Crimes unpunished: the Parthenon marbles

By Savvas Sfairopoulos

I was born in Greece, and Greece represents what I love most in the world. Great Greek actress and politician Melina Mercouri stated in 1986, “It is said that we Greeks are a fervent and warm blooded breed, and that is true.” My homeland was the first to create an anthropocentric civilization whilst also scientificating the concept of human thought and closely examining the philosophical nature of life. Many physical manifestations of my ancestors’ labors adorn the face of the Earth to the present day. One such precious paradigm of Greek heritage is the Parthenon, a former temple of the Athenian Acropolis that was dedicated to the goddess Athena, whom the people of Athens considered their patroness.

The Parthenon went through numerous instances of torture and incredible damage, but managed to survive and preserved some of its original beauty. Perhaps the greatest atrocity ever committed against the Parthenon, however, was carried out by Thomas Bruce, the seventh Lord of Elgin, who, armed with a permit of controversial origin, stripped the Parthenon and many other Ancient Greek temples of their unparalleled statuary. To me, this is one of the greatest crimes ever committed against Greek heritage, and it remains unpunished to this day. My government has been asking for the return of the Parthenon Marbles. We have been refused over and over again. Knowing what these artifacts mean to the Greek people, it is not easy to address their having been taken from Greece so dispassionately, but I shall try.

In November of 1798, Lord Elgin had just finished his beautiful country house in Britain. Its architect told him of the wonders of ancient Greek architecture and its sculptures, and suggested it would be a marvelous idea to make plaster casts of the original artifacts in Athens. “Marvelous, indeed,” said Elgin. After having been offered the post of official British minister in the court of the Ottoman sultan, he approached officials of the British government to inquire if they would be interested in employing artists to take casts and drawings of the sculptured portions of the Parthenon. According to him, “The answer of the government was entirely negative.” He insisted, nevertheless, and mustered various artists to carry out the work.

In 1801, Lord Elgin began to remove material from the Parthenon and its surrounding structures. The removal was completed in 1812 at a personal cost of around £70,000. Elgin wanted the marbles to be displayed in the British Museum and hence, chose to sell them to the British government after their acquisition. An endless dispute has been taking place ever since, with some of the most prominent Greek figures of the 20th century being involved in it, fighting for the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece.

The following are a few arguments that are perpetuated against the return of the Marbles. First, the marbles were obtained by proper transaction under the legal shield of a document issued by the Ottoman empire, which was occupying Greece at the time, to Lord Elgin himself. There is no legal basis for this claim as the original document was supposedly lost and nothing but a rather dubious translation of it exists today.

Second, Lord Elgin rightfully extracted the Parthenon Marbles from the acropolis since the city of Athens lacked a proper museum to host them. This was a mere act of vandalism, unacceptable even during the occupation by the Turks. In the present day, the Greek government has successfully constructed the Acropolis Museum, which is able to house any and all of the artifacts found on and around the acropolis.

To us Greeks, the Parthenon Marbles are a symbol of our pride, our heritage and our sacrifices. They express our artistic endeavors and are a true testament to the beauty of life. They project our peoples’ honor by depicting scenes stemming from the quotidian struggles of the Athenian populace. They are the pinnacle of Greek excellence! The aforementioned Melina Mercouri served as Greece’s first female minister of culture back in 1981 and fought hard for the return of the Parthenon Marbles. I tend to remember her passion through the following quote of hers, “We say to the British government: you have kept those sculptures for almost two centuries. You have cared for them as well as you could, for which we thank you. But now in the name of fairness and morality, please give them back.”

 

I would like to thank my brother Tsamasiotis Georgios Konstantinos for pointing me in the direction of necessary historical resources.

 

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