History of the Parthenon Marbles
Bruce, the 7th Earl; of Elgin, British Ambassador to the Sublime
Porte of Constantinople (Istanbul) the seat of the Ottoman Empire
at the turn of the 19th century, having stripped down the monuments
of the Acropolis from 1801 - 1804 brought back to London one whole
caryatid from the Erechtheion, huge pedimental figures, friezes,
metopes and parts of columns from the Parthenon and other pieces
representing over half of all the surviving sculptures from the
were sold to the British Government in 1816, after the Select
Committee of the House of Commons had debated the issue and considered
the method of their acquisition, their value and the importance
of buying them as public property. At the conclusion of this procedure,
in spite of some serious misgivings expressed by a number of MPs
and witnesses, especially whether a British Ambassador was justified
in using his position to acquire antiquities from the Government
he was accredited to, Elgin won the day. Parliament decided the
sculptures be bought at the recommended price of £35,000.00,
that they remain together and be displayed at the British Museum
which maintains to this day that the so-called ' Elgin Marbles'
are legally and properly held by it. Scholars have now seriously
disputed this claim in the light of recent research and findings
especially concerning the validity of the so-called firman.
the Parthenon over and over
In the year 1799, the 7th Earl of Elgin, was appointed Ambassador
at the Sublime Porte of Constantinople in Ottoman Turkey, 'not
without lobbying on his own part'. Elgin had been engaged for
some years building a grand country house, to be called Broomhall.
The architect was Thomas Harrison, a fine architect in the Greek
style and passionate admirer of Greek classical architecture,
who strongly encouraged Elgin to arrange for drawings to be made
of the Greek antiquities in Athens and especially "
to bring back plaster casts in the round of the actual surviving
objects. There was no suggestion at that time that the original
remains themselves should be removed."
at the turn of the 19th century and after three and a half centuries
of Ottoman occupation was a village of 1300 souls, clustered around
the Acropolis. The population did not exceed some ten thousand
of whom half were Orthodox Greeks and the rest Muslim Turks (who
all spoke mainly or even only Greek), Albanians (half of them
Muslim and half Christian Orthodox) with a sprinkling of African
Muslims, Jews, Roman Catholics and a handful of western European
the Bribeable Dignitary
The Athenians were thrilled with the arrival in 1800 of the Elgin
team hoping it would create jobs and bring money to the city.
Amongst them was the Reverend Philip Hunt - a deft negotiator
consumed by an insatiable appetite for Greek antiquities - and
the Italian Giovani Batista Lusieri - a professional landscape
painter, in charge of the whole project.
start with, Lord Elgin's aims were modest: As Britain's ambassador
he used his considerable influence with the Sultan to be allowed
to draw and make casts of the Parthenon sculptures. He wished
to bring such sketches and casts back to Britain so as to improve
artistic appreciation and taste among his countrymen. However,
the more he busied himself with this project the more he realised
that under the eminently bribeable Ottoman officialdom in charge,
the Parthenon sculptures were there not only for copying but also
for the taking.
two Ottoman dignitaries mentioned in the correspondence of the
team members were the Voivode, governor of Athens, and the Disdar,
the military governor of the Acropolis, then a publicly owned
military complex under the authority of the Sultan himself. Intrigued
by the fascination the Acropolis exerted on Western visitors these
two were not averse to sell them the odd piece of it but kept
quiet about it lest they lose their heads (literally).
such a Damocles' sword over him, the Disdar was prepared to sell
access to the Acropolis but when it came to allow the Elgin team
to sketch, including perhaps the military fortifications and even
spy on women in the Ottoman houses visible from the Acropolis,
he drew the line. He demanded a firman (Sultan's decree). Lord
Elgin In Constantinople started to work hard to obtain one.
February 1801, six whole months after their arrival in Athens,
Lord Elgin's artists were finally allowed on to the Acropolis.
However, when the scaffolding was erected and the moulders were
ready to start work, the Disdar took fright and banned access
to the site until the promised firman was securely in his hands.
Story of the Elusive Firman
In spite of claims by Elgin's men at the time of the removals,
and the British Museum in later and recent years, no "firman"
was ever produced either at the Select Committee in 1816 or in
later years when serious doubts were expressed about the existence
of a firman in the first place (See below: The firman and the
legitimacy of the acquisition). The only written evidence is that
of an Italian translation of an "official letter" now
in the possession of William St. Clair, a Cambridge historian.
However, the following is the account of the granting of a so-called
"firman" as given in evidence at the Select Committee
in 1816 and repeated ever since by all who wish to retain the
Marbles in Britain.
first firman was issued in May 1801 and appears to have been sent
directly to the Ottoman officials in Athens through Ottoman channels.
