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Book Review - The Icon Hunter

The book The Icon Hunter by Tasoula Hadjitofi came into my realm of knowledge through a virtual event held at my church parish here at St. Athanasios in Cambridge, England. The author spoke to us a few years back (via Zoom) and answered questions about her book and her experiences as a Cypriot refugee. She generously donated the books to the church to sell and mandated that 100% of profits would go to the church. Of course, I bought a few copies and I am delighted to have the opportunity to share my thoughts on this book.

“The Cyprus issue has only been told via politicians and religious leaders, but my speech sheds light on what the artifacts mean to ordinary people as told through the journey of a refugee.”

-Tasoula Hadjitofi, The Icon Hunter

The premise of the book explores Hadjitofi’s intimately personal journey to repatriate stolen and looted icons, Byzantine art, and other artifacts back to their rightful home - Cyprus. Most of these artifacts were illegally seized directly from the Greek Orthodox churches in the now occupied area of northern Cyprus after the 1974 Turkish Invasion, violated, and pawned off to various private donors and shady art dealers all around the globe. Imagine the most sacred icons in the church, once lovingly venerated on a daily basis by the faithful, shamelessly stripped and crudely cut off of the walls and placards of the church, only to be carelessly stuffed into the back of someone’s car to be sold (for profit) to private collectors in the illegal art market. In some cases the eyes of the Panagia were gouged out to the point that only deep holes remained where the eyes once were, thus completely defacing the icons that had held such a special place within the church.

The author herself became a refugee when she and her family were kicked out of their family home after the Turks invaded Cyprus. Although her parents moved to another area in Cyprus and Hadjitofi herself moved to the Netherlands, they spent the rest of their lives feeling as though a piece of them was missing, constantly longing for the day they would be able to return “home” to Famagusta (Greek: Αμμόχωστος Ammoxostos). Hadjitofi’s own experience of having been forcibly removed from her home is a poignant reminder of the harsh realities of a violent war that happened just less than 50 years ago.

The book, written from the perspective of the author, chronicles the lengthy and detailed process of how she made it her life’s mission to return as many stolen artifacts as possible. She became obsessed with getting these pieces back onto Cypriot ground and spent more than a decade in relentless pursuit of justice. Hadjitofi not only shares intimate details of her experience as a refugee, but also of how she came to eventually participate in a sting operation which recovered countless priceless works of art from the clutches of art dealer and notorious smuggler Aydin Dikmen. Dikmen’s apartment was raided and authorities discovered the artwork and then attempted to prosecute Dikmen and get the art returned to the Church of Cyprus.

The story gives a lot of Cypriot history, making it a great way to learn more about the country. Despite being detailed, I found her writing style to be easy-to-follow. It got a tad dramatic for me at times, but overall was engaging and certainly an interesting read. My favourite part was at the end when Hadjitofi opened herself up to speak about her experience as a refugee. She expressed how difficult it was for her to come to terms with the current situation in Cyprus and how she tried to learn as much as she could about the Turkish culture so as to not teach her own children to harbor hatred in their hearts.

After decades, she finally had the courage to venture into the occupied area and “visit” her long lost home, which was an emotional journey full of longing for everything to go back to the way it once was. This was a special part of the book for me, as I had the opportunity to visit the occupied area of Famagusta in 2018. Comparing my own experience to her visit made me realize just how blessed I am to be able to go “home.”

Photos from visit to Ammohostos or Famagusta in 2018.

If you decide to read this book, please let me know your thoughts as I would love to discuss it with you!


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