After their victory against the Persians in
479BC the Athenians returned to their abandoned city and found all
the buildings on the Acropolis had been demolished.
Pericles, Athens' ruler at that time, wanted
to rebuild the city and make it an artistic and cultural as well
as political hellenic centre. During the thirty years of Pericles'
rule, many buildings were erected like the Parthenon. The general
artistic supervision of the Acropolis buildings was assigned to
Pheidias, an eminent artist at that time.
In 439BC the Parthenon was dedicated to the
goddess Athena and it took 15 years to complete. This is a remarkably
short time when one considers the principles of architecture employed,
some of which are still unknown to us.
In 450AD the Parthenon was turned into a Christian
church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, but in 1204, when the Franks
occupied Athens they turned the Parthenon into a Catholic church
and when the Turks arrived in 1458 the Parthenon became a mosque
with Turkish houses built around it. Some drawings of the Parthenon
made by Jacques Carrey in 1674 show that at that time the Parthenon
still remained intact.
Thirteen years later, in 1687, the Venetian
general Francesco Morosini laid siege to the Acropolis. He bombarded
the Acropolis, even though he knew that the Turks were storing gunpowder
there. The result was an explosion which destroyed much of the Parthenon.
The Scottish Earl of Elgin, a passionate
amateur collector of antiquities, had proposed himself for the post
of British ambassador to Turkey's Ottoman Empire because of his
health. He had syphilis and the doctors recommended him a warm climate.
Europe was in the grip of the Romantic revival,
and he was obsessively keen to record and, if possible, obtain as
many of the ancient Greek treasures now in the uncaring care of
Turkey. His purpose, he wrote, was to improve the modern art of
Great Britain by permitting its artists to see firsthand the greatest
examples of sculpture ever made.
The Turkish rulers of Constantinople were
pleased to accept bribes, gifts, money and munitions from England
and France. In return, they gave permission to record, then sketch,
then in 1801 dismantle, and finally, transport the Greek monuments
Elgin put together a team of painters, architects
and moulders. The looting of the Parthenon began immediately. The
Greeks weren't indifferent. Many complained about the ruination
to the Sultan because he had given permission to Elgin to make his
plans. Nevertheless all attempts were in vain. The sculptures were
lowered from the temple and transported by British sailors on a
"The marble caused us a lot of difficulties
and I had slightly to become a barbarian."
General Lusieri to Elgin Edward Clarke in
1811 wrote one of the most famous descriptions of the actual
operations on the Acropolis by Lord Elgin's workteam under
the supervision of Venetian general Lusieri. According to
Clarke, who witnessed the removal of the metopes, it was a
fantastic and marvellous sculpture. But tragedy struck when
a part of the Pentelic marble collapsed under the pressure
of Elgin's machines and Clarke states that even the Turkish
commander cried as the marble was smashed to pieces. Clarke
also makes the point that Elgin's workteam also cut the marble
into smaller pieces for easier transport.
"Lord Elgin may now boast of having
Anonymous Greek, 1810.
On December 26 1801, Elgin ordered the immediate
shipment of the sculptures on the ship "Mentor". During 1806, one
of the Caryatids was removed, as well as a corner of the Erechtheum,
part of the frieze of the Parthenon, many inscriptions and hundreds
Others joined in the looting and this incredible
activity, which was not confined to the Acropolis but was carried
out throughout Athens and large parts of Greece, continued for many
years. In 1810 Elgin loaded the last of his booty on the warship
"Hydra". In 1817 two more warships were loaded with gravestones,
copperware and hundreds of vases. Four years later, the Greek War
of Independence finally brought Elgin's looting to an end.
"Quod non fecerunt Gothi, hoc fecerunt
Scoti" "What the Goths did not do, the Scots did here" Graffiti
, Athens 1813. (This graffiti is said to have been written by Lord
"He (Elgin) looted what Turks and other
barbarians considered sacred." J. Newport MP
The treasures' subsequent adventures included
sinking in shipwrecks, heavy-handed salvaging, being possessed by
and rescued from Napoleon's fleet, and then lying, dispersed and
neglected -- for many years awaiting transportation to London.
It was January 1804 when the first 65 cases
arrived in London, where they remained for two years because Elgin
had been imprisoned in France. The maltreatment which the Marbles
suffered was unavoidable. They were placed in the dirty and damp
shed and grounds of Elgin's Park Lane house and remained there for
years, decaying in London's damp climate, while he tried to find
Elgin made attempts to sell the Marbles to
the British government but the price he asked was so high that they
refused to buy them. As the years passed, so the Marbles influenced
the lives of people in Britain. Churches, buildings and houses were
built in Greek classical style.
After defeating the French at Waterloo, victorious
England was able to consider buying the Parthenon Marbles from Lord
Elgin in 1816. Elgin claimed that he personally had spent 62,440
pounds on bribes, workmen, transportation and storage -- roughly
$10 million at today's prices -- but the best offer a government
committee could come up with was 35,000 pounds. Reluctantly, he
took it, and returned to Scotland to father eight children with
a new countess, adding to the four already born to the first Lady
Finally, the Marbles were transferred from
Burlington House to the British Museum, where a special gallery
was eventually built for them.
Elgin's second attempt to sell the Marbles
to the British government led to a debate in Parliament where
Sir John Newport MP said about Lord Elgin:
"The Honourable Lord has taken advantage
of the most unjustifiable means (i.e. bribery) and has committed
the most flagrant pillages. Hiconduct has been censured."
Among the first people to criticise Lord Elgin
was H. Hammersley MP. He advocated that if any future Greek government
demanded the Marbles back, England should return them without any
further procedure or negotiation.
Some views on the return of the Marbles:
In 1890 an editorial by Franklin Harrison, which appeared in the
magazine "19th Century", entitled "Return the Elgin Marbles!" maintained
that the sculptures were more dear to the Greeks than to the British.
Philip Sassoon MP, and Private Secretary to the Prime Minister at
the time, wrote in the Times in 1928 that the splendid ruins of
the Parthenon and the bright air of Athens would be a more suitable
place for the most harmonious sculptures in the world, than the
In December 1940 a Labour MP, Mrs Keir, asked the Prime Minister,
Winston Churchill whether the Marbles would be returned to Greece
in partial recognition of that country's valiant resistance to the
Germans during World War II and the sacrifices of its people. The
answer was negative. At the time , there was a large number of letters
published in the Times favouring the return of the Marbles to Greece.
"For Turkey, the point of departure is that pieces should be returned
to their country of origin," said Ahmed Ulker, a Turkish diplomat
at Unesco, the United Nations cultural body that promotes restitution
of unique art treasures. "Of course, we don't want to empty Western
museums. But, as a matter of principle, art works exported illegally
should be returned." ....
Britain had always
claimed that they were much more prepared to preserve those
treasures than the Greek but…
… how much of this safekeeping and preservation
is true and plausible?
The Greek government has lately been spreading a lot of rumours
over the museum's bad handling of the marbles and, partially,
The British Museum has lost its charm for many of the 6 million
tourists who visit the place.*