by Melina Mercouri

The Oxford Union is a world-famous debating society which is often addressed by eminent people. In June 1986 the topic for debate was the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece. This is a long file and we recommend that you download it to your hard disk for reading offline. It is well worth the effort. We would like to thank the Melina Mercouri Foundation for providing the transcript of this speech.

Mr President, Honourable members, Ladies and Gentlemen.
At once let me thank the Oxford Union for introducing this resolution for debate, and thanks for inviting me. I think that it is good, that this evening a Greek voice should be heard. Even a voice with my poor accent. I hear it and I wince. I am reminded of what Brendan Behan once said of a certain broadcaster: "He speaks as if he had the Elgin Marbles in his mouth".

There are other thanks I need to make; to the many British citizens who have defended my government's position, to the Honourable Members of both Houses who have manifested interest and sympathy for the return, to the participants in tonight's debate, and of course, for its efforts to bring the truth to the English people, my deepest gratitude to the British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles.

And the Parthenon Marbles they are. There are no such things as the Elgin Marbles.

There is a Michael Angelo David.

There is a Da Vinci Venus.

There is a Praxitelles Hermes.

There is a Turner "Fishermen at Sea".

There are no Elgin Marbles!

You know, it is said that we Greeks are a fervent and warm blooded breed. Well, let me tell you something - it is true. And I am not known for being an exception. Knowing what these sculptures mean to the Greek people, it is not easy to address their having been taken from Greece dispassionately, but I shall try. I promise.

I have been advised by one of your eminent professors that I must tell the history of how the Marbles were taken from Athens and brought to British shores. I protested that this was too well known but was told that even if there were a single person in this audience who might be vague about the facts, the story must be told. So, as briefly as I can, here goes.

We are at the end of the 19th Century. Napoleon is pondering the risk of invading England. He decides that it is not a very good idea. Instead he invades Egypt, wresting it from Turkish authority. The Turks don't appreciate this at all. They break off diplomatic relations with France. They also declare war. Britain decides that this is a dandy time to appoint an Ambassador to Turkey.

Enter Lord Elgin. It is he who gets the job. He has just married pretty Mary Nisbett and is finishing his fine country house. Its architect tells him of the wonders of Greek architecture and sculptures, and suggests it would be a marvellous idea to make plaster casts of the actual objects in Athens. "Marvellous, indeed," says Elgin. He sets about organising a group of people who could make architectural drawings, headed by a worthy painter, who turns out to be Giovanni Lusieri, an Italian painter.

I can't resist stealing a moment for an anecdote. Elgin had previously approached Turner. Yes, the Turner. The young painter was interested. Lord Elgin sets down the conditions: every drawing and sketch that Turner made was to become his Lordship's possession. In his spare time he would give Lady Elgin drawing lessons. "Okay," says Turner "but then I would want 400 a year." No, no says Elgin, too much, much too much. So, no Turner. End of anecdote.

The Chaplain of Elgin's staff was the Reverend Philip Hunt. I shall not speak of him with much reverence. If I had to exclude Lord Elgin, the arch villain in the story, as I see it, was the Reverend Hunt. Of that a little later on. The Elgins are received with pomp in Constantinople. Lavish gifts are exchanged. The winds of war are favourable to the British and the Sultan is delighted. Now we shift to Greece, this Greece occupied for almost 400 years now by the Ottoman empire.

Elgin's staff of artists arrive in Athens. To control Athens the Turks have assigned two governors, one civil, the other military. Much has been said and continues to be said of what little concern the Turks had for the Acropolis treasures. Yet, it took six months for the Elgin staff to be allowed access. But they worked it out; five pounds a visit into the palm of the military governor. This inaugurated a procedure of bribery and corruption of officials that was not to stop until the marbles were packed and shipped to England.

Yet, when scaffolding was erected and moulds were ready to be made, suddenly came rumours of French preparation for military action. The Turkish governor ordered the Elgin staff down from the Acropolis. Five pounds a visit or not, access to the Acropolis was verboten . There was only one way to get back up there again; for Lord Elgin to use his influence with the Sultan in Constantinople, to obtain a document, called a firman , ordering the Athens authorities to permit the work to go on.

