Greece or United Kingdom, the endless battle of the Parthenon Marbles

After a year of secret discussions, the marbles of the Parthenon in Greece are the talk of the town. While Athens wants to see its heritage returned, The British Museum maintains its position and declares that it wants to keep it. A diplomatic conflict that divides.
The friezes of the Parthenon were located on top of the monument and inside (©Pexel).
The friezes of the Parthenon were located on top of the monument and inside (©Pexel).

A case which bogs down

The culture secretary has insisted, the “Parthenon Sculptures belong here in the UK and should not be returned to Greece”. While The British Museum and Athens were close to concluding a deal about the Parthenon Marbles on January 11th, Greece refused the very recent agreement. Actually, Greeks have rejected the British Museum’s offer to return the Parthenon Marbles as a long-term loan.

“Give us back our history”


Greece’s prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis declared, according to Reuters, that he hopes to achieve repatriation if he wins a second term. Suggesting that this project is clearly part of his re-election campaign. 

“I don’t expect immediate results but I believe that we have already moved very systematically”. Kyriakos Mitsotakis.


A news which is thus contrary to the statements of the previous weeks. A few days earlier, both countries were saying they were having “constructive discussion” about some “Parthenon partnership”.

Besides, during all this time of discussion, the Greek ministry of culture has always claimed that Greece does not recognize the British Museum’s jurisdiction, possession and ownership over the sculptures they have taken.

Whereas two centuries earlier, before buying back the marbles of Lord Elgin, the British Museum made an inquiry on the merits of the purchase. Its aims were to know if these goods have been acquired in all legality. The British Museum made commissions, hearings… and concluded to the legality of the purchase.

Greece under the supervision of the Ottoman Empire or British Empire ?

Lord Elgin sold to The British Museum the Parthenon Marbles in 1816. At this time, Greece was under the domination of the Ottoman Empire. After the fall of the Byzantine Empire and the capture of Constantinople in 1453 by the Turks, the Greeks learned to live under the authority of the Ottoman sultan. The war for Greek’s independence began in 1821, thus, worried about the Parthenon Marbles, the young ambassador, Lord Elgin tried in vain to convince the Sultan to protect the monument. He could not change the Sultan’s mind so he decided to take action by himself.  He could thus obtain the authorization of the sultan Selim II. A royal decree allows him to remove the sculptures of the pediment and the frieze that runs around the Parthenon.

Athens’s local authorities tried to stop Lord Elgin but at this time the city was small. Therefore it was no longer important in the eyes of Turks.

When the pieces arrived in England, London bought them and set them up in The British Museum. Rescue and restoration were the arguments retained to explain these plunderings.  Greeks had no right to expose their opinion, they just had to accept this culture of higher civilization

“He didn’t just pick up the pieces that fell on the floor, he sawed off parts of the frieze that were still on the parthenon. To say that he saved it was a kind of defense for him, a way to explain his act”, declares François Queyrel an archaeologist and specialist in Ancient Greece and author of “Le Parthénon : un monument dans l’histoire”. “But we can not rewrite history”.

London, the new Athens

It is an old story of two centuries ago that still continues. This endless battle does not seem to be won in advance. This statement on the British side reminds of the former British imperialism. But it also embodies the political issue of universal heritage and the question about ownership of cultural works. Do they belong to their home countries or to their foster homes?

“We can not rewrite history”

François Queyrel

François Queyrel says that “London has widely advanced the idea that the Athens argues that it is a universal museum and that athens its museum is centered on greece and has no international influence. But this aspect of international city advanced by London poses today question since Athens is a city which at the world level becomes very known”.

François Queyrel is a French specialist in Ancient Greece. (©Loïc Damelet, CCJ – CNRS/Aix-Marseille Université)

Opened in 2009, the Acropolis Museum, the eternal symbol of the city of Athens, is still waiting for its pieces of the frieze. A special place in the museum is reserved for them in case they return to Athens. The prime minister also said that it was not only Greews who pleaded for the return of the Parthenon Marbles. Indeed, also visitors who visit the Acropolis Museum are impatient. They claim in its entirety in its natural space.

“Anyway, we will not be able to put the marbles in their true place as the parthenon, unless we put the monument under a bell! Also, we must not think that putting everything in the same place will make the parthenon return to its original state”, declares the archaeologist.

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