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Hi, everyone. Welcome to this emergency episode of Dan Snow's history hit. Lord Byron, the poet, once wrote, Dull is the eye that will not weep to see, by walls to face, thy moldering shrines removed by British hands, which had best to behoove to guard those relics, near to be restored. Cursed be the hour from when their isle they roved, and once again thy hapless, Bosom, gaud, and snatched thy shrinking gods to northern climbs, abhor'd. He was talking about the removal of the so-called Elgin Marbles. The Frees, the card figures that run right along the outside of the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Greece. They were removed by order of the British Ambassador to Constantinople, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Court, Lord Elgin, right at the beginning of the 19th century. Greece, like much of Southeast Europe, was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire, and so they were the relevant legal authority at the time, and Lord Elgin always claimed and had evidence to show that he had permission to take away the marbles, the Parthenon frieze. However, the Turkish copy of that contract has been lost, and it does remain a disputed fact. In 2022, the Greek Culture Minister accused Elgin of a blatant act of serial theft.


The Elgin marbles went through quite a lot. First of all, they were removed and craned down from the Parthenon. They were transported to ships. One of those ships then sank, the marbles were recovered in a sub-sea recovery operation, and then the British government bought them from Lord Elgin in 1816 for display in the British Museum. When Greece became independent in 1835, thanks in part to a crushing British and French naval victory over the Turks, the new Greek government asked the UK to return the marbles. They've gone on repeating that request for decades, joined now by the World Heritage Organization, UNESCO. This week, we had one of those regular yet somehow always unexpected moments where a historical story blasted into the headlines. It wasn't Napoleon anymore. No, that's yesterday's news. It's now the Parthenon freeze. The British Prime Minister was embroiled in a row with Athens after canceling a meeting between Prime Minister, Rishie Sunak, and the Greek Prime Minister. The British claimed that they'd been assured that the Greeks were not going to raise the topic of the Parthenon freeze. The Greeks say they felt liberty to do so, and the British canceled the meeting.


On Sunday, the Greek leader told the BBC that having some of the treasures in London and others in Athens was like cutting the Mona Lisa in half. The marbles have been controversial from the moment they were removed by Elgin and brought to Britain. So why did he do it? Did he really have permission? And what are they doing in the British Museum? And ultimately, should the British give them back? Another interesting question is, why is the government weighing in? Who decides whether or not these treasures are sent back to Greece? And of course, there's a wider point here. What should we do with the artistic and cultural treasures that have ended up in British and Western museums but were created by cultures many, many miles away. Are things like the Parthenon Frieze a legacy to all mankind, suitable to be housed in any museum anywhere? Or should they maintain their particular connection with a place? In the case of the Parthenon Frieze, they were sculpted in the fifth century BC. The invading Persians after the Battle of Themopily had completely destroyed all the religious buildings on top of the Acropolis, and Athens, after their glorious victories over the Persians, they built, re-rendered the temples of the Acropolis in beautiful marble, a sparkling religious sight of many temples on its lofty, lofty plateau above Athens.


They were created at the height of the Arthurian Empire, which was a place bursting with self-confidence, with energy, with wealth, with imperial swagger. Perhaps not uncoincidentally, they were transferred to London at a time when London was hitting the heights of its imperial journey. For Londoners and Brits in general, I think it was exhilarating to compare themselves with the ancient glories of Greece. Now to help me understand what on earth is going on here and talk me through what the Greek government has proactively been doing to recover these treasures, well, since at least the I'm joined by nick Malkoutzis and Georgia Narku. They're two journalists, their lovers of Greek history, and they're both contributors to macrupolis. Gr. It's an English language website for everything Greek: politics, history, culture, the works. Here, as ever, is Dan Snow's history hit with all the context you need to navigate your way through the historical culture war dujour. There'll be plenty more where this came from, folks, so stick with us. Enjoy.


T minus 10. The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. God saved the game. No black, white, unity until they're dispersed in black unity. Never to go to war with one another again. And lift off and.


