ATHENS — In 1801, Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin and British ambassador to Constantinople, hit upon what he considered a splendid idea.
The ancient Greek temple of the Parthenon — perhaps the most famous building ever erected — was decorated with a series of 17 marble figures and a 160-meter frieze depicting the ancient Greek gods and heroes. They didn’t seem to be doing anybody any good at the 2,500-year-old edifice atop the Acropolis in Athens. So why not hammer them off and transport them to a place where they would be better appreciated — that is, England’s green and pleasant land?
He persuaded the Ottoman Turkish rulers of Greece to allow him access to the Parthenon, where he hired a crew that chiseled and sawed off about 60 percent of the priceless marbles and sent them back to London. They eventually ended up in the British Museum.
As the 2004 Athens Olympics approaches, Greece is stepping up its demands for the return of ancient sculptures that a British lord removed from the Parthenon two centuries ago. For 35 years, the Greeks have insisted on the marbles’ return. But now the campaign is catching on internationally, at the grass-roots level.
“I think time will show that the public is for the return of the marbles,” said Elena Korka, head of the Department for Greek and Foreign Archaeological Institutes in the Greek Ministry of Culture. “It’s becoming a universal issue. After all, the marbles were integral parts of the Parthenon, and they have meaning only when they stand next to the place of their origin.”
To press its case, the Ministry has been hosting symposiums and photographic exhibitions on the marbles. One event was held in May at the European Parliament, which has endorsed Greece’s claim. Greece is also making pleas to British officials.
Committees pushing for the sculptures’ return have sprung up in countries as disparate as Yugoslavia and Canada. And some of the strongest support comes from Britain, where members of Parliament and such celebrities as actors Sean Connery and Judi Dench support the British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton and Russian President Vladimir Putin have endorsed Greece’s claims.
Meanwhile, the battle could move to the courts. The Parthenon Marbles Trust — a group backed by Greek shipping tycoons and advised by a distant relative of Elgin — is preparing to sue the British government this summer if attempts to resolve the dispute diplomatically don’t work out, said George Lemos, a London-based Greek shipping broker and spokesman for the group. The group argues that legal title was never transferred to Elgin or the British Museum under Greek, Ottoman or English law.
And Greece is building a new $37.7 million Acropolis museum in which it hopes to house the friezes. The plans were approved this spring, with groundbreaking set for August.
But Athens’ demands to place priceless marbles in an as-yet nonexistent museum suggests a lack of seriousness on its part, according to supporters of the British Museum. The museum insists that the campaign is a wasted effort. Backed by the Labor government, officials say they won’t hand over the marbles. The Greek suggestion that the marbles are meaningless out of context contradicts the enlightenment philosophy of the liberal museum and of human history, officials say.
“The great strength of the museum is that we are a universal museum,” spokesman Andrew Hamilton said by phone from London. “The cultures of the world are on display here in comparative context. You can see Egyptian, Roman, and Greek antiquities in adjacent galleries. If you start to dismember that collection, that dimension would be lost.”
In an article published in The Times of London in January, the British Museum’s director, Robert Anderson, argued that attempts to restore art from abroad are misguided. The restitutionist premise, that whatever was made in a country must return to an original geographical site, would empty both the British Museum and the other great museums of the world, he wrote.
“The Parthenon sculptures are now one of the greatest treasures of the British Museum and they have been the heart of its classical collections since they were acquired in 1816. . . . They are among a select number of objects in the Museum that are intrinsic to its identity.”
Besides, Anderson noted, Athens has never addressed a request for the marbles directly to him, apparently preferring to campaign for them politically.
The museum fears the return of the marbles would open the floodgates of demands from former British colonies. Already, Nigeria is seeking the return of 19th-century bronzes looted by British soldiers more than 100 years ago. And groups ranging from Native Americans to New Zealand Maoris have demanded artifacts with spiritual significance.
The Parthenon crowns the Acropolis, a stone mesa that rises out of central Athens. In the fifth century B.C., the Athenian statesman Pericles commissioned the temple complex on the site of an earlier holy place that had been razed by Persian invaders. The largest of the buildings is the Parthenon, designed and built by the architect Iktinos and the sculptor Pheidias. Completed in 432 B.C., it once housed a colossal gold and ivory statue of Athena, patron goddess of the city. The statue no longer exists, but the Parthenon has survived wars, foreign occupation and shelling by the Venetians in the 17th century.
