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August 08, 2008

Those marbles

Nothing vexes Anglo-Greek relations as much as the Elgin Marbles Parthenon Frieze those bloody bits of marble in the British Museum.


Well, except perhaps the actions of the British in Cyprus.

Or that time Greece lulled us into a false sense of supremacy by letting Steve McClaren win his first game in charge of England 4-0 against the then European Champions.

But I digress.

Depending on which side of the fence you are sitting on, the removal of the marbles was either a beneficial act of conservation, or outright theft and vandalism.

From the British point of view, the argument runs that the removal of the artifacts was done with the permission of the Ottoman Empire, which was the legitimate government of the time, and that the stuff was mostly just lying around waiting to be picked up and reassembled, or already in the hands of looters and private collectors.

From the Greek point of view, they feel that the Ottomans had no moral right to start giving the heritage of the ancient Athenians away, and that Elgin went a bit further than just picking up a few bits of stray rocks that had fallen off the Parthenon. In fact, if you pick up a free tourist map of the Athens Public Transport system from the airport, you'll find that the back features an essay describing Lord Elgin sawing up the marble, and using a crowbar to lever the frieze away from the building.

It is also impossible to judge if the marble has ended up better preserved in London than it would have been in Athens. Elgin took the marbles away in 1801, and it wasn't until the formation of the Greek nation state some 31 years later that Athenians regained total ownership of their monuments.

Had they been left intact, the frieze would have had to deal with a century of Athens' air pollution, two now discredited restorations of the Parthenon, and the building of the barely sub-surface level Athens Metro at the foot of the Acropolis just metres from the Ancient Agora site in the 1890s.


The remaining decorations on the Parthenon have now also been removed and replaced by casts, with the originals residing in an Athens museum. Many people thought the ideal time for Britain to return, or at least 'loan' back the marbles would have been in time for the 2004 Olympics. That opportunity has passed, and so, for the forseeable future, it looks like to get a complete picture of the Parthenon, you'll still need to visit London and Athens.


And track down an 1842 photograph by Joly de Lotbinière which shows the building as a mosque...but that's a whole other story.

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very interesting post

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