Then the.


Tunnel has.


Cleared the power.


nick and Georgia, thank you very much for coming on the podcast. Georgia, let's come to you for the deep dive into the history here. Fifth century BC, Athens, the Enlightenment, the great flowering of cultural, architectural, literary, dramatic excellence in Athens at the time. Why was the Parthenon built?


Yes, as you say, the Parthenon is a monument that belongs to the fifth century BC. It was built in the latter part of the fifth century, which is commonly referred to as the Golden Age of Athens. It's the period where democracy came into its own as a system of government. Athens was rich and powerful. It saw the fluorescence of Greek drama, great period for the visual arts, and so on. The Parthenon is part of the Acropolis complex. The Acropolis are on top of a hill that overlooks Athens. The Athens of a fifth century was around the foothills of the Acropolis. The Parthenon itself is a temple to Athena, and Athena was the patron goddess of Athens. But to put it into the more approximate historical context, Athens and many of the other Greek city saints had spent the first half of the fifth century battling the Persians, what is known as the Persian Wars. In around 480 BC, the Persians had actually come into Athens. Athens had been evacuated and they raised it to the ground twice in 480, 479 BC. They burnt what was then, at that time, the old temple at the temple to Athena, nothing was left, and this was a great blow to Athens.


Once Athens recovered from that and the Persians were sent back from whence they came, Athens set about rebuilding the monuments and the Acropolis. Apart from being a religious monument and what we see now as a temple to democracy, it was very much a monument to Athens and might. I would compare it in present day terms to the Freedom Tower in New York after 9/11 to bounce back from that blow and show the world that Athens was very much back and bigger and better than ever. Pericles, who was the powerful man at the time, started this building program, which consisted of several buildings on the Acropolis and included the Parthenon. It also, in addition to being a temple, housed the Treasury of the Delian League, which was the big coalition of the willing that Athens put together to fight the Persians. So in addition to being a temple and a monument to Athens and might, it was very much to become the seeds of the Athens Empire. You could also look at it as a proto-NATO headquarters. Very much Athens is here, Athens is back, Athens is strong.


Maybe a little bit like St. Paul's Cathedral at the end of a troubled 17th century for English. What about the Fries itself? What does it depict? What can you go and see if you go to the British Museum? Now, first of all, what is a Frees? What bits of the Parthenon have we got here in the UK?


The British Museum currently has just over half of the decorative elements of the Parthenon. The Parthenon is an oblong building with columns, a colonnade surrounding it. The bits that were the the most interesting sculptural elements were the Frieze, the metaphies, which are sculpted panels that will also go around the top of the columns, and then the pedimental sculptures, and these are the sculptures that were in the gable end of the temple. They show a series of mythological scenes which show the foundation myth of Athens, starting in deep myth and progressing to, for example, the pedimental sculptures show a series of mythological battles between different groups of mythical creatures, the Centaurs and the Lappeths and so on. They're all allusions to the history of the deep history of Athens and their allegories for the Persian Wars, and that Athens is leading the Greek world in a victory against the Persians.


Thank you for that. You're slightly triggering. I've got traumatic memories of my dad dragging me and my sister around and having long lectures about the various metopies and various things like that. But you did it much better than he did, so thank you. We would die of old age if we attempted to the course of Athens and history from Pericles onwards. Suffice it to say it was war, it was conquest, it was success, it was failure. Can we come up to the point at which the Brits managed to get their hands on it? We're coming right up to the 19th century.




Is and has for a long time been under Turkish rule.




What happens?


