Majestic in Exile

Op-Ed Contributor
Published: June 18, 2009

As a Greek, I have to visit the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum whenever I am in London.

I understand the strong feelings of my compatriots who want to see these unsurpassed sculptures returned home, ending the wrong done by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, two centuries ago. I feel the sense of dislocation — the incongruity — of the brilliance of Classical Athens at its peak trapped in a dull northern light, carried off by a foreign aristocrat and sold at a time when Greece itself was enslaved and its people unable to prevent the looting of their treasures.

And yet, without going into the legal or moral aspects of the issue, without weighing whether the Parthenon Marbles were saved or damaged by their removal, I cannot help feeling that the looting may have done the sculptures themselves and the idea of Ancient Greece more good than harm.

The British Museum is one of the greatest repositories of human achievement. It has given pride of place to the sculptures from the pediments, metopes and frieze of the Parthenon, providing them with the grandest gallery in the majestic building, when the wonders of other civilizations are cramped in smaller halls and corridors.

I agree with the British Museum that its exhibits tell the story of cultural achievement throughout the world and that the display of the Parthenon Marbles allows millions of visitors each year to admire them and “gain insights on how ancient Greece influenced, and was influenced by, the other civilizations that it encountered.” Visitors, who are not charged an entry fee, can contemplate treasures from the dawn of civilization in Mesopotamia, from Egypt and from Greece from earliest times down to the Hellenistic era.

And among the whole world’s treasures, the Parthenon Marbles shine — the expression of a free people celebrating their freedom from foreign invaders, their freedom from kings, aristocrats and religious bureaucracies. Because this, more than the wonder of their art, is the beauty of the Parthenon sculptures — whether in the British Museum, in Athens or wherever lesser segments are displayed.

In their depiction of the goddess Athena bursting out of Zeus’s forehead and her triumphing over Poseidon to become the city’s protector, in the mythical battles between centaurs and men, in the lively procession of contemporary citizens of democratic Athens honoring their goddess, the sculptures sing of freedom, community and the glory of life.

They are like a sunburst in a long and sometimes regressive chain of civilizations that created great art but whose people lived in the shadow of kings and priests and superstition. The Parthenon sculptures enshrine the point where the human melds with the divine, where, through the genius of mind and hand, stone is smoothed into the rippling of flesh, spirit and motion.

From the time they were brought to London, as the British Museum points out, the Parthenon Marbles inspired poets and artists and had a profound effect on scholars and the public.

Before the era of mass tourism, there can be no doubt that the sculptures drew broader attention to the achievements of the ancient Greeks and their descendants’ struggle to break free from the Ottoman Turks and establish their modern state.

Like silent envoys whose mere presence was their message — their appeal — the works that Pericles commissioned and Phidias created once again expressed the will of a people to be free. In an echo of this, the spirited campaign for the Marbles’ return to Athens renews their importance — to the benefit of both the British Museum and Greece’s heritage. The dispute reflects the value of the works, and their value drives the dispute. Their being in London, for now, does them no harm.

I have no doubt that one day all the Parthenon Marbles will be reunited in the New Acropolis Museum. Those that were once burdened by the name of Elgin have been in exile for just over 200 years — a brief period since their creation 2,500 ago. They have outlasted empires and civilizations and will continue to do so. They will be appreciated as long as there are people who appreciate beauty and freedom. And there are enough such people in Britain to ensure that sooner rather than later the Parthenon Marbles will go home.

Meanwhile, if the British Museum wants to be true to its self-appointed task of serving as curator of the world’s civilizations, and if it really does not recognize the geographic, national or ethnic origins of its masterpieces, then it should have the grace to acknowledge this in practice. It should drop the possessive adjective from its name and call itself simply “The Museum.” And its board of government-appointed trustees should be replaced by representatives of the nations whose ancestors created the works that it displays.

This would mark the end of colonial and imperial provenance of acquisitions and open a new era of exchange and cooperation between the world’s museums. Questions of ownership would be secondary in this new dialogue of free and equal nations. The Parthenon’s sculptures have the power to transform those who gaze on them.

Nikos Konstandaras is managing editor of the Greek daily Kathimerini and editor of the English-language weekly Athens Plus.

Contributed to the International Herald Tribune

Published: June 18, 2009


The Acropolis is more than the Parthenon

As the Acropolis and its monuments declare to the world, nothing makes a grander statement than a grand building. Thucydides, in his unforgettable chronicle of the decline and fall of Athens, noted that in the future people would look on the ruins of his city and consider it greater than it was, while the ruins of its great rival, Sparta, would make the Peloponnesian city appear less mighty than it was. Athens’s fortunes have waxed and waned at the foot of the Acropolis for more than 2,500 years and the rocky hill and its monuments have reflected this. Free people celebrating their triumph over foreign invaders built the Parthenon and its temples on the smoldering ruins that a Persian army had left behind after a debate on whether it would be best to preserve the ruins as eternal condemnation of the desecration or to push aside the past and build for the present – and posterity.

