“All the electric lights won’t stop them from constantly seeking the sweet light of Homer,” renowned French sculptor Auguste Rodin said to Angelos Sikelianos upon seeing the Sculptures ‘imprisoned’ in a dark hall of the British Museum. And he was absolutely right.
Greece is the homeland of the Parthenon Sculptures, Athens is their birthplace, and Greek light is the only light that can bring out their greatness. Only bathed in Greek light can these wonderful creations of human civilization, and, of course, only intact in their entirety, shine and transmit throughout the world the fundamental universal human principles and values of Democracy, Equality Before Law, and Freedom of Speech, just as our ancestors envisioned them.
It has been 221 years since the Greek Sculptures were taken from the hill of the Acropolis. From 1801 and for about a decade, Lord Elgin forcibly removed the Sculptures, even using saws, in order to transport them to Great Britain. The Sculptures were purchased by the British Museum a few years later.
During these two centuries, the dismemberment of this global monument-symbol remains an open wound, a deep wound, a pressing debt, and a pending moral issue, not towards our country and Greek civilization, but towards our global civilization as a whole.
These Sculptures are not isolated works, but ‘architectural sculptures’, the decoration of an indivisible whole, a unique architectural work of global history: the Parthenon. A creation that has dominated the Sacred Rock for 2,500 years, looking out onto the Athenian landscape, and challenging historical time, winning the wager of eternity against natural disasters, wars, and geographical and political changes. Despite being man made, it survived through centuries of human history, remaining the most powerful symbol of Athenian democracy, the first democracy in the history of our societies. A symbol for the entire Western world.
This unique power and the very substance of the monument show us the path we must follow: the path of Dialogue.
About 40 years ago, my dear friend, the late and one and only Melina Mercouri, began a courageous effort as Minister of Culture, opening an international dialogue and raising the issue at the UNESCO Forum of Ministers of Culture in Mexico, with the Forum ruling in favor of the return of the Sculptures to Greece. Melina realized very early on that the path to the return of the Sculptures could only be opened through the creation of international alliances and the launching of an international dialogue based on our country’s just arguments.
From the outset, I had the great honor of being at her side, a companion to her at every step of this ‘beautiful struggle’, utilizing the ‘weapon’ of cultural diplomacy at all my international meetings. And from the moment I had the honor of being elected as UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, the return of the Sculptures has always remained the focus of my activity. I was one of the last people she spoke to before she passed away.
“Marianna, I want you to promise me that you will continue to fight for the return of our Sculptures. When they return, I will be reborn,” were her last words to me. And these words never ceased to be in my thoughts and priorities.
I feel that it was not just I who kept this promise, but the entire Greek people. Every Greek woman and man, every one of us who, throughout these years, never, not even for a moment, stopped envisioning this dream becoming a reality. Every smaller or larger effort, on a national or international level, by the State, Civil Society, institutions and agencies, international committees in many countries, and international organizations, contributed to the significant shift in the climate surrounding the matter recently.
I remember when we held the exhibition titled ‘The unity of a unique monument: Parthenon,’ together with Jules Dassin and the Melina Mercouri Foundation at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris in 2003, the first voices of support for our country were heard, albeit timidly, within the international organization, while another great success was the attendance of the UK Ambassador! That is when, through great struggle, we started to acquire important allies, such as UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador Jean Michel Jarre, who, at two concerts at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus organized by our Foundation and the Association of Friends of Children with Cancer ELPIDA turned the interest of the global community towards Greece, composing the ‘Hymn to the Acropolis’ and performing it for the first time anywhere at the Holy Rock of Athens.
At the same time, in collaboration with leading international figures in the Arts and Culture who joined in the Heroes struggle for the return of the Sculptures, our Foundation launched major initiatives such as conferences, publications, colloquiums, and our international ‘Return (the Parthenon Sculptures) – Restore (Unity) – Restart (History)’ campaign, in collaboration with the Melina Mercouri Foundation.
Since Melina Mercouri began this struggle, the Greek state has taken important steps on a diplomatic and legal level, while at the same time Greece’s voice in international fora is gaining traction.