Just quick, fast forward, as you say, after the decline of the classical world and after the Romans took over, the Byzantine rule and so on, the importance of Athens as a center declined. By the time you get to the 19th century, it really was, as they described at the time, as a village of a few thousand souls around the base of the Acropolis. The Acropolis itself being quite prominent had been used at times as a defensive structure. It had fallen into disrepair and it had also suffered a few episodes of destruction, including being shelled by the Venetians, which really took big chunks out of it and killed several hundred people at the time. It was a shadow of its former self, bits of broken statery lying around. Also it had been looted by the Venetians as well. There were bits missing, bits were being used to build other structures around it. There was a mosque on the hill during the Ottoman era in the middle of the classical ruins, and into this steps, Lord Elgin. Lord Elgin, his name was Thomas Bruce, and his title was the seventh Earl of Elgin. He lobbied the Crown to become an ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.


He succeeded and he was appointed, I'm going to read this out, Ambassador Extraordinary and Minister of Plenty Potentially of His Britannic Majesty to the sublimed port of Sallim III, the Sulton of Turkey. So Elkin was a bit of a fan of classical Greece, which was not quite as widespread at the turn of the 18th and 19th century as it became afterwards. He was a bit of a dilatant, a bit of a collector of ancient bits of stone, and he was very much looking forward to going to Greece for that reason. Before setting off, he approached politicians at the time and said, Would you be interested if I was to take some artists with me and record these monuments to improve the back home? They very much said, No, sorry, we're not interested. But he persevere. He got there and he said about doing a bit more than just recording the monuments. Now, there's a lot of debate as to what his motives were. He certainly obviously wasn't acting on behalf of the Crown or the British government. He was very much freelancing. Did he intend to bring the pieces back to give to the nation?


It's not clear, and many people point to the fact that he was in the process of building his country pile in Scotland at the time. There's some insinuation that he actually just meant to take the stuff back to scatter around the grounds of a loom-haul house. He got a form of consent to do this. When we get to it, a lot of the debate around the legality of his actions centers around what exactly the Ottawaans gave him permission to do and what he actually did and whether the permission was strong enough to allow him to take out of the country. He ended up taking 200 crates full of the nicest bits of the decorative elements of the Parthenon and shipping them to Britain over a course of several years. Just to give you an idea of the magnitude of this hall, he took about 275 feet of freeze, and that's longer than the width of a football pitch. Fifteen of the Metaphys and 17 of the pedimental sculptures, plus bits of other parts of the Acropolis, including the Caryatid, one of the female maidens, holding up the roof of the Eric Théon temple, which is another iconic piece of fifth century Greek sculpture.


He got this to the UK at his own expense, paying £75,000 at the time, which is several million pounds in today's money. In the course of getting home, his wife had an affair. They had a very tabloid-style divorce, and Elgin was virtually bankrupted from the combined expense of bringing the sculptures back with him and his costly divorce. He was more keen than ever to try and sell the artifacts. He made a first attempt to sell them to the British state that fell flat. This was around 1801, he kept battling on at it, and eventually the British Parliament approved the purchase of the sculptures for about half of what he paid to ship them back and then gave them to the British Museum. Not everyone was enthusiastic about it. Lord Byron was very vocal against it, and so were other travelers who'd been to Greece. But public opinion was fairly split on the matter, and there had to be a parliamentary inquiry to approve the purchase. It wasn't until the sculptors went on display in the British Museum that they actually became wildly popular, even amongst Byron's contemporaries, and arguably helped raise awareness around the course of the Greek Revolution, which started in 1821.


That's how they came to be from Athens to London.


Well, thanks, Georgia. That was a tour de force. Nick, we've just heard about the Greek Revolutions, the upsurge of nationalism, which had a huge impact in Greece and one of its independence, but far beyond Greece as well. When did the Path of the Marbles become an issue, do you think, with the Greek people?


Well, the first official request from the fledgling Greek state was made in 1840 toto the first request for the marbles to return to Greece. And for a long time after that, the issue went on the back burner. Obviously, the Greek state. It had just been founded, and you did a podcast not too long ago on the the Greek War of Independence starting in 1821. It took a while for the war to play out and then for the new state to get founded. And obviously, a new state has all kinds of issues to sort out. But the campaign as we know it today, and perhaps your listeners have seen videos online or posters on The Tub or whatever it may be about international campaign to bring them home, bring them back. That really started in 1982. What kicked it off? There were a number of factors. Firstly, at that point, the Parthenon was really suffering not just from the ravages of time, but also the ravages of pollution in Athens. Obviously at that time, Athens was very well known for its cloud of pollution, the nephos, as it was called in Greek, that hung over the city, and it was really eating away at the sculptures that remained.


