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 country.
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 explosives.
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.
By Simon Bahceli