The honeymoon is over for the internationally acclaimed human rights attorney— and new wife of George Clooney. She’s joining forces with fellow human rights attorney Goeffry Robertson for her first official post-wedding job— and it’s a biggie.
Amal Alamuddin is representing the Greek government in one of the most controversial cultural arguments of recent history as she prepares to try to win the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece.
The Elgin Marbles, as they are called in the United Kingdon, are the classical sculptures from Athens’ ancient Parthenon that are housed in London’s British Museum. They were removed from the ruins on the Acropolis by British ambassador Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, in the early 19th century.
Greece and activists throughout the world call it a a scandalous cultural heist when the marbles were stripped from the temple and taken illegally by the British diplomat under the approval of the Ottoman leaders at the time. British officials maintain it was a sensible protective measure. The rightful ownership of the marbles has been fiercely debated for decades.
The poet Byron protested their removal at the time, musing “cursed be the hour when from their isle they roved”. More recently, celebrities, politicians and average citizens alike have joined the bandwagon to return the marbles to Greece, but British museum officials remain firm that they are the rightful owners.
Numerous books have been written on the subject, including the late Christopher Hitchen’s two best sellers at the time— The Parthenon Marbles: The Case for Reunification and Imperial Spoils: The Curious Case of the Elgin Marbles.
Even Ms Alamuddin’s husband dipped his toe in the old dispute. Earlier this year George Clooney said returning the Parthenon’s classic sculptures to their ancient home “would perhaps be the right thing to do”.
Greece launched a new campaign for the return of the Marbles on Monday. Ms Alamuddin has reportedly been advising the Greek government on their cause, along with her colleagues at Doughty Street Chambers in London. Next week she will fly to Athens with Mr Robertson, a successful Australian attorney who lives in London, to meet with Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and his cabinet.
It is Ms Alamuddin’s first professional engagement since her star-studded wedding in Venice.
In 2007 Mr Robertson successfully argued for the return of Tasmanian Aboriginal artifacts to Australia from the UK’s Natural History Museum. In his 2012 book Crimes Against Humanity he explained his theory of an international right to the return of cultural property.
“There is considerable support for the emergence of an international rule requiring the return of cultural treasures of great national significance,” he wrote.
Such a rule would not result in the emptying of Western museums, he said, it would only apply to “unique” works such as the marbles – a “living symbol of history and culture” from the time of the birth of democracy. It would be based on international treaties and conventions that grant countries a “right to culture”.
The marbles include 75 meters of friezes depicting mythological scenes, and 17 statues, which are on prominent display at the British Museum. Until recently the UK argued there was no museum in Greece capable of looking after the marbles properly. Greece opened a new museum on the Acropolis in Athens in 2009 which was purpose-built to house them.
The UK argues that Lord Elgin was given permission to take the marbles by the Ottomans who ruled Athens at the time, and that they held global, not just Greek significance. They also point out that the marbles in London have been taken much better care of than the ones that remained exposed to modern pollution and decay in Athens.