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Last Updated: Monday, 18 August 2003, 11:47 GMT 12:47 UK
Acropolis building site stirs up storm

By Richard Galpin
BBC, Athens

If visitors to the Acropolis in central Athens were to cast their eyes across the city to the south-east, they would soon spot a large gap in the densely populated neighbourhood of Markryianni, just a stone's-throw away.

It is a building site for a controversial new Acropolis museum.

Artist's impression of new museum
The museum will be just a stone's throw from the Acropolis
For the Greek Government, the museum is a key part of the realisation of a long-held and much-cherished dream.

The dream is to secure the return of the Elgin marbles from the British Museum more than 200 years after they were removed from the Acropolis and shipped to London on the orders of the British diplomat Lord Elgin.

The removal of the 2,500-year-old sculptures, which once adorned the Parthenon temple, has dogged relations between Britain and Greece ever since.

And now more than ever the Greek Government is desperate to get them back so they are on display to the world during the Olympic games in Athens next August.

"This is a very important opportunity for the United Kingdom," says Greek Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos, "to make a gesture and send a very important global cultural message for the credibility of Europe as a cultural continent with a single historical conscience."

I feel terrible when I look at this and see mechanical machines destroying an ancient site. What's happening here is unbelievable
George Papathanasopoulos
Former director
Acropolis Archaeological Site
If the Greek Government has its way, the prized marbles will form the centre-piece of the museum and will be housed inside a futuristic exhibition hall on the top floor, made almost entirely of glass.

As visitors walk through the new hall looking at the sculptures re-united with those Lord Elgin did not manage to take from Greece, in the background just a few hundred metres away will be the Parthenon itself.

But paradoxically, those behind the museum - which is being built to house priceless ancient artefacts - stand accused of destroying many such artefacts in the process.

Museum building site
Greek heritage is being lost from the building site, say critics
And the complaints are coming from the Greeks themselves.

They are not part of some underhand British plot to scupper the mounting pressure for the return of the marbles within the next 12 months.

A vociferous campaign for the immediate halting of all building work is being led by a local group which includes prominent Greek archaeologists, politicians and residents of Markryianni.

"The site is completely unique, showing 1,500 years of history, giving us a complete picture of how people lived," says George Papathanasopoulos, former director of the Acropolis Archaeological Site.

"I feel terrible when I look at this and see mechanical machines destroying an ancient site. What's happening here is unbelievable."

Many archaeological remains have been uncovered during the digging for the museum's foundations - not something which is particularly surprising given how close the building site is to the Acropolis itself.

Of particular interest to archaeologists is the discovery of an ancient housing complex dating back to the seventh century AD.

The government is breaking the law, not only Greek law but also international laws designed to protect the ancient sites of the world
Petros Tatoulis
Opposition politician
Other findings go back to prehistoric times.

Some experts say this gives a particularly valuable insight into the evolution of Athens and the lifestyle of ordinary people as opposed to the elite.

"The government, especially the ministry of culture, is breaking the law, not only Greek law but also international laws designed to protect the ancient sites of the world," says opposition politician Petros Tatoulis.

Campaigners took their case to the highest court of appeal in Greece, which in May ordered building to stop but later ruled in favour of the museum.

Supporters of the museum describe all the allegations as nonsense.

Elgin marbles in British Museum
Greek wants the marbles back in time for Athens Olympics
"Most of what's been uncovered will stay in situ as part of the ground floor of the museum," says David Hill of the British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles, who is a regular visitor to the site.

"What has been found loose on the ground or uncovered has been catalogued, preserved and will be in the new Acropolis museum. None of the antiquities will be destroyed or lost."

Museum officials say they've spent more than 13 million euros over the past five years on the excavation not least to ensure everything is preserved.

And although building work has been delayed, the officials are still confident the special exhibition hall for the marbles will be ready in time for the Olympics,even if the rest of the museum is not completed.

But then the problem remains of how to convince the British museum to ship the Elgin marbles back to Greece.

Compromise

In numerous statements the British Museum has made it clear it will never allow the marbles to be moved permanently from its collection in London to Athens.

So the Greek Government is now suggesting a new solution - that it should be able to "borrow" the marbles back.

"The Greek proposal is a real compromise to organise this re-unification under the legal form of a long-term loan," says Culture Minister Venizelos, "and more especially under the form of a joint exhibition organised by the British Museum and the new Acropolis museum."

But the British Museum remains extremely cautious.

"Every loan request is considered carefully on its merits," said a spokesman. "However for conservation and reasons of public policy many loan requests cannot be met."


SEE ALSO:
Greek museum plans 'thwarted'
19 May 03 |  Europe
'No return' for Elgin Marbles
23 Feb 03 |  Entertainment
Elgin Marbles make 'virtual' return
02 Jan 03 |  Entertainment
Greek minister on Marbles mission
11 Nov 02 |  Entertainment
Elgin Marbles 'return' denied
10 Nov 02 |  Entertainment
Elgin Marbles letter fetches 7,000
06 Nov 02 |  Entertainment
Poll shows support for Marbles return
15 Oct 02 |  Entertainment


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