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UK-Greece: Parthenon Marbles row following last minute cancellation of PMs meeting

Added 2023-11-28


The last minute refusal of British PM Rishi Sunak to meet visiting Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis has led to a very rare cross-party condemnation in Greece. According to officially confirmed reports, Sunak was annoyed by comments made by Mitsotakis on BBC in relation to the long standing demand by Greece for the return of the Parthenon Marbles, held by the British Museum since 1817, to Athens. In the last couple of years there has been some progress in direct discussions between the Greek government and the British Museum that seek an amicable solution possibly involving the perpetual loan of all or some of the Parthenon marbles in return for temporary loans of other Greek antiquities to the British Museum, and there was anticipation that a related gesture would be made in 2021 during the bicentennial of the Greek Revolution. There have even been proposals that Greece should veto a re-entry of Britain, or of England, to the EU if the sculptures issue is not resolved. Athens completed a new Acropolis museum just before the start of the Greek debt crisis, in 2009, at the cost of USD 175m with the expectation of receiving the famous marbles. These had been literally sawn off the Parthenon between 1801 and 1812 by agents of Lord Elgin, British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, in the last decades of Ottoman rule in Athens, and then purchased from Elgin by the British Government in 1817. No official Ottoman approval of this vandalic act, castigated at the time with a poem by Lord Byron, has ever been found, although the British Museum has a single Italian translation of a supposed Ottoman 'firman'. The authenticity and legal status of this translated copy is disputed by experts. Adding insult to injury, or rather injury to insult, British Museum experts in the 1930s irreparably damaged (scratched) the sculptures in an attempt to whiten them, and removed all remaining traces of the original colourful paint! Mitsotakis met, as planned, with the UK Labour leader and head of the opposition, Sir Keir Starmer. His spokesperson strongly criticised Sunak, pointing out that this is "proof he isn't able to provide the serious economic leadership our country requires". With the support of UNESCO, a number of countries have requested the return of ancient artefacts from the British Museum and other colonial/imperial-era European Museums, and there is a steady stream of returns in the past decade.


Parthenon, Acropolis, Athens