Photo by Ayhan Altun
Artillery Row

The Parthenon is special, but not unique

If we must return the Elgin marbles, why not any other artefact?

Looking at the situation of the Parthenon during the period of Classical antiquity, we may be surprised to learn that it was considered a fairly unremarkable building — at least if we must judge by the few surviving ancient sources on the subject. Even integrating the written record with the analysis of the extant remains, the outlook is not much improved.

Every Greek city had at least one sanctuary where the religious rites of the community could be performed. Some sanctuaries, because of the timeless traditions associated with the place they were in, achieved the coveted status of a panhellenic sanctuary. Much like the Vatican or the Great Mosque in Mecca, they attracted pilgrims from all over the Greek oikoumene, along with the rich gifts and economic prosperity that ensued. In Athens, the principal sanctuary of the city was obviously a key focal point for the Athenians and the people of Attica. Still, it didn’t make it into the list of panhellenic sanctuaries, nor is it mentioned among the seven wonders of the ancient world. When it comes to the Parthenon itself, the temple — if indeed it was a temple, which is a matter for debate — doesn’t get much more than cursory mentions in the otherwise detailed travel accounts by Pausanias, or the biography of Pericles written by Plutarch.

Of course, I am not saying the Parthenon was not a deserving building, simply that the perception of its value has much improved in the centuries since its creation. This may also be justified when looking at its architectonic features. Whilst it achieved visual impact by deviating from the canonical six-column design for its front, there were other temples in the Greek world — and in Athens itself — with eight columns on the facade, and some with even nine or ten. If instead, we choose to focus on its dimensions, Herodotus notes the great octastyle of Hera at Samos was the biggest temple he had ever seen. The Parthenon, with its 100-foot cella, was certainly impressive, but still not in the top region of a size-based ranking of Greek temples.

In a way, an ordinary Greek could be excused for glancing at the Parthenon with some amount of suspicion. The great accomplishment of its architects was to have achieved a brilliant building whilst starting with a daunting set of constraints and adaptation needs. Ictinus and Callicrates were not offered the total freedom of some of today’s celebrity architects, as the foundations had already been laid for a previous project on the same spot. Building materials were already on site and needed to be reworked. 

The imagination of Western antiquarian scholars elevated the Parthenon

These challenges provided the opportunity for innovations and changes of heart developed mid-work, which make the building an odd mix of traditionalism and innovation. The most celebrated of these innovations is the introduction of an Ionic frieze running all the way along the top of the external walls of the cella — an unusual place as it makes it almost invisible from outside the building, hidden away in the shadow. Yet, the Parthenon is not even the first place where this had been tried, simply a development on a bigger scale of an idea already introduced on the Hephaisteion a few years earlier. Inside, the imposing gold and ivory statue of the goddess Athena could not, for all its splendour, beat the fame of the prior work of Phidias: the chryselephantine Zeus of Olympia. 

How could a building that was not the biggest, nor the best, nor the most innovative, achieve today’s worldwide iconic status? And when exactly did it happen? 

One of the reasons is purely anagraphic: the Parthenon had the good fortune to enter the small club of buildings that survived the fall of the Classical world by virtue of their continued use throughout the centuries. Its transformation into a church first, and a mosque later, guaranteed that most of its structure was safe from the systematic spoliation to which the rest of the ancient buildings had been condemned by lack of use and decay. Whilst a good reason, this is not enough to justify the hype. There are beautifully preserved Greek temples in Paestum or Agrigento, and even in Athens itself, that are in better shape than the Parthenon, yet they don’t enjoy the same fame. The second reason involves the self-assigned role of Athens as the “school of Greece”, a role that allowed it to survive the progressive loss of relevance affecting all Greek city-states during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The replacement of military power with the soft power of the arts and letters prompted scholars of all epochs to assign a sort of primacy to everything connected to Athens. This attitude affected not just the preservation of ancient knowledge, with many works discarded or simply not copied because they did not have the right provenance, but also the progress of the antiquarian disciplines up to this very day. Athens has always been the best-known and most studied case simply because there is more material to study. 

