By Simon Jenkins
20 Nov 2021
One day a British government will return the Parthenon marbles to Athens. The only question is: who will obtain Greece’s undying credit and thanks?
The obvious candidate was surely Boris Johnson. In 1986, the classics scholar invited the Greek culture minister Melina Mercouri to speak at Oxford University, pledging to help her restore the Parthenon’s glory. Yet this week it became yet another of Johnson’s Don Giovanni promises – words meant only at the time. Visiting London earlier this week, the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, challenged him to “think out of the box in terms of global Britannia” and stage a “fantastic coup for public diplomacy”. Johnson pretended the issue was for the British Museum to decide, and nothing to do with him.
Anyone who has seen the other half of the Parthenon frieze, now on display in Athens’ magnificent Acropolis Museum, will agree that this greatest of European treasures should not be cut up and divided between Athens and London. It belongs where it was created, radiant in the Greek light and laid out within sight of its original temple. Half of it should not be sitting, frigid and out of context, in a bleak Bloomsbury mausoleum.
The Parthenon marbles saga has lately become enveloped in a wider debate over cultural identity and restitution. The British Museum has long argued, for a time powerfully, that its amassing of global artefacts over two centuries of British empire has delighted and educated tourists to London. The marbles were not looted but were cut from the Acropolis between 1801 and 1805 by the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Lord Elgin, with permission from Greece’s then conquerors, the Turks. No one asked the Greeks, but otherwise it was legal.
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