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Which Parthenon marbles could Britain return to Greece after 200 years?

Brought to Britain in the early 1800s, the marble carvings, inscriptions and architectural elements were once part of the 2,500-year-old Parthenon temple. The Greek government and several international organizations, including UNESCO, have been calling for their return for decades.

A section of marble frieze sculpture (438-432 BC) from the Parthenon in Athens, part of the collection commonly known as the Elgin Marbles. AFP

The British Museum has proposed a ‘Parthenon partnership’ with Greece, under which the controversial Elgin Marbles could be returned to Athens after more than 200 years.

According The Guardian, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has repeatedly called for the Parthenon Marbles to be returned to the nation. The country has even offered to lend some of its other treasures to the British Museum in exchange.

What are the Parthenon Marbles?

The Parthenon Marbles are 17 sculptures and are part of a frieze that once decorated the 2,500-year-old Parthenon temple on the Acropolis.

The marble statues are also known as the Elgin Marbles after Lord Elgin who brought the sculptures to Britain in the early 19th century when he was British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. It has since been part of a collection on display at the British Museum.

According to the British Museum, the collection includes sculptures from the Parthenon, about half of what remains today: 247 feet of the original 524-foot frieze; 15 of 92 metopes; 17 figures of the pediments, and various other pieces of architecture.

It also includes objects from other buildings of the Acropolis: the Erechtheion, the Propylaea and the Temple of Athena Nike.

Lord Elgin acquired these sculptures, inscriptions and architectural elements in Athens between 1801 and 1805. These objects were purchased by the British Parliament from Lord Elgin in 1816 and presented by Parliament to the British Museum.

Built almost 2,500 years ago as a temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena, the Parthenon was for a thousand years the church of the Virgin Mary of the Athenians, then a mosque, and finally an archaeological ruin.

The building has been altered and the sculptures damaged over the centuries.

The first major loss occurred around AD 500 when the Parthenon was converted into a church. When the city was besieged by the Venetians in 1687, the Parthenon itself was used as a gunpowder store. A huge explosion blew off the roof and destroyed much of the remaining sculptures. The building has since been in ruins. Archaeologists around the world have agreed that the surviving carvings could never be attached to the structure.

Why is this a point of contention between Greece and Britain?

The Greek government and several international organizations actively campaigned for the return of the Marbles as early as the 1980s.

In 2014, UNESCO offered to mediate between Greece and the UK to resolve the dispute, although this was later refused by the British Museum on the grounds that UNESCO works with government bodies and not with museum administrators.

In 2021, UNESCO issued its first ruling on the Parthenon Marbles, calling on the UK to return them to Greece.

What happens in the framework of the “Parthenon partnership”?

Although the British Museum has not announced that it will hand over the sculptures to Greece, its deputy director, Jonathan Williams, has said it wants to “change the temperature of the debate” around the marbles.

“What we are asking for is an active ‘Parthenon partnership’ with our Greek friends and colleagues. I firmly believe that there is room for a really dynamic and positive conversation in which new ways of working together can be found,” Williams said in an interview with the Sunday Times Cultural Magazine.

He argued that the Marbles are an “absolutely integral part” of the collection and that all parties must “find a way around a cultural exchange of a level, intensity and dynamism that would not have not been conceived so far”.

“There are many wonderful things we would love to borrow and lend. That’s what we’re doing,” he said, reported by The Guardian.

In response, the Greek Prime Minister said that Greece was open to negotiations but that “small steps are not enough. We want big steps.

With contributions from agencies

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