There is growing pressure on the British Museum in London to send the Elgin Marbles back to Athens in what would be a historic move. For two hundred years, the museum has owned and displayed two-hundred sculptures that once adorned the Parthenon – a temple built 2,500 years ago at the height of ancient Greek power, dedicated to the goddess Athena.
Today, if you get to visit the Parthenon in the Greek capital Athens, it’s very much a shadow of its former self. But then this iconic monument has experienced a rocky and turbulent history. Originally, it was a huge temple and strong-walled treasury for the ancient Greeks in the fifty century BC.
Later, when Athens became part of the Roman Empire, the Parthenon transformed into a church in the sixth century AD when the Romans converted to Christianity. Incredibly, this involved adding a bell tower to the temple.
In the 15th century, Greece was invaded by the Ottoman Empire – a Turkic and Muslim kingdom that came to dominate eastern Europe, north Africa and the Middle East for centuries. The Parthenon was changed into a mosque and the bell tower extended to become a minaret. Yet despite all this, the Parthenon was surprisingly intact as it marked two thousand years of existence.
But then disaster struck. In 1687, the Ottomans were at war with Venice – which was then an independent country. In the film below, I detail what happened to the Parthenon. Bit of a spoiler but basically, it was left in the condition you see today. If you think the Parthenon collapsed thousands of years ago, think again. It was wrecked just 340 years ago.
Semi-demolished and unloved, the Parthenon was looted for building material. A fate shared by many ancient buildings at a time before tourism and the notion of conservation. But in the 18th century, wealthy, intellectual Britons took a growing interest in the classical past. They made a beeline for Rome and Athens undertaking what became known as the “Grand Tour”.
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Meanwhile in the Ottoman capital Constantinople, the British ambassador was a member of the British nobility called Thomas Bruce – though you know him as Lord Elgin. Initially he sent a team to make drawings and casts of the Parthenon friezes but this somehow developed into the removal of half the Parthenon sculptures. What came to be known – notoriously – as the Elgin Marbles were then shipped to London.
I’ve looked back at newspaper commentary from Elgin’s lifetime and his lordship had plenty of critics. Although you get the impression that some of his critics were jealous they hadn’t got there first. However, Elgin’s claim that he had the approval of the Ottoman authorities to remove the marbles from the Parthenon and ship them off was greeted with scepticism – even in parliament.
One report in The Times on June 8, 1816, covers a debate in parliament where Elgin’s version of events was derided. His argument that he was rescuing the marbles from the Parthenon was rubbished. It was said that he had been given permission to “view” and “contemplate” the sculptures – not to pull them down and ship them off.
What should have happened ideally was that the Ottomans – referred to as Turks in this parliamentary debate – could have been taught to value these monuments as opposed to having them whipped away by Elgin. Parliament viewed Elgin’s conduct – especially in his role as an ambassador – as thoroughly inappropriate. Here is an excerpt from that 1816 newspaper article.
Elgin claimed to have spent something like 74,000 pounds to secure the marbles from the Parthenon. A select committee of the House of Commons looked into the whole affair in 1816 and decided to offer Elgin under half that amount to buy the marbles for the nation.
The committee sympathised with the argument that Elgin had “saved” the marbles, declaring they would have been destroyed over time by the “apathy of the Turks” and “barbarous violence” by passing travellers carrying off fragments. But the sympathy didn’t extend to given Elgin what he was demanding financially. There’s a constant inference – to be blunt – that Elgin was a bit of a chancer and a man in public office who was lining his pockets.