The outcome of that argument was decisive in shaping our civilization – and in creating a heritage for Greeks through the ages. The Greeks did many great things in philosophy, medicine and the arts but nothing concentrated their achievements more than the buildings and sculptures on the Acropolis. The polemics over the Parthenon and its sculptures – especially those in the British Museum for the past 200 years – often overshadow the fact that the Parthenon may be the grandest but is not the only building on the Acropolis. The “Sacred Rock” as Greeks call it, has a history dating long before the Golden Age of Pericles, when the ruins that we now see were built. And the naturally fortified hill that allowed prehistoric tribes to settle in this once-fertile plain has a long tale to tell. The saga of the missing Marbles is a chapter in that long story, one that will end when they return to join those in the New Acropolis Museum. For now, the missing Marbles tell the story of the Parthenon during the long night of the Ottoman occupation, when the Greeks were unable to protect their treasures from destruction and theft. The shattered shell of the Parthenon underlines the vulnerability of a nation caught in endless war. The ongoing preservation works tell the story of mistakes in past preservation projects and the effects of modern Athens’s chronic air pollution.

The new museum highlights the missing Marbles’ absence by stressing where they would have been if they were here. This finger-pointing, too, is part of the story. But, as every visitor will see, the Acropolis hosts not only the Parthenon but also the Erechtheum, the temple of Athena Nike and the Propylaia, while many of its treasures are a lot older than the sculptures of the Classical era. The new museum will show the development of Greek sculpture by juxtaposing copies of the absent pieces with treasures from other buildings and other eras on the Acropolis. The generous exhibition space will also allow a new appraisal of many overlooked masterpieces that were in storage or cramped into the tight corners of the old museum.

The rock of the Acropolis is the touchstone of Greece’s fortunes. The New Acropolis Museum, built after a delay of decades, is a declaration by the people of this land that they honor their past not by crying over lost glory but by protecting it, displaying it in the best possible way, and by creating a new public space that will change the way the city, its people and their visitors interact with the Acropolis and its treasures. And the best way to get the missing sculptures back is to embarrass those who hold them by showing them up as unwitting players in a story that is so much bigger than them.

Editorial in Athens Plus, 19 June 2009

Could Alexander govern us?

And so the Greeks have voted that Alexander the Great is the “Greatest Greek” of all time, beating the philosophers, doctors, artists and politicians who created the unique Greek miracle which remains the world’s touchstone for achievement. The result was hardly a surprise, as Alexander was indeed Great: He reached the ends of the known world through military conquest, creating a huge empire which made a gift of the Greek tongue and culture to countless ethnic groups, which could then communicate with each other and exchange ideas, religions and products. Alexander changed the world and (this is what concerns us mainly), he made it “more Greek;” he made the past more familiar to us. For the citizens of a small country in a world of growing uncertainty, it is natural that we should seek to identify with Alexander’s triumphs, as if, in this way, we can impose ourselves on others, conquer fear, strike a blow against anyone who underestimates us, who to tries to usurp any of our achievements.

We miss Alexander, but what would we do if he suddenly appeared before us, ready to rule? We’d try to kill him, to run away, or – most likely – to strip him of the qualities that made him Great. (You see, Alexander’s great, but so is the democratic system that the other Greeks – whom he beat in the competition – bequeathed to humanity. And we would not like to lose our right to misgovern ourselves.)

Alexander – just as in his own time – would divide us between those who would like to follow him and those who insist on their state’s independence. Also, he would oblige us to be in a state of continual warfare – which might be okay if the fighting were aimed at conquering a perennial foe, but Alexander had no intention of stopping: He was forced to turn back only when his exhausted army finally rebelled on the bank of the Hyphasis River in India as they contemplated yet another meaningless battle against a superior foe.

But because Alexander was a hero of his time, when military conquest or defeat determined whether one lived or died, where a king might believe that he was the son of a god and therefore need not abide by the laws of men nor institutions, it is pointless trying to judge him by today’s criteria. That is how great leaders have always been – Alexander was just more successful than all the others, because he managed to leave a positive impression on many of the regions that he conquered, as we see from the survival of his name in many cities and narratives of distant nations.

So let’s not judge Alexander by today’s standards. Let’s compare ourselves with him instead, so that we might be judged. First of all, in Greece today, Alexander would not be so fortunate as to attain power as a headstrong 20-year-old (unless he were the son of a king, which, he was). In Greece today, mediocrity and selfishness rule – and it takes many years for a capable young person to have all good qualities knocked out of him and acquire the necessary networks among political, economic and academic interests that will allow him to climb the ladder of power. He would need to be at least 40 before he achieved this. And then he would find himself confronting the many systemic problems that we all know and which are maintained by the interests that will have supported him in his rise. As a graduate of our narrow-minded education system (because it is one thing to be tutored by Aristotle and another to study at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki), a hostage to interest groups and to the corruption that feeds off political apathy and maintains it, he would cut no Gordian knots. He’d just keep talking about “change” and “reform,” not daring to do anything that would endanger his support, as he’d play for time. He would allow the country to sink, as long as he could remain in power. (Suffering along with his soldiers when they lack food and water would be taken as a sign of dangerous, unforgivable weakness.) And if today’s Alexander were to embrace foreign nations and their customs, this too would meet with disapproval from his cohorts and a large part of his nation, which feels comfortable only when flattered by claims of its purported superiority to all things foreign. (This bigotry is far removed from the anger and dismay that Alexander’s tough Macedonian generals felt when they saw him luxuriating in Persian dress and being overwhelmed by delusions of grandeur.)