The Reverend Hunt goes to Constantinople to see Lord Elgin. He asks that the document state that the artists - please, note this, are in the service of the British Ambassador Extraordinary. Elgin goes to see the Sultan. Elgin gets the firman . The text of the firman is rather tortuously composed. Let me read the orders given by the Sultan which are pertinent to our discussion. I quote:

"That the artists meet no opposition in walking, viewing, contemplating the pictures and buildings they may wish to design or copy; or in fixing scaffolding around the ancient temple; or in modelling with chalk or gypsum the said ornaments and visible figures; or in excavating, when they find it necessary, in search of inscriptions among the rubbish . Nor hinder them from taking away any pieces of stone with inscriptions and figures."
(The Hunt translation later presented to the Select Committee reads - qualche pezzi di pietra - some pieces of stone).

These instructions are given to the governors -- and the point is made in the firman -- because of the excellent relations between the two countries, and I quote again:

"...particularly as there is no harm in the said buildings being thus viewed, contemplated and drawn".
No sooner was the firman delivered to Athens, than a feverish, terrifying assault is made upon an edifice that, until today, many consider the purest, the most beautiful of human creation.

When the Caryatid porch of the Erectheum was attacked, the fever mounted so high that the Reverend Hunt suggested that the entire building could be removed if only a large British Man of War could be dispatched for it. Lord Elgin was thrilled by the idea and asked for a ship to be sent. The request was not considered outrageous but at that moment no ship was available. (Imagine if it had been).

To relate all the horrors needs a great deal of time and a great deal of restraint. The words "pillage", "dilapidation", "wanton devastation", "lamentable overthrow and ruin" are not mine of the moment. They were spoken by Elgin's contemporaries. Horace Smith referred to Elgin as "the marble stealer". Lord Byron called him a plunderer. Thomas Hardy later on was to write of the marbles as "captives in exile".

My government has asked for the return of the Parthenon Marbles. We have been refused. Be it on record that we shall never abandon the request. Let me list the arguments that are perpetuated against the return and deal with them one by one.

First, the marbles were obtained by proper transaction. I ask if bribery and corruption of officials can be contradictory to "proper transaction". When the Select Committee appointed was studying the proposition of buying the marbles from his Lordship, Elgin submitted an itemised account of his expenditure for their obtainment. Citing, and I quote him "the obstacles, interruptions and discouragement created by the caprices and prejudices of the Turks", he lists an item of 21,902 for presents to the authorities in Athens. Well at least it's a proper sum . And, of course, it must be asked: is it proper to transact with the Turks for the most reassured of Greek possessions when Greece is under Turkish invasion and subjugation?

A second argument that is maintained despite its being angrily refuted by numerous British travellers in Greece at the time is that:

"...the ignorant, superstitious Greeks were indifferent to their art and their monuments."
This, of course, implies that they were eyeless, conscienceless, and heartless. Who? These Greeks who, long after Pericles, created the miracles of Byzantine art? These Greeks who even under Turkish occupation created entire schools of arts and techniques? These Greeks who despite 400 years of Turkish rule grimly maintained their language and their religion? These Greeks who in their struggle for independence sent the Turkish soldiers bullets to be used against themselves. Yes, against themselves .

The Turkish soldiers besieged on the Acropolis ran short of ammunition. They began to attack the great columns to extract lead to make bullets. The Greeks sent them ammunition with the message: "Here are bullets, don't touch the columns".

After independence was gained, one of the first Acts passed by the Greek government was for the protection and preservation of national monuments. Indifference? We consider this accusation monstrous. You have surely heard, but let me repeat, what a heartsick Greek man said to members of the Elgin staff, and reported by J.C. Hobhouse. "You have taken our treasures. Please give them good care. One day we shall ask for their return". Are we to believe that this man was speaking only for himself?

Of late, a new theory has been proposed, this one is a beauty. Mr Gavin Stamp, I shall have the honour of meeting him tonight, proposes the notion that modern Greeks are not descendants of Pericles. Wow! Our marbles have been taken. Who will lay claim to the bones of our ancestors?

As Minister of Culture, I hereby invite Mr Stamp to come to Athens. I will arrange prime time on television for him to tell Greek demographers and the Greek people who they are.

Argument number 3. If the marbles are returned, it will set a precedent that could lead to the emptying of museums. Forgive me but this is just plain blarney. Who is going to ask and who is going to permit the emptying of museums?

Let me state once more that we think museums everywhere are a vital social and cultural need and must be protected. I have repeated again and again that we are asking for the integral part of a structure that was mutilated. In the world over, the very name of our country is immediately associated with the Parthenon.

We are asking only for something unique, something matchless, something specific to our identity. And dear friends, if there were the shadow of a shadow of danger to museums, why would the International Council of Museums recommend the return, as they have done.

Argument number 4. This one, of more recent vintage. Pollution! Pollution over the Acropolis. How much sense does this make? When London was dealing with the severe problem of pollution, were there cries of alarm for the marbles? Of course not. For the simple reason that they were housed inside the British Museum. Now we don't make pretence that the sculptures can be reset in the frieze. We think it cannot be done, but my government has gone on record that the day that Athens sees the return of the marbles, there will be, ready to receive them, adjacent to the Acropolis for relevant context, a beautiful museum with the most developed systems of security and preservation.

May I add that we are proud of the ongoing work at the Acropolis. The exposition of this work was unveiled to a congress of the World's leading archaeologists who were invited to Athens. Their praise was unanimous, enthusiastic and gratifying. Since then it has been exhibited in major European cities. It was graciously received by the British Museum in London. The Financial Times wrote a report of the quality of this work and the exemplary skills of Greek restorers. I have asked that copies be made available here to those of you who might be interested.

The argument most perpetuated is that removing the marbles saved them from the barbarous Turks. To deny Turkish vandalism there would put me on weak ground. But the fact is that the Turks gave no permission to Elgin to remove sculptures from the works or the walls of the citadel, and with the blessing of the Reverend Hunt, barbarously they were removed. I quote from a letter from Lusieri to Elgin:

"I have, my Lord, the pleasure of announcing to you the possession of the eighth metope, that one where there is the centaur carrying off the woman. This piece has caused much trouble in all respects and I have been obliged to be a little barbarous ."
In another letter he hoped
"...that the barbarisms that I have been obliged to commit in your service may be forgotten".
Edward Dodwell wrote:
"I had the inexpressible mortification of being present, when the Parthenon was despoiled of its finest sculptures. I saw several metopes at the south east extremity of the temple taken down. They were fixed in between the triglyphs as in a groove; and in order to lift them up, it was necessary to throw to the ground the magnificent cornice by which they were covered. The south east angle of the pediment shared the same fate; and instead of the picturesque beauty and high preservation in which I first saw it, it is now completely reduced to a state of shattered desolation. We cannot but execrate the spirit of barbarism which prompted them to shatter and mutilate, to pillage and overturn the noble works which Pericles had ordered and the unrivalled genius of Pheidias and Iktinos had executed."
Another witness, Robert Smirke, writes:
"It particularly affected me when I saw the destruction made to get down the basso-relievos on the walls of the frieze. Each stone as it fell shook the ground with its ponderous weight, with a deep hollow noise; it seemed like a convulsive groan of the injured spirit of the temple."
Edward Daniel Clarke was among those witnessing the devastation. Clarke writes:
"Looking up, we saw with regret the gap that had been made, which all the ambassadors of the earth, with all the sovereigns they represent, aided by every resource that wealth and talent can bestow, will never again repair".
So much for barbarism.

In the year 1816 a Select Committee is appointed to study a proposal made by Lord Elgin. The marbles had been exhibited in various places and sheds. Lord Elgin has fallen on hard times and offers to sell the marbles to the government. The committee has to decide:

  • By what authority the collection was acquired.
  • Under what circumstances the authority was granted.
  • The merit of the marbles as works of art.
  • How much should be spent for an eventual purchase.
If you read the report you will see that the bulk of the testimony asked for, was how good were the marbles, and how much should be paid for them. But in order to recommend their purchase a tricky corner had to be turned; that the circumstances of the transaction were proper and that the marbles were obtained by Elgin, the private citizen and not by his influence as the British Ambassador.

I read to you from the Select Committee report:

"The Earl of Aberdeen in answer to an inquiry, whether the authority and influence of a public situation was, in his opinion, necessary for accomplishing the removal of these marbles, answered that he did not think a private individual could have accomplished the removal of the remains that Lord Elgin obtained."
(The Earl of Aberdeen, no mean treasure seeker himself, was in Greece at the time and in a position to know).

