The New Greek Museum Raises Hopes
for the Return of the Elgin Marbles

by Christopher Xeneopoulos Janus

The friendship hetween the British Government and Greece is equaled by the friendship between the U. S. and Greece but this legendary friendship has been strained by the refusal of Great Britain

To return the Parthenon statuary. This took place while Greece was under Ottoman rule. Melina Mercouri dedicated her office to this issue. Philhellenes all over the world have been urging Great Britain to return what is now known as the Elgin Marbles. George Papandreou when he was Prime Minister undertook special efforts but failed. Andreas Papandreou also failed. There was some hope that Great Britain would return the Elgin Marbles just perhaps on a loan basis during the Olympics but Tony Blair and Great Britain vetoed it.


Now there is renewed hope that the marbles; may be returned to Athens in the near future. This hope is based on a new $162 million museum that is being built in Greece.

And is expected to open in the first half of 2007. The museum is being built at the foot of the Acropolis in a direct line of sight of the ancient home.

Initially scheduled for completion before the 2004 Olympics, construction of the 20,000 sq. meter (215,000 sq. foot) glass and concrete was delayed running into legal fights and new archaeological discoveries at the site.

The museum was designed by U.S. based architect Bernard Tshumi in collaboration with Greece's Michael Phioiades. It will incorporate under a glass cover, remains of a 3-7 century Athenian neighborhood discovered in 1990.

We know what the official attitude is of the Greek government regarding the issue. I think it is useful to know what the official position is of the British. I'm therefore concluding this essay with an edited official statement on the matter which follows:

Lord Elgin (Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin) took up the post of Ambassador to Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire in 1799. Greece was than part of that empire, and had been since wishing to improve the arts of Great Britain, Elgin assembled a group of architects, painters draughtsman and molders to make casts and drawings of Greek monuments.

They began work in Athens in 1800. The following year, Elgin was granted a firman (letter of instruction) that required the authorities not to hinder his employees in his work. A further fir man was secured by Sir Robert Adair in February 1810 which instructed the authorities in Athens to allow the embarkation of all the remaining antiquities collected by Elgin.

It is a popular misconception that Elgin purchased the antiquities; in fact the firman was granted to him as diplomatic gesture following the defeat of the French forces in Egypt, then an Ottoman possession.

It was the continuing destruction of classical sculpture in Athens that prompted Elgin to rescue for posterity what sculptures he could. The Parthenon had been reduced to a ruin over a hundred years previously, in 1687 during the Venetian siege of the Acropolis. The defending Turks were using the Parthenon as a gunpowder store, which was ignited by the Venetian bombardment. The explosion destroyed the roofs and parts of the walls and the colonnade.

On his return to England, Elgin suffered severe financial problems. In 1810 he began formal negotiations with the British Government for the sale of his collection. In the end Elgin agreed to accept the value determined by a special committee of the House of Commons.

The committee found that the collection had been legitimately acquired by Elgin as a private individual and the sale went through. The collection was then vested in the Trustees of the British Museum in perpetuity.


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(Posting date 8 November 2006)

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