could help him get around the Turkish authorities. Within three weeks a former Turkish commando, who was then Director of the Bodrun Museum, arrived to assist him. With this addition, the UNESCO team was soon able to establish contacts and undertake inspections of historic sites within Turkish-controlled territory including the Fort of Larnaca, the Hala Sultan Tekke, and Kyrenia Castle.[2]Certain buildings had been targeted by mortar and rocket attacks. There were also signs of looting and outright destruction of cultural property. Some valuable heritage material had been moved into safekeeping, which was a positive development, but required Dalibard to find local contacts that could tell him where the items were located.[3]Dalibard provided advice and assistance for the preservation and restoration of safeguarded items and those already damaged.[4] Throughout his mission, Dalibard documented many instances of the destruction of cultural property. At one site, he noted in his report “not a single undesecrated grave.”[5]

Dalibard would make several trips to Cyprus over an eighteen month period, spending a total of seven months on the ground. He prepared a report in which he found that both sides had been responsible for their share of cultural property destruction. To his dismay, however, UNESCO published his report prematurely, modifying his findings to suit political purposes. He later wrote, “without consulting me, using my material, [UNESCO] published an official report, whitewashing the Turks. And this was the end of my mission.”[6]

The diplomatic game continued for years as Greek Cypriots continued to publish materials showing that destruction was taking place in Northern Cyprus. UNESCO would periodically request that Dalibard return to Paris immediately, but no further steps were taken to resume the mission. Looking back twenty years later, Dalibard remained unsure how he had been chosen for this task. He writes “I had no expertise on Cyprus…the whole thing seemed improvised.”[7]

Reflecting on his experience, and after witnessing similar conflicts where cultural property was targeted, Dalibard would conclude that the world is “not equipped to deal with the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflicts.”[8]Dalibard would be critical of the weaknesses of the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, observing that it can do little to help conservators to provide first aid to buildings in the middle of fighting. The Convention, he noted, approaches the problem too formally and will thus rarely be implemented when it is needed most. However, he did not abandon the notion that cultural heritage intervention should coincide with military intervention in peacekeeping missions. The destruction of cultural property during an armed conflict, he added, is a consistent feature of conflicts involving ethnic cleansing.[9]

Photograph of architectural features of Bellapais Abbey in Northern CypusArchitectural features of Bellapais Abbey in Northern Cypus

Throughout the rest of his career, Dalibard would reflect on his time in Cyprus as an example of the difficulty that governments or international organizations have in intervening to save cultural objects during times of conflict. Nevertheless, he would continue to advocate the creation of an inventory of historic sites by UNESCO member states. The situation in Cyprus demonstrated some of the weaknesses of a centralized effort to protect cultural property, but it also illustrated the effectiveness of local networks that take it upon themselves to safeguard endgangered heritage. Dalibard would argue that the protection of heritage, during armed conflict as in normal situations, must be firmly based on grassroots efforts. He went so far as to call for the creation of an NGO for this purpose similar to Doctors Without Borders.[10]

For further reading, please view Jacques Dalibard's original Cyprus Report below.

Thumbnail image of Jacques Dalibard's Cyprus Report

Jacques Dalibard, "Report on the State of Cultural Heritage of Cyprus", UNESCO Resport on the State of Cultural Heritage of Cyprus, February-March, 1975 (appendicies omitted)


[1] “Interview Given to CBC T.V. on 13.3.75 By Jacques Dalibard”, UNESCO Paris, Notes, Interviews, Transcriptions, Memos, 1975, A-964

[2] Jacques Dalibard, “Cyprus: Status of the Conservation of Cultural Property”, UNESCO, (Paris: January, 1976)

[3] “Jacques Dalibard CBC T.V. Interview 13.3.75”

[4] Dalibard, “Cyprus”, A-964

[5] Dalibard, “Cyprus Papers” - Research Materials and Correspondence, A-964

[6] Dalibard, "Mostar and All That", p. 13, A-964

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, p. 15

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

Interior of St. John Lampadistes Monastery
Interior of St. John Lampadistes
Restoration work at Kyrenia Castle, Northern Cyprus
Detail of mosaic from excavation at Paphos
Mosaic at Paphos
Detail of mosaic from excavation at Paphos
Detail of mosaic from excavation at Paphos
Fort Turc and waterfront at Paphos
Ancient pottery of different shapes in Cyprus
Stone structure at Kornos
Scaffolding at damaged part of exterior of Kyrenia Castle
Exterior of Bellapais Abbey, Northern Cyprus
Exterior of Kyrenia Castle
Exterior of Bellapais Abbey, Northern Cyprus
Detail of window at Bellaphais Abbey, Northern Cyprus
Stored artefacts from French excavation at Salamis
Excavation at Kitium, Lanarca, Southern Cyprus
Archeological site at Salamis
Exterior of Bairakdar (Bayraktar) Mosque, Southern Nicosia
Painting at Akhelia (Acheleia), Southern Cyprus
Scaffolding at exterior section of Kyrenia Castle
Stored artefacts from French excavation at Salamis
Stored paintings, St. Spyridon Church, Southern Nicosia
Stored paintings at Saint Spyridon Church, Nicosia, Cyprus