Is the Parthenon Sculpture a Permanent Hostage at the British Museum?

Thursday, 27 May 2010 07:56 By Evaggelos Vallianatos, t r u t h o u t | Op-Ed | name.

Is the Parthenon Sculpture a Permanent Hostage at the British Museum?
British Museum. (Photo: tammylo)

On March 8, 2010, Dyfri Williams, Research Keeper of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum, delivered a lecture on "The Parthenon Sculptures" at the University of Southern California.

Williams justified the holding by the British Museum of the plundered Parthenon treasures.

I found the reasons why the British government refuses to return the Parthenon "marbles" to Greece unacceptable - and not a little insulting.

But before I focus on the continuing cultural imperialism of the United Kingdom, some background throws light on more than the British rape of the Parthenon.

The Athenians erected the Parthenon in 447-432 BCE for two reasons: honoring their patron goddess, Athena Parthenos, the virgin daughter of Zeus, and thanking the gods, particularly Athena, for their victory over the Persians.

For the first millennium of its life, the Parthenon was the shining light of Hellenic culture: a religious, democratic, architectural, and artistic jewel unsurpassed in beauty and craft.

Ploutarchos, a priest of Apollon and a prolific writer who lived about five centuries after the founding of the Parthenon, said the Parthenon, untouched by time, was created for all time.

The Parthenon, however, did not exist in isolation. The temple did well only when the Greeks were masters of their country, a political reality that had changed dramatically by the time when Ploutarchos was admiring the grandeur of the temple of Athena.

The Romans incorporated Greece into their empire in 146 BCE. The Romans, like later "protectors" of Greece, loved and hated the Greeks.

But the Roman crisis in Greece became acute in the fourth century when the Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity state religion, overthrowing the millennial polytheism of the Greeks and Romans.

Christianity immediately marched into Greece and declared war against the many gods of the Greeks, including Athena honored in the Parthenon.

In 484, the Christian Emperor Zeno inflicted the first major blow against the Parthenon. He pillaged the chryselephantine statue of Athena created by Pheidias.

In the sixth century, the Christians demonstrated their hatred for the Greeks with their conversion of the temple of Athena to a church. They also caused irreparable damage to the building and its sculpture.

The sculpture of the Parthenon, with dozens of statues of gods, men, and animals, was a pictorial history of Athens, a proud message of Greek origins and a celebration of freedom.

The Christians, like other barbarians that attacked the Parthenon, nearly obliterated Greek history and wrote their own. They hacked Parthenon statues to pieces. They defaced, mutilated, and smashed metopes. They punched windows through the frieze.

When the Turks captured Greece in 1453, they also added sacrilege and destruction to the Parthenon, which they made into a mosque.

In 1673, the Venetians bombarded the Parthenon, wrecking the building.

The next attack against the Parthenon came in early 1800s, also from the Europeans, especially Lord Elgin, who served as the British ambassador to the Turks.

Elgin and his agents bribed the Turks to give them a free hand with the surviving sculpture of the Parthenon.

The agents of Elgin sawed off just about every sculpture in the metopes and frieze, smashing in the process plenty of statues and damaging the Parthenon even more. They took intact slabs of metopes and frieze, including a caryatid from the Erechtheion, to England where they are now in the British Museum.

In 1801 and 1805, Edward Dodwell, a traveler who witnessed the agents of Elgin in action, said they left the Parthenon in "a state of shattered desolation."

Lord Byron also denounced Elgin's plunder of the Parthenon, calling Elgin a spoiler who rivaled the Goths and the Turks.

The looting and destruction of the Parthenon by Elgin sparked a more widespread stealing of Greek culture.

During the Greek Revolution in the 1820s, general John Makrygiannes stopped a couple of Greek soldiers from selling ancient artifacts to foreigners. He told them, "We went to war for these antiquities."

In the twentieth century, the Greek government started asking the British to return the sculpture Elgin had pillaged from the Parthenon.

Melina Merkouri, Greek Minister of Culture in the 1980s and early 1990s, was right saying the Parthenon sculpture was "the soul of Greece."

This language offended the British, who disputed Greek cultural continuity and resented Greek nationalism.

The British remembered the Greeks of the Ionian Islands and Cyprus, who revolted against their oppressive colonial rule. In the case of Cyprus, the British encouraged the Turks to nullify Cypriot independence. The Turks obliged and, in 1974, invaded Cyprus.

The British quote a Turkish order giving Elgin "legal" ground for his cultural atrocity, the violent removal and destruction of Parthenon sculpture. They conveniently ignore that the Turks had no more legal standing in Greece than the Nazis enjoyed in occupied Europe.

Second, British officials pretend that the Parthenon sculpture in their possession receives great care, which Greece, they claim, cannot give.

This is false.

During 1937 - 1938, the caretakers at the British Museum inflicted irreparable damage to the Parthenon sculpture. They scrubbed the statues with chemicals to make them "more white." And rather than revealing what happened, the British Museum covered up the truth for decades.

William St. Clair, British author of "Lord Elgin and the Marbles," concluded that the "stewardship" of the Parthenon sculpture by the British Museum for more than half a century was "a cynical sham," which forfeited "the British claim to a trusteeship."

In 2009, during the dedication of the Akropolis Museum, which the Greeks built to house the Parthenon treasures, the Greek Minister of Culture Antonis Samaras spoke about the "hostage" of the Parthenon sculpture at the British Museum. 

Returning the Elgin marbles to the Akropolis Museum would be the right thing to do. It would be the only path to reconciliation between the British and the Greek people.

Reuniting the sculptures of the Parthenon would also be an act of respect for the integrity of the Greek culture, which, like other Europeans and Americans, the British have used successfully for building their own civilization.

At a time of tension, violence, and extreme financial hardship for Greece, the repatriation of the Parthenon sculpture in the British Museum would be an act of Renaissance humanism that may sow seeds of peace and philhellenism in the Mediterranean and the world.

Such an act of British generosity would also uplift the spirit of Greece.

In addition, in 2012, the Olympics, as Greek as the Parthenon, will be celebrated in London.

What an opportune time for the United Kingdom to return the Parthenon treasures to their Greek home, and show the world its appreciation for all it has benefited from Hellenic culture.

Last modified on Thursday, 27 May 2010 15:28