The Parthenon, designed some 2,500 years ago by the sculptor Phidias, was the quintessence of Hellenic architecture: perfect lines, tall Doric columns along the sides and friezes in high and low relief that convey a Panathenaic procession, an ancient Greek festival to celebrate the city’s patron goddess, Athena, as well as four Ionic columns supporting the roof of the opisthodomos, the back room of the temple.
For 1,000 years, the temple was left more or less intact. When Christianity gained a foothold in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, the Parthenon became the Church of the Parthenos Maria (Virgin Mary), then a mosque and finally a Turkish gunpowder depot.
In 1687, during a siege by the Venetians, the munitions exploded, killing hundreds of people, tearing off the roof of the building and shattering 28 columns, parts of the frieze and the internal rooms. For the next century or so, the rubble provided doorsteps and hearthstone for the local populace and mortar for the building trade, while the Turkish garrison used the carved figures for target practice. By the time Lord Elgin took up his diplomatic post in Constantinople, some 40 percent of the temple’s original sculptural decoration had been destroyed.
A vaguely worded license from the Ottomans authorized Lord Elgin’s men to remove “some pieces of stone with old inscriptions, and figures.” Although there was no explicit permission to cut sculptures off the Parthenon, Elgin apparently took an expansive view, carting off about half of the surviving sculptures on the Athenian citadel. His trove included 17 life-size figures from the temple’s pediments, 15 of the 92 metopes that adorned the exterior of the building and roughly half — a 247-foot portion — of the sculpted frieze that once ran around the inside.
The earl had planned to have these ancient treasures grace Broomhall, his country house in Scotland. But one shipment, aboard the H.M.S. Mentor, was delayed when the ship foundered off the Greek island of Cythera in 1802. Many crates were lost overboard, and it took more than two years to salvage them from the sea.
During the course of his aristocratic adventure, Elgin was arrested in France as a prisoner of war and imprisoned for three years, and he lost his fortune, his wife and the tip of his nose (either from syphilis, allegedly, or the mercury treatments he took for asthma). In 1816, the cashpoor Elgin sold the marbles to the British Parliament for 35,000 British pounds — the equivalent of at least £3.6 million, or $4.35 million, today — about half the amount he had spent to secure and transport them. The artifacts were then passed into the trusteeship of the British Museum.
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