ATHENS, Greece (AP) — For decades, Britain and Greece have been able to disagree, largely politely, over the world’s toughest cultural heritage dispute: which is the right place for some of the most beautiful ancient Greek sculptures ever made, which were exhibited in London? for more than 200 years but which Greece very much wishes to recover.
Diplomacy has failed when British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak abruptly canceled a meeting in London planned for Tuesday with his Greek counterpart Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
Mitsotakis publicly expressed his dissatisfaction. Sunak’s spokesman linked the snub to the fact that the Greek leader used British television the day before to renew his call for the return of the 2,500-year-old masterpieces.
Here’s a look at what the dispute is about and what could come next.
WHAT ARE SCULPTURES — OR ARE THEY MARBLES?
They were carved between 447 and 432 BC to adorn the iconic Parthenon, a temple to the city’s patron goddess, Athena, on the Acropolis Hill.
Freestanding statues filled the triangular pediments that rose above the marble columns on the short sides of the building. Just below, carved panels were at regular intervals on all four sides, while an uninterrupted band of relief sculpture – the frieze – depicting a religious procession ran around the outer wall inside the colonnade. They were originally painted in bright colors which have since disappeared.
All have survived mostly intact for more than 1,000 years, despite war, earthquakes, foreign invasions and the transformation of the temple, first into a church and then into a mosque. But in 1687, the Parthenon was destroyed by a besieging Venetian army and many works were lost.
The survivors are now split between the British Museum and the Acropolis Museum in Athens – with small fragments in a handful of other European museums.
London has 17 pedimented figures, 15 panels and 247 feet (75 meters) of frieze.
For decades these were known as the Elgin Marbles, named after the Scottish nobleman who started the Troubles more than 200 years ago. Today, even the British Museum uses the favored Greek form: the Parthenon sculptures. Besides, “marbles” lend themselves to too many bad puns.
WHY ARE THEY IMPORTANT?
Ancient Greek sculpture has been admired for millennia and is a key artistic reference point. For many, the Parthenon sculptures are the most striking example.
They form a cohesive group designed and executed by the best artists – the Leonardo da Vinci of the time – for a single building project intended to celebrate the height of Athenian glory.
HOW DID THEY END IN LONDON?
More than a century after the destructive explosion, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire – of which Athens was still a reluctant subject – Lord Elgin obtained a permit to remove some of the sculptures.
They were shipped to Britain and eventually joined the British Museum’s collection in 1816, five years before the uprising that created an independent Greece.
WHAT IS THE GREEK PLEASURE OF RESTITUTION?
Athens claims the works were illegally removed and are expected to join the other surviving parts of the group in the specially built Acropolis Museum at the foot of the ancient citadel.
According to the Greek argument, this will allow them to be seen in the context of the Parthenon, from which all the sculptures were removed to protect against pollution and the elements.
The Greek campaign was strongly defended in the 1980s by Melina Mercouri, actress and singer who was then Minister of Culture. It has had its ups and downs since then, but has never been abandoned and has been enthusiastically taken up by Mitsotakis.
In his BBC interview on Sunday that sparked the diplomatic row, Mitsotakis compared the current situation to Leonardo’s Mona Lisa cut in two and split between two countries.
WHAT IS THE BRITISH ARGUMENT FOR KEEPING THEM?
The British Museum said the sculptures were legally acquired and are an integral part of its presentation of world cultural history.
She says she is open to any loan request, but must be sure that in such a case she would recover the works. Athens should therefore first recognize the institution’s legal ownership of the works – which Mitsotakis has excluded.
Successive British governments have insisted that the sculptures remain in place.
WHAT HAPPENS NOW?
Despite the current row, the president of the British Museum said Earlier this year, he held “constructive” negotiations with Greece on a “win-win” compromise.
George Osborne said he was “reasonably optimistic” that a deal would be reached, but warned that “it may well come to nothing”.
And Greek officials insisted Tuesday on the continuation of negotiations.
Meanwhile, Athens is I try to collect as many small fragments as possible in other European museums. This would increase pressure on the British Museum, as British public opinion appears increasingly supportive of the Greek request.
Following an initiative of Pope Francis in January, the Vatican Museums returned three smaller fragments of Parthenon sculptures that they had held for two centuries. A year earlier, a museum in Sicily income its own little fragment.