the southeast corner of the Parthenon, 1803

Giovanni Battista Lusieri. The South-east Corner of the Parthenon, Athens, 1803. watercolour, 64 x 83cm. The National Galleries of Scotland, Lady Ruthven bequest, 1885.

When Lord Elgin was removing the sculptures from the Parthenon, the ones held in the British Museum as the Elgin Marbles and the subject of a long and intense campaign by Greece for their repatriation, he had Giovanni Battista Lusieri record the removal process.  

Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin was the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire between 1799 and 1803.  Clearly the Ottoman Empire, which had reigned from 1299 to 1923 – the remains are today's Turkey – didn't much care for Greece, indeed relations between Greece and Turkey simmer and seethe still.  Why were Canadian UN Peacekeepers in Cyprus for so long, for example?  Greece, Greek history, the Parthenon, the Phidian sculptures would have seemed archaeological, not particularly essential to a centrally located but culturally marginal part of a vast empire which occupied the Middle East, North Africa, the northeast Mediterranean and surrounded the Red Sea, the Black Sea and touched the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf.

Greece was lost to the Ottoman Empire in 1821, but by then the archaeological looting was complete.  Britain purchased the marbles, already in their possession, in 1816. The legality of the removal was questioned immediately after it happened; even Byron protested the removal, so it is not just a recent 20th century controversy. During the Greek War of Independence of 1821-1833, the Ottomans used the Erechtheum as a munitions store, confirming a basic disinterest in the spatiality of history in occupied territory.  

It was the beginning of the era of the Grand Tour however, and a British love of things Greek: language, architecture, philosophy.  It was felt that the marbles of the Parthenon were safer in England than in a place with a growing independence movement which predictably ended in a 12-year war.  

The moral justification for looting during a war often rests on salvation and protection.  At the end of the 20th century, the Elgin Marbles remained in the British Museum because Athens is considered too polluted – had they been left on the Parthenon, they would have dissolved away.  Now, I suppose Greece is considered to financially unstable to look after them.