Its contents have never been known but one can surmise that it
allowed Elgin's team access to the Acropolis to draw, erect scaffolding
and make moulds.
was soon deemed insufficient by the team. So Hunt asked for a
second firman that would give them per mission 'to dig, to take
away any sculp tures or inscriptions which do not interfere with
the works or walls of the citadel'. Granted on 6 July 1801, this
alleged firman - or 'official letter' as the Select Committee
calls it - was discovered in its Italian translation by William
St.Clair in the Hunt papers held by the family. It authorises
Elgin 'to remove some stones with inscriptions and figures'. Even
by these terms, Lord Elgin was given per mission to copy, draw,
mould and dig around the Parthenon but not to saw sculptures off
month later, In August 1801, Hunt asked the Voivode to allow him
to take down the metopes from the Parthenon, a move that even
Logotheti, the Greek Vice-Consul of Britain in Athens was reluctant
to approve. The event was witnessed and described by Edward Daniel
Clarke (1769-1822), a British scholar, traveller and coin collector
in his Travels Part II, section 2, p.483. 'One of the workmen'
he writes 'came to Inform Don Batista that they were going to
lower the metopes. We saw this fine piece of sculpture raised
from its station between the triglyphs: but while the workmen
were endeavouring to give it a position adapted to the line of
descent, a pair of adjoining masonry was loosened by the machinery
and down came the fine masses of Pentelican marble scattering
their white fragments with thundering noise among the ruins. The
Disdar, seeing this, could no longer restrain his emotions; he
actually took his pipe from his mouth and letting fall a tear,
said in a most emphatic tone of voice 'telos.' ['The end!' or
'Never again!'] positively declaring that nothing should induce
him to consent to any further dilapidations of the building'.
the Acropolis Repeatedly
The end ('telos') was, however far from near. In the spring of
1802 Elgin came over to Athens himself, congratulated his team
and oversaw personally the removal of the stunning horse's head
from the chariot of the waning moon (Selene) in the east pediment.
the sculptures to London presented problems. In September the
'Mentor', Elgin's own small brig, sank outside the Island of Cythera
with some of the finest sculptures of the Parthenon. On Christmas
Eve 1802, Hunt managed to enlist the help of Captain Clarke, commanding
the HMS 'Braakel', to salvage the sunken sculptures and ship them
Elgin left Constantinople with his family on 16 January 1803,
was captured by the French and held prisoner for the next three
years. During that time his man in Athens, Lusieri, removed one
of the Caryatids of the Erechtheion and replaced it with a crude
bare brick pillar to prevent the roof from collapsing.
1806, when Elgin was released from captivity, his second large
collection of antiquities was still In Athens with the beleaguered
but loyal Lusieri standing guard over It. When in 1809 the new
British Ambassador Robert Adair asked for their release, the Ottomans
told him that Lord Elgin had never been authorised to remove any
sculptures from the Parthenon In the first place. On 18 February
they changed their mind and the Voivode was ordered to let them
order reached Athens on 20 March. Losing no time, Lusieri loaded
everything on a ship that set sail for London on 26 March. It
contained most of the Parthenon sculptures but had to leave behind
five of the heaviest cases. These were shipped to London a year
later on 11 April 1811 by a British navy vessel having on board
Lusieri and his last cargo 'the last plunder from a bleeding land'
as Byron was to call it in Childe Harold.
Firman and the Legitamacy of the Aquisition
Dr. Jeanette Greenfield in her highly regarded book "The
Return of Cultural Treasures" (First published 1989, 2nd
edition 1998, Cambridge University Press) has this to say on the
there has been debate as to the extent that the firman empowered
Lord Elgin, the real issue in my view, centres around the fact
that the original firman was never produced by Elgin in the House
of Commons Parliamentary Select Committee in 1816. Only a copy
written from memory was produced. There is no direct documentary
proof of the right to remove the marbles. Even regarding such
documents as exist there are arguments over the interpretation
of the alleged wording which would not have been stretched to
justify destruction of the Parthenon."
1998, an eminent Greek historian/Turkologist, Professor Vassilis
Demetriades, wrote an article on the real nature of the Turkish
firman, following extensive research on Ottoman administration
and having examined a huge number of Ottoman archives both in
Greece and in Turkey (Constantinople). These are some of his findings:
the Ottoman Empire there was no legislative body to debate or
enact the state's legislation. Only the 'holy law of Islam' was
acceptable as the basis of the state and the Sultan's right to
amend the provisions of the holy law, wherever necessary. This
right was expressed in 'firmans'. Elgin claimed that he had secured
such a legal document, but was the document presented as such
a firman? Professor Demetriades questions this:
expert in Ottoman diplomatic language can easily ascertain that
the original of the document which has survived was not a firman.
"Ferman" in Turkish denotes any order or edict of the
Ottoman Sultan. In a more limited sense it means a decree of the
Sultan headed by the cipher (tughra) and composed in a certain
form. All firmans have some common features that distinguish them
from documents of other types.
Demetriades lists all these features in great detail and concludes:
none of these features are present in the document produced, the
document whose translation we have is not a firman." Professor
Demetriades believes on present evidence that there has never
been a "firman".
apologists of the British Museum have claimed that the British
used the word "firman" to describe any official letter
issued in the Ottoman Empire. That maybe so, but that suggests
that the legal weight of a proper firman allowing Elgin's men
to enter the Acropolis has never existed. Instead it appears that
an obliging Vizier simply sent a letter of introduction giving
instructions for Elgin's men to be allowed to enter the Acropolis
with specific guidelines for acting there.
that were most emphatically never followed.