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Parthenon Sculptures: Turkish researchers debunk Elgin’s claim

Greece has found an unexpected supporter in its legitimate claim for the return of the stolen Parthenon Marbles from the British Museum.

A Turkish archaeologist said last week that there is no any written authorization by the Ottoman Empire allowing Lord Elgin to remove the Parthenon Sculptures.

Already in 2019, two Turkish researchers had debunked the claim that the Elgin Marbles, which have been at the center of a decades-long tussle between Britain and Greece, were a gift to the latter by Ottoman Sultan Selim III.

Speaking at a meeting of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in Case of Illicit Appropriation (ICPRCP) in Paris on May 29-31, archaeologist Zeynep Boz said “We are not aware of any document legitimizing this purchase.”

Boz’s statement challenged one of the top arguments put forward by the British Museum against the Parthenon Sculptures’ return to Greece – namely that they were legally obtained by the British government with the permission of the Ottoman authorities – added that the marbles’ removal was carried out by “UK colonialists.” Therefore, Boz said, “I don’t think there’s room to discuss its legality, even during the time and under the law of the time.”

Zeyneo Boz heads the Turkish Culture Ministry’s department for combating trafficking in antiquities.

Greece reportedly welcomed Boz’s comments with the Foreign Ministry’s head of the department for international law, Artemis Papathanasiou, saying that Boz had “raised an important question.”

Greece questions the legitimacy of the “firman” – official document – allegedly authorizing the sale of the sculptures to the British government by Lord Elgin in 1816, as it has been presented in a translation in Italian.

Turkish Researchers

Professors Zeynep Aygen and Orhan Sakin have said a ferman (edict) allowing the 7th Earl of Elgin, Thomas Bruce, British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the early 1800s, to loot the Acropolis of Athens in Greece did not exist in state archives.

Aygen and Sakin

They said that the only document regarding the issue is an Italian translation of a friendly letter from Kaimakam Pasha – not the sultan – allowing Lord Elgin to take casts of the sculptures without any permission to remove the marbles. However, even the Italian translation’s original copy is not in the archives as well.

Speaking to daily Hurriyet, Aygen, a professor from Mimar Sinan University, said that the Turkish research started following a request by the Greek side.

“They [Greek experts]  asked me if I have seen any documents about the marble panels [of the Parthenon] that Lord Elgin took from the Acropolis [of Athens].”

She stressed that the letter in question is not a ferman since there is no sign of an order from the sultan.

“This is a translation. The original version of the letter does not exist. Professor Sakin has scanned the Ottoman archives and did not come across either the letter or the edict,” she said.

Sakin, an expert on Ottoman archives, emphasized that the existence of the claimed edict is dubious and the letter does not contain any evidence of an order by Sultan Selim III.

“Allegedly, district governor Seyyid Abdullah Pasha signed the said Italian letter, but there is no wet signature. When grand viziers went off for wars, they would task district governors. Nevertheless, such a decision cannot be made without the Sultan’s permit,” Sakin said.

The expert also stressed that during that period, the grand vizier Yusuf Ziya Pasha was in Egypt with France’s emperor Napoleon I, in 1789.

“The letter was given to a commander in Athens. It is not possible for the district governor to give a letter to the commander,” he said.

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  1. Nobody_important

    It has been known since about 1817 that Elgin did not have a copy of the claimed Ottoman firman authorizing him to plunder the Akropolis. A British parliamentary inquiry was held to determine what to do with the Marbles in his possession, as Elgin had become near-bankrupt and asked the UK government to buy them from him. The only document Elgin possessed, was an unofficial translation of the alleged firman into Italian. Even this Italian translation did not authorize him to saw off friezes from the Parthenon, but restricted his rights merely to picking up stray stones from the ground.

    The British parliamentary inquiry was faced with a legal and political conundrum: namely, what choice did they have? If they determined that Elgin had plundered the Marbles, then they would have to return them to the Ottoman authorities. Even the cost of shipping them (which was what had bankrupted Elgin) was phenomenal and could not be justified as British government expenditure. So, they bluffed it — claiming in their report that the Marbles had been acquired legally and the UK would purchase them from Elgin in order to place them in the British Museum.

    This UK parliamentary report (which was no more than a political coverup of Elgin’s misdeeds) was probably appropriate at the time. However, for recent UK governments to use the report as evidence that the acquisition of the Marbles was “lawful” is a cynical piece of political manipulation. Of course, expecting characters like Johnson, Truss and Sunak to deal with historical complexity in a sophisticated and appropriate manner is like asking your dog to speak English more clearly.

  2. the grand vizier Yusuf Ziya Pasha was in Egypt with France’s emperor Napoleon I, in 1789.

    in 1798 not 1789.

  3. Great news, a state formed in 1923 telling another state formed in 1830 that some nasty people took stuff from Athens in the Ottoman empire in 1801.
    If modern Greece wants the stuff back in Athens simply buy it back or move against the UK using the law.

  4. Maybe the Turkish ,regarding the law, have a greater claim to the marbles , perhaps they could get them back, return them to Greece as a gesture of neighbourly love , and at the same time give back Troy and it’s surrounding lands .