Letter to the Daily Telegraph, April 3, 1996

The Editor
Daily Telegraph
1 Canada Square
Canary Wharf
London E14 5DT
United Kingdom

RE: April 3, 1996 Leading Article: "Minding Our Marbles":

"The argument that the marbles were shipped illegally to England does not stand up. Elgin, British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, of which Greece was then a part, received permission from the Sublime Porte in Constantinople"

"The more emotional argument that the marbles 'belong' to the modern Hellenic Republic as the successor state of ancient Greece is equally bogus. The inhabitants of Athens or Sparta today have no more in common with Pericles and Leonidas than do contemporary Italians with Marcus Aurelius; indeed, rather less. Modern Greeks appear to be obsessed by ancient objects as essential symbols of their state. Their absurd row with Macedonia over the use of the Star of Vergina on its flag is a prime example of this paranoia."

"Come to think of it, there might be the basis of a deal [to return the marbles]. A correspondent to this newspaper in 1984 proposed that the re-establishment of a British protectorate over Corfu should be the price of their return. That is too low; but what if we were to talk of Greece having to leave the European Union?"

To the Editor:

What do King Juan Carlos, Jacques Cousteau, Paul Newman, Lawrence Durell and the culture ministers from 56 nations have in common? They have all supported the return of the Parthenon (ahem, Elgin) Marbles. But let's back up for a moment: why label the marbles with the name of the man who removed them rather than with their own name? The answer in a word: appropriation--and it is the exploring of that complex which best informs this issue. In a sense, the marbles were wrested not only physically but also lexically and psychologically from their origin.

Similarly, the individual who authored the Telegraph's misograecist ravings, and others of his ilk, finds it impossible to see the arc of Greek history from Ancient to Byzantine to modern as a continuous whole. But a considerable number of salient and defining continuities persist, linguistically as well as in folklore, art and even medicine. To ignore this living resource impoverishes a fuller understanding of the Classical Greek past that is so highly coveted. Although parading Marcus Aurelius as an example of the discontinuity of modern Greeks and Italians to their respective ancient ancestries, your author would do well to open his mind to Aurelius' meditation: "In the series of things those which follow are always aptly fitted to those which have gone before; for this series is not like a mere enumeration of disjointed things . . . but it is a rational connection."

Perhaps it is easier for such people to lay claim to a foreign heritage if they marginalize those who are truly its descendants. Paradoxically, many such people call themselves philhellenes, guardians of a flame too wondrous to entrust with Greeks. Is it unlike devout Christians who worship a Nordic Christ and hate Jews?

Yet your author needn't worry . . . no one is waiting to chisel away his heritage, or wrest it away during a period of his nation's bondage and powerlessness. And even though "Beowulf" was written in an English scarcely recognizable today, we happily accept that it is the sacred rock upon which the English literary legacy was founded. No, we do not question your heritage. Why can you not afford us the same courtesy?

Even more puzzling is why the marbles should so fundamentally contribute to a British sense of identity that talk of their removal wreaks havoc. Why should a corpus of Greek art plundered from Greece belong more in London than in Athens? Is this a curatorial manifest destiny?

Had the marbles been taken to protect them from being ground into lime by the Turks, why not now return them? When art from the Hermitage was removed to protect it from the Nazis, it was returned at the end of the war. In reality, Elgin set out to acquire the marbles as trinkets to adorn his manor house at Firth on Forth, and then to pawn them in order to subsidize his extravagant lifestyle and crippling debts. During much of the 400 year enslavement of Greece by the Ottoman Empire, Greeks themselves were never allowed near the Parthenon, at one point guarded by Ethiopian slaves.

The argument heard time and again that the return of the Parthenon marbles would open the floogates to a wholesale repatriation of ancient artifacts is disingenuous: no one is pounding on the doors of other museums containing plundered Greek art. Why? Those artifacts are individual pieces, whereas the marbles form an integral part of a larger whole, the Parthenon. Imagine a Statue of Liberty missing an outsretched arm and torch, wrested away to a foreign museum under the authority of an occupying conqueror. More importantly, like the Taj Mahal is to India, Big Ben to London, and the Eifel Tower to Paris, the marbles are part of an internationally recognized icon which continues to serve as one of the most defining symbols of hellenism.

Finally, upon reading the Telegraph's suggestions that Corfu again become a British protectorate and that Greece resign from the E.U., I wondered if Mad Cow Disease manifested its symptomology in more than just English cows.

Very truly yours,

Associate Media Advisor

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