988Nine arrested over 2,000 year-old Syrian bible
- Feb 4, 2009Nine arrested over 2,000 year-old Syrian bible
By Simon Bahceli
A TWO THOUSAND year-old Syrian Orthodox bible, believed to have been
smuggled into the island from southeastern Turkey, has become the
subject of major police operation in the north that has so far led to
the arrest of nine suspects.
The bible, estimated to be worth around 2 million, was seized during
a raid at the Famagusta bus terminal last Friday where smugglers were
seeking to sell it to buyers in the north. It is thought Turkish
Cypriot police had been tipped off about the impending sale.
Although the north's `antiquities department' refused yesterday to
comment on the bible, because it was "the subject of an ongoing
inquiry", a statement from police said it was bound in deerskin,
written in gold letters in the Syriac language, and believed to be
around 2000 years old. The bible may have come from the heartland of
the Syrian Orthodox community in southeastern Turkey, where a
small community remains, despite often being caught in the crossfire
between Kurdish rebels and the Turkish military.
"It is very likely to come from the Tur-Abdin area of Turkey, where
there is still a Syriac speaking community," Dr Chalotte Roueche,
professor of Late Antique and Byzantine Studies at King College,
London told Reuters yesterday.
In 1994, the British historian William Dalrymple wrote that the
community "could die out within one generation". However, conditions
are reported to have improved in recent years with the Turkish
government making efforts to protect religious minorities in the
Roueche added, however, that it was impossible to say for sure
whether the bible was either from that area, or whether it was as old
as the Turkish Cypriot police thought.
"The problem about this description is that a Syriac gospel-book
could be from the 4th century, but it could date from several
centuries after that, well into the middle ages. Indeed, I think that
gospel books may still have been being written in Syriac then.
Obviously the smugglers will have wanted to date it as ancient as
possible," Dr Roueche added.
Police in the north believe that those arrested may have been
involved in a wider antiquities smuggling operation after 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.
The individual believed to have smuggled the bible onto the island is
still being sought. He and one other suspect fled from the scene of
Friday's raid, during which police fired warning shots. All nine
suspects are being held in the north on charges of smuggling
antiquities, carrying out illegal excavations and possession of
The smuggling of antiquities from churches and ancient sites in the
north has been an ongoing problem since the division of the island in
1974, but 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.