The Elgin Marbles

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The Elgin Marbles, also known as the Parthenon Marbles, but possibly rightly called the Parthenon Frieze, are a collection of Classical Greek marble sculptures, which were part of the temple of Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis of Athens. In 1687 the temple, which had stood for about 2,000 years, was largely destroyed during a war between Venice and the Ottoman Empire, which was then occupying Greece. Originally made by architect and sculptor Phidias and his assistants, the Parthenon is considered as one of the most important European icons from the ancient world.

The Elgin Marbles collection consists of roughly half of what now survives of the Parthenon – 247 feet of the original 524 feet of frieze and 15 of 92 metopes among others according to the British Museum. It also includes objects from other buildings on the Acropolis: the Erechtheion, the Propylaia, and the Temple of Athena Nike.

The items were removed from Greece and shipped to Britain by Lord Elgin removed the sculptures, in the first decade of the 19th century. According to the British Museum, Lord Elgin had permission from the Ottomans who were ruling Greece at that point. This fact is being disputed by many historians and many see a theft of important cultural artefacts from Greece. The return of the Elgin marbles is a bone of contention between the UK and Greece.

The British museum argues that Elgin had good reason to be concerned for their safety as in the 17th century, the Parthenon was used by the Ottomans for gunpowder storage and the structure was badly damaged in an explosion when a Venetian force attacked the city. It made sense for the British to rescue these artefacts from further destruction.

The Greek government has a different view on Elgin’s actions. In a statement provided by the Greek Cultural Ministry:  “Concurrently, by showering Turks in Constantinople and Athens with gifts and money and by using methods of bribery and fraud Elgin persuaded the Turkish dignitaries in Athens to turn a blind eye while his craftsmen removed those parts of the Parthenon they particularly liked. Elgin never acquired the permission to remove the sculptural and architectural decoration of the monument by the authority of the Sultan himself, who alone could have issued such a permit”

Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister remains an ardent supporter of the sculptures remaining in London contending they were “rescued, quite rightly, by Elgin”. His predecessor, Tony Blair, conceded in an interview with the Greek newspaper Kathimerini that the sculptures had been in a box marked “too hot to handle”. There is a lot of debate within the UK on how best to proceed.

The Greeks, on the other hand, are resolute in their demands.

“The reunion of the Marbles is our debt of honor towards history,” said Georgios Voulgarakis, then minister of culture, in a 2006 speech. “The museums ought to meet their moral obligations towards the cultural and spiritual coherence of the United Europe.”

The debate continues.

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