Eikosifoinissa Monastery and the Theft of History

Today I want to take a break from governmental foreign policy, and tell you a story about something a little closer to the ground, closer to my heart personally, something that we can reach out and touch and see in a way you can’t with the giant geopolitics I usually write about.

In 450 AD, a Christian monastery called Eikosifoinissa was founded in Northern Greece, in Eastern Macedonia. It was home at one time to hundreds of monks, and today is home to 25 Greek Orthodox nuns.

In 1917, a contingent of Bulgarian troops led by a mercenary named Vladimir Sis crossed the nearby border with Bulgaria and attacked the monastery as part of a guerilla campaign against the Greek region, killing some of the monks that lived there. During the attack, they looted the monastery’s 1300-volume library, and took the books back to Bulgaria where they were eventually sold to antique and book dealers across Europe. Most were subsequently lost.

Among the volumes they stole were copies of Christian prayers, over 900 years old; writings by Christian forefathers; and a copy of the New Testament, written in the original Byzantine Greek, the vernacular at the time they were written, dating back to 900 AD, only 50 copies of which exist in the world. And these are just the ones we know about.

We know about them because they were found. Nine volumes from the Eikosifoinissa Monastery have been located today. One was found at Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago; one is at the Morgan Library in New York; three are at Duke University; and three are at Princeton University.

The 1100-year-old manuscript previously held by the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago

The 1100-year-old manuscript previously held by the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago

The Greek Archdiocese, with some pro bono legal help, has begun to pursue the restoration of these scripts to the monastery where they belong. Upon learning of the illegal origin of the text they had, the Lutheran School decided to return the manuscript without asking for anything in return. Thus far, none of the other institutions have elected to do the same, despite confirmation that these manuscripts indeed came from the monastery in question and were indeed stolen, as in the case of Duke professors writing about the origin of the documents they now hold.

Do historical institutions like libraries and museums have the right to retain ownership of illegally acquired artifacts? The most prominent examples of this in my mind are the Elgin Marbles held by the British Museum, pieces of the Parthenon bought by a Brit from the Ottoman forces who were occupying Greece in 1801 when they were illegally acquired. The issue has come up in popular culture, too: in Erik Killmonger’s introductory scene in Black Panther, he questions a British museum curator about the ethics of how the museum came to own African artifacts.

The Elgin Marbles at the British Museum in London

The Elgin Marbles at the British Museum in London

The usual arguments offered as to why these institutions ought keep the artifacts generally run thus: the places they come from do not have the resources to properly conserve these valuable artifacts, and by holding them in renowned institutions, we make them more accessible to the public. However, these fall a little flat: to suggest that the rightful owners of artifacts are incapable of caring for their own heritage is condescending at best, when you say “more accessible to the public”, to which public do you refer? Certainly not the one that created the artifacts you claim to protect. And if you say fewer people would get to see them, think about the tourism you draw away from the suffering communities that made this history by sitting it in London or Durham.

Plus, there’s a simpler explanation. If institutions like the British Museum or Duke University began returning all their questionably-acquired artifacts, they would soon be left with very little, setting a precedent that would result in the depletion of their collections.

And so we see institutions denying the communities they profit off of the right to reclaim their stolen history and culture. This case is relevant and important to me, and it’s an actionable cause, but it is by no means the only example of this egregious violation of heritage. Today, many institutions holding Jewish artwork and artifacts stolen by the Nazis during WWII have begun to repatriate those works to the communities from whence they came.

Duke, Princeton, and the Morgan Library should do the same. #fpf

If you feel, like I do, that these should be returned, email the leaders of these institutions at the addresses below.

Princeton President: Christopher Eisgruber: haparker@princeton.edu

Duke President, Vincent Price: president@duke.edu

The Morgan Library Director, Colin Bailey: cbailey@themorgan.org

Draft letter: I have learned that your institution is in possession of Holy manuscripts that were stolen during World War I from the Kosinitza Monastery in Drama, Greece. The manuscripts are an important part of our faith and history and were wrongfully taken from the monastery. I urge you to follow the example of other institutions that have returned stolen art and artifacts, including the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago which returned a manuscript stolen at the same time and from the same location as the ones that are in your collection. Please return the manuscripts to the monastery.