Published1 day ago
More than 200 years after they were torn from their country’s most sacred landmark and shipped unceremoniously to the UK, the Elgin Marbles still scream injustice for the vast majority of Greeks.
Not that anyone around me would call them that: the Parthenon Sculptures being the name used time and again – in a rejection of the British claim of ownership of the ancient treasures perceived almost universally here to have been stolen by one Lord Elgin in a callous act of imperial theft.
In the bustle of central Athens there was the most predictable of consensus among those we spoke to, whether old or young.
“I mean, the Parthenon, the sculptures – they belong to Greece. Let’s be fair, yeah?” said 21-year-old trainee pilot Melina Petrou.
“What the prime minister said about the Mona Lisa was a great example. You’d have half of it in the Louvre and half in another country and that’s what the UK did in stealing the sculptures – so that’s not fair at all.”
But wouldn’t the process of moving the friezes seriously endanger them, I ask? Aren’t they better off at the British Museum, as the British government argues?
“I used to live in London and I remember one day I saw at the British Museum how the roof was leaking. And they say they need to stay in London because they’ll be in a better condition! They need to come home to Greece.”
The Parthenon, the sculptures – they belong to Greece. Let’s be fair, yeah?
At the foot of the Acropolis, you find a museum that was built specifically to house the missing marbles whenever their return may be. Fourteen years after it opened, they are still waiting for their centrepiece to be brought back.
Inside the building, the outline of missing parts of the Parthenon are highlighted – along with an explanation of where they currently reside. Other countries, including Italy, have said they are prepared to return some precious Greek antiquities but the British are yet to follow suit.
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s cancellation of his meeting with Greek Prime Minster Kyriakos Mitsotakis has done nothing to boost affection for the UK.
If Mr Sunak thought calling off the talks at 10 Downing Street would be seen as just a diplomatic storm in a tea cup, he was mistaken.
“I felt offended and every Greek felt offended,” cabinet minister Adonis Georgiadis told me on Tuesday evening.
“I speak with respect to your prime minister but he made a mistake. This is a sad day for our relationship.”
Mr Georgiadis is also the vice-president of New Democracy, which eventually secured a thumping victory in this year’s Greek national election.
On the central issue of returning the marbles, he said every citizen – irrespective of political allegiances – was united that they should be returned.
“The Parthenon does not only belong to the Greek people but to all civilised people. It represents the classical ideas that gave birth to democracy, philosophy, poetry, art and human rights.”
He said it was a “disgrace” for the sculptures to remain far from their true home, and hoped the British Museum would find a “reasonable way out” of a predicament which was not its fault.
Foreign Minister Giorgos Gerapetritis reinforced that message on Wednesday, describing Greece’s claim on the sculptures as based “not only on history and justice but also on ecumenical cultural value”.
“Irrespective of this, we need to work with the UK and we are going to serve this purpose in the future in order to deepen this longstanding history we have – the two nations,” he told the BBC ahead of a Nato meeting in Brussels.
Among late-night shoppers streaming through the streets of Athens – now decked out in Christmas decorations – there was less charity for the institution.
“This is all about money” said 49-year-old Ilias.
“The Museum thrives on presenting all these amazing pieces of history on display, and if they lose the marbles then the British Museum will not be the British Museum.”
But what if they were to return to Athens? What would be the national mood?
“The Greeks would be very, very happy. British people are very reasonable and fair and I think they would be happy too,” Ilias said. “It would be good for the whole world.”
Additional reporting by Kostas Kallergis