I read from the report:

"Doctor Hunt, who had better opportunities of information upon this point than any other person who had been examined, gave it as his decided opinion that a British subject not in the situation of Ambassador could not have been able to obtain from the Turkish government a firman of such extensive powers."
I read from the report:
"The success of British arms in Egypt and the expected restitution of that province to the Porte wrought a wonderful and instantaneous change in the disposition of all ranks and descriptions of people toward our nation".
And yet, and yet, hear this from the Select Committee's conclusion:
"It cannot be doubted that Lord Elgin looked upon himself as acting in a character entirely distinct from his official position. But whether the government from whom he obtained permission did, or could, consider him so, is a question which can be solved only by conjecture and reasoning, in the absence and deficiency of all positive testimony."
(If this is not double speak, what is?)

Absence of positive testimony? Lord Elgin to the Committee:

"I had to transact with the highest personages in the state."
Could the committee really believe that a simple citizen could get to transact with the highest personages of the Turkish state?

Lord Elgin tells the Committee of his gratitude for having His Majesty's Ship to transport cases of the marbles. Could an ordinary citizen get a royal troopship at his service?

Question of the Committee to Reverend Hunt:

"Do you imagine that the firman gave a direct permission to remove figures and pieces of sculpture from the walls of the temples, or must that have been a matter of private arrangement with the local authorities?"
Hunt's answer:
"That was the interpretation which the governor of Athens was induced to allow it to bear."
Induced by whom? A private citizen? Absence of positive testimony? A private citizen or to an Ambassador? Well then, to the firman itself. Permission was granted to Lord Elgin "...due to the friendship between the Sublime and Ever Durable Ottoman Court and that of England."

Mr President, Honourable Members, Ladies and Gentlemen, with all apology, if needed, I submit to you that the Committee's ruling that Lord Elgin acted as a private individual is either the height of ingeniousness or of doubtful faith.

But that was one hundred and seventy years ago. This is a different England. There are different concepts of Empire and conquest. A different ethic prevails. It would be interesting to know what a committee today would conclude if they reviewed the evidence of those called before the committee - and the judgements of those who were not called. I would make a small wager - even a large wager, that there would be a different outcome.

I have taken of your time and I know that the debate is the thing to catch consciences. I would hope that the debate evokes a few questions. I have a little list:

  • Were the marbles seized wrongly? And if they were wrongly seized, can it be right that they be kept?
  • If there was right in their being seized, is it wrong that they be returned?
  • What value should be given to the argument that if Elgin hadn't taken the marbles, other Englishmen or the French would have done so?
  • Does it matter that 95% of the Greek people might never see the finest of Greek creation?
  • Is it conceivable that a free Greece would have permitted the removal of the marbles?
England and Greece are friends. English blood was shed on Greek soil in the war against fascism, and Greeks gave their lives to protect English pilots. Read Churchill, he tells you how crucial was the Greek role in your decisive desert victory over Rommel.

Last year there was a celebration of Shakespeare in the Amphitheatre at the foot of the Acropolis. Your Covent Garden brought the Verdi Macbeth. Your National Theatre came with Coriolanus. They were unforgettable nights. Not only for the high standard of performance but also for an extraordinary communion between British artists and the Greek audience. Ian McKellen will forgive me if I speak of his tears of emotion and those of his fellow artists as the audience stood cheering them. Those tears had to do with a rapport between two peoples, with friendship, with Shakespeare played on that sacred spot. It was beautiful, memorable. It is in the spirit of this friendship that we say to you, there was an injustice that can now be corrected.

You must understand what the Parthenon Marbles mean to us. They are our pride. They are our sacrifices. They are our noblest symbol of excellence. They are a tribute to the democratic philosophy. They are our aspirations and our name . They are the essence of Greekness.

We are ready to say that we rule the entire Elgin enterprise as irrelevant to the present. We say to the British government: you have kept those sculptures for almost two centuries. You have cared for them as well as you could, for which we thank you. But now in the name of fairness and morality, please give them back. I sincerely believe that such a gesture from Great Britain would ever honour your name.

Thank you.

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