The Parthenon Sculptures (known also as the Elgin Marbles) are iconic and deserve to be seen by everyone in the world. They currently reside in a British museum instead of the Parthenon in Athens, despite Greece asking for them to be returned multiple times.
Recently, the Greek Prime Minister Kiriakos Mitsotakis attempted to bring the sculptures back to Athens, after arranging a sit-down meeting with the UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, in which a deal would be reached, but the meeting was cancelled at the last minute, leaving millions of Greeks disappointed.
Sunak’s meeting: close but not close enough
The Parthenon Sculptures consist of more than 30 pieces, currently housed in the British Museum in London, after they were taken from the Parthenon by Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, in the early 1800s.
Despite the Earl insisting he was given permission to remove the sculptures by the Ottoman Empire, who at the time controlled Athens, the original letter giving him permission has been lost, leaving the legitimacy of his actions up in the air.
Ever since Greece became independent again in 1835, the country has been asking for the sculptures back, something which came close to realisation until the meeting between the two countries’ prime ministers was cancelled at late notice in November by Sunak.
Sunak claims the cancellation occurred because a promise by the Greek PM not to speak about the matter publicly was broken, after Mitsotakis talked about the sculptures in an interview with the BBC, two days before the meeting was due to be held.
Sunak’s official spokesperson said: “The Greek government provided reassurances that they would not use the visit as a public platform to relitigate long-settled matters relating to the ownership of the Parthenon Sculptures.”
The Greek PM responded to the cancellation by stressing the importance of returning the sculptures to their original home, adding that the separation is almost like “cutting the Mona Lisa in half”.
After the meeting was cancelled and hopes for the sculptures to be returned laid to waste, Mitsotakis told reporters: “Those who firmly believe in the correctness and justice of their positions are never hesitant to engage in constructive argumentation and debate.”
How do Greeks feel about this?
As a Greek citizen, I know Greek people carry a lot of pride when it comes to their home. They love the fact that they are born Greeks and wouldn’t have it any other way. A very important factor which drives this pride is their history. A history filled with great empires, philosophers, leaders and art.
When some of this history is taken away, it creates a gap in people’s identity. It reminds a lot of Greeks of the times they lost under the Ottoman Empire’s rule.
The Parthenon Sculptures taken during the Ottoman reign has had a significant effect; looking at the gaps where they used to belong reminds many Greeks of those times in history where they lost part of their culture.
Adding to that feeling is mistrust, created by the cancellation of the meeting between the two prime ministers. It shows when Greece has an issue they want to speak about with the UK, they don’t get a chance to discuss it.
The fact that Greece’s long-time ally and diplomatic friend, the UK, doesn’t have the time to sit down and discuss the sculptures, is a belittling feeling for many Greeks too, making them feel like they’re not worth Sunak’s valuable time.
However, the relationship between Greece and the UK is not as affected as people may think, as most of the frustration is aimed at Sunak himself, rather than the UK as a whole.
When visiting Greece, anyone can see that the people have a special place for the UK in their hearts, as it’s common to see people wearing t-shirts with the Union Jack or having the famous red phone boxes on their keyrings.
The love Greek people have for the UK goes back years, but the UK having something which belongs to the Hellenic Republic and not even discussing the potential return of it, hurts that relationship.
Comments made by a senior Conservative source, who said: “Our position is clear – the Elgin Marbles are part of the permanent collection of the British Museum and belong here”, further produce feelings of mistrust and dislike towards the Conservative government.
The fact that this comment was made after the UK’s ex-culture minister Lord Vaizey voiced his opinion that the marbles should be returned, makes it apparent that it’s not the UK at fault but its government. Lord Vaizey said: “The trouble with that is that, from what I can gather, every opinion poll that surveys the British public says that they do think that the sculptures should be returned.”
The comments made by the ex-culture minister help direct the feelings of anger and disappointment Greeks are feeling towards the prime minister and not the British people, who along with the Conservative government, are damaging the two nations’ relationship.
Voices of Greece
Showcasing the initial feelings and reactions Greek people had to the news, in a rather exaggerated way, were the Greek newspapers and online news websites.
One of Greece’s main news publications, Kathimerini, chose to put feelings aside and comment on the political issues the failure of returning the sculptures has raised. A couple of days after the cancellation, the newspaper said Sunak’s decision was “definitely a huge diplomatic blunder”.
The same publication went on to publish an opinion article describing Sunak and how he compares to previous prime ministers of the UK. Without focusing on the sculptures and the events surrounding them, the newspaper characterised the UK prime minister as “some wet cardboard on the floor”, highlighting the dislike of the Conservative leader.
Despite the hard feelings showcased in the Greek media towards the UK prime minister, the Greek parliament released a statement on the matter saying: “In the spirit of the good long-term relations between the two countries, which we wish to maintain, we have nothing more to add than what we have already said.”
However, Mitsotakis estimated that “there was also a positive side to the cancellation of this meeting in that it gained even greater publicity not only in the United Kingdom but also in global public opinion for the fair request of Greece for the reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures”.