Panagia Kanakaria - Atlas Obscura

Panagia Kanakaria

Boltaşlı, Cyprus

This abandoned church was the site of one of the biggest art heists of the past decades.  

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In remote northeastern Cyprus, among palm trees outside the tiny village of Boltaşlı, travelers can find the well-preserved Byzantine basilica Panagia Kanakaria. Externally beautiful yet architecturally modest, the church reveals its rich history only upon entering.

The skeletal structure of the church, which does not serve a congregation, is a blend of somber, mysterious, and unusually alive: Madonna images hang on bare walls in deteriorating frames, small candles occasionally flicker, wax figures sit quietly on windowsills, and partially preserved frescoes gaze down.

Built in the 6th century, it endured periods of destruction (raids, natural disasters), restoration, and expansion. It was long home to mosaics, including of the Madonna and child, which today are recognized as rare surviving examples of early Byzantine Christian art, noted by art historians and religious scholars for their importance.

In 1974, during its invasion of Cyprus, Turkey expelled Greek Cypriots from this area, depriving the basilica of a religious community. Art thieves took advantage of the instability, breaking in and removing mosaics and other artwork. The thieves targeted other churches in the area, too, and the objects were missing for decades.

In the 1980s, Turkish-German art dealer Aydın Dikmen, based in Munich, sold artifacts from the churches to interested buyers in the United States. Future efforts to sell the works led to authorities learning about the artwork, and legal actions, including court cases and an eight-month sting operation in Germany, led to the recovery of tens of millions of dollars of artwork and their return to the Republic of Cyprus. This made the theft one of the largest of the past decades.

The recovered mosaics of Panagia Kanakaria are now on display in the Byzantine Museum in Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, rather than in the basilica, which is on the Turkish half of the partitioned island. And even today, significant portions of the mosaics remain missing, likely scattered across illegal art collections. Within the church, only marginal fragments of the mosaics remain.

Know Before You Go

Since Panagia Kanakaria is not a tourist site, it is not always possible to enter the basilica.

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January 4, 2024

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