Greece may be left waiting for return of Elgin marbles

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

April 28, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- The outcome of the recent British election was not good for the Greeks.

The Labor Party had promised to return the famous Parthenon sculptures to Athens had it won. It didn't, so the Elgin marbles, as they are also known, remain in a vast gallery in the British Museum -- kind of a temple within a temple.

These are the friezes, half-reliefs and whole statues that once adorned the temple of Athena on the Acropolis, carvings of men and women, heroes, centaurs, horses, gods and sprites; they are antiquity's notions of the world expressed in stone.

They are white as milk, and here and there darkened by oxidation; they are chipped and worn, but they gleam against the sepulchral gray of the oblong chamber that holds them as if they were beings from a strange, monochromatic world lifted suddenly out of it. They seem astonished at being there.

Nor is it certain that they always will be. All Greeks think they should come home to Athens. Many Britons think the same. The Times of London recently urged that the marbles be returned. They are, it said, "Greece's Crown Jewels."

"Little by little, the feeling is growing all over Europe that it is time for a gesture" on the part of the British government, said Alexander Rallis, first secretary at the Greek Embassy here. "They cannot insist on keeping them."

As for the election, he said, "This is not a political issue. It is a cultural issue. It has nothing to do with politics. These are a central element of our civilization."

So confident are the Greeks that they will have the marbles again, they are building a gallery to display them.

The controversy has simmered ever since the sculptures were taken, but it was set boiling some years back by the Greek arts minister, Melina Mercouri, a former actress who had a knack for ** attracting support for her cause.

Until not too long ago, these controversies pitted rich countries with museums stuffed with antiquities against the poor countries from which the objects were taken and which only recently formed into nation-states. Most of the taking occurred before and during the age of European imperialism.

Now these states want back those artifacts that they consider central to their cultures. Today, Greece is a poor but modern nation. It is also a partner with Britain in the European Community, which for the first time moves the dispute to a somewhat more complicated arena.

These issues invariably present a dilemma of contesting arguments sincerely presented. The marbles are no exception.

It is known that Lord Elgin bribed officials of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled over Greece when he was ambassador to Constantinople, to be allowed to remove the Parthenon statuary and take it to Britain.

He did this between 1802 and 1804. But he did not pillage them; most were lying on the ground, broken and neglected. The Parthenon, a Doric masterpiece of Pericles' time, was virtually a stripped ruin. Its stones were mined by local builders. In effect, Lord Elgin rescued them.

Britain argues that because the marbles "exemplify in a unique manner the aesthetic genius of classical antiquity," they are the heritage of all people, not just the Greeks. And because they are in one of the world's finest museums, they are where they belong. About 5 million people visit the British Museum annually. "Most would go to see them," a museum spokesman said. It's not likely that as many would see them in Athens.

It is true that richer countries are better equipped than poorer ones to care for these artifacts. But the care is not always good; many collections are stashed out of sight in museum basements, and it is often selective. Take Cleopatra's Needle. This is a beautiful obelisk cut from the Aswan quarries of Egypt about 1,500 years before Christ was born. It was dedicated to two pharaohs and the Egyptian queen.

It, too, was obtained from the Ottoman Turks in the early 19th century and brought here. The obelisk is on the Thames Embankment near the Waterloo Bridge, where it is being destroyed by pollution.

The Egyptian government wants it back, to take better care of it.

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