Have you heard of the Parthenon sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles, which centuries ago were hacked off the ancient temple on top of Athens’ Acropolis and currently are housed in London’s British Museum? Well, the Greeks have been wanting them back for ages and in 2009, mere months before their financial crisis erupted, they actually opened a $175 million museum to host the wayward artefacts.
This week a new element entered the equation: Amal Ramzi Clooney, nee Alamuddin, a British-Lebanese barrister born in Beirut. Among other things, she has represented in court transparency activist Julian Assange but she is better known as the new, beautiful and brilliant 36-year-old wife of Hollywood superstar George Clooney.
Her visit to Athens made international headlines and drove to happy hysteria hundreds of thousands of Greeks, somewhat averting their attention from an ominous stock market sell-off and yet another round of polite chastising by International Monetary Fund and European Union loan inspectors.
Amal came to Greece as part of a legal team, advising the Greek government on its ongoing Parthenon artefacts restitution campaign. Apart from some very passionate sound bites by Mrs Clooney, accompanied by scenes of media frenzy in full accordance with her fame, there was not much else.
What transpired proved to already have been set out in a press release published by her firm, days ahead of her arrival: “Geoffrey Robertson QC and Amal Clooney will be conducting a visit to Athens on 13-16 October 2014 at the invitation of the Greek government in connection with the Parthenon sculptures that are presently on display in the British museum … Mr Robertson and Mrs Clooney were first asked to provide legal advice to the Greek government on this matter in 2011. They will be holding a series of meetings with government officials during their stay, including the Prime Minister.”
The restitution of the Parthenon Marbles might set a precedent where we’ll be seeing the British Museum’s mummies catching the boat back home to Egypt.
When it comes to style – and content – one might call this statement “Doric”, just like the austere architectural style of the Parthenon.
Moreover, the Mrs Clooney parade proved rather expensive: according to a government document, where it is evident that the Greek prime minister called the shots, a sum in excess of US $13,000 was spent on airplane tickets and the hiring of a chauffeur-driven private car just for the legal team.
That corresponds to what an experienced Greek archaeologist makes in a year. There is no mention in the document of the team’s other expenses, such as a visit to an acclaimed seaside restaurant, in the presence of the respective culture and tourism ministers and their entourage. So was this but a photo opportunity for government representatives and their cronies?
The Parthenon problem has a way of reappearing on the scene, more so in Greece than in the UK. It’s like a trusted nation-bonding scheme. Despite prodding from the United Nations’ cultural agency, the UK government doesn’t seem to budge. The restitution of the Parthenon Marbles might set a precedent where we’ll be seeing the British Museum’s mummies catching the boat back home to Egypt. It is no wonder that the socially conservative British newspaper the Daily Mail gnarled its inky teeth at Mrs Clooney.
Of course, she is a seasoned fighter. And her boss Geoffrey Robertson has set an amazing precedent through his work on assuring the repatriation of the remains of Tasmanian Aborigines, stored in the British National History museum. Their position is that the Parthenon sculptures are unique, a single work of art which has been split apart and must be put together again.
Interestingly, the British public seems in favour of the restitution process, as a Guardian online survey indicates. Then again, the British public vehemently opposed the 2003 Iraq invasion.
In truth, Samaras’s scheme to take advantage of Mrs Clooney’s celebrity status was a rather successful public relations exercise, portraying Athens as a glamorous travel destination while putting on the back burner pressing political and financial woes.
But as for preserving and promoting Greece’s cultural heritage, the prime minister, himself a former culture minister, should know better. There have been too many senseless cuts, too many publicity-driven stunts, such as an amateurishly speedy excavation at a spectacular, newly-unearthed tomb at Amphipolis, in northern Greece.
There are signs that the public sector is being desiccated of funds, to the benefit of private businesses. The global crisis has not helped at all, either. The international archaeological institutions present in Greece have seen their budgets from abroad reduced considerably, too.
So? Was George already dating Amal when he made those remarks in favour of the return of the “Pantheon” Marbles, as he called them, while promoting his “Monuments Men” film earlier this year?
Menelaos Tzafalias is a freelance journalist and producer based in Athens, Greece. He has worked as an associate producer on the documentary “Palikari: Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre”, a story about migrants and labour relations in early 20th century America.