The Parthenon: Time to buy? (photo: Konstantinos Dafalias, via Flickr)
Greece is $380 billion is debt. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has responded to an EU-IMF reform-for-aid plan by announcing that the “Greek people should be proud, because the government is not going to give in to absurd proposals.” So everything’s on track for a midsummer collapse. But Britain, if so inclined, could help stave off disaster for the beleaguered Greeks.
For the last few years, amidst her financial crisis, Greece has flirted with the idea of selling off state historical assets. Since Greek independence, Graeco-British relations have been shadowed by the Elgin marbles: relief panels from the Parthenon, along with major pediment sculptures, which were purchased by the 7th Earl of Elgin in 1798. He bought them from the Ottoman Empire, which then controlled Greece. Today, they live in the British Museum. Greece desires their reunification with the Parthenon.
The UK should accommodate them by offering to ease Greece’s debt problem and buy (the rest of) the Parthenon. Britain could offer an enormous (many-billion-pound) cash payment, along with an even larger, very-low interest loan — for which the British government could surely get extensive private sponsorship. Greece would retain title to the Parthenon, and Britain would arrange for a precise replica to be installed on the Acropolis.
Very far-fetched, perhaps, but there is some precedent. First, many great works of art have been removed from their original, outdoor location and replaced with reproductions: the equestrian Marcus Aurelius in Rome, the St Mark horses in Venice, Michelangelo’s David in Florence, Cimabue’s rose window in Siena. All of the originals are now safely indoors, under cover and protected from wayward artillery shells of the sort that blew up the Parthenon in 1687 (when the Ottomans were using it as a mosque-cum-munitions depot).
Second, it wouldn’t be the first such structure to find its way to a museum. The Pergamon Museum in Berlin has the massive Pergamon altar from an acropolis in Asia Minor and the Ishtar gate from Ancient Babylon. The Metropolitan Museum in New York has an entire Roman-period Egyptian temple named Dendur, brought to Manhattan from the banks of the Nile; likewise the Temple of Taffeh, which was brought to the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (National Museum of Antiquities) in Leiden. And the British Museum already has the Nereid monument, the facade of a Classical Greek tomb. The Parthenon would obviously be a big step up, but not an altogether incomprehensible one. It could be safely displayed in a new, gigantic gallery of the British Museum, and make it an even more popular tourist attraction.
Third, Greece has already replaced parts of the Parthenon during her “reconstruction” project, so it’s already part-unoriginal. Westminster Abbey’s Henry VII chapel has had every single exterior stone replaced during its years of maintenance, but it’s still authentic. A Parthenon reproduction sitting on the Acropolis would have its own kind of undeniable authenticity, and — as a non-ruin — would in some ways be more original than the original. The UK should at least mull it over — the world has changed since Elgin bought the marbles, and this might be the last time Greek antiquities can be coaxed onto the market.