The Best Reason To Return The Parthenon Marbles…

I note that the Parthenon (‘Elgin’) Marbles are in the news… Back in 2013 at the start of my cycle ‘Along The Med…’ I was given a guided tour of the Parthenon and New Acropolis Museum by a woman called Maria from the ‘Marbles Reunited’ association. For those that think the British Museum should keep hold of these Greek treasures, I beg you to visit the museum in room and see what the Greeks have done to create a space for displaying them upon their return. It is inevitable that one day, they will. Below the video is what I subsequently wrote in the book, Along The Med on a Bike Called Reggie.

Tuesday 2nd July 2013

Rest Day 1: Athens

It seemed like almost cheating to have a rest day after only one modest day of cycling, but I was determined to make the most of my visit to Greece and I couldn’t continue without exploring the jewel of the capital, the building that is arguably the birthplace of modern civilisation: the Parthenon.

Now if you are one of those people who struggles when it comes to finding your way in foreign capitals, Athens should perhaps be on your list of destinations to visit.  Sitting as it does in its lofty position as part of the Acropolis complex, the Parthenon is almost impossible to miss. Indeed, it had been almost a constant in my eyeline since arriving in the capital almost 48 hours earlier. I didn’t really need a map to seek it out; it was just a case of wandering around the base of the Acropolis in a clockwise direction until I stumbled upon the New Acropolis Museum on the opposite side of the mound to my hotel. Prior to my trip, I had contacted an organisation called Marbles Reunited and had received an email from Maria, their campaign manager, offering a guided tour of the museum, as well as the ancient monument itself.

Marbles Reunited, as you may have guessed from its name, campaigns for the reunification of the Parthenon sculptures and friezes currently housed in the British Museum – commonly known as the ‘Elgin Marbles’ – with the remaining surviving sculptures and friezes in Athens, Greece. Its campaign is based upon the belief that the Parthenon sculptures “…are best seen and studied as a single archaeological collection in sight of the monument they were once an integral part of, namely the Parthenon.” If Maria had any concerns prior to our meeting that she would have to argue her point vociferously, she had little to worry about. She would be preaching to the converted.

The Parthenon sculptures and friezes were removed from the building itself in 1803, on dubious legal grounds, by Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin and the then British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire which controlled Greece at the time. Lord Elgin had a passion for art, so much so that instead of commissioning a few paintings of the Parthenon and its sculptures and friezes, he removed 70 metres of them and shipped them back to Britain. Even Lord Byron – the alleged chisel-wielding graffiti artist back at the temple in Sounio, so perhaps no saint himself when it came to a bit of cultural vandalism – was shocked by the removal work that he witnessed. It can’t have been an easy job removing the statues and the friezes, and saws had to be used to prise them from the building. Once ‘safely’ on Elgin’s ship, the marbles started their journey to Britain only for the ship to be wrecked and for the stones to lie at the bottom of the sea for two years. They were eventually recovered by divers and finally made it into a gallery of the British Museum in 1816 following a Parliamentary Select Committee enquiry which, according to the leaflet that is now distributed by the museum to curious folk like me, “…fully investigated and approved the legality of Lord Elgin’s actions”. I’ll bet it did! I had purposefully made the short pilgrimage down to London to see the marbles prior to my trip to Athens, to remind myself of the context in which they are displayed. It’s difficult to describe room 18 of the British Museum as anything other than drab and uninspiring.

Maria had agreed to meet me at 11am outside the far-from-drab and very architecturally-inspiring New Acropolis Museum, but I was early so spent some time reading about the history of the Acropolis, Parthenon and the new museum in my guide book. The word ‘acropolis’ refers simply to the highest point in a town or city and as such Athens is not unique in having one. The cluster of buildings on top of the Athenian acropolis, of which the Parthenon is but one (albeit the most magnificent and recognisable), were built in around 500BC as temples to the gods. That’s what they remained for about 1,000 years until they were converted for use as Christian places of worship. When the Turks arrived, the Parthenon was once again converted, this time for use as a mosque. In the 17th century, the Venetians, while trying to oust the Turks, managed to cause an explosion which blew the roof off the Parthenon and set the whole place on fire. Then Lord Elgin turned up (along with his French counterpart ambassador Fauvel who was up to the same light-fingered activities) at the start of the 19th century and started to pilfer what remained. It’s a miracle that there is any of it left standing today, but it does perhaps explain why the building is currently shrouded in scaffolding and has been for the last 40 years.

