Melina's Last Battle

UNESCO Courier, September 1994 | Go to article overview

Melina's Last Battle


On 6 March Melina Mercouri, known to her fellow-Greeks as "the light of Attica", passed away after a long struggle against cancer, the last of her many battles

THE unforgettable Medea who bestrode the stage in Salonika, the headstrong Ilya who appeared, larger than life, on cinema screens all over the world, the determined resistance fighter who took on her country's military junta, the ever-active Minister of Culture, Greece's leading lady, is no longer with us. But she has bequeathed to us the legacy of the over-brimming vitality that made her so charismatic a figure.

Her memory lives on in the Melina Mercouri Foundation that has been created by her husband, the film director Jules Dassin, in order to further the causes for which she fought and fulfil her dream of completing the construction of the new Acropolis museum and bringing back the Parthenon sculptures to Greece.

Melina Mercouri fired the first shots in "the battle of the Parthenon sculptures" in the 1980s, but their turbulent history goes back many years before that.

"Furiously, but with pleasure"

Between 448 and 432 B.C., the great sculptor Phidias and the celebrated architect Ictinus built a temple dedicated to Athena, the goddess of wisdom, on the hill of the Acropolis in Athens. The temple had two parts, the "hundred-foot-long" Hecatompedon housing a 12-metre-high gold and ivory statue of Athena by Phidias, and the Parthenon, the "room of the maidens", which later gave its name to the entire building.

The forty-six simple yet imposing columns of the outside colonnade supported a frieze whose ninety-three square "metope" sections depicted scenes from Greek mythology. At either end were two pediments illustrating the birth of Athena and her contest with Poseidon. The inner walls of the "cella" or chamber housing the statue of the goddess were decorated with a 160-metre-long frieze.

The Parthenon's Doric splendour remained untouched by the hand of time for some 900 years. Then it suffered its first indignity. It was taken over by new gods and visited by foreigners prompted more by greed than respect. It was used successively as the place of worship of a Christian cult, a Catholic church and a small mosque. When the Venitians laid siege to Athens in 1687, a cannon ball caused extensive damage, and General Francesco Morosini took advantage of the situation to carry away everything he could tear off the pediments.

A century later the British ambassador to Athens, Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin, succeeded in obtaining authorization from the Ottomans, who had ruled Athens since 1456, to remove "certain stone fragments on which inscriptions and figures have been carved". Between 1801 and 1803 he removed most of the remaining sculptures and shipped them to London.

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