So at that point, this effort began to preserve and protect the Parthenon and the Acropolis in general. And this coincided with a political change in Greece. A new socialist government had just come to power in 1981. The Passoch party won the elections, and this came after a very troubled period in Greek history where we had a seven year military dictatorship in the late '60s and mid '70s. And this government wanted to represent a newer, freer, more progressive Greece, but obviously wanted to make this reconnection with the ancient world, which is always a dynamic going on in Greece, in modern Greece, this connection with the past, especially the ancient past, and as we just mentioned, was so instrumental in the support of the international community for the Greek War of Independence. But we also had Greece in 1981 joining what was then the European economic community, the EC today, the EU. And it was very much about Greece trying to establish its place in the world, in the Western world. And this idea of bringing the marbles back was really part of this effort to show a new face, to show Greece that had a very bright and illustrious history, but one which had a relevant present and a promising future as well.


And that's when it all started. And the woman who launched that campaign was Melina Mercuri. She was a Culture Minister. She had been an actress, and perhaps some of your listeners might know her from what was then a very emblematic film, Never on Sunday. People may know the tune to that. She acted and that became an international celebrity, which for Greece at that time in the late '50s, early '60s, really didn't have a lot of international celebrities. So she was a nationwide figureare popular with Greeks at home, popular with Greeks abroad, but also known to an international audience. And in 82, she went to a UNESCO conference in Mexico and said, Look, we're beginning this campaign to get them back. And as she put it, for the marbles to come back under the blue sky of Attica, Attica being the greater Athens region. And she talked about them returning to their natural space and being reunited as part of a unique hole. And this was really the basis of the campaign was, and it's still relevant today, was that, yes, artifacts have been taken for many countries, but we're not talking about a vase that's been taken or a statue.


This is a unique sculpture which has broken down into pieces, and part of it is in the UK, and part of it is here, and we want to reunite it. It's not about just bringing something back home. We want to reunite this work of art, essentially. And you asked earlier about what bits are here, what bits are in the UK. You can sum it up by saying the head of Athena is here in the Acropolis Museum, and her torso is in the British Museum, and this was very much at the center of the campaign. Let's reunite this. And that was the start of a campaign that's been going on for a number of years since then and has gone through various ups and downs.


Listen to Dan Snow's history talking about the Parthenon freeze, the Elgin marbles. More coming up.


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What's the current situation? Has there been any movement? I mean, whose decision is it? And what's the mood music been? Is there any smoke coming out of the Vatican, Chimney?


Well, the progress has been limited, obviously. The marbles are still in the UK. I think there have been various small gains along the way. There was a time when the world would have spoken of the Elgin marbles. Today it's more likely that we speak of the Parthenon marbles, and that's a result of this campaign of awareness. When Melina Mercuri began this effort to get the marbles back in '82, it also marked the start of these international committees for the Marbles return being formed around the world, including in the UK. And they are really the ones that drive it outside of a government to government discussion. The Greek government at various times has made the argument, and it's been pushed back. Initially, the argument was that they're better looked after in the British Museum. Athens is a dirty, polluted city. They're just going to be damaged in the dirty environment there. Then there was the argument that, well, you don't really have a proper museum because at the time until 2009, Greece didn't have a large dedicated Acropolis museum. There was, I wouldn't call it quite a portacabin, but there was this very small museum on the actual Acropolis rock.