So we might miss a leader who made the Greeks known to the whole world and we might miss an age in which our nation dominated all others. But if we compare ourselves with Alexander the Great, we may justly argue that he was the greatest Greek of all time – except for our own.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 25 May, 2009

Karaghioz, a very Greek hero

The recent death of Evgenios Spatharis, a master of Greece’s shadow theater named after its anti-hero Karaghioz, marks the end of a long cultural tradition. Spatharis was himself the son of a legendary karaghioz-player, Sotiris Spatharis, and, in his lifetime saw his loudmouthed, avaricious everyman move from the central stage of popular culture to a museum piece. Where once whole neighborhoods or villages would gather in a central square or vacant lot, the children seated on the dirt in front of the portable stage made up of light, painted wood and a sheet, Spatharis in his later years entertained societies that invited him to perform and he produced television shows. He also devoted himself to a museum on the shadow theater that he set up in the suburb of Maroussi.
Spatharis was not the last of the karaghioz-players as there are still some old hands putting on shows and some younger players have tried their hand at the art. But he was certainly the best known of the generation which had tried to survive the transition from the cultural mainstream to being a relic of a bygone era.
Spatharis himself had no illusions about his audience. “People who have not been barefoot and hungry cannot play Karaghioz and they can’t understand him,” he told me in an interview in 1991. We spoke as he was preparing his small stage for an afternoon performance for a women’s society in Kefalari’s plush Pentelikon Hotel. Spatharis was neither surprised nor bitter at his profession’s decline, he just noted that times had changed. And he changed with them.
Before the spread of cinemas, and the golden age of Greek popular movies in the 1960s, karaghioz players and, on the odd occasion, traveling theater troupes provided the only theater that most Greeks would ever see. The player would stand behind the white sheet with a bright lamp, maneuvering a cast of up to 10 characters as the handmade figures cut out of transparent, painted leather appeared in full color on the sheet. The player would put on all the distinctive voices of the stock characters himself while having them speak and fight, run and jump – all at the end of the sticks that he held – as the story progressed. Karaghioz, the protagonist of just about every scene, was easily distinguished by his humped back and a very long arm, which he would use in his tireless efforts to steal or beat up others. Invariably he would get his ass kicked for overreaching. (It says something about the Greek character that its popular hero would be a small-time conniver who received lusty beatings from his enemies – Greeks and Turks – before being bailed out by someone else). The catharsis in these playlets was not the result of fear and pity that one encounters in the ancient Greek tragedies, it was more the result of a good laugh at the expense of a likeable and indestructible rascal.
The plays would be rough-and-tumble affairs set around a classic theme such as Karaghioz’s attempt to steal something, to hide from someone, to seduce the Turkish grandee’s daughter. There were also grand “historical” tales, such as “Alexander the Great’s defeat of the damned serpent” and patriotic episodes from the war of liberation against the Ottoman Turks.
“The karaghioz player would always have his ear pricked to hear the audience’s reactions, and he would improvise accordingly,” Spatharis explained. The player was in intimate contact with his audience, and would milk a situation for laughs or pathos accordingly. In the same way, the karaghioz players moved with their times. One successful play, at the time of the Apollo lunar landings, concerned Karaghioz’s trip to the moon. When they lost their monopoly to movies and could not get crowds to attend performances in empty lots, they turned to radio, to vinyl records and, when the time came, to television. But, as Spatharis noted, the rise in living standards and the plethora of other means of entertainment had made karaghioz something of a curiosity.
Today, fewer and fewer people remember karaghioz performances in the open. Schoolchildren might still be treated to the occasional karaghioz performance by well-meaning adults, and they might even be entertained – but they are far more comfortable with the Mario Brothers of Nintendo fame. This does not mean that modern popular culture is to blame for the demise of the shadow theater, because karaghioz was the very personification of popular culture. It is more a reflection on the way that Greece has changed and on the fact that much that gave our nation its particular color is being lost. Karaghioz came to us via Turkey during the Ottoman occupation, his roots lost in the mist of time in the shadow theater of the Far East. It is tragic that we should attend the funeral of a hero who was born centuries – if not millennia – before us but whose death we were all witness to. Unless… Unless the Internet and video games inspire some young Greeks to grab the hand at the end of Karaghioz’s long arm and make the leap into the present. And, from there, into the future…

Milestones&Footnotes comment in Athens Plus, 22 May 2009