11 December 2022

The Parthenon Marbles and
the destruction of cultural
heritage in times of conflict

Part of the Parthenon frieze in the British Museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

There are reports that senior Greek officials have been in ‘preliminary’ talks with the British Museum in what could amount to a tectonic shift in resolving the long-running cultural dispute over the repatriation of the Parthenon marbles to Athens.

Revelations about the negotiations were first reported in Greece last weekend by Ta Nea, which said the Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, and other Greek officials had met George Osborne, the chair of the British Museum, in London hotel in recent days.

Insiders in Athens say the report is ‘not only credible but very exciting.’

The reports in Ta Nea in Athens, the Guardian and the Sunday Times in London, and other newspapers came only days after Kyriakos Mitsotakis told a gathering at the London School of Economics that he ‘sensed’ headway was being made on the issue and that a ‘win-win solution’ was possible. He has made a cultural priority of reunifying the Parthenon marbles in London with the carvings that have remained in Athens.

The row over the marbles has lasted for more than 200 years. The British Museum acquired the antiquities, which include 75 metres of the Parthenon’s original 160-metre-long frieze, in 1816 when Lord Elgin parted with them, having removed them with force and violence, using saws to hack them from the Parthenon on the Acropolis.

Ta Nea reports several behind-the-scenes meetings have taken place in London between Mitsotakis and Osborne, a former British chancellor, and meetings have also involved the Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias and Minister of State Giorgos Gerapetritis.

The dispute over ownership of the sculptures has descended into acrimony, with the Greek Culture Minister accusing Elgin of committing a ‘blatant act of serial theft’.

The British Museum’s deputy director, Jonathan Williams, said earlier this year that the museum was eager to ‘change the temperature of the debate’ after Unesco ruled it imperative that the affair was discussed at an inter-government level. The Museum has described the talks as part of efforts to create ‘a new Parthenon partnership with Greece.’

Four of us visited the British Museum last weekend after lunch earlier in the day in Tas, a Turkish restaurant in Bloomsbury, just a few steps away from the museum.

As we wandered through the museum, it was interesting in one display to read that the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage is today classed as a crime against humanity.

The Acropolis at night, seen from Monastiraki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The long dispute over the Parthenon Marbles, and Britain’s failure to return them for over 200 years, is in sharp contrast to the British Museum’s stand against the looting of archaeological sites and destruction of monuments and museums, which are problems that are particularly extreme during periods of conflict.

One of the sad but often unnoticed consequences of the war in Ukraine is the destruction of Ukraine’s museums, monuments, cultural heritage and archaeological sites. The British Museum says it works closely with the affected countries and British law enforcement agencies, as well as the art trade and with private individuals, to identify and advise on the origin of antiquities believed to have been stolen or illegally exported from abroad.

One showcase displays recently identified examples from Ukraine and Yemen. Careful study and scientific analysis at the museum enables objects like these to be returned to their country of origin.

In recent years, a number of objects acquired by illicit metal detector users in Ukraine have been sold to private collectors in Russia, Germany and Britain. ‘We are facing gigantic transnational looting of Ukrainian heritage which needs to be stopped through common efforts,’ Dr Fyodor Androschuk, director general of the National Museum of History of Ukraine, said last March.

A small collection of metalwork, some recent but mostly of mediaeval date, comes from illegal metal detecting in Ukraine. These objects were posted from Kyiv to England in 2021 with the intention of being sold online. They were seized by the British Border Force, and jointly identified by curators from the British Museum and the National Museum in Kyiv.

Uncontrolled treasure hunting at archaeological sites around the world is causing huge damage and loss of historical information. The British Museum says it works closely with British law enforcement, the art market, colleagues at other museums around the world and others to ensure that stolen or illegally trafficked antiquities are investigated and repatriated to their countries of origin.

Among the exhibitions from Ukraine on display in the British Museum is a collection of pendants and rings, mostly dates about the 1000s to the 1300s.

The cross pendants are connected with Greek Orthodoxy. There are similar crosses from the district of Kyiv in the National Museum of Ukraine, believed to be local copies of prototypes used in the Byzantine Empire centred on Constantinople (modern Istanbul). The disc pendants are widespread in eastern Europe and also show the impact of Christianity on the local population. These objects were probably found in graves or possibly a hoard.

The other objects are finger rings, some also early medieval but others more recent. These pieces will be sent to the National Museum of Kyiv when the current conflict is over.

Culture is fragile yet precious. The safeguarding and neutrality of culture during conflict is crucial to the future rebuilding of society afterwards. The British Museum is working together with other organisations to provide aid and support to museums in Ukraine.

