Unexpected Turkish support for the Parthenon Marbles from UNESCO

5 June, 2024

At the 24th session of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Committee for the Return of Cultural Objects to their Countries of Origin (ICPRCP), Turkey’s representative caused a surprise by undermining one of Britain’s main arguments for possession of the Parthenon Marbles.

During the session, Zeynep Boz, who heads the Turkish Culture Ministry’s department for combating trafficking in antiquities, clarified the Ottoman document that Britain claims legitimises Lord Elgin’s purchase of the Parthenon Marbles in 1816, stating that there is no document that legitimises this purchase.

Specifically, Zeynep Boz stated: “We are not aware of any document that legitimises this purchase, which was made by the colonialists of the United Kingdom. Therefore, I don’t think there is any room to discuss its legality, even according to the laws of the time”.

She went on to express her desire for the return of the marbles, noting: “We wholeheartedly look forward to celebrating the return of the marbles as we believe it will mark a change in attitude towards the protection of cultural property and send the strongest message to the world.”

Lord Elgin said he had obtained permission in a firman, a decree, to take the Parthenon Marbles early in the 19th century. The document, translated into Italian by the British Embassy in Constantinople at the time, is now in the hands of the British Museum, which uses it to claim ownership of the marbles purchased from Elgin when he got into financial trouble.

But no official copy of it has yet been found in the Turkish government archives from the imperial era and debate continues to this day over the legal status of the document. Greece insists the marbles were stolen and Turkey had no right in any case to give away property it didn’t own.

Commenting on the conclusion of the UNESCO session from the Greek island of Rhodes, Greece’s Culture Minister Lina Mendoni said “there was never an Ottoman firman (decree) which allowed Elgin to treat the Parthenon Sculptures with such brutality.” Mendoni added that the Turkish delegate attending the session confirmed Greece’s long-standing argument.

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