By Florence Avakian
NEW YORK — A nation’s cultural cleansing is a destruction of its history, a “rape of its culture,” stated Tasoula Hadjitofi, on Friday, February 2, to an overflow crowd at the Zohrab Information Center of the Armenian Diocese.
Hadjitofi was born in Famagusta, Cyprus, now occupied by Turkish forces for more than four decades, 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: A Refugee’s Quest to Reclaim Her Nation’s Stolen Heritage.
The art sleuth was introduced by Zohrab Center executive director, the Very Rev. 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 which were disfigured and partially destroyed, have now been restored and returned to Cyprus, including a priceless 14th-century Armenian manuscript gospel.
The author used a Power Point 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.
“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. “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 Interpol, leading to the recovery of $60 million of stolen icons and other treasures from Cyprus, and from around the world.
During a robust question-and-answer session, the speaker detailed more of the history of Cyprus, and emotionally spoke of her return trip to Cyprus. “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.”
Hadjitofi and her assistant Dr. Marina Mkhitarian have established the “Walk of Truth” non-governmental organization, 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.