A woman can’t have it all. And neither can every country.
Amal Clooney, blessed with brains, beauty and a handsome Hollywood star for a husband, has come up short in her quest to restore the Elgin Marbles to their place of origin.
Last year, the Greek government hired Clooney’s law firm to make its case for the famous sculptures, which once graced the Parthenon and the Acropolis but now sit in the British Museum. But on Wednesday, Greece unexpectedly rejected Clooney’s recommendation to take Britain to the International Court of Justice over the artifacts.
“You cannot go to court for every issue,” said Greek Culture Minister Nikos Xydakis. “And in international court, the outcome is always uncertain. Things are not that simple.”
Instead, he said Greece would pursue less confrontational means to retrieving the sculptures.
“The road to reclaiming the return of the sculptures is diplomatic and political,” Xydakis said.
The about-face from Greece’s recently elected left-leaning government angered advocates who have long pushed for the return of the priceless artifacts. Dennis Menos of the International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures said the decision had “devastated the Greek position.”
“I’m sorry that this statement was made,” he told the Associated Press. “[Court action] was always an option and now that has been eliminated.”
For more than 200 years, the Elgin Marbles have been as controversial as they have been coveted. They were removed from Greece at the beginning of the 19th century by Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin, and eventually sold to the British Museum. But the details about how, exactly, Bruce obtained the marbles are still in dispute two centuries later.
Bruce was Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, which then included Greece. A history buff, Bruce arrived to find the Parthenon and Acropolis ravaged by centuries of looting and war. The Parthenon was particularly damaged. The Ottomans had often used it to store munitions and the building exploded during a 17th century Venetian assault.
According to Bruce, he intended to make plaster casts of the sculptures. But when he arrived, he found locals burning broken sculptures for their lime. Under the aegis of a questionable document obtained from Ottoman authorities, Bruce began removing huge sections of the sculptures and sending them to Britain.
Legal battles have been raging ever since. Some scholars have argued that Bruce’s papers authorized him to remove the marbles. Others say he never had any documentation at all.
Many Britons have come out in favor of returning the sculptures. In 1985, Labour Party leader and prime minister hopeful Neil Kinnock made the Elgin Marbles a major campaign issue, claiming that without them the Parthenon was “like a smile missing a tooth.”
Even at the time of their taking, there was opposition to the idea. Lord Byron called the ancient Greek sculptures “misshapen monuments” and called Bruce a vandal.
But Bruce didn’t make money off of arduously assembling the artifacts in England. He first asked the British government to reimburse him for the £70,000 he spent shipping the statues. When the government refused, he settled for half price, selling them to the British Museum instead.
The dispute over the marbles is more than just a diplomatic standoff, however. It strikes at the heart of a still sensitive debate over empire and its lingering legacy.
Since the sculptures were first taken, Bruce’s defenders have argued that he actually saved them from further ruin.
“During fighting in the 1820’s, hundreds of the marble blocks were turned into defenses and dismantled so that their lead clamps could be turned into bullets,” John Tierney wrote in the New York Times in 2003, shortly after the looting of the National Museum of Iraq. “But by that time the soldiers couldn’t damage the Parthenon’s most exquisite pieces. The best marbles had been removed two decades earlier by Lord Elgin for his private collection in England. His methods were crude by modern standards, but with his interest in history, he was a dedicated preservationist compared with the officials and soldiers in 19th-century Athens and modern Baghdad.”
Tierney’s comment cut to the complicated core of empire: on the one hand, the British pillaged cultures around the world, from Egypt to Greece to India. On the other hand, that pillaging created the world’s greatest museums. It’s a paternalistic relationship that many in Britain don’t want to shake, but that other countries consider empire’s lingering offense.
“Private collectors like Lord Elgin used to finance much of world’s archaeological work, but today they would be criminals,” Tierney pointed out. “The great collections of Iraqi materials sitting far from looters, in museums in London, Paris, Chicago and Philadelphia, would be illegal to create today. Like many other countries, Iraq has banned the export of antiquities and made each new discovery the property of the government. Besides appealing to national pride, these restrictions are popular with archaeologists who want to keep artifacts away from private collectors.”
The current standoff between Greece and Britain has only grown more bitter in recent years. In December, the British Museum agreed to loan some of the prized sculptures — to Russia.
“The great things of the world should be shared and enjoyed by the people of the world,” said Richard Lambert, chairman of the board of trustees of the museum. Museum director Neil MacGregor said Athens should be “delighted” that its artifacts were going on display.
But the Greek prime minister at the time, Antonis Samaras, called the loan “an affront” to his country. He said the artifacts had been “plundered” and demanded their return.
Greece has been preparing for the sculptures’ return for years. In 2009, it opened a new Acropolis Museum with enough space to display the Elgin Marbles.
Just last month, however, Lambert said the British Museum had decided to “respectfully decline” an offer by UNESCO to mediate the dispute between the two countries.
The standoff came to a head six months ago when Greece hired Amal Clooney to push for the sculptures’ return. Earlier this week, she gave Greece her 150-page report, which recommended the country sue Britain to retrieve the artifacts. But on Wednesday, Greece declined.
Despite the setback, public opinion in England is slowly shifting in favor of returning the marbles. Lord Byron, it seems, had it right:
Cold is the heart, fair Greece, that looks on thee,
Nor feels as lovers o’er the dust they loved;
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatched thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!