The courageous Resolution of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee on the promotion of the return of cultural goods to their countries of origin or their restitution in the event of illegal appropriation (ICPRCP) in September 2021, which for the first time recognizes the issue of the return of Sculptures as an intergovernmental issue, and not an issue between the two Museums, was the culmination of years of systematic efforts. It is also noteworthy that the Resolution calls on the United Kingdom to reconsider its stance and enter into good-faith dialogue with Greece, while also recognizing our country’s just request.
The ICPRCP is the only competent UNESCO Committee on matters of negotiation, mediation, and conciliation on international cultural disputes between states and it meets every two years, with the next Meeting scheduled for May 2022. Although this Resolution is not legally binding, it is particularly important that it was reached by the ICPRCP, which is the only international Intergovernmental Commission in the framework of UNESCO – in other words, within the UN – and is a strong international message that the British side cannot ignore.
In 2021, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis – in addition to his bilateral meeting with the British Prime Minister – visited UNESCO headquarters in Paris twice, drawing on the strength of the International Organization and cultural diplomacy. In September 2021, he raised the issue with UNESCO’s Director-General, Audrey Azoulay, in the context of their meeting, and a few months later, in November 2021, in the context of UNESCO’s 75-year celebrations, Kyriakos Mitsotakis talked about the return of the Sculptures before 192 Heads of State and their representatives.
During these visits, at which I had the honor of being present, and through discussions with Heads of State and world figures of culture, it became clear that there had been a shift in the climate in favor of our country’s just request.
This was also apparent at the recent ‘Greece and Cultural Heritage’ Symposium, which our Foundation hosted at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris on the margins of the 41st General Conference of the Organization. During the Symposium, which was held in the context of ‘Initiative 21’ and was attended live by representatives of the 193 UNESCO member states, there were many important voices that spoke of the need for the Sculptures to return to Greece, including Her Excellency the President of the Hellenic Republic, Katerina Sakellaropoulou, as well as the internationally renowned Professor of History at University of Cambridge, Paul Cartledge.
Paying close attention to the developments on the international cultural scene allows one to observe that this shift does not concern Greece alone. The past two years have seen intense international movement on the issue of the return of stolen cultural treasures to their countries of origin. These are mainly treasures exported illegally during the years when colonialism flourished, from countries with a pronounced colonial past, which today have launched a systematic effort to ‘balance the books’ with regards to past illegal possession of their national cultural treasures.
French President Emmanuel Macron has appointed the former President of the Louvre Museum, Jean-Luc Martinez, as the competent Ambassador for international cooperation and setting the criteria for the return of cultural treasures to their countries of origin. Germany has signed an agreement with Nigeria on the gradual return of cultural goods, while countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands, and Austria have made similar agreements.
The climate with regard to cultural heritage monuments is clearly changing, leading many Museums to change their stance and return national cultural treasures to their countries of origin. Obviously, this climate favors the cause of the return of the Parthenon Sculptures.
The return of the famous ‘Fagan fragment’ from the Antonino Salinas Museum in Palermo to the Acropolis Museum on 10 January, through the process of ‘long-term deposit,’ shows the way and is an important weapon on the Greek side of the argument.
This year, for the first time, the Venice Biennale, Europe’s leading cultural event, which will open its doors in the Spring, intends to organize a photography exhibition dedicated to the Acropolis and its Museum. The exhibition will be based on the iconic black and white photographs of emblematic photographer Giannis Giannelos, which form the basis of the exceptional collectible publication of our Foundation, ‘Acropolis, the New Museum,’ published by Miletus. Browsing through this book, which moved the people responsible at Biennale so much that they asked us to hold a separate and autonomous exhibition, one realizes that this is the natural space of the Sculptures: under the sky of Attica, bathed in Greek light.
All of us must continue the struggle. History has shown that each smaller or greater contribution, every effort has played a role in moving things a little further along, making international public opinion understand that these Sculptures are not just exhibits in a museum. The Sculptures are Greece, they are our national pride, on them is carved our history, and they form part of one of the largest monuments of humanity.
“A little longer
And we shall see the almond trees in blossom
The marbles shining in the sun
The sea, the curling waves
Just a little more
Let us rise just a little higher…”
Let the words of George Seferis, with the music of the great Greek, and my beloved friend, the late Mikis Theodorakis, be our compass, our beacon, and our strength in our “just and beautiful struggle.”
Marianna V. Vardinoyannis is UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador.