Walking around the ancient monuments of Greece is a source of both joy and pain. The sites resonate with a strong sense of history – not just mythos as the greeks would say. I explore with awe and feel an ancient presence. Zeus, Apollo, Athina, Herakles, Artemis, Poseidon, Achilles – names made familiar by books, movies and video games. Brave and mighty god-like men and immortal, yet man-like gods with all the vices, jealousies and bickerings of common men. I wander around the abode of Gods and thanks my stars that these sights have waited for me for over 3,500 years. While I rejoice in all that has survived, I cannot but feel sad for all that is lost, pillaged and stolen.
The giant cyclopean walls of the citadel of Mycenae stand guard over nothing. From his empty tomb, Agamemnon, who led the 10 year long epic battle and launched a thousand ships to bring back “Helen of Troy”, seems to call out for his past glory. The Oracle of Delphi stands abandoned – the Temple of Apollo a place of worship no more, the navel of the earth no more. What is sad is that this state is not the handiwork of the ravages of time or earthquakes and fires. It is the handiwork of Greed. The mutilated statues, the solitary columns and the empty Treasuries remind me of Lord Byron’s words in “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” for Greece and her most worshipped Goddess, Athina:
“Come, blue-eyed maid of heaven!—but thou, alas,
Didst never yet one mortal song inspire—
Goddess of Wisdom! here thy temple was,
And is, despite of war and wasting fire,
And years, that bade thy worship to expire:
But worse than steel, and flame, and ages slow,
Is the drear sceptre and dominion dire
Of men who never felt the sacred glow
That thoughts of thee and thine on polished breasts bestow.”
Greece, with its rich heritage of arts, architecture, philosophy and literature was the beacon and guiding light for the western world – receiving lavish paens from its writers and poets, but also attracting its worst marauders and raiders. Delphi was systematically looted largely by the Romans (primarily Dictator Sulla and Emperor Nero). As a conqueror, Nero took several of the treasures of Olympia, then tried to kill the spirit of the games (declaring himself the winner of the chariot race even though he lost) and lastly attempted to ship the Olypmic games event itself to Rome (fortunately failing at that).
But the most savaged site of them all was the once Mighty Parthenon in Attica (Athens). In the words of Lord Byron again:
“Cold is the heart, fair Greece, that looks on thee,
Nor feels as lovers o’er the dust they loved;
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatched thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!”
For over 200 years, the Parthenon monument stands divided and scattered across Greece and Britain. Lord Elgin, a British Ambassador, illegally sawed his way through the sculptures, the metopes and pediments, causing more damage to the Parthenon than earthquakes and cannon fires. With the help of the Ottoman Turks, he shipped away his ill-gotten treasures to Britain and after prolonged negotiations, sold the same to the British Government. These treasures almost equal in quantity what was left behind in Athens and are currently housed in the British Museum, for the longest time being shamelessly showcased as the “Elgin Marbles” until recently being forced to rename them as the “Parthenon Marbles”.
The Greek government as well as the Greek public have been demanding the return of the Parthenon Marbles as their rightful heritage. Large cultural organisations including UNESCO (interestingly, their symbol is the Parthenon), a majority of the British Public as well a lot of public opinion globally is supportive of the Greek bid. As someone who has seen the “Elgin Marbles” as well as the Parthenon in Athens, I completely support the need to re-unite the monument to restore some of its lost glory. Without the visual context of the original site, the Marbles displayed in London are a bunch of stones – mere museum highlights. Whereas, pitted against the beautiful backdrop of the Parthenon, the collection displayed in the New Acropolis Museum in Athens gives a pretty good sense of how magnificent the Parthenon would have been, how important it was for the Athenians of those ages and how its significance evolved over a period of time.
The British Museum has refused to cooperate, rather arrogantly stating that in fact Lord Elgin did the Greeks a favour by stealing the Marbles, else pollution would have ruined the Marbles (can you possibly imagine pollution in Greece in the 19th century vs pollution in industrialised London around the same time!!!). Further, they argue that even now, they are better equipped to protect the Marbles than the Greeks. I would argue that the collection in Athens (the Cartayid statues for instance) look much better maintained than the one in London. I cannot imagine a worse form of Cultural imperialism – first ruling under the guise that we natives need to be civilised and then looting us systematically. And now pretending to be protectors of the artifacts of that very uncivilised and pagan culture.
I see the Colonial British as no different from the Nazis in the systematic looting of ancient cultures. Why should the Western world act outraged over the ISIS destroying heritage sites around Iraq or the Taliban exploding the Bamiyaan Buddhas in Afghanistan? What about the British destroying and looting the Red Fort post the 1857 Mutiny? Have the old colonial powers ever apologised for their past lootings? From the mughal jewels to assyrian artifacts to the treasures of the pyramids – the British Museum is a shameful display of ill-gotten wealth. The Louvre is no different, earning over 100 mn euros annually on largely non-French displays – be it the Winged Victory of Samothrace or the beautiful statue of Venus De Milo. Look at the Washington Museum – where did the railroad tycoons and their financiers have legitimate reasons to possess what they donated?
I fully sympathise with the Greeks and appreciate their persistent campaign on the Parthenon Marbles. I recall my anger during my visit to the Tower of London, after seeing the “Mountain of Light”, the Koh-i-noor, in British hands. Proudly displayed as a thief who knows he will never be tried.
India has a lot to learn from Greece. If a country with just 11 million people and very little strategic importance can make this audacious move to reclaim its heritage, why can’t we use the “soft power” that we claim to enjoy? Or is it that we care too little?
Top 10 plundered artifacts
A short video by Bringthemback.org campaigning for the return of the Parthenon marbles:
Demands of restitution to France: