Why is Lord Elgin an abomination to the Greeks?

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To the Greeks, the name Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, is an abomination, the likes perhaps, of only Lucifer himself. Lord Elgin, as he is more famously known, is notorious in my country for his enormous blundering appetite that was coupled by an equally enormous lack of regard for the Parthenon treasures.

Having acquired a paper of questionable validity (i.e. a mere letter signed by a pasha as opposed to a firman signed by a sultan – the only document that could have authorized him properly within the Othoman Empire), he didn’t hesitate to remove from the Parthenon far more than anyone could have ever imagined possible. Furthermore, he caused irreversible damage to the sculptures that were taken off the friezes. By instructing the workers to remove the posterior side from these treasures (obviously, he thought only the frontal side was of any value!), he thus managed to rid his cargo of unnecessary (!) weight and to cut down on logistic costs.

Elgin shipped the Parthenon Marbles to Britain divided among many different ships, whatever he could arrange with the odd passing ship of the British Navy and each time, he was allowed a very small amount of treasures on board. However, he managed once to commission his own boat, the legendary ‘Mentor’, in 1802. Thrilled to have no weight restrictions this time, Elgin greedily loaded that ship so much that it sank just off the shore on the island of Kythira. When that happened, he contacted the local British consulate, and in order to seek assistance for the retrieval of the treasures, he stated in his letter the infamous lie “…she had on board a quantity of boxes with stones of no value of themselves; but of great consequence for me to secure…”

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(Note: The blantant lie, is what inspired British movie maker Chistopher Miles to title his movie “Lord Elgin and Some Stones of No Value” in 1985).

The operation of the treasures’ retrieval from the bottom of the sea lasted for two years. Elgin was able to employ experienced divers from Kalymnos, who helped retrieve 16 boxes in total. During those two years, while the operation was underway, the Marbles remained on the beach, covered carelessly with stones, seeweed and bushes to shield them from the sunlight and to hide them from onlookers. Marble is highly affected by both humidity and saltiness, so you can imagine the damage caused to the treasures during these two years until they were finally loaded on another ship on its way to England.

But the adventure for the Marbles doesn’t end there. After a careless exhibition and storage of the treasures by Elgin himself for a few years, he finally sold them to the British government, who put them in the care of the British Museum. There, they remained stored for even more years before finally being put on display. By then, they had turned black from mold and lack of care. In order to make them presentable, the British Museum then had them scrubbed clean with iron bristles to give them a pleasant, white color, thus causing further harm.

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Archeologists in Greece despise the name Elgin even more than the average Greek does, simply because they know in every detail his activities as he went around Greece. Indeed, his looting thirst has been unquenchable. As he traveled around the country, Lord Elgin looted everything he could get his hands on. The famous Lion Gate in the ancient site of Mykenae was saved from the one way journey to Britain only thanks to its huge weight. He considered it seriously of course, but thankfully, simply because it’s as massive as it is, the majestic Lion Gate still stands in its rightful place today, at the entrance of the Mykenae archeological site.

At the time of the looting, back at the Parthenon (1801-1804), the heartache of the enslaved Greeks was so great, that rumors in the form of folk myths started to spread across the country from mouth to mouth. Apparently, voices could be heard from the crates that contained the treasures, causing confusion and even panic to the workers who carried them to the port to be shipped to Britain. Many a time, locals in Athens also claimed that at night they could hear wails and cries from the top of the Acropolis where the five Caryatids in the Erechtheion Temple grieved for the loss of their sixth ‘sister’ that had been taken away.

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And so, all this devastation, all this irreversible damage was caused to The Parthenon, a jewel of the world’s historical heritage, because of the greed of a single man. It’s no surprise the Greeks also invented the myth that goddess Athena cursed him, enough for his wife to cheat on him while Napoleon held him prisoner of war in France. Furthermore, he died penniless away from home, divorced, ill with syphilis and disfigured too, the tip of his nose having been removed by the doctors because of a terrible affliction. It didn’t take much for the Greeks, the masters of myth-making, to see this as divine justice for the tremendous loss they have suffered because of him.

But even the man’s son, James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin, seemed to have inherited his father’s lack of regard for historical treasures and foreign property. In 1860, he had the summer palace of the Emperor of China destroyed, burnt and looted. You can imagine the length of devastation this family caused in China too, thinking of so many treasures, equally mythical and precious, stolen or forever lost.

Whether you choose to believe that Elgin actually meant well or to see him the way the Greeks do, I hope you will enjoy this excellent video by the Greek Ministry of Culture. It illustrates graphically the Parthenon in all its glory, as well as its demise through the millennia. Delightfully enough, it also depicts a classic poem by the legendary philhellene, Lord Byron. The great romantic poet’s imagination has captured the wrath of Athena (Minerva, in Roman) further to the merciless destruction of her sacred temple.

For the benefit of poetry lovers, I’m including below a link to the whole poem, written in Athens in 1811 by the great British poet. In the links below, you can also watch an interesting BBC documentary about Lord Elgin and the Marbles.

