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The Story behind the Story of Lord Elgin and His Marbles


For two and a half millennia, the Parthenon in Athens has sat perched atop what everyone knows as the Acropolis but which Joan Breton Connelly, the author of The Parthenon Enigma: A New Understanding of the World’s Most Iconic Building and the People Who Made it (Random House of Canada, $40), joins others in also calling  “the Sacred Rock.” When architects and architectural historians speak of the Greek Revival style (picture the British Museum, say, or the New York Stock Exchange building) it is ultimately or largely the Parthenon, with its stunning proportionality and dignity, that is being paid tribute. Without doubt, the Parthenon is one of the world’s most famous and most influential structures.


            It was built in the middle of the fifth century BCE by the Greek leader Pericles. Leader as much as ruler perhaps, because the essence of the Greeks’ democracy was that a certain number of officials were elected to office while the majority were chosen by lottery (an idea that lingers in our own still-breathing version of democracy only in the way juries are selected).


When the Enlightenment was in full bloom and the study of ancient Hellenic civilisation mushroomed, everyone seemed to understand why the great temple was constructed: to honour Athena, the ancient goddess of war, justice and civilisation itself. Running round the whole circumference of the building, shaded by protruding cornices, was a bas-relief frieze that appeared to depict the Panathenaic festival, celebrated every four years to commemorate Athena’s birth. The narrative sculptures ran 160 metres, like a giant marble storyboard, showing a parade of warriors, maidens, musicians, animals, and so on.

As the centuries rolled on, this interpretation remained in force though the building itself underwent many abuses and the stone narrative lost some of its continuity. At one point the Parthenon became a Christian church; at another, a mosque. In the seventeenth century the Turks used it to store gunpowder and the Venetians bombarded it with cannon. Travellers engaging in the Grand Tour carried off bits as souvenirs. Then came Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin. Between 1799 and 1803, when he was British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, he bankrupted himself buying large portions of the frieze, which he later had to sell at a loss to the British Museum, where they remain, controversially so. Other portions are in curatorial custody in Paris and Rome, but the so-called Elgin Marbles in London, 75 metres of them, are the most important, partly because they include the section from the east side of the Parthenon over the main entrance. The scene was long thought to show (in fact, still is thought by most scholars to show) two adult figures, male and female, handing out celebratory robes to young celebrants. This is where Dr. Connelly comes in.


She is a classical archaeologist and a MacArthur Fellow who teaches at New York University. In publishing The Parthenon Enigma she has upset the unanimity of that judgement. She discussed the matter with Canadian Review Service on the eve of her recent appearance as part of the Vancouver Institute’s lecture series.

To put the matter very briefly, The Parthenon Enigma argues that the purpose of the Parthenon was not simply to brag about democracy by showing the Panathenaic procession and thus depicting a part of Athenian daily life at the time. She says that “no Greek temple”—the Parthenon used to be merely the centrepiece of a large congregation of temples on the Acropolis—“shows anything taking place in what was the present moment.” Rather, she believes that the male figure is King Erechtheus of legend and the female one is his queen, the priestess Praxithea, and that they are giving their children shrouds rather than robes. For the legend tells of how the Delphic oracle told Erechtheus that one of his three daughters must be sacrificed in order to prevent the city from being overrun by enemies (whereupon, the tale continues, the two other sisters took their own lives in a show of solidarity).  In Dr. Connelly’s interpretation, this piece of the frieze was intended to honour the spirit of sacrifice that was another essential part of the larger abstraction of Greek democracy. “The public needed protection,” she explains, “and one had to give to the civic good” even if that meant sacrificing one’s life for the safety of the city-state. Not even kings, queens and princesses were exempt.


Her theory came about only after a long gestation. “Starting in the 1960s,” she says, “the study of ancient Greek religion was burgeoning but it was viewed more as politics than as actual religion.” It was during this decade that she learned of a certain mummy dating to the era when Egypt was under the rule of Greeks (Alexander the Great, Ptolemy, and so on). The mummy had been in the Oxford University collection for generations. When unwrapped it was found to contain a fragment of manuscript by the playwright Euripides, who was writing very close to the time when the Parthenon was built.  Specialists in Paris were able to separate the manuscript intact from the cloth to which it had become affixed. This fragment, some 125 lines, was part of an otherwise unknown text dealing with a Greek priestess who had three daughters whose lives she sacrificed to save her culture from invasion and ruin. No coincidence, says Dr. Connelly.


“Today, the idea of the ultimate sacrifice is something that we associate with military life, not necessarily with civilian life, at least not in the same way or to the same degree,” she says. But this piece of manuscript was something different. In ancient cultures generally there was little if any distinction between mythology and history if indeed they were not downright inseparable. But Dr. Connelly thought she detected a true story in this little scrap of Euripides’ work. All the more so in fact because Euripides, though he dealt with gods and mythical figures as did the other ancient dramatists, portrayed them in a much more realistic way, as though he were using his characters to describe the life around him. To make her book an accessible and enjoyable read is a complicated business, but she pulls it off very well indeed.


