By Andrew Tzembelicos
Recently, there has been renewed debate about the Parthenon statues, which were chipped off the facade of the iconic building in the early 1800s and remain on display at the British Museum.
Despite repeated arguments made in favor of returning them to Greece, the government of the United Kingdom and the British Museum remain unwilling to do the right thing.
In continuing to seek these antiquities, and rightfully have them returned to their true home, Greece might look to Canada on two fronts: for support and in leveraging an historical example to its advantage.
Recent media reports have suggested that Australia has taken the international lead in demanding the return of the Parthenon Marbles. Although Canada’s Greek diaspora may be smaller in number, with the first Greeks arriving in the early 19th century, it is one of the country’s most vibrant communities.
Today, with representation by Greek Canadians at all levels of government, they — and the Government of Canada, helmed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — should be enlisted for their full support in this quest.
As far as precedents are concerned, in 2018, the UK’s Theresa May government willingly transferred ownership of two historic British ships to the Canadian government and the local Inuit people. In making this gift, then-UK Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson cited his country’s “deep historic links with Canada,” calling the gift “a testament to our prospering relationship.”
For readers unfamiliar with the story, an ill-fated expedition led by John Franklin (now known as the Franklin Expedition) saw two ships sail from London in 1845 to chart the Northwest Passage — in what is now the Canadian Arctic. After becoming entrapped in ice, the vessels were abandoned and the crews subsequently perished. The expedition’s ships were only discovered in 2014 and 2016.
In its media release at the time, the UK’s Defense Ministry called the ships “two of the most archaeologically important shipwrecks in the world.”
In a similar vein, could anyone dispute that the Parthenon Marbles are not among the world’s most important historic artifacts?
In like fashion, the British Museum holds the largest collection of Egyptian objects outside Egypt. Accordingly, if it is not already doing so, the Greek government should be partnering with the Egyptian government in a joint effort with the appropriate authorities to make the case for cultural repatriation of this priceless patrimony.
There is also, of course, the court of public opinion, and the countless voices of both Greek and non-Greek descent who can and will advocate on behalf of Greece’s rightful claims to their cultural history.
We live in the 21st century. At a time when cultural reconciliation is at the fore, the time to correct the wrongs of the past is long overdue. As lecturer Dimitri Gonis highlighted recently in a piece published in The Australian, “The Parthenon is to Greece what the Pyramids are to Egypt, the Colosseum is to Rome, Stonehenge is to Britain, or Uluru is to Aboriginal Australians. Everyone knows who they belong to.”
On the eve of next year’s celebrations marking 200 years of Greek independence, it is time to simply demand that the Parthenon Marbles must be repatriated.
They belong in Greece.
Andrew Tzembelicos is a Greek-Canadian writer, editor and communications consultant who divides his time between Athens and Vancouver.