I just returned from a part of the world where wars abound, and I find I want to join one, a cultural war.
This all began when my husband got the travel bug and suggested a cruise in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean seas. Before you could say “global hot spot” we signed up for a cruise to Turkey, Israel, Egypt and Greece. As is typical in that part of the world, things happened.
Our day in Rhodes was canceled due to guide and bus strikes, we were ordered away from Israel for several hours due to unannounced naval exercises, and we arrived in Athens only two days after a public suicide, followed by protests, six blocks from our hotel.
As I said, things happen.
If current controversy wasn’t enough, every tour we took involved learning about previous conflicts. Ruins often become ruins as a result of war, rather than decay. Many famous sites changed hands among the Greeks, Romans, Persians, Christians, Turks and others, all due to war.
But the “war” that captured my attention is not political, religious or ancient. It is a current, cultural conflict, involving the site I found most beautiful on our trip: the Acropolis in Athens.
I’m taking sides. I’m with the Greeks and opposed to our finest ally, the Brits.
Here’s the story, as I understand it.
In the early 1800s, when Greece was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, British ambassador Lord Elgin hired people to dismantle (some say “hack off”) about half of the astounding marble sculptures that decorated the heights of the Parthenon. He took (some say “stole”) the pieces and transported them to Britain, some to his own mansion. When he later ran into financial difficulties, he sold them to the British Museum.
Dubbed the “Elgin marbles,” these ancient sculptures remain at the British Museum to this day, a breath-taking portrait of human artistic accomplishment five centuries before the birth of Christ.
Almost as soon as Elgin took the marbles, Greeks asserted their right to have them back. Elgin claimed he had a legal document from the ruling Ottoman Empire, but the original is missing, and it may not been signed by the highest authorities. Greeks also argued that no conquering power had the right to give their artwork away.
In modern times, the cause was famously supported by Greek actress Melina Mercouri, the first female Minister for Culture in Greece. She died 18 years ago, but as recently as 2009 one of her successors, Antonis Samaras, argued for return of the sculptures.
How would Americans feel, he asked, if someone took the head of the Statue of Liberty?
Last week a respected British actor, Stephen Fry, made headlines in Britain for supporting the Greek perspective. Fry wrote, “”What greater gesture could be made to Greece in its appalling finance distress? An act of friendship, atonement and an expression of faith in the future of the cradle of democracy would be so, well just so damned classy.”
For many years Britain was able to claim, with validity, that Greece did not have a safe place to mount the huge sculptures, but in 2009 Greece opened the state-of-the-art climate-controlled, earthquake-proof Acropolis Museum, which I visited last weekend.
It is stunning.
The top floor is brilliantly situated at an angle to the rest of the museum in order to line up perfectly with the Parthenon up the hill. You can stand in the room where the huge marble frieze is displayed and look up at the Parthenon to see exactly where it hung during antiquity.
The display is magical.
Except that a lot is missing. You can tell by the color of the statuary. Golden marble is real. White plaster is fake but is used to show what “should” be there. You would expect, of course, that many pieces of the original stone would be missing after 2,500 years, and you would feel grateful, of course, that someone has done the research to be able to show you what you cannot see.
The problem here is that most of what is missing is not lost. It resides at the British Museum, a fact that is obvious because most of the white plaster casts are labeled “BM.” (I wonder if that abbreviation was chosen by a Greek who knew English slang.)
Many people have pointed out that the occasion of the Olympics in London this summer would be a great time for Britain to return the sculptures. So far the Brits have refused to do so, arguing that they legally own them. They also point out that returning them (Greeks call it “repatriation” or “reunification”) could lead to world-wide conflict over placement of foreign art.
I grant that controversy will continue, but that doesn’t change the fact that these incredible works of antiquity are Greek. The Greeks have the perfect place to protect them, and they should get them back. It could even improve their economy, if tourists travel to Greece to see them, but that has never been the primary motivation in Greece.
“We don’t call them the Elgin marbles,” explains one Greek tour guide. “They never belonged to him.”
Greeks call them the “Parthenon marbles.” They are understandably proud of their beauty, and they should get them back.
Marion Franck is a columnist for the Davis Enterprise. She is a part-time resident of El Dorado County.