Stealing Athena: Elgins’ Personal Papers Excerpts

Dear Reader,

I trust that you were as astonished as I was at the discomfort Lady Elgin endured in her travels, often while pregnant. On page 263 of the hardcover edition of Stealing Athena, I allude to a tour of the Peloponnese that Elgin insisted Mary make with him so that he could acquire yet more Greek antiquities. She was five months pregnant at the time and did not want to leave her children behind in Athens. Nonetheless, she embarked on the journey with a spirit of adventure that few pregnant women could muster for a many hundred-mile journey through rugged terrain on the backs of horses and donkeys, sleeping in rude huts, encountering foreign customs, and climbing into dank ancient tombs.

I was so impressed with Mary’s fortitude, courage, and spunk on that trip that I wrote a lengthy chapter about the adventure, which I later cut because I felt that it bogged down the drive of the narrative. (An author constantly makes these kinds of choices.)

Rather than reprint my own chapter—like the additional material on the director’s cut of a DVD—I thought I’d let the reader hear about the journey in Mary’s own words (and keeping her own spelling and punctuation). Here entry from her journal, which she wrote for her mother and grandmother.

Lord Elgin’s letters demonstrate the passion he had for collecting the marbles. Whatever the outcome of his endeavors, I do believe that he embarked on the venture in a spirit of idealism. True, he was acting with the arrogance of empire and entitlement. I do, however, believe that we must allow that he was a man of his time, with all the prejudices that it implies, and that his passion for preservation of the antiquities and for the enhancement of the British arts was sincere. Had Elgin not acted, and had Mary not supported his ambitions, it is possible that the marbles would not exist at all.




May 1802

As I intend to make this a most interesting journal, I shall send it open to you my dear Lady Robert, that you may be acquainted with the wonders I have seen: after you and yours have read it, lock it up in your bureau till my Mother arrives in London, and then have the goodness to make her a present of it. But I must go systematically to work, for which purpose I must take you back to the 3rd of May on which day I left my poor Bratts at Athens in perfect health and spirits.

Fortunately for us, the Narcissus Frigate, Captain Donnelly, arrived at Athens in order to sound along the coast; the Captain is extremely anxious to take us to Constantinople, he is amazingly civil and let us his ten oared barge. We embarked about 12 o’clock, an extremely hot day, passed close to the Island of Salamis and Mount Aegaleus where Xerxes’ Throne was placed, and dined at Eleusis, walked all about and saw the ruins of the Temple of Ceres; the Statue of Ceres which was in town, was sent to England last year by Mr. Clarke.

We landed at Port Nisaea, and proceeded by torchlight accompanied by a strong guard of Albanians who kept firing with balls and singing their national songs all the way to Megara, and slept in a most miserable Albanian cottage. Could you have seen us going from the boat to Megara amongst the troops firing all different ways, the wonderful noise of their songs, the darkness of the night and the glare of torches; you would have thought we were taken prisoners by Banditti.

The next morning we rode round the walls of Megara from whence we had a very good view of Parnassus covered with snow. We embarked at 9 o’clock in the morning, and sailed by the Scironian Rocks where Sciron used to kick down the passengers, dined at Cromyon where Theseus killed the Sow, landed at Port Cenchreae upon the Isthmus about 7 miles from Corinth, and lodged in the Palace of Nowri Bey, the Governor.

Next morning we rode to the foot of the Acro-Corinthus from whence we had a view of Mount Helicon, Parnassus, the Gulph of Lepanto, the city of Sicyon, and the commencement of the wall which crosses the Isthmus, separating Greece from the Peloponnesus.

We then went to the Amphitheatre, and entered the Caverns under the seats where the wild beasts used in the combats used to be kept; the Amphitheatre is oval, nearly twice as long as it is broad, and hewn out of the rock; there are a few remains of very strong brick buildings near the Amphitheatre.

In returning to the Bey’s Palace, we saw seven columns of the Doric Order, some say they belonged to the Temple of Venus, and others call it the Sisypheum—make it the one you like best. On our reaching the Palace, I found the ladies of Bekyr Bey’s and Nouri Bey’s Harems, they had arrived from their country house on purpose to see me. They came in kind of covered boxes, two of which are slung across a mule like Gypsies panniers, with a lady in each; over them are curtains of scarlet cloth to prevent the people from seeing them.

The women got hold of Masterman, took her into the Harem and begged of her to persuade me to go to them. I did not feel much inclined to go, having no dragowoman [interpreter] with me, however I went and was most graciously received by them. I was deluged with rose water, then perfumed, and afterwards presