Monday, 19 December 2011

Portrait of a philhellene

The following interview with Christopher Hitchens is being republished on the occasion of his death on December 15. It was originally published in the Athens News in May 2009, when Hitchens was in Athens to visit the grave of his mother, Yvonne Jean, who is buried in the first cemetery. 

Christopher Hitchens was in Athens earlier this month to celebrate a death. 

A long-time supporter of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, he believes that the group has now obliterated the British Museum’s arguments for holding onto them. 

 “The last argument the British Museum had was that ‘The Greeks have nowhere to put it’,” he said on the eve of a visit to the new Acropolis Museum.  “I’ve come here to celebrate the death of the last argument.” His celebration is due to appear in Vanity Fair.

The Parthenon Marbles - or Elgin Marbles - have been controversial since the 7th Earl of Elgin stretched the terms of an 1802 firman from the sultan and removed to his native Scotland dozens of panels of frieze and metope. He sold them to the British state in 1816 and they became part of the British Museum collection in 1817.

The British Museum has resisted returning the sculptures on the grounds that Greece could, on the strength of that victory, ask for the return of other things. The frieze from the temple of Apollo at Bassai also sits in Bloomsbury. So does a number of exquisitely painted vases. Why shouldn’t the Greeks ask for everything back?