For the first-time visitor, the temples have a heart-stopping beauty, towering over an otherwise ugly city of concrete and stucco. During a visit this spring, I stepped out of my hotel into the middle of a nighttime street carnival celebrating an Orthodox holiday. Revelers dressed as wizards and bewigged devils and Osama bin Laden roamed the ancient Plaka district, bonking strangers with plastic mallets and cave-man clubs. After getting smacked several times, I bought a knobby yellow club in self-defense, and I worked my way through the streets whacking random foes and getting pummeled or sprayed with shaving foam in return.
Suddenly, I rounded a corner and saw the citadel of the Acropolis rising from solid rock, with the Parthenon and Erechthion temple spotlighted a dazzling white. It is impossible to view it for the first time without a catch in the throat. Someone bonked my head with a Fred Flintstone club. I was too moved by the Acropolis to respond.
Apparently, Elgin was also stirred by the Parthenon, but his appreciation involved dismantling the sculptures for Britain. As the Greek Ministry of Culture relates in its Web site on the marbles, “Behaving like vandals, Elgin’s men took down the sculptures from the temple where they had been standing for some 2,250 years, destroying in the process the surrounding parts of the structure, sawing off the backs of the frieze blocks in order to break them off, cutting in two one of the Parthenon capitals and an Erechtheion cornice, carelessly smashing one of the metopes . . . Having mutilated the Parthenon, Lord Elgin carried off the finest of the sculptures from this supreme monument of Greek antiquity. Over a period of 10 years his men dismembered the Parthenon and removed sections of the buildings on the Acropolis.”
The British Museum doesn’t buy the portrayal of Elgin as vandal. Rather, he rescued the marbles from a Parthenon that had been turned into a ruin by a Venetian shell, director Anderson writes. “Elgin has been unjustly defamed by the campaign for the restitution of the Elgin marbles, but [he] deserves his place in history along with other diplomats whose collections came to the Museum. Such men saw their embassies abroad as opportunities to promote public understanding at home of the ancient and modern cultures they encountered on their travels.”
Nevertheless, Elgin was careless in his treatment of the marbles. In many cases one half of a sculpture was shipped off to London while half remained in Athens, the Greek ministry reports. Of the 97 surviving blocks of the Parthenon frieze, 56 are in Britain and 40 in Athens. There are 64 surviving metopes, with 15 in the British Museum. And 19 of the 28 preserved figures of the pediments are in London.
Even in 1801, there was an outcry about the removal. The British Parliament eventually voted 82-30 to purchase the marbles from Elgin and give them to the British Museum, but many European intellectuals were appalled by Elgin’s actions. Lord Byron, the great British poet who would die in 1824 fighting for Greek independence, wrote:
But only in the last few years has the issue gained traction with the British public, said Eleni Cubitt, secretary of the British committee supporting the return.
“We’ve made enormous progress,” Cubitt said. “The first victory was when the British Museum stopped calling them the Elgin Marbles. [They are now called the Parthenon marbles or sculptures.] When you have a great work of art, you call it by the name of the artist who made them or the place they were found, not the person who removed them illegally.”
The British Museum’s board of trustees lacks the power to dispose of its antiquities, even if it were so inclined, officials insist. It would take an act of Parliament to change that. Besides, the museum argues that the sculptures are better off in London.
It says that even in contemporary times, Greece has yet to show that the marbles would receive the care that the British Museum provides. The new museum the Greeks promise has yet to be built. Fourteen weather-damaged blocks of the west frieze were removed from the Parthenon in 1993 and have not been seen by the public since then, he wrote. Other sculptures are currently left on the building and suffer the same damage.
“The Greeks do not do anything like enough with the antiquities they have,” Hamilton said. “Several pieces of frieze are still stuck up on the Acropolis, wearing away in the smog and weather.”
If symbolic gestures for 2004 are called for, there could be none better than Greece making sure that it properly displays what it already has, he stated.