It would be interesting to see similar approaches, values and policies in the British Museum when it comes to returning the Parthenon Marbles to Athens.

A collection of pendants and rings from Ukraine, mostly dating from the 1000s to the 1300s, in the British Museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Praying in Advent with Lichfield Cathedral
and USPG: Sunday 11 December 2022

Saint John the Baptist in a fresco by the Cretan iconographer, Alexandra Kaouki, in Rethymnon

Patrick Comerford

We are half-way through Advent, and today is the Third Sunday of Advent (11 December 2022), or Gaudete Sunday.

The day takes its common name from the Latin word Gaudete (‘Rejoice’), the first word of the introit of this day’s Liturgy:

Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete. Modestia vestra nota sit omnibus hominibus: Dominus enim prope est. Nihil solliciti sitis: sed in omni oratione petitiones vestræ innotescant apud Deum. Benedixisti Domine terram tuam: avertisti captivitatem Jacob.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Let your forbearance be known to all, for the Lord is near at hand; have no anxiety about anything, but in all things, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God. Lord, you have blessed your land; you have turned away the captivity of Jacob (see Philippians 4: 4–6; Psalm 85: 1).

Throughout Advent, the spirit of the Liturgy is one of expectation and preparation for Christmas and for the coming of Christ. Gaudete Sunday in Advent is a counterpart to Laetare Sunday in Lent, and provides a similar break about mid-way through the season of preparation, and signifies the joy and gladness as the Lord’s coming comes nearer and nearer. On Gaudete Sunday, rose-coloured vestments may be worn instead of violet or Sarum blue, and this is noted as an option in the Church of England in Common Worship. On the Advent wreath, the rose-coloured or pink candle is lit in addition to the two violet or blue candles, which represent the first two Sundays of Advent. The readings emphasise the joyous anticipation of the Lord’s coming.

Later this morning, I plan to attend the Parish Eucharist in Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, Stony Stratford. But, before today gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for reading, prayer and reflection.

During Advent, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, The reading suggested in the Advent and Christmas Devotional Calendar produced by Lichfield Cathedral this year;

2, praying with the Lichfield Cathedral Devotional Calendar;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

Saint John the Baptist with his mother, Saint Elizabeth, in a stained glass window in Dingle, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Matthew 11: 2-11 (NRSVA):

2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ 4 Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.”

11 ‘Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.’

‘The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist’ (1608) by Caravaggio in Saint John’s Co-cathedral in Valletta (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The Lichfield Cathedral Devotional Calendar:

Reflect on the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist. Think about how the Church is the herald of Jesus’s message, how it points to him, helps to bring the world to him. Ask for the grace and blessing to help people find Jesus Christ, the true light, and that all the Cathedral community may play a part in mission.


O Lord Jesus Christ,
who at your first coming sent your messenger
to prepare your way before you:
grant that the ministers and stewards of your mysteries
may likewise so prepare and make ready your way
by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just,
that at your second coming to judge the world
we may be found an acceptable people in your sight;
for you are alive and reign with the Father
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion:

We give you thanks, O Lord, for these heavenly gifts;
kindle in us the fire of your Spirit
that when your Christ comes again
we may shine as lights before his face;
who is alive and reigns now and for ever.

Additional Collect:

God for whom we watch and wait,
you sent John the Baptist to prepare the way of your Son:
give us courage to speak the truth,
to hunger for justice,
and to suffer for the cause of right,
with Jesus Christ our Lord.

USPG Prayer Diary:

The theme in the USPG Prayer Diary this week is ‘Walking Together.’ This theme is introduced today by the Right Revd Maria Grace Tazu Sasamori, who became Bishop of Hokkaido in Japan in April 2022. She shares her reflections on this year’s Lambeth Conference with Archbishop Justin Welby:

‘I was very nervous about coming to the Lambeth Conference; as the conference is conducted in English, I was very nervous about keeping up with the conversations that were happening all of the time.

‘Through the time I spent at the Lambeth Conference, I have really understood the diversity and breadth of the Anglican Communion. This diversity is one that at times involves pain and suffering. I have come to appreciate the value of this diversity and the way that bishops bring strength from their positions in their own dioceses and provinces to share the message of Christ. I hope that I can do this going forward.

‘All of the stories that I have heard and that we have shared over the course of the Lambeth Conference have had a great impact on me. When I return to Japan, I hope that I can take the following message: that even though we may have different stories and are part of different cultures, we can continue to work and walk together.’

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today (The Fourth Sunday of Advent, International Migrants Day) in these words:

Prepare our hearts to receive you, O Lord,
and open our hearts to receive one another.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow</b>

‘The Baptism of Christ’ by Paolo Veronese in the Church of Il Redentore in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org