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Global issue 20

Arena Arts Losing our marbles The hiring of Amal Clooney – wife of Hollywood actor George Clooney – by the Greek government to provide legal advice on the thorny issue of the repatriation of the Elgin Marbles has reignited passions on both sides. The ancient Greek sculptures currently reside in London’s British Museum, but Greece wants them back Johannes Ruckstuhl If one looks east across the grey rooftops of Athens, it is impossible to miss an island of green trees and yellowed rock that rises above the flat city. It’s a sight that is immediately familiar even to those that have never set foot in the Greek capital: here, between the Areopagus and the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, sits the epicentre of Hellenic civilisation – and, in many senses, of Western civilisation as well – the hill of the Acropolis and, atop it, the Parthenon. Almost as familiar as this fantastic sight is the far less attractive image of the great Temple of Athena Nike, hidden from view, clad by layers of scaffolding as workers desperately try to shore up the crumbling building against Athens’ polluted skies. For several years in the early 19th century, the Parthenon ruins were also surrounded by scaffolding; some would argue for equally altruistic reasons as the contemporary works, while others contest that what happened on the site was nothing short of gross colonial vandalism. Beginning in 1801, and over the course of ten years, workers sawed and chiseled their way through the marble pieces – the metopes and frieze – that ran around the exterior of the building atop two colonnades, as well as the sculptures that adorned the triangular front portion of the temple’s roof. They did this at the behest of Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin and British Ambassador Extraordinary to the Ottoman Empire. Originally intending simply to make casts and drawings, Elgin obtained a dubious mandate from Ottoman authorities, the very liberal interpretation of which allowed him to remove sculptures of ancient sites to Britain, what he took thus becoming known as the Elgin Marbles. Like the tomb of Pharaoh Amenhotep III, or the Pergamon Altar, the Parthenon became the victim of a colonial treasure hunt. Even at the time, Elgin’s actions attracted controversy. While the marbles undoubtedly inspired John Keats to write a magnificent sonnet, they also stirred up a great deal of acerbic verse from his romantic colleague Lord Byron. Byron, who travelled extensively in Greece at The marbles originally sat on the front of the roof of the Parthenon, before labourers working for Lord Elgin broke them into chunks www.global f i rst quar ter 2015 global -br ief ing.org l 63 © Jan S. / Shutterstock


Global issue 20
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