The Parthenon, that unique temple of measured proportion and beauty, was built in honor of Athena, goddess, woman, and the very expression of education, science, culture – Athena, goddess of wisdom.
As a Greek, as a woman, and as the representative of the first socialist government of Greece, I am proud that the Parthenon, that temple which has withstood time, wars and occupations, has been chosen as the symbol of UNESCO.
As I left Greece, looking down at the Attic sun through the window of my plane at the remains of the Parthenon, an old idea came to my mind: in almost all the earth’s mythologies, the divinities of wisdom and peace have been women. Because it is women who carry life within themselves, women are bound to life itself, are dedicated to its protection.
But if, in mythology, women became goddesses of wisdom and peace, in reality today women sometimes become Ministers of Culture. If my information is correct, women occupy the post of Minister of Culture in ten countries throughout the world. That is not a bad percentage in a male dominated world. We would all be better off if women played a more important role; and this conference would reach more concrete conclusions if there were more women involved in it. I say this not only because it is we women who feel deep within ourselves the need for a life of peace and quality, but also because we have, deeply rooted within our nature, a sense which combined the dream with the reality.
Let us therefore be realists: women still represent an oppressed continent and I am profoundly convinced that one of the first duties of people concerned with cultural affairs is to fight of the humanitarian and democratic qualities of modern societies by giving women their due place in those societies.
This fight has an institutional aspect but, when the political will exists, it is relatively easy to conduct. There is another aspect also: that which relates to mental attitudes and habits which have grown up over the centuries and which cannot be ended without the militant and arduous intervention of culture.
Our Nobel Prize poet Elytis says: “To make the sun come back, we must word hard”. Madam delegates, friends -what a responsibility we have! Let us try, then, at this conference, to be true to ourselves. “Let us make friends here, it is time to know our own faces”, as a pre-Columbian poet urges us.
Mexico City, a town immersed in memories and monuments of one of the most brilliant civilizations ever created by man, can and must become today an island of good will and hope in a world which is witness to the inhumanity of man against man.
It is obvious, dear friends that a cultural policy demands a policy for peace; and I believe that we must in this place denounce with strength and clarity those who are a threat to peace, and come to the aid of their victims. To my voice is joined here the echo of the voices of the more than 100.000 Athenians who, responding to the appeal of Greek artists and intellectuals, shouted and chanted, in the Athens Stadium, their solidarity with the Palestinian and Lebanese peoples. It was a cultural event. Our people are accustomed to conduct its struggles by the use of cultural means “for the bread of the whole world, the songs and the sun”. The poems of our Nobel Prize winners have come down to the ordinary people and have become popular songs, weapons in the service of peace and human dignity.
A world of peace is unthinkable, impossible, as long as, in a large part of the world, there is the reign of injustice, poverty and hunger. Here in the very place, at Cancun, heads of state met to discuss this problem, and we all realized, with sadness and disappointment, that the conference did not produce any tangible results.
But today, in this same friendly country, more than a hundred Ministers of Culture have come together. It is upon us to make our views heard on this subject; it is we who have the responsibility to take a position and to make our protest here against the imbalance, which deprives half the human race of a decent life and of access to culture and beauty. I remind you of the words of our dear Amadou-Mahtar M’Bar: “Humanity is condemned to live in the era of solidarity if it is not to know the era of barbarism”.
We know today how much the explosion of technological progress and development have speeded up the means of communication which are in the controlling hands of a small minority, making our world fragile, vulnerable and susceptible to conformity and standardization.
We are not opposed to communication, to the exchange of cultural products, to seminal meetings between different civilizations. But these exchanges occur today under arbitrary conditions, on a basis of inequality, and in frameworks determined by hegemonic patterns of cultural and economic development. It is for this reason that we see ancient cultural chains broken, past traditions crumble, and wonderful special characteristics wither away. Our common memory is threatened, our soul shrivels, our creativity is stifled, our present becomes rootless. “He who has nothing old has nothing new”, says an Arab proverb. This past must emerge from the museums in order to become a source of inspiration and creativity, to become the instrument and the joy of the people.
I hope that this meeting here in Mexico will prove to be a stage in the appreciation of the important contribution to universal culture of the peoples generally described as “developing”. For centuries, because their civilizations and their values were different from those of the West, they have been despised and ignored.
It is time to declare that the concepts of “foreign” or “other” should revert to their first meaning; that is, different or perhaps unique, but never better or worse, bigger or smaller. Let us here together, and each one of us in his or her own country, find the way to give substance to this new vision, making it a concrete reality and making it possible for children in their schools to know, to love and to appreciate the cultures of the entire world.
Delegates and friends:
It is from the viewpoint, but even a more restricted, regional scale, that as my friend and colleague Jack Lang has already told you, that our two Ministries of Culture have laid the foundation for a new form of cultural collaboration by organizing, on the island of Hydra last May, the Mediterranean colloquy under the title: “The Mediterranean Today and Always”.
