The British Side of the Elgin Marble Debate

The acropolis in Athens was constructed 2,500 years ago during the Golden Age of Grecian history. Almost every Greek city-state had an acropolis, a fortified hill within a city, to protect against constant warfare. However, the acropolis in Athens — the Parthenon — which was the largest and most famous of these structures, was built for religious purposes, rather than defensive motives. The temple was built to honor Athens’ patron goddess, Athena. Athenian citizens worshiped Athena by holding festivals, making sacrifices, and displaying artwork, events which all took place in the Parthenon.

Additionally, the Parthenon became the worldwide symbol of the birth of democracy, since the Athenians were the first to utilize this type of government. The temple contains both Doric and Ionic stylistic elements and displays the Greeks’ thorough understanding of important architectural and mathematical principles. The Parthenon once housed a collection of hundreds of marble works of art, known as the Elgin Marbles or the Parthenon Sculptures.

As time passed, ownership of the Parthenon changed, as did that of the statues. Around A.D. 1204, the Franks converted the temple into a Catholic church. After the Ottomans conquest in 1453, the Parthenon was converted into an Islamic mosque: it was during the Ottoman’s rule that many of the marble statues that were still intact were removed from the Parthenon. During this time, the Parthenon was used as an ammunition store was attacked several times. At one point, the whole structure exploded; subsequently, the roof was blown off, and many of the marble statues were destroyed. By 1687, the Ottomans began to grind and melt the lead core of the statues and columns in order to make gunpowder. In some cases, the Turks would even shoot at the statues for target practice. Turkish indifference to the historical importance of the statues prompted foreigners to get involved.

Beginning in 1801, Lord Elgin, British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, took many of the sculptures back to England after receiving permission from the sultan “to take away pieces of stone with old inscriptions or figures thereon.” For the next ten years, Elgin kept the Parthenon marbles in his private collection until Parliament bought the statues and gave them to the British Museum. In 1816, the British Museum displayed their portion of the Elgin Marbles, where they still remain as a popular tourist attraction. Since 1975, Greece has been trying to completely restore the Athenian acropolis, and the New Acropolis Museum even has created a specific place to display the Parthenon Marbles. The Greek government has unsuccessfully demanded that the British government return the marbles, and the subject remains controversial. However, the sculptures are rightfully housed in the British Museum.

Though the Greeks claim that cultural valuables belong in their original homes, if all such demands were acknowledged, many of the world’s famous museums would be deprived of their most prestigious exhibits. By displaying the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum, the statues can be studied in a broad context, therefore, underscoring their significance in world cultures and establishing ancient Greece’s position as a truly accomplished society. Additionally, returning the statues to Greece would not complete the Greeks’ collection. Because so many of the statues have been lost, removed, or destroyed, the set of statues will never be completed, so returning the marbles will not be remarkably significant. Thus, the British justly have the right to keep the statues.

In conclusion, the arguments for the return of the Parthenon Marbles revolve around the notion that artifacts, such as the statues found at the acropolis at Parthenon, must only play a role in Greek history. Rather, the Elgin Marbles have become a worldwide symbol of democracy and should be displayed on a global scale in foundations such as the British Museum. After being shown for over 200 years in Britain, the sculptures have acquired global significance, an element that will continue by keeping the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum.