On this day in 1982: Melina Mercouri tells the world Parthenon Marbles must return to Greece

Parthenon Marbles melina mercouri

Parthenon Marbles melina mercouri

On July 29, 1982 Melina Mercouri, Minister of Culture and Sciences of Greece, addressed the World Conference on Cultural Policies, organised by UNESCO in Mexico, telling the world the Parthenon Marbles must be returned home to Greece.

Today, July 29, 2017, the Parthenon Marbles still remain in London and Greece is still fighting to have them returned.

Read part of Melina’s speech, which was read at the Conference and is just as relevant today as it was 35 years ago:  

Lord Elgin claimed that his action was motivated by idealism, that it was necessary to save these marbles “form uncultivated hands and indifferent spirits”. Let me tell you a little story about that:

The Acropolis was occupied by Ottoman forces under siege by the Greek army of national liberation. The Ottoman occupiers of the Acropolis were running sort of ammunition and began to destroy the columns to extract the lead for making cannonballs. The Greek sent them a message which I think was historic: “Don’t touch the columns of the Acropolis; we will send you cannonballs”. And they did. It was these “uncultivated hands” which carried the cannonballs, and these “indifferent spirits” which gave up their lives in defence of their patrimony.

Our great poet Yannis Ritsos expressed the sentiment of all of our people when he wrote: “These stones cannot make do with less sky”.

I think that the time has come for these marbles to come back to the blue sky of Attica, to their natural space, to the place where they will be a structural and functional part of a unique whole. And this would happen at a time when the Greeks with the help and technical collaboration of the whole world, have erected scaffolding around the Propylaea, the Erechtheion and the Parthenon in a gigantic effort to save the Acropolis, threatened by the erosion of time and pollution of the modern world.

The government of Greece has charged me with the duty of announcing to you here that Greece, through the mediation of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental committee for the promotion of the return of cultural property to its country of origin, using formal procedures and relying also on legislation currently in force in England, is about to make an official request for the return of the Acropolis marbles.

We are not naive. The day may come when this world will create other visions, other concepts of what is proper, of what comprises a cultural patrimony and of human creativity. And we well understand that the museums cannot be emptied. But I insist on reminding you that in the case of the Acropolis marbles we are not asking for the return of a painting or a statue. We are asking for the return of a portion of a unique monument, the privileged symbol of a whole culture.

Of course, the Parthenon is not, unhappily, the only example of a mutilated monument. Greece appeals to countries which have had the same experiences, suffered the same ravages, and declares that it maintains and will continue to maintain that mutilated groups scattered throughout the world must be returned to their countries of origin, must be reintegrated into the place and space where they were conceived and created; for they constitute the historical and religious heritage, the cultural patrimony of the people who gave them birth.

Dear friends, it was the Englishman Hobhouse, the future Lord Bronkton, on a visit to Athens in 1809, who gave us this striking illustration: an elderly Greek man approached him and in a voice trembling with bitterness says: “You English have taken from us the works of our ancestors. Look after them well, because the day will come when the Greeks will ask for them back”.

There is nothing we need add to that. Our English friends have indeed looked after our marbles well; and now, with a very firm voice, we are asking for them back.

Fellow delegates, Mr. Director-General of UNESCO, our request is absolutely legitimate. In the name of civilization and justice, we ask for your moral support. I am confident in the expectation of that support.

Melina Mercouri, July 29, 1982


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