- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 21, 2009

ATHENS | Gods, heroes and long-dead mortals stepped off their plinths into the evening sky of Athens on Saturday during the lavish launch of the new Acropolis Museum, a decades-old dream that Greece hopes will also help reclaim a cherished part of its heritage from Britain.

The digital animated display on the museum walls ended years of delays and wrangling over the ultramodern building, set among apartment blocks and elegant neoclassical houses at the foot of the Acropolis hill.

The nearly $4.1 million opening ceremony was attended by about 400 guests, including European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura and foreign heads of state and government. Conspicuously, there were no government officials from Britain, which has repeatedly refused to repatriate dozens of 2,500-year-old sculptures from the Parthenon temple that are kept in the British Museum.

President Karolos Papoulias said Greeks think of the Acropolis monuments as their “identity and pride” and renewed the demand for the missing marble works, displayed in London for the past 200 years.

“The whole world can now see the most important sculptures from the Parthenon together,” Mr. Papoulias said. “Some are missing. It is time to heal the wounds on the monument by returning the marbles that belong to it.”

Culture Minister Antonis Samaras said the sculptures “will inevitably return,” but ruled out Greece acknowledging the British Museum’s legal title to the works - as requested by officials in London as a precondition for any loan.

Large crowds watched the heavily policed opening ceremony from nearby cafes, and families gathered on overlooking balconies.

Crouching 300 yards from the Parthenon’s slender bones like a skewed stack of glass boxes, the $180 million museum provides an airy setting for some of the best surviving works of classical sculpture that once adorned the Acropolis.

By day, printed glass panels filter the harsh sunlight while revealing the ancient citadel in the background. The internal lighting projects the battered statues outward at night, contrasting with the floodlit ruins on the low hill.

With a special glass hall designed to showcase all the surviving Parthenon sculptures in their original alignment, the building is Greece’s answer to the argument that it had nowhere to safely house those sawed off the temple in the early 1800s by British diplomat Lord Elgin.

Among the exhibits are small sculptures recently returned from Italy, the Vatican and Germany.

The Parthenon was built at the height of Athens’ glory, between 447 and 432 B.C., in honor of the city’s patron goddess, Athena, and is still considered one of the most impressive buildings in the world.

Despite its burning by invading Goths in A.D. 267, conversion into a Christian church in the early sixth century and Ottoman occupation from the 15th century - when it served as a gunpowder store - it survived largely intact until a Venetian cannon shot caused a massive explosion in 1687. Elgin, a Scotsman, removed about half the surviving sculptures between 1801 and 1804, when Greece was an unwilling part of the Ottoman Empire.

The British Museum has repeatedly rejected calls for their return. It says it legally owns the collection it bought from Elgin, who sold it to stave off bankruptcy.

On the top floor of the new Acropolis Museum, Greece’s counter-argument - that the sculptures were looted from a work of art so important that the surviving pieces should all be exhibited together - is eloquently laid out.

The glass hall with a panoramic view across Athens and the Parthenon itself displays the section of the frieze that Elgin’s agents left behind, joined to plaster casts of the 90-odd works in London.

The soft brownish patina of the original marble contrasts starkly with the bright white of the copies. The attempt to shock is deliberate.

The museum opens to visitors Sunday. Entry is at a nominal charge of 1 euro - about $1.40 - until the end of the year, when it will increase to 5 euros. The first four days are already sold out through Internet sales.

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