Prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis makes pitch for pragmatic deal to end historic battle over Elgin treasures
To Greeces delight, a bust of Pericles now graces 10 Downing Street. Within hours of assuming office as prime minister, Boris Johnson had placed a plaster likeness of the Athenian soldier-statesman, whom he has long admired, on his desk. Johnsons knowledge of the ancient world he studied classics at Oxford and once boasted that he could recite the first 100 lines of Homers Iliad is regarded with awe in modern Greece.
But that affinity will soon be tested in the run-up to Greeces bicentennial independence celebrations, when Athens steps up its campaign to win back from the British Museum the Parthenon sculptures that once adorned Pericless masterpiece.
Speaking to a British newspaper for the first time since his election in July, the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has told the Observer he is willing to allow treasures that have never been shown abroad before to be exhibited in London in exchange for the marbles being returned to Athens for 2021.
Our wish and ambition is to create the necessary conditions for Greek cultural heritage to travel the world and in so doing convey the great and essential contribution of our country to western civilisation, he said in his office last week. In this context, given the significance of 2021, I will propose to Boris: As a first move, loan me the sculptures for a certain period of time and I will send you very important artefacts that have never left Greece to be exhibited in the British Museum.
As Athens emerges from a decade of bruising austerity, battling bankruptcy on the frontline of the eurozone crisis, this will be the first such proposal put to London in years.
The Acropolis doesnt necessarily solely belong to Greece, added Mitsotakis. Its a monument of global cultural heritage. But if you really want to see the monument in its unity you have to see what we call the Parthenon sculptures in situ its a question of uniting the monument.
It is remarkable how much of the 160m-long Parthenon frieze the first artwork depicting deities alongside human figures has survived, but it is highly fragmented. While 50 metres of the 115-block frieze is displayed in Athens, some 80 metres of it is in London, having being sawn off and removed by Lord Elgin, Londons then ambassador to the Ottoman empire, in 1802. Eight other museums scattered across Europe also house pieces of it.
Since repatriation was first raised by the actress-turned-politician Melina Mercouri in the 1980s, the British Museum has persistently rebuffed requests for the priceless antiquities to be sent back to Greece. But in several surveys, Britons have voiced support for the Greek cause. A YouGov poll conducted in 2014 revealed that only 23% wanted the antiquities to remain in the UK.