There’s some potential irony here because it’s possible that this key piece of the frieze could well have vanished through war or neglect if not for Lord Elgin, whose acquisitiveness a great many people, Greeks most of all, consider hideous kleptomania at the very least if not downright cultural genocide. Dr. Connelly says he can’t fairly “be judged by the behavioural standards of our own time, though reading Lady Elgin’s letters on the subject—‘I took three heads today’—is an appalling experience”. Dr. Connelly of course favours the marbles’ return to Greece so that what she considers the greatest surviving work of art from the ancient world can be reconstituted. The story of the Elgin Marbles and the British vogue for gobbling up ancient Hellenic art and bric-a-brac is told in another new work, Delphi, A History of the Center of the Ancient World (Princeton University Press, US$29.95) by Michael Scott, a classical archaeologist widely known through his television documentaries.


As for Dr. Connelly, she first went public with her conclusion about the frieze in a paper published in the American Journal of Archeology in 1996. “The article was highly controversial,” she says. “It had its followers but few people in the field changed their minds. Elderly scholars in particular found my work hard to embrace.” She continued to pursue her idea through a number of avenues. One result was her book Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece (Princeton, US$39.95), which argues that priestesses in particular, and women generally, played an even greater role in Athens and the other Greek city-states than has been supposed, especially in religious matters, and certainly were never second-class Athenian citizens (except of course in the sense that they didn’t vote).


As for The Parthenon Enigma, an exceptionally elegant work of prose, it deals with far more than just the enigma of the title. Dr. Connelly discusses everything from the geology of the Sacred Rock itself to how, by exuberant degrees, the Parthenon became such a universally recognised landmark—the logo of a civilisation, one might almost say. Today it is held together by titanium rods, which replaced the steel reinforcements installed in the 1920s and 1930s. A bit ragged round the collar and cuffs, to be sure, but a magnificent thing in and of itself. I’ve seen it only once. I was rushing through Athens, which was on fire at the time and full of troops and protesters, and I glanced up to see the great building illuminated with a warm yellow glow, as though flaunting its permanence and mocking the human affairs getting out of control down below.

A Canadian footnote. As governor general of what was then (1848─49) the Province of Canada, James Bruce, the eighth Lord Elgin, son of the dastardly collector, was a key figure in bringing about responsible government. But his decision to compensate francophones for losses incurred in the Rebellions of 1837─38 caused an anglophone mob to attack Parliament in Montreal and burn it to the ground. He later became high commissioner to China where he considered destroying the Forbidden City but settled for stripping the art treasures from the Old Summer Palace and then setting the vast complex on fire.


George Fetherling








Islamic Women’s Writing in a Time of Change


Sharif Gemie’s book Women’s Writing and Muslim Societies: The Search for Dialogue, 1920─Present (University of Chicago Press, US$40 paper) studies first-person travel narratives by a hundred women and arrives at some interesting conclusions. Specifically, the author, a professor of modern and contemporary history at the University of Glamorgan in Wales, examines why and how English-language Muslim women have dealt with Muslim cultures over the past century, including Orientalists, professional women, migrants and western Muslims. After a decade glutted with doom-laden memoirs of the “I escaped from Islam and lived to tell about it!” variety, students of Islam and contemporary Muslim societies will welcome Dr. Gemie’s concise and cooler insights, his longer-term perspective and his forward-looking questions.


Dr. Gemie methodically outlines his criteria for what he jovially calls “A Party with a Hundred Women” and—his central concern—the matter of how their socio-political and religious lines vary and coalesce. This wide-angle approach allows him to make some unexpected observations. For example, he notes that writers reporting from several different countries seem preoccupied with how Muslim women like to party. He writes: “Above all, it seems to be the figure of the secret dancer that has mesmerized observers [...] The point I wish to make here is not that Muslim women dance therefore they are not oppressed. It is rather to question the manner in which Muslim women’s oppression has been positioned by so many authors as the secret which reveals the truth about Muslim societies[...] Given the material available, it would clearly be possible to create a counter-cliché of the secret dancer as Islam’s inner mystery: hardly more accurate than the first cliché...”


He constructs another astute argument about the way narratives involving Iran in particular, such as Betty Mahmoody’s Not Without My Daughter (1988) and Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), have falsely skewed American conversations about Islam in general. Or, as he puts it: “The heavy weight of these political concerns has distorted the more delicate narrative of personal development and identity which should have been at the centre of these works.”  


His final contention is that very few of the hundred authors he’s chosen really advance the dialogue between what are too readily cast as immovably opposed world-views of Muslim societies on the one hand and the West on the other. Evidence that an author seeks a meaningful dialogue, or for Western Muslims, a synthesis between the competing ideological, religious or political claims on their daily lives, is, for Dr. Gemie, the new and necessary standard by which such works ought to be judged now. Interestingly, he places some of the blame for the lack of dialogue on what he calls “variants of nineteenth-century autobiographical forms.” As he sees it, “The format of the single author going out to discover the unexplored land no longer makes any sense [...] The single author can no longer function as the unchallenged and legitimate representative of a single culture, for the cultures of globalisation have produced richer, more complex identities, in which all already echo with the sounds of the others.”


Rahat Kurd