Last night the new website of the International Organising Committee – Australia – For The Restitution Of The Parthenon Marbles, was launched at the Athenian Restaurant, Sydney. Designed by Dennis Tritaris from Orama Communications, I believe it represents a new standard in website design. Dennis has created a website that has the potential to make full use of Web2.0 tools to mobilise the truly global nature of this issue, connecting those of us who care about restitution without regard for national borders. The new website is an expression of the international focus of the Australian committee.
Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles is probably the world’s most well-known cultural property dispute.
A significant body of legal opinion acknowledges the illegality of Britain’s retention of the largest part of the Parthenon Marbles. George Bizos, Professor Vassilis Dimitriadis, Professor David Rudenstine, Christopher Hitchens, and Michael J Reppas, just to mention a few, note the illegality.
Professor Vassilis Dimitriadis’ opinion is summarised at the Elginism website in a report by ARTINFO, published: August 29, 2008 which reads:
A professor from the University of Crete has called into question the sole document that the British Museum has found in recent years to support its legal ownership of the Elgin Marbles, reports the Times of London.
According to the museum, the 1801 document is an Italian translation of an Ottoman firman, or license, in which the Sultan’s grand vizier was authorized to permit the Earl of Elgin to take the sculptures. Elgin took the marbles between 1801 and 1805, and Britain’s argument has long been that the move was legal, because he asked for permission from the Turks, whose empire ruled Greece at the time. They also say that he saved the sculptures from likely damage and deterioration during the Greek-Turk conflict.
But Professor Vassilis Dimitriadis, a specialist in Ottoman law, now says that the original firman, on which the translation is based, could not have been legal, because it is missing the Sultan’s emblem and signature, and an invocation to God. Dimitriadis claims that, by law, only the Sultan could issue a valid firman.
Another examination of the legal issues and developments in international law can be found in a paper ‘Cultural Property and the Shortcomings of International Law: A Case Study on the Looting of the Parthenon‘ by Michael J Reppas Esq.
There’s not time to cover the entire range of legal opinion on this blog, but in essence many lawyers point to the absence of any legitimate documentation sanctioning Elgin’s removal of the Marbles from the Parthenon.
Far deeper than legalities
Of course the matter is far deeper than legalities. My friend Emanuel J Comino AM often reminds me of the significance of the Parthenon as the pinnacle of artistic achievement in the city-state of Athens, birth place of democracy. This is really the heart of the matter. All would do well to consider the gravity of the Elgin’s act which in cultural terms is an affront to the city-state that gave us the very notion of democracy. This temple of Athena was the centre of a state that developed the very foundations of a political system that so many of us take for granted and that our Greek friends are privileged to hold as a centre in their cultural tradition. The inner strength afforded by such a noble history is constantly revealed in Hellenic character and traditions. Such strength can be observed in the ability to retain a cultural focus despite Τουρκοκρατία (Turkish rule) from the 15th century until the declaration of Greek independence in 1821.
The removal of the Parthenon Marbles is an affront to these traditions and an affront to democracy. In case we are in any doubt about the nature and character of that democracy, I leave the last word to Pericles. In his funeral oration for those who fell defending Attica from the Spartans he wrote:
“For our system of government does not copy the systems of our neighbours; we are a model to them, not they to us. Our constitution is called a democracy,because power rests in the hands not of the few but of the many. Our laws guarantee equal justice for all in their private disputes;
and as for the election of public officials, we welcome talent to every arena of achievement, nor do we make out choices on the grounds of class but on the grounds of excellence alone. And as we give free play to all in our public life, so we carry the same spirit into our daily relations with one another. We acknowledge the restraint of reverence;
we are obedient to those in authority and to the laws, especially to those that give protection to the oppressed and those unwritten laws of the heart whose transgression brings admitted shame.”
“We are lovers of beauty without extravagance, and lovers of wisdom without effeminacy.
We differ from other states in regarding the man who keeps aloof from public life not as “private” but as useless; we decide or debate, carefully and in person, all matters of policy, and we hold, not that words and deeds go ill together, but that acts are foredoomed to failure when undertaken undiscussed.”
In a word, I say our city as a whole is an education to Greece, and that our citizens yield to none, man by man, for independence of spirit, many-sidedness of attainment, and complete self-reliance in limbs and brain.
Men of the future will wonder at us, as all men do today. We need no Homer or other man of words to praise us”.
“For you now, it remains to rival what they have done and, knowing that the secret of happiness is freedom and the secret of freedom a brave heart, not idly to stand aside from the enemy’s onslaught”.