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Constantine Cavafy’s Struggle for the Parthenon Marbles

The issue of the repatriation of the Parthenon Marbles seems to be a current one, but it is not. It has been stirring the world of letters and arts for many decades.

A prime example of this is the great expatriate Constantine P. Cavafy, based in Alexandria, Egypt, then thriving with Hellenism, who from 1891 advocated for their return, with logic, knowledge, but also dripping with irony.

His writings left no room for doubt as to where ‘right’ was, nor did he coddle its opponents. In an article titled ‘News about the Elgin Marbles’, published in the Athens newspaper ‘Ethniki’ on April 29, 1891, he writes: “… In the Greek nation today the ruins of the Acropolis are much more important and sacred than any other national monument to any other nation. It is the outward and visible manifestation of national existence and regeneration… there is no example in the world of any nation preserving, not by conquest but by recent purchase from a foreign power, the national symbols of another nation.”

Nevertheless, he was overcome with frustration. He reached the conclusion that the stolen sculptures would ever be returned. He writes: “… I do not believe that Greece will have much luck in recovering the beautiful Parthenon sculptures. The party which opposes the return of the Hellenic marbles is multitudinous.”
And how could he not be disappointed, judging things from the point of view of the general mentality prevailing in 1891? He believed that the “English Nation would be opposed to the principles of law” forever.

That was the conclusion of a realist.

And yet, the hour of justice – for the Sculptures, too – is approaching.

More than a century later after Cavafy wrote, the “multitudinous” party is not the one that expresses the colonialist perceptions that they were better placed to protect Greece’s and the world’s treasures than those to whom they belonged.

Already a tsunami of support is building for their return, giving reasonable hope that it is now only a matter of time – and probably not long – before they are returned.

This is borne out and by two recent events: The New York Times, in an important article last week writes: “Attitudes have shifted…and there is tremendous pressure on museums to return any looted works…In just the last few months, museums across America have returned dozens of antiquities to the countries from which they were taken.”

It refers, by name, to the British Museum: “Consider, for example, the mounting pressure on the British Museum to return the Elgin marbles that once graced the Parthenon.”

The article records, among others, the opinion of the New York Assistant District Attorney, Mathew. Bogdanos, who stated: “If anyone tells me that sending the Elgin marbles back to Greece, that somehow the British Museum will be empty, it’s nonsense.”

And on Friday, in an unexpected decision, filled with symbolism but also reflecting a desire to take the lead on a moral issue with global implications, the Pope of Rome announced the return of the Parthenon fragments in the Vatican Museum.

Cavafy’s soul will rejoice.


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