Seminar report: Tasoula Hadjitofi – from refugee to icon hunter

Tasoula Hadjitofi

On 19 July 2017, Lobby for Cyprus held its annual Cyprus Week seminar at Theatro Technis in London. The theme of this year’s event was cultural destruction and the protection of heritage in areas of conflict.

The main speaker was Tasoula Hadjitofi, who discussed her experiences of war and injustice, her ongoing campaign to preserve cultural heritage worldwide and her tireless efforts to combat art trafficking.

Tasoula is the founder of Walk of Truth, a non-governmental organisation whose mission is to engage the public about the importance of preserving cultural heritage in conflict zones. Walk of Truth rallies legislators and political leaders to strengthen the laws around art trafficking and restitution and continues to help others in their efforts to repatriate looted artefacts.

Supporting speakers were Professor Mark Altaweel, reader in Near East Archaeology at University College London and Dr Ara Sarafian, a historian specialising in late Ottoman and modern Armenian history.

The event was chaired by Lobby for Cyprus honorary coordinator Nick Kounoupias, specialist lawyer in intellectual property, fraud, cultural property and international justice law.

Ara Sarafian, Tasoula Hadjitofi, Mark Altaweel and Nick Kounoupias
Speakers at the ‘Icon Hunter’ seminar: (left to right): Dr Ara Sarafian, Tasoula Hadjitofi, Professor Mark Altaweel and Nick Kounoupias

Lobby for Cyprus coordinator Theo Theodorou, began by thanking the audience for their support and attendance, with special thanks to the Cyprus High Commission, representatives of British and Cypriot political parties and Cypriot UK refugee associations, Scotland Yard representatives and British politicians.

Nick Kounoupias explained that whilst Lobby for Cyprus had explored the issue of cultural heritage in previous seminars, this was the first seminar it held to expand upon the significance of cultural heritage with regards to Cyprus and the wider region. Nick introduced the distinguished panel before asking Tasoula Hadjitofi to share her incredible story.

Tasoula thanked everyone for their support with special reference to members in the audience from Scotland Yard who she explained were always working busily behind the scenes to tackle art trafficking. Tasoula began by explaining that we live in a time where we see millions of refugees fleeing from war from countries such as Syria and Iraq. She commented that during war or conflict, the loss of life is far more important than loss of cultural heritage. However, she assured the audience that post war, the destruction of cultural heritage makes it impossible to build trust, which is vital to the peace and reconciliation process.

Tasoula Hadjitofi“Post war, the destruction of cultural heritage makes it impossible to build trust, which is vital to the peace and reconciliation process.”
Tasoula Hadjitofi

Tasoula shared her experiences of growing up as a refugee, first in Britain, and later in the Netherlands. She explained that when she saw stolen icons, frescos and mosaics from Cyprus on sale in the Netherlands she questioned how she could ever be truly Dutch. She questioned how, as a refugee, she could ever fully integrate if people didn’t understand the significance and meaning behind these looted sacred treasures. Drawing parallels with the current refugee crisis and the looting of artefacts from Iraq and Syria, she asked how immigrants could fully assimilate when they saw the stolen antiquities of their homelands hanging on the walls of galleries in their host nation. Tasoula explained that cultural heritage is higher than the realm of politics because it belongs to humanity as a whole. Fortunately, she observed that we are entering a new era where criminal prosecutions for cultural destruction are now a reality; as seen in the case of the destruction of Timbuktu in Mali.

Tasoula then gave a detailed account of her journey from refugee to icon hunter. She recalled the terrifying bombing of Famugusta at the time of the Turkish invasion when she was just 14 years old. Tasoula described how she and her siblings cowered in a bath tab and under beds whilst her mother knelt desperately in front of an icon of Apostolos Andreas. She explained that after this harrowing experience she was silent for many years; denying what she had seen and what she knew. The turning point was when she saw the looted icons, frescos and mosaics on sale. She recognised that if these artefacts vanished then the world would forget where she was from.

The Turkish campaign to rename towns and villages in the occupied areas, coupled with the looting and destruction of cultural heritage, made Tasoula aware that “soon people would think I was lying when I told them I was born in Famagusta”. This realisation led young Tasoula on a hunt to catch the criminal art dealers in the act. Her research and dedication led to her working with Scotland Yard, Interpol, the FBI and some of the most renowned lawyers in the world. Her work culminated in a covert sting operation in Munich where more than 5,500 stolen artefacts from Cyprus were discovered; though sadly only a few hundred were ever returned.

Tasoula concluded by reading extracts from her new memoir The Icon Hunter: a refugee’s quest to reclaim her nation’s stolen heritage. Tasoula expressed her hope that Walk of Truth and her book will empower and connect refugees around the world who wish to use the lessons learned from Cyprus for their own country. She called on those present to join the Walk of Truth and its effort to protect and preserve cultural heritage worldwide by becoming ‘Culture Crime Watchers’.

“Cultural heritage is higher than the realm of politics because it belongs to humanity as a whole.”
Tasoula Hadjitofi

Nick Kounoupias then introduced Ara Sarafian who gave a fascinating account of his story as an Armenian Cypriot refugee trying to understand Turkey and later attempting to challenge the Turkish state’s denial of the Armenian genocide and its Christian past. Ara shared his experience of studying in Turkey during the 1980s. He explained how in 1985 he managed to visit the occupied areas of Cyprus, a feat which was practically impossible during the early years of the occupation. He recalled that whilst walking around occupied Kyrenia, one of the upsetting scenes was a fountain which had been erected in downtown Kyrenia by a Jewish family friend before the invasion. He explained how the Turkish authorities had placed a bust of Kemal Ataturk in the middle of the fountain and removed the original dedication which simply stated “To the People of Kyrenia”. It dawned on Ara that if he had not known Kyrenia before the invasion, he would have assumed he was walking around a town in Turkey.

Ara Sarafian“I went to Kyrenia and I thought to myself: if my child one day came here he would not believe that Kyrenia was a Greek city… They had put Kemal Ataturk’s bust… the landscape was laughing at me. I said, if I did not know, if I was not from Kyrenia, I would have been fooled. I would have thought this was a Turkish city.”
Dr Ara Sarafian

During his time in Turkey, Sarafian concluded that “Turkey rewrites history or writes people out of history.” He was shocked by the complete lack of historical awareness in Turkey, especially with regards to the nation’s Armenian and Greek past. He described a visit to the museum of Erzurum, the former Armenian capital of Garin. He recounted that there was not a single artefact in the museum pertaining to its long Armenian past apart from a small exhibition showing Armenians as troublemakers. He highlighted how the word “Armenian” in Turkey was taboo in the 1980s. Ara explained that most Armenian monuments in Turkey have now been destroyed; whether through wanton neglect or actively by the Turkish state. He ended by commenting that Turkey was still destroying its Christian past.

Professor Mark Altaweel spoke of his research on cultural heritage destruction in Syria and Iraq, paying particular attention to the quiet devastation occurring behind the scenes. Professor Altaweel described how many of the ancient sites which are being looted in Syria contain antiquities which are more than 5,000 years old. He noted that as with Cyprus, the damage is both short and long-term. Where cultural destruction takes place, identity is extracted, subsequently eradicated and then replaced. Mark explained how, despite increased awareness on the subject, antiquities from Syria and Iraq had returned to the black market, especially in eastern Asia. He concluded that international legislation and mobilisation were required to prevent the continued looting and to reunite items of cultural heritage with their countries of origin.

Mark Altaweel“Where cultural destruction takes place, identity is extracted, subsequently eradicated and then replaced.”
Professor Mark Altaweel

Before opening questions to the floor, British politician David Burrowes told the audience that the problem of cultural destruction goes beyond Cyprus as it is a matter pertaining to the entirety of humanity.

The event highlighted the pain and suffering caused by the destruction and looting of cultural heritage. Emphasis was put on the importance of campaigning against the ongoing policy to eradicate the Christian history and culture of the occupied areas of Cyprus, in particular by Turkey; and also proved that the campaign against cultural destruction applies not only Cyprus but to the rest of the world.

Nick Kounoupias dedicated the event to the memory of Kyriacos Christodoulou, founder of Lobby for Cyprus and refugee, who fled from Ayios Amvrosios in Kyrenia in 1974.

Cyprus Week at Theatro Technis marked 43 years since the Turkish invasion and occupation of the northern area of the Republic of Cyprus. 

icon-camera-13 Cultural heritage in peril. Since 1974, thousands of religious artefacts have been plundered from more than 500 desecrated Christian sites in the Turkish-occupied northern area of the Republic of Cyprus. Following the efforts of Tasoula Hadjitofi, looted antiquities belonging to the Cyprus Church were recovered in ‘The Munich Case’ – one of the largest European art trafficking stings since WWII. (Click on photo for slideshow and captions.)


The Icon Hunter book“In the age of ISIS and the routine destruction of historic sites, art, and artifacts, Tasoula’s work is timely and an inspiration for all who care to preserve the human legacy of art. I simply cannot wait for this story to be turned into a movie. As a book, it is impossible to put down.”
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, New York Times bestselling author of ‘Infidel’ and ‘Heretic’

The Icon Hunter can be purchased via Lobby for Cyprus or