And the Parthenon? Almost intact after so many centuries and on the top spot of the most important city in Greece, it quickly started to be considered the best of the best. The imagination of Western antiquarian scholars, complemented by the praise of countless architects from the 18th century to Le Corbusier, significantly contributed to the elevation of the Parthenon to the altars of historical architecture. William StClair, one of the most prolific scholars on the history of the Elgin Marbles, noted in 2014 how “all the main contemporary ways of looking at the Acropolis … were invented and introduced during the last two centuries”. In a way, this Parthenon, the one shrine of the Hellenic nationhood standing tall on the barren Acropolis, was born not in 447 BC, but in 1834 AD, when Leo von Klenze laid the foundations of the present effort to bring the visible on par with the ideal. 

The smell of fresh claims can almost reach us from Egypt

Scaling down the icon and putting the real Parthenon back into perspective, it is easier to understand why it was not just this building to be inscribed in the World Heritage list by UNESCO in 1987, but the entire Acropolis complex. It is the entire ensemble that exemplifies a “supreme expression of the adaptation of architecture to a natural site”; it is the whole group that “exerted an exceptional influence” on the following periods of architecture. The Parthenon could not, on its own, bear “by its precision and diversity, a unique testimony to the religions of ancient Greece”; nor could it illustrate “significant historical phases since the 16th century BC”. This emphasis on the group, as opposed to the individual building, characterises the UNESCO approach to the list.

The World Heritage list offers us another way of looking at one of the most frequent claims made by those who advocate the restitution of the Elgin Marbles to Greece: this case would be unique — they say — because the original building the sculptures come from is still standing. Yet, a quick scan through the list and another example of divided heritage jumps at us: the Egyptian sanctuary of Amun in Karnak. Two pieces of decorative sculpture once adorning this sacred place are now far away from Egypt. One is now known as the Lateran Obelisk in Rome, and the other is the Obelisk of Theodosius in Istanbul. What would happen to these two obelisks and the new historical contexts they are part of, if we simply gave in to those who say that origin and historical context are more important than the legal transmission of ownership in establishing where heritage items should be kept and displayed? The smell of fresh claims can almost reach us from Egypt.

Karnak is not the only Egyptian site that could benefit from a Parthenon precedent. The Louvre may find it increasingly difficult to resist calls for the return of the famous Dendera Zodiac, given that the temple this fascinating ceiling comes from is still standing, and the site is already on the tentative UNESCO list. When I bring these examples to the table during discussions on the Elgin Marbles, the typical answer is that “it’s not the same, and that the Parthenon has a world-class iconic status. This superiority of the Parthenon is hard-wired into our brains since our early years of school, by an education system rooted in our Greek and Roman heritage. Setting the value judgement aside, does the people of Egypt not have the same right to develop strong emotional links or attach symbolic values to their dispersed cultural heritage, just like the Greeks do? If one country gets its prized heirlooms back, why should others not enjoy the same privilege? 

We need to discard the pretence of the exceptionalism of the Parthenon as a prejudicial preconception that attributes universal value to the fruits of Western culture whilst assigning second fiddle to the rest. Once we enlarge the scope of what the champions of restitution are proposing, it quickly becomes apparent that rushing in to settle just one score now is simply kicking the can down the road — and also quite unfair. What we really ought to have is a proper debate, leading to the formulation — if this is at all possible — of a new principle that could really work for all stakeholders and on a global, pluricultural scale. I am still not a fan of the underlying idea, but it is nonetheless a debate I would gladly participate in. 

For now, the inability of those championing the claims to formulate and articulate such a principle fundamentally undermines their case for restitution, leaving us with the traditional requirements for lawful possession as the only reliable guide to navigate property rights around cultural objects. It may well not be the perfect system, but it certainly is the best we have

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