Stung by such charges, Athens responds that the British have damaged the marbles in their possession. In the 1930s, the museum bleached the marbles under the erroneous impression that they were originally white, rather than the honey color of the Pentelicon marble in Greece. The British curators damaged the marbles by scouring them with wire brushes, copper tools and carborundum, Greek officials charge.
One sign of changing times is the number of British who are campaigning to return the marbles. In September of 2000, Christopher Stockdale, a pathologist, swam 26 nautical miles (47 km) from the uninhabited island of Delos, an archaeological park, to the resort island of Paros. A marathon swimmer who had crossed the English Channel and swum around Manhattan island, Stockdale wanted to call attention to the marbles. He is now planning to cycle from London to Athens in a similar publicity stunt.
Reached at his office in England, Stockdale said the swim seemed to touch a chord with Greeks. Here was an everyman coming to Greece and highlighting the situation with a physical effort — and it was quite a physical effort — and succeeding, he said.
Greece even has offered to put aside the question of ownership for now, proposing that the British Museum loan the marbles in exchange for traveling exhibits of rare Greek antiquities to the London institution. The museum has rejected the idea. Its trustees fear that even if Greek cultural officials are well-intentioned, nationalistic politics might prevent the Greeks from following through with a promise to return the marbles to Britain.
The Greeks, in turn, are hoping that even if the ownership of the marbles isn’t resolved, they will be able to display them in time for the Olympics.
“It was unlawful that the marbles were removed,” Korka said. “But we’re not getting anywhere with that argument. So we wouldn’t object to a loan.”
Going, going, gone . . .
The Parthenon marbles are not the only disputed antiquities that have vanished from their country of origin.
Everything from Greek Cypriot icons to Nigerian bronzes are stowed in museums and private collections. Sites such as the Ankor Wat temple complex in Cambodia and Peruvian archaeological digs have yielded treasures to international smugglers. Some priceless objects have even vanished.
Here are just a few examples of disputed items:
* The Koh-i-noor diamond. The British monarchy has been in possession of the egg-size diamond from India since 1849, and many Sikhs in both India and Britain have demanded that Queen Elizabeth return the 105.6-carat gem.
It might not be a bad idea. Koh-i-noor is supposedly cursed. A maharajah who once possessed it had several wives and more than 100 concubines, but was left without a suitable heir. After the diamond was shipped to Britain, Queen Victoria was twice assailed by madmen, one brandishing a pistol and another who whacked her with his cane. OK, perhaps the notion sounds fishy, but what’s a gem without an ancient curse attached?
* The Benin bronzes. The British Museum displays 50 bronzes depicting African soldiers in military gear. These are just a small percentage of the 900 magnificent bronze sculptures, dating from the 16th century, that were seized from the palace of Benin during a British imperial rampage in west Africa in February 1897.
* Treasure of Priam. German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890) excavated a number of sites in Greece and Turkey and brought home many artifacts made of gold, bronze and silver. Schliemann called the items Priam’s Treasure in reference to the king of ancient Troy. Researchers later determined that the artifacts are 1,000 years older than the city described in Homer’s “Iliad.”
They remained in Berlin until its fall to the Soviet Army in 1945. The gold vanished and was not heard from again until 1993, when the Russians admitted to having it. They have refused to return the artifacts to either Germany or Greece.
* The amber room of Tsarskoye Selo. Catherine the Great, empress of Russia, had this room built out of Persian amber in the great czarist palace near St. Petersburg. The royal architect Rastrelli incorporated panels of mirrors and paintings among the original carved amber panels.
When the Nazis blockaded St. Petersburg and occupied Tsarskoye Selo, they dismantled the room and shipped it off to Germany. The pieces were possibly kept in the basement of Konigsburg Castle, which was destroyed by Allied bombers in 1945.
* The Oegyujanggak documents. The French Navy plundered the Korean royal library in 1866, burning 5,000 irreplaceable volumes and stealing the ancient Oegyujanggak royal documents. Koreans remain indignant about the theft, particularly because, unlike sculptures and other artwork, the documents are of value only to scholars who can read them in Korean.
Last year, Korean negotiators agreed to a French loan of the documents, in return for a loan of other equally valuable documents to France. But the negotiators returned home to face the wrath of Korean scholars and the public, which felt that the nation shouldn’t have to provide France with anything in exchange for the return of its looted heritage.