So we had this push just before Athens hosted the Olympics in 2004 to get them back, and that fell flat on its face when the then-Greek Prime Minister, Costa Cemet, side-led up to the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, at the sidelines of a EU summit. And he didn't realize that the microphones were picking up what they were talking about. And he said to Tony Blaire, this was in 2003, Look, we've got the Olympics coming up next year, but I also have elections. It would be really useful for me to get the marbles back. And this caused a big furole in Greece. It was a political scandal that we're trying to politicize this issue when it's really a national issue, an issue of national importance. And of course, he didn't get anything out of Tony Blair. But the interesting thing is that Greece has seen labor leaders, if not necessarily the Prime Minister in this case, as more receptive to the idea of the conservative leaders of the Marbles coming back. So Tony Blair's predecessors, Michael foot and Neil Kinnock both publicly came out more or less in favor of returning the Marbles. And more recently, Jeremy Corbyn gave an interview to Danne and newspaper and our colleague, Janice and the Tropoulos, who is their London correspondent, and said, Yes, I'll give them back if I become Prime Minister.


But of course, it's not as simple as that. They are the property of the British Museum, and it's up to the trustees of the museum to decide this. But even then, as I understand it, it would need a change to the law in the UK, a law in the 1960s?


The 1963 British Museum Act, which is intended to preserve the collection for posterity. There is a political hurdle to overcome. Even if the trustees decided they were keen on repatriating them, the law would have to change to allow them to do that.


That's interesting, Georgia. He has suggested it is the trustees the British Museum have the final say, but if it requires an act of Parliament as well, then that's not entirely true.


Yes. This is convenient for both the government and the British Museum because it avoids anyone having to make a tough decision on this front. It's very legalistic, and I think it's interesting that there was a letter made by papers recently from a former UK ambassador to Athens who said that really the UK should avoid or British authorities should avoid falling back on these arguments because they're very transparent and they don't make the UK look as if it's acting in good faith or the BM.


Do we know? Has anyone done an exciting politics style or a England football style breakdown of what all the different trustees think about the issue?


They don't publish their individual views. There's a couple of interesting developments just around this general area. I mean, one is that there is a greater movement generally towards restitution of cultural property. If you look beyond Athens and beyond Greece, there are obviously other countries whose antiquities make up the British Museum's collection, and that is what is promoted as the great strength of the British Museum that it holds treasures from around the world, the issue with that is that at the moment, that's come to be seen as a bit of a weakness because it really exposes the colonial history of Britain and aspects of the colonial history that are less of a cause for pride, for instance, the slave trade. Just to give you an example that is completely separate from the marbles, but quite relevant, there's a group of artifacts called the Benin Bronzes that are scattered around the world, several in the BM, the Metropolitan Museum, and so on. They were looted from the Kingdom of Benin, which is now modern-day Nigeria. They were looted as part of a destruction of the kindred to do with retaliation over the slave trade. Because of those associations, there's been a pressure on the institutions that hold them to give them back.


Slightly more clear cut case because of the circumstances of their taking. But several institutions have voluntarily given them back, not for legalistic reasons, but simply because it's not a good look anymore to show these things away from their context and to potentially hide their context. Because of the way that the argument for the reunification of the Parthenon marbles has been presented in the past, i. E, it's exceptional, it's a one of a kind. It's not like any of these other things. They have isolated themselves from this movement, but it is a sign of a turning tide that may eventually help to lead to their restitution.


Okay, folks, I'm going to ask you the big question. I hope you don't mind answering in a personal capacity. Let's start with Georgia. What do you think? What's the answer? What's the way out of this?


I think the tide is turning on this, but I think it's not going to be easy. I mean, any resolution would have to involve a win-win, diplomatically negotiated solution. The British Museum is unlikely to just return the sculptures to Athens because they have long argued that this would open the floodgates to all sorts of requests. I would argue that slowly the floodgates are being prized open, but this would be a big one. I mean, it's an existential threat to the British Museum as it stands currently, and someone really radical would have to come in and reconceive the museum for the modern era. The other thing I'd say is that the current British government might have to change before any great moves take place. There was some pretty trenchant rhetoric that greeted George Osborne's appointment to chair the Board of trustees from groups of Tory back benches who basically wrote an open letter calling him not to give in to the so-called woke agenda, which would involve entering into negotiations over things like the Parthenon marbles and even smaller scale restitutions. I don't have a very strong view on what should happen because I think for the purposes of scientific study, they can be anywhere.


