August 16, 2004

The Cultural rift behind the Olympics

Posted at 10:25 pm in Elgin Marbles

If nothing else, many more people around the world will know about the story of the Elgin Marbles as a result of the Olympics in Athens.

Manila Times

Sunday, August 08, 2004
By JCM Romero 3rd
Cultural rift behind 2004 Olympics

The Olympics of old goes back to where it started in antiquity with the architectural splendor of Athens glittering as host of the 2004 Games. But the symbolic torch-lighting for the inaugural rites next week isn’t enough to thaw a cold Greco-British cultural relations focused on prize sculptures the London government refused to return to Greece in time for the global sports festival.

Retrieving the magnificent 2,500-year-old Elgin marbles from the British Museum is a crucial Greek dream for 2004. And failure to fulfill it means Athens already lost one contest before the Olympic joust starts Friday. While the effort to recover them is decades old, hosting the Games offers the perfect occasion for pushing the redemption amid lukewarm London reaction that leads to sadness and disappointment for Greece.

Cannibalized from the Parthenon early in the 19th century, the magnificent sculptures would remain in London up to 2012 when it will host the Olympics following the Beijing edition in 2008. Whereupon it can be concluded that the controversial marbles are a potential tourist magnet and a crowd-drawer, but the British government prevents Greece as the real owner from enjoying their socio-cultural and economic fruits.

If the British Museum insinuates inchoate ownership of the sculptures, published account on the unsolicited effort to save them for posterity when Lord Elgin rescued the cultural objects from the ruined Athens Palace during the Ottoman rule is sketchy and historically unreliable. It is claimed the items were sold to London in 1816, and an update says the sculptures are not only central to the museum’s universal vocation, but also they are tourism come-ons for three million visitors annually.

While the conveyance of the Greek marbles is hazy and culturally disturbing, the transition possession of war loot by ancient and modern conquerors is no different story from the savages of military invasion. The Mona Lisa painting plundered by Napoleon Bonaparte when he invaded Italy in 1799-1812 now rakes in multimillion euros for France from an annual pilgrimage of six million tourists yearly to a Louvre museum.

Another Bonaparte loot is the Rosetta stones (from Egypt) that has hieroglyphic value toward explaining the foundation of civilization and the upward parameters of socio-economic and technological development particularly the pyramid. It appears that military invasion goes with social savagery, and the occupation forces would always get what they want as instant property. That is the extreme danger of political hegemony.

Those looted by the Nazis from Jewish families were never traced or recovered. Which has modern parallelism to the unaccountable oil revenues of Iraq after the US-led forces invaded it last year and placed the operation of Baghdad’s oil production and distribution under the management of US-designated Coalition Provisional Authority. Where the oil money is a question that disturbs George W. Bush in the current US presidential poll campaign.

Valuable artifacts brought to London all in the name of safekeeping when Mao Tse Tung took over Beijing leadership by storm half a century ago later found their way to auction houses in Manchester five years ago. If China wants them back to showcase its cultural richness in the 2008 Olympics, then the London government has more problems to explain.

Apart from the perception of restoration and custodial sting, Britain should also clarify charges that cultural objects were stolen from Iraq in 1957 and last year—and were underhandedly shipped to the West with a big part of the loot reportedly kept in British museums. How to resolve the problem of restoring the Elgin marbles is a cultural controversy outside the spectacle of Olympics.

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