The Curse of Minerva by Lord Byron: http://readytogoebooks.com/CM13.htm

MORE LINKS:

Movie Trailer of “Promakhos” (First Line) – a Greek, French and British production on the subject of the Parthenon Marble debate

Read my interview with the leading actor of Promakhos, Pantelis Kodogiannis

 

Lord Elgin (2004) – a BBC documentary

The Melina Mercouri Foundation

Further information re the invalid documentation used by Elgin

You may also be interested in my other posts on the Parthenon Marbles:

https://effrosinimoss.wordpress.com/2013/11/19/what-are-the-parthenon-marbles-to-the-greeks/

https://effrosinimoss.wordpress.com/2014/03/05/reblogged-scotlands-role-in-an-elgin-marbles-mystery/

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27 responses to “Why is Lord Elgin an abomination to the Greeks?

  1. Excellent post Fros. You have pulled together a lot of useful information, particularly the fate of the Sculptures on the way back to Greece.

    I think these days, Lord Elgin (Thomas Bruce) is also an abomination to the Scots since he was Scottish and his descendant (Andrew Bruce) still lives in the massive pile (Broomhall House), near Edinburgh, which he planned to adorn with all his looted Parthenon Sculptures. The present family stubbornly refuse to discuss the Sculptures though there are reputed to be some smaller pieces of the heist inside the house that the British Museum didn’t want.

    Sadly, Lord Elgin represented the arrogance and greed of the Aristocracy of his era, which is no longer revered, by most Scots at least. I believe the Scots would like to be exonerated from the shame of Lord Elgin’s crime and are sympathetic to the Greek efforts to see these splendid art works returned to Athens.

    Regards,
    Marjory McGinn, author of Things Can Only Get Feta
    http://www.bigfatgreekodyssey.com/blog

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for taking the time to express your views on this matter, Marjory. I expect, as you say, that the Scots who side with the Greeks must feel the shame on behalf of the Elgin family… even though they’ve done nothing wrong, really. Thank you again for your lovely comments 🙂

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  2. I totally agree with what Marjory says. Elgin is an abomination. There are many people here who support efforts to have the Marbles returned to Greece.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post, Effrosyni!
    I didn’t know about the boxes falling into the sea off Kythera – even more maddening! While I do love the British Museum, and think it is one of the finest cultural institutions in the world, it is, I believe, high time that the Parthenon sculptures were returned to Greece.
    If anyone has not seen the new, Acropolis Museum, you must go! I went just after it opened and it is an fantastic, brilliant new home for these treasures of antiquity. With the Parthenon hovering in the sky just across the road from the museum itself, it is the perfect setting.
    Cheers!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for your kind comments, Adam! Yes, even Jacques Yves Cousteau had a look at the sunken ship back in 1975. Later diving operations led to the retrieval of further antiquities, not from the Parthenon though. Elgin had loaded on that ship even Egyptian antiquities that the divers got out!!! I totally agree about the Athens museum. I know it blew me away. The British Museum seems like a musty old place compared to our magnificent, state-of-the art edifice that is bathed in Greek light 🙂

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  4. Thank you for this post. I only knew that Elgin had taken the marbles, not the what and how. I do think that the marbles should be returned to Athens, and think it would give a wonderful boost to the economy as tourists would queue to see them.
    However, there is a BUT… There are so many works of art and antiquities in the ‘wrong country’ would it ever be feasible or desirable to repatriate them?
    Seeing exhibits out of context can be very educational and prompt a desire to investigate more, including visits to their place of origin. For example, I became intrigued with all things Egyptian after visiting Lord Carnarvon’s Highclere Castle. This prompted a visit to Egypt.X

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comments Yvonne, and of course I fully appreciate what you’re saying. This is why no one, including myself, feel it’s unnecessary to repatriate everything Greek in foreign museums, be it the Aphrodite De Milo from The Louvre or the smallest fragment of a vase from any other place in the world. BUT – The Parthenon is a different case, and at that, the Parthenon Marbles were stolen away in the most unfair, devilish manner. Simply put, this injustice is intolerable in the Greek heart, especially as it’s ridiculous to have pieces missing from the friezes when they could be put back together again, so easily. Again, thank you very much for your kind comment 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. An excellent post, Effrosyni, very well researched. I watched the videos, and again anger and indignation were very strong!

    I visited the Acropolis Museum the summer it opened and though proud of the Greek spirit and everything it brought to light I could not hold back my emotions for all stolen away or broken by savages pieces. I have written an article about my visit to the Acropolis Museum, and also write about it in my book. .

    Let’s hope that eventually all our sculptures will make it home.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. A fascinating post, Efrosyni, about the unfortunate damage caused by Lord Elgin when he looted from one of the greatest archaeological structures, the Partheon. Thank you for sharing. Best wishes for a great weekend.

    Regards,
    Linnea

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Reblogged this on kritsayvonne and commented:
    I really enjoyed this blog post and as the author generously allows re blogs I’m pleased to post it here. Good background to just why the Greeks are so passionate about getting THEIR great work of art back to Athens.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Frossie! This is amazing piece. So well researched. Thus wonderfully interesting. I watch History shows often and I am always appalled at the damage and greed of those who take and destroy. I saw many of those wonderful Greek artifacts when I was in the UK. My very thought was…how utterly arrogant of people and governments.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your kind comments, Jackie. Yes, it’s devastating to think of our treasures still in the British Museum, but there’s great hope here that one day the wrong will be put to right.

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  9. Astonishing that the power and privilege structure of the times allowed such people to loot and rape a country’s treasures — and that some of it is still going on today.

    Like

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