I think the moral case is to return them to Greece. I think there are many ways in which you can go about plugging the gap. We have all sorts of technology at our fingertips now. Microsoft just did an augmented reality reconstruction of the whole site at Olympia. Not a very tasteful one, but that's a matter of taste, but they've got the technological ability. I think more and more moving towards these technological solutions that will make it less painful to part with things. Then there are also things like, I think the Greek governments turn more towards offering things in exchange, so permanent, not permanent, but a rolling sequence of loans to museums. Imagine something like the exhibition, Carmen, exhibit, but with Agamem non-mask and the Mycenae treasures. There's all sorts of things that can happen if museums can work together that way, make things more interesting for everyone, really.


Okay, listen, I think that's well done, George. That's going to be my new opinion. Thank you very much for that.


Have I nailed it?


That's all sorted. Everyone go home. Nick, what do you think, nick? Sorted, yeah.


Look, Dan, speaking as someone who loves the British Museum, and obviously I have a great deal of time for the Acropolis Museum. I want to see them both flourish, and I understand this is a difficult issue in that respect. But also as someone born to Greek parents in the UK and now living in Greece for many years, I've grown a bit tired of this issue always seeming to dominate, at least on the surface, relations between the two countries, when there's so much that's interesting and diverse and progressive and really fantastic about what's going on. Obviously, this is a story that attracts a lot of media attention. It's sexy, people write about it and so on, but it's not anything to do with the current relationship between the two countries and the peoples within the two countries. So I would love to see it resolved. And I would like to go to a quote by the British Museum Director, Hardwick Fisher, when he gave an interview to Tanea newspaper, a Greek daily newspaper I mentioned before in 2019. And he essentially suggested that maybe we should appreciate Lord Elgin's act and his argument. And I quote here, and I'll give my comment on the end.


You could, of course, be saddened by the fact that the original environment has disappeared. When you move a cultural heritage to a museum, you move it outside its original environment. However, he says, This shifting is also a creative act. Now you can imagine Dan how that went down in Greece. Lead Balloon would be, to put it mildly. But if he's talking about the creative act, and I won't comment on that, but maybe it's time for another creative act so many years after Lord Elgin's one, if we're going to call it that, I think there are solutions. And the Greek government, not just this one, but previous ones have tried to be constructive. And I think as time has gone on, perhaps be more constructive in this debate. And they've offered to, in return for getting the marbles back, to send on this rotations of important ancient Greek artifacts to be exhibited at the British Museum. So maybe that's a starting point for a sensible adult discussion about this.


You know what? I like the Parthenon marbles, but I think I'd take rotating greatest hits of ancient Greece every six months. I think that's a good deal. I think the British Museum should go for that deal. It's pretty sweet.


Well, someone made the point of discussing that the BM could actually charge for admission to rotating exhibits, whereas they can't make any revenues off the Parthenon marbles.


Money spinner.


Your phone is going to be ringing off the hook after this point. Let me tell you, you're going to have George Osborne on.


The old blower.


I was just going to say then that my son, he's 13 now, but when he was about seven or eight, and obviously they're taught about this in Greek school, that Elgin came along and ripped half the marbles off the Parthenon, he suggested to me we take his grandfather's pickup truck, drive it to London, break into the museum, steal the marbles and bring them back.


Heist movie idea.


If they go missing one day, no one heard.


That from me. Listen, that's more likely that's coming the next David Williams book, buddy. Watch out, protect your intellectual property on that one as well. Georgia and nick, thank you so much. That was, I think, really interesting discussion. I learned a lot about the history. There were some solutions there as well that's very unusual for this podcast. There were practical ideas for a better future. Brilliant.


Well done. Thank you, Dan.




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