Intellectuals and artists met on that occasion in total freedom, outside the supervision of their respective countries; many of them met an spoke to each other for the first time, each making an effort to know and understand the other, becoming the benevolent representatives of their cultures and their peoples, and the ambassadors of the others on their return to their own countries. This was a rich and useful meeting. Among the proposals put forward there was the idea of a traveling Mediterranean exhibition, the intensification of cultural exchanges between the northern and southern Mediterranean countries, and -an idea, I think, of special interest to you- the creation of a University of the Mediterranean. We reached the decision to make this a reality. This meeting was the concrete realization of our idea to promote collaboration among different peoples in conditions respecting their respective cultural identities.
The Mediterranean, that sea which has linked peoples throughout the centuries and acted as the carrier of man’s greatest creative genius, that sea which has known so many wars and ravages, will, I believe, hold all the attention of this Conference. Since 1978, Greece has advanced the proposal to declare the Mediterranean the patrimonial sea of human culture, in order to protect the priceless treasures buried beneath its surface, in international waters -treasures which are threatened by the depredations of wreck explorers. This recommendation will be presented to you, and we hope that you will adopt it.
I am glad that relations between Greece and England are so friendly that I can speak simply and directly, from the heart. You have understood, of course, that I propose to speak about those marbles, which some call The Elgin Marbles but which, for us, will always be the Parthenon Marbles. I do not think it is necessary for me to recite here all the details and the circumstances, which led to the Parthenon frieze finding its way to England. Greece, as you know, was under Ottoman domination for four centuries. We began our national liberation movement in 1821, the very year in which Mexico gained its independence. But it was 18 years too late to save the marbles…
It is now some six months since I dared make the suggestion that these marbles ought to be returned to Greece. Since then a small storm has been raging. But what I find most interesting is the fact that, following and interview with the BBC, I had hundreds of encouraging letters from individuals and organizations in Britain. I detect in these letters the English people’s love of justice and beauty. After all, the sacrilege of Lord Elgin was immediately condemned at the time, in England itself. The suddened Englishman Dodwell wrote at this time: “I suffered the humiliation of being present at the denudation of the Parthenon, of the most brilliant of its sculptures, and the destruction of some magnificent architectural portions of the temple”. While Lord Byron wrote: “When the miracles of centuries, which time and barbarism have spared, are pillaged and destroyed, there is no excuse, whoever may be responsible for this cowardly destruction… I speak objectively, for myself, I am on the side of Greece, and I do not believe that pillage, whether it occurs in India or in Attica, is to England’s honor”.
Lord Elgin claimed that his action was motivated by idealism, that it was necessary to save these marbles “form uncultivated hands and indifferent spirits”. Let me tell you a little story about that:
The Acropolis was occupied by Ottoman forces under siege by the Greek army of national liberation. The Ottoman occupiers of the Acropolis were running sort of ammunition and began to destroy the columns to extract the lead for making cannonballs. The Greek sent them a message which I think was historic: “Don’t touch the columns of the Acropolis; we will send you cannonballs”. And they did. It was these “uncultivated hands” which carried the cannonballs, and these “indifferent spirits” which gave up their lives in defense of their patrimony.
Our great poet Yannis Ritsos expressed the sentiment of all of our people when he wrote: “These stones cannot make do with less sky”.
I think that the time has come for these marbles to come back to the blue sky of Attica, to their natural space, to the place where they will be a structural and functional part of a unique whole. And this would happen at a time when the Greeks with the help and technical collaboration of the whole world, have erected scaffolding around the Propylaea, the Erechtheion and the Parthenon in a gigantic effort to save the Acropolis, threatened by the erosion of time and pollution of the modern world.
The government of Greece has charged me with the duty of announcing to you here that Greece, through the mediation of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental committee for the promotion of the return of cultural property to its country of origin, using formal procedures and relying also on legislation currently in force in England, is about to make an official request for the return of the Acropolis marbles.
We are not na?ve. The day may come when this world will create other visions, other concepts of what is proper, of what comprises a cultural patrimony and of human creativity. And we well understand that the museums cannot be emptied. But I insist on reminding you that in the case of the Acropolis marbles we are not asking for the return of a painting or a statue. We are asking for the return of a portion of a unique monument, the privileged symbol of a whole culture.
Of course, the Parthenon is not, unhappily, the only example of a mutilated monument. Greece appeals to countries which have had the same experiences, suffered the same ravages, and declares that it maintains and will continue to maintain that mutilated groups scattered throughout the world must be returned to their countries of origin, must be reintegrated into the place and space where they were conceived and created; for they constitute the historical and religious heritage, the cultural patrimony of the people who gave them birth.
Dear friends, it was the Englishman Hobhouse, the future Lord Bronkton, on a visit to Athens in 1809, who gave us this striking illustration: an elderly Greek man approached him and in a voice trembling with bitterness says: “You English have taken from us the works of our ancestors. Look after them well, because the day will come when the Greeks will ask for them back”.
There is nothing we need add to that. Our English friends have indeed looked after our marbles well; and now, with a very firm voice, we are asking for them back.
Fellow delegates, Mr. Director-General of UNESCO, our request is absolutely legitimate. In the name of civilization and justice, we ask for your moral support. I am confident in the expectation of that support.