Greece demands marbles return as new Acropolis opens


June 18, 2010 Updated Jun 20, 2009 at 3:10 PM EDT

Greece ramped up the pressure on Britain to return priceless statues from antiquity taken over 200 years ago, in a speech at Saturday's grand opening of the new Acropolis Museum.

President Carolos Papoulias reiterated his country's longstanding call for the return of the Elgin Marbles at the solemn ceremony to inaugurate the giant, 130-million-euro (180-million-dollar) glass and concrete building.

"Today the whole world can see the most important sculptures of the Parthenon assembled, but some are missing; it's time to heal the wounds of the monument with the return of the marbles which belong to it," Papoulias said.

The government says the museum, which dominates downtown Athens under the Parthenon temple, is the physical embodiment of a campaign dating back to 1983.

"It's our identity and our pride," Papoulias said of the new museum.

The site, which had its origins in British jibes that Greece would have nowhere to display what are known in London as the Elgin Marbles if ever they did return, was designed to host the reunified artworks.

Greek Culture Minister Antonis Samaras said late Friday during a special advance opening for the media that the new museum space "now demolishes that excuse."

About half of the Parthenon Marbles -- fifth-century Greek sculptures, inscriptions and architectural columns from the Parthenon and other buildings on the symbolic Acropolis hill -- are intact in the museum.

Of the remainder, most are held in London's British Museum after they were hacked away in the early 1800s on the orders of a British aristocrat and diplomat, Lord Elgin, under a deal with the then ruling Ottoman Empire.

Replicas have been erected in the new galleries.

Five years late -- it was originally due to open around the Athens Olympic Games -- Greece invited heads of state from around the world for the opening.

Turkish premier Recep Tayip Erdogan cancelled at the last minute citing "health reasons," Greek officials said.

That left UN heritage chief Koichiro Matsuura and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso at the top table.

Heads of state or government from Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Finland, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovakia were joined by cultural emissaries from another 30-odd countries.

The government also invited British Museum officials to attend the opening despite their refusal to return the marbles -- and Greece's rejection of an offer to "loan" them back, which Athens said would confer ownership rights it denies.

Stepping up Greece's campaign, Samaras appealed to "everyone around the world who believes in the values and ideas that emerged on the slopes of the Acropolis to join our quest to bring the missing Parthenon marbles home."

Speaking in English, he said their "abduction" and "enforced exile" was "not only an injustice to us Greeks but to everyone in the world, the English included, because they were made to be seen in sequence and in total."

That was "something that cannot happen as long as half of them are held hostage in the British Museum," he added.

An international campaigning group said Friday that the 2012 London Olympics would represent the perfect moment to send the relics home, given the origins of the games in ancient Greece.

The objects were purchased by the British Parliament from Lord Elgin in 1816 and then presented to the British Museum.

According to the latter, the London collection includes 247 feet (75 metres) of the original 524 feet of sculptured frieze; 15 of 92 metopes (panels); 17 figures from the pediments; plus other architectural furniture.

Designed by celebrated Franco-Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi, the three-level Athens building offers panoramic views of the stone citadel and showcases sculptures from the golden age of Athenian democracy.

Set out over a total area of 14,000 square metres (150,000 square feet), it harnesses natural light to show off more than 350 artefacts and sculptures that were previously held in a small museum atop the Acropolis.

The museum opens to the public on Monday, and officials said full-house signs had already gone up through Tuesday following Internet reservations, with 11,000 advance tickets sold in total.

Heavy security was deployed in the capital ahead of ceremonials beginning at 8:00 pm (1700 GMT) and led by Greek President Karolos Papoulias, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis and Samaras.

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