THE CASE OF THE ELGIN MARBLES

  “Blind are the eyes that do not shed tears while seeing, O, Greece beloved, your sacred objects plundered by profane English hands that have again wounded your aching bosom and snatched your gods, gods that hate England’s abominable north climate.”-- Lord Byron, Childe Harold

That treasures of Greek antiquity are referred to by a British name is telling, a situation not often paralleled. There is a good reason, though; Lord Elgin, in stealing gave; in destroying, preserved. His purpose was not so much preservation as to enlighten the British populace, but once his crew were on the Acropolis, one incident above all tells all, even beyond the Venetian bombing in 1687 of what had become a munitions magazine: that is, Elgin’s people  demolished the residence of a Turkish soldier who lived on the Acropolis - by force, after failing to obtain his permission. This act may seem brutal, but not half as harsh as the dispossessed man’s laughter as he watched them excavate under his former residence in vain. They would find nothing, he said, because he had already demolished the statues he found there to create the mortar out of which he had built his house. The Acropolis had been so plundered that it is amazing that anything was left by the time Elgin’s people got there, after a protracted process of gaining permission from the Turks. Athens was a whistlestop at the time and no interest had been taken in her artifacts until precisely that century Elgin was leading off so prophetically. His people took most of the sculptures that remained and in the process one of his ships sank en route to England and other artifacts were damaged or destroyed, inevitable when the technology to detach the sculpture from the buildings was so primitive. Even the structures were damaged, though unintentionally. What we think of as the Elgin marbles are actually scattered all over Europe, because everyone made off with pieces of the artifacts, everyone, and lucky we are when these were preserved as treasures rather than converted  into building materials.

     The poets objected strongly to Elgin’s plundering and I must say that until I visited England recently I agreed with them. I agreed because I had visited Greece twice and love the land and the people and the sites. But something was wrong. Even in the late twentieth century, I found their antiquities sometimes insufficiently guarded or cared for (or the reverse, in the case of the Acropolis). I am thinking particularly of the Asclepieion, a site at Cos, where we walked right over a mosaic floor from the early second millennium, protected only by plastic tarpaulin. Beneath my feet I felt pottery shards crunching into this ground. They were scattered around in profusion, on their way to rapid dust. I dared to rescue a few from this certain oblivion and miraculously managed to pass through customs on my way back to the United States. The officials were far more interested in my film canisters. I looked like a hippie and had been backpacking all summer and they were probably searching for drugs. I could only justify the theft, on a small scale, the way that Elgin could justify his: either steal them from their native turf or be certain they will be destroyed altogether.

     The Greeks are constructing a new, modern museum facility at the base of the Acropolis, like E. M. Forster but less certain, only hopeful, because Byron is correct, after all, the marbles belong where they came from, but as sacred treasures, not scrap material to be diverted to mundane uses. The issue is so vital in terms of many other events at the turn of the millennium: custody questions, so to speak. Solomon took the “baby” away from Greece because circumstances were literally cutting it in half, depriving it of its legacy. Now we wonder where Elian González should live, so dominated by political boundaries the logic of split custody as a solution is not even debated. The child’s past is in Cuba, as is most of his family, but if his mother gave her to take him away from there, she must have had a very compelling reason. Her family in Florida, all émigrés, hate Cuba and want the child to remain with them. The point is, of course, the child belongs with his families, both places. He is the product of a divorce and this is the way sensible people settle the issue. I think the protraction of this controversy is telling. What politics could not address, human interest may. A child’s needs and dreams may scale and dissolve the stone walls that all the diplomacy in the world so far has not. The case of thousands of Cuban children deprived of proper medication because of the embargo is one thing, but the close-up portrait of one child being stretched to the limits is another. Remember the little girl who flew to Russia to entreat them for peace. A few years later, she was dead but the Iron Curtain had also ascended once and for all. Other children have wrought greater miracles: the children's crusade in the late sixties that led to the end of the Vietnam war and, after all, the birth of Jesus Christ, a nearly universal icon.

     The issues all center about various forms of civil disobedience. Elgin had permission to take away with him inscriptions and fragments, according to the document (firman). Stretching the wording a bit, and greasing a few palms, as they say, he came away with considerably more than that.

     I came to view these treasures less than a month ago. They are in high-ceilinged, airy chambers, on pedestals closely guarded by a large crew of professionals. The Acropolis buildings whence they came are carefully reconstructed in an adjoining room so that you can locate each statue and fragment into its original context. But the most emotive aspect of the entire encounter for m-e was being able to touch these treasures. In Athens you cannot step onto the Parthenon, or whatever the polluted air has allowed to exist beyond all the other forms of plunder,  without hearing shrill police whistles warning you away. If you dare attempt a photo in the Acropolis museum you are sternly scolded. But in the British Museum, no one cares about any form of photography of the Elgin marbles. I was a dove let out of a cage. Timidly, trembling, my hand grazed the Ionic column preserved from the Erechtheum. I stood between it and one of the Karyatids. I grazed that statue. My camera shook at every attempted photo. I could have stood there for hours. I could stand as close as I wanted to these  prized masterpieces, this most celebrated creativity. No guards hovered menacingly around me. They stood at a distance, admiring the statuary with me. They probably figured that a teary-eyed female with a notebook who had traveled so far mainly to view the Elgin marbles would do them no harm, even if a few tears fell onto the stone.They don’t need to blow whistles to keep people away from the treasures, because they are so well cared for. The Athenians behave the way they do because of centuries of neglect,  ignorance, and foreign domination: a different scenario.

     And in this instance, at this stage of history, regarding something that had been created to last forever (the buildings on the Acropolis were virtually intact until blown to bits in 1687) and would have, barring unnatural violence, I can say that the good has prevailed and hope it always does, whatever geographic or political boundaries are involved.

POSTSCRIPT: Having revisited Athens with my daughter, I saw the new Acropolis Museum. In the front, as you first walk in, is a glass case filled with the original Caryatids. The ones "holding up" the actual Erectheum are copies. But within the glass case, at least ten years ago, these priceless statues are strewn at random rather than displayed in a more dignified manner. Perhaps this situation has improved since then.