Maria arrived precisely on time. Half British, half Greek, my guide had a British mother and Greek father and spent most of her childhood in Greece before returning to London to study. She came back to Athens a few years ago, where she now works as a freelance graphic designer, teacher and manager for Marbles Reunited. After exchanging a few pleasantries (of which one was to reassure her that I wasn’t about to argue the case for the British Museum), we decided that the best place to start the day would be on the mound itself, so we wandered along the wide, traffic-free road leading from the museum, towards the collection of crumbling temples that sit on top of the Acropolis. Our entrance tickets bought, we joined the tourist throng and gradually edged our way into the complex for a wander and a chat. Maria didn’t claim to be an expert on the history of the site, but she was very good and informative company as we stood, stared, wandered and occasionally stumbled on the rough ground in between the main points of interest. Despite the on-going restoration work, scaffolding and cranes that sporadically cover much of the building, the Parthenon is a breath-taking edifice. The sheer scale of the thing would be impressive enough, but then the precise symmetry of the architecture… OK! I know… It isn’t symmetrical, but it certainly appears to be, which, apparently is one of its many splendours. It is not symmetrical in order to look symmetrical! You’ve got to take your hat off to the ancient Greek builders.

Wilting somewhat under the midday sun, we eventually headed back down to the museum for some air-conditioned respite from the heat and the crowds of tourists. The museum opened in 2008 and is a wonderful monument to early 21st century architecture, although I somehow doubt that in 2,500 years time its concrete pillars will be adorned with notices asking visitors not to touch the concrete. But you never know. The upper floor is the museum’s showpiece. It is built to the same proportions and upon the same axis as the Parthenon and houses, in the places where they would have been were they still stuck to the monument itself, the statues and friezes that still remain in Athens. In place of the ones that are in the British Museum (and the Louvre and several other museums across Europe), there are crude plaster casts of the originals (‘how did they do that?’ I asked Maria but she was equally bewildered – those British Museum security attendants are pretty sharp operators!) with a discrete note underneath each one indicating what they feature and diplomatically explaining that the original is in the ‘BM’. On the northern side of the upper gallery you can turn your head to see the glorious remnants of the Parthenon itself high above the museum, and whatever arguments the British Museum puts forward for keeping hold of the statues and friezes, they can certainly never claim to be able to house them in a more dramatic and spectacular fashion than they would if they were all sent back to Athens. The New Acropolis Museum awaits their return and in my humble opinion, one day justice will be done. It usually is.

For the record, the British Museum takes the following position:

The British Museum exists to tell the story of cultural achievement throughout the world, from the dawn of human history over two million years ago until the present day. The Museum is a unique resource for the world: the breadth and depth of its collection allows the public to re-examine cultural identities and explore the complex network of interconnected world cultures.

Within the context of this unparalleled collection, the Parthenon sculptures are an important representation of the culture of ancient Athens. Each year millions of visitors, free of charge, admire the artistry of the sculptures and gain insights into how ancient Greece influenced – and was influenced by – the other civilisations that it encountered.”

My day with Maria ended with lunch in the extremely reasonably-priced restaurant that is part of the museum – much cheaper than the one at the British Museum I would guess, and with a wonderful panoramic view of the Acropolis rather than the traffic on the Tottenham Court Road – and we chatted about Maria’s work for the association, as well as modern day life in Greece. Like many Greeks of her generation, she finds the current economic situation a struggle, but she was in no rush to head back to England. In such a stunning location it wasn’t difficult to see why. We descended three floors to the entrance of the museum and braced ourselves for a plunge back into the stifling heat outside where we parted company with sincere promises to keep in touch. I headed back to my hotel for a late afternoon snooze and to contemplate the thing that I had almost forgotten: the cycling.

© Andrew P. Sykes 2014

Categories: Adventure, Cycling, Travel

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3 replies »

  1. Returning the marbles – alongside many other important cultural artefacts is probably an essential step in coming to terms with the real nature of the British Empire – as opposed to the nostalgia/spin etc that still emerges from some of the popular media. I hope they go back.

  2. Agreed. Looking at the various artefacts at the British Museum feels like an examination of the spoils of conquest. Not a good feeling.

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