COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | LARRY STIRLING

Will Elgin lose his marbles?

(ATHENS, Greece) -- Wealthy Englishman Thomas Bruce, aka the Seventh Earl of Elgin, was appointed ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in 1798.

Athens, indeed all of Greece, was then a part of it.

The Acropolis (high city) is located on the most distinctive promontory in the Llissos Valley all of which is now modern Athens.

When Lord Elgin visited the Acropolis in 1801 it was an Ottoman military base and had been for decades.

The exquisite Parthenon was already damaged but not from old age. And it still featured its panoply of ancient statutes and other carved features.

Completed in 432 B.C. (b.c. means “backwards counting”) the Parthenon’s classic beauty remained intact for more than 2,000 years and would have continued until today except for the bombardment of the Venetians in 1687 and the vandalism of Lord Elgin in the early 1800s.

For nearly 2,500 years the Parthenon has inspired the world and it still stands.

Millions, including Linda and me, still walk rock-strewn path to the site.

That is a tribute to its ancient architects and artisans.

In 1687, the Ottomans were under attack by the Venetian military. They took refuge on the Acropolis.

Throughout the day, the Ottomans noticed that the Venetian artillery was not effective against the stone columns of the Parthenon.

Believing it would safe, the Ottomans moved their ammunition dump to inside the Parthenon.

The Venetians, also appreciating that their artillery was not effective, switched to mortars.

Mortars have a higher arc in their ballistic trajectory. That enabled the Venetians to inflict “plunging fire” on the vulnerable terra cotta roof of the Parthenon.

The mortar rounds detonated the Ottoman ammunition cache thereby inflicting the very distinctive gash on the south flank of the Parthenon.

That portion of the Parthenon did not fall down. It was blasted down.

While the ugly wound in the side of the graceful building was a crime against human culture, it was the plundering of nearly half of the Phidian marble statuary and the outright destruction of many others that scarred the temple face converting it from an inspiration to a stone husk.

Elgin claims to have sought, paid for, and obtained authority from the Ottomans to chart, graph, and cast the statutes so that their essence would be preserved against further destruction.

However, somewhere along the line, Elgin’s crews switched from surveying and casting to looting.

Elgin claims they changed their mission when they learned that local craftsmen were burning the statutes for their lime content.

Elgin removed nearly half of the sculptures from the Parthenon and from other ancient buildings on the Acropolis.

His crews sawed and hacked at the great murals like a civil war surgeon resulting in heaps of damaged statue parts for modern-day archeologists to reassemble.

The British government had previously denied him financial assistance so he paid for the work himself.

Thus the loot became his personal collection.

They were later sold to the British Museum to settle debts which is where they remain today and are known as “The Elgin Marbles” though all Elgin did was steal them.

Fast forward to the 2000s. The Greeks have thrown off the Ottoman and become their own country with plenty of issues to squabble about among themselves.

Three things they are in agreement about is that the statues are not “The Elgin Marbles;” they don’t belong in the British Museum; and they want them back.

For their part, the British Museum has steadfastly denied their return pointing out that their provenance is entirely legal as emanating from an Ottoman permit which was the lawful government at the time though they cannot prove that.

In addition, the British claim that they “saved” the statutes from the Greeks themselves; that they are in good hands and seen and appreciated by millions; and that the Greeks don’t have any place to put them anyway.

In answer to the last charge, the Greeks have recently completed a unique museum dedicated to repairing and replacing not only the damaged parts of the Parthenon and the rest of the historic sites on the Acropolis but also a place to house the stolen relics.

The Greeks are not alone in demanding that the white guys return their booty. The Egyptians, the Turks and a dozen other countries have demanded return of their artifacts.

If the British Museum gives back the Phidian statues, it will be a dam break and the great museums throughout the western world may become husks themselves.

Maybe then they will get busy developing their own cultures and stop stealing others.

Sooner or later, Elgin is going to lose his marbles.

Stirling, a former U.S. Army officer, has been elected to the San Diego City Council, state Assembly and state Senate. He also served as a municipal and superior court judge in San Diego. Send comments to larry.stirling@sddt.com. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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