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Writing for the Sake of It: The Parthenon Marbles, As Far As I Know


All is war. All is marble.

Never has there been a more appropriate time to begin to redress the imbalance of history. The British Government could generate, in one magnanimous gesture, a chain of events that would show the world that sanity is reborn, and the 21st century is indeed the new age of enlightenment. 

They could return the Parthenon Marbles to their rightful home on the hill of the Acropolis in Athens and lay to rest one of the most notorious acts of vandalism ever perpetrated from behind a curtain of colonial diplomacy, political mendacity and personal vanity. 

Ironically, on the Marbles themselves, are depictions of wars being fought. Olympian Gods are fighting giants, Greeks are battling the Amazons, men are fighting centaurs and Troy is falling. All is war. All is marble. It predates the Bayeux Tapestry by nearly 2000 years, but tells the same story; one is hewn, one is embroidered. Both are miracles.

That any of the Parthenon stands at all, is a miracle. In its long history it has been both a Christian Church and an Islamic Mosque with a Minaret on top. The Goths sacked most cities, but spared Athens. The Crusaders trashed Constantinople, but chose Athens as their centre of operations, transforming the Parthenon into the Roman Catholic Church of Notre Dame. It has served as shelter for the wretched and iconic totem for beliefs of permanence through the ages. The Turks used it as a gunpowder arsenal in the 17th century until the Venetians blew the roof off, destroying the sculpted statues, and sections of the pediments and their columns. 

They left the Parthenon a virtual ruin, leaving behind piles of powdered marble and beautifully sculpted building blocks, plundered mercilessly later to rebuild elsewhere. Even the lead core between the column sections was melted out and re-used to make bullets.

Early tourists of the 18th century from Western Europe were buying fragments of its sculptures and pediments, transporting them back home, to adorn gardens of stately homes and fish ponds of the rich and rancid dross of the burgeoning Empire. Nevertheless, what is left stands as proud as ever, an icon of classical antiquity, and the cornerstone symbol of democracy. It is acknowledged as an architectural vision of perfection, of austerity, and grace.

The Parthenon was built to honour Athena, a greek Goddess, in the 5th century, B.C. and it housed, among other breathtaking examples of naive, pure genius, her gold and marble statue. Athena was one of the daughters of Zeus, a virgin Goddess (but who would want Zeus for a Father-in Law?), a storm and lightning Goddess, no less (Athene means 'to strike' in Greek), and a patron of the Arts of Peace and prudent intelligence; moisture being her main attribute, which seems odd. I cannot figure out what that means, but with a little more research, maybe I could.

Then the final irony; along comes Thomas, 7th Earl of Elgin, 11th Earl of Kincardine, in 1799, a 29-year-old Scottish career diplomat, wishing to build a vulgar mansion for his wealthy young bride as a wedding present. It was to be called Broom Hall.

Persuaded by a hired architect- Harrison, also a Thomas, who should have known better- Elgin used his influence as the new Ambassador to Constantinople- a 'sultanate' in residence to those who cracked whips like gods themselves- to gain unlimited access to crawl all over the Ottoman empire, wherever his heart desired, and have detailed drawings and plaster casts made, of absolutely anything, which included what was left of the Parthenon, and which still included the Marbles- the enigmatic relief Frieze of sublime enticement. 

I believe that the Marbles proved too much of a temptation for this ambitious, lovelorn young man. Why merely draw them or bother to cast them, for that matter, when you can simply take them- with a spot of heavy lifting? Labour was dirt cheap. Authority was feared with life-threatening intensity, so its power flourished unquestionably. 

I might have felt the same myself- at the time- in the same position, and with the same ridiculous aspirations. It was an avaricious accident waiting to happen. After all, most of the rest  had been blown to bits, or fallen down anyway. So who cares?? No one then, that's for sure, except for a few scholars, who would disappear conveniently, in the blessed mists of time. The unlearned lesson of history is forever present.

So, Elgin employed 300 local musclemen for a year, to tear down the Parthenon marbles and ship them to Scotland to adorn his 'classical' spread and impress the Society of Dilettanti, an exclusive club of erudite zealots, who were as much of a spur to his blind ambition as his wife must have been. 200 crates containing some of civilization's most unbearably beautiful pieces of sculpted marble were shipped back to Scotland for nothing. 

At that time, and even now, high flying diplomats can move murder victims around the world without an export license in the name of national security. Meanwhile, his wife had left him for another. But that was after he had spent 5 years in a French jail. He returned to Scotland in 1806 to find a hellish brouhaha surrounding the action he had taken all those years ago. 

An Archaeologist, Richard Payne Knight, attacked Elgin, more, I suspect, in a fit of jealousy than because of altruistic moral fervour. Nobody is perfect. Lord Elgin had cornered the best, the highest, the most enlightened work of greek intelligence and esoteric perfection. 

Perversely, he may have inadvertently saved them from subsequent destruction. We will never know. Displayed in London, the works, even in their broken form, showed artists and experts alike, the art of the impossible. Lord Elgin was vilified, but it did not prevent the British Government from doling out £72,000 for the collection of fragments (putting Lord Elgin £35,000 in front after total expenses), which were then housed, with due ceremony by the great and the good, in the British museum. Official plunder displayed officially for all to gloat over. 

Nobody batted an eyelid. The 'Elgin' Marbles belonged to England, like most other things upon which the sun never set, at the time.

Times change, and now, we, as benefactors (inheritors?) of a scum-laden past, must square our collective conscience. Irrespective of whether others do it, is not the point.

The point is, we have an opportunity to lead the way. We have an opportunity to demonstrate our fabled reputation for fair play. We have this definitive chance to say, 'We must beg your forgiveness for past transgressions. We must show humility. Redressed actions. No one need lose face. The wrongs are long gone but the damage done hovers like a drip in a damp cave.

A perfect copy of the Parthenon Marbles is within our power to have and a perfect copy is all we need. And then we say, 'Citizens of Greece! Please accept, with our deepest apologies, and in the name of peace and democracy, your Parthenon Marbles.'

If we cannot solve their financial difficulties just at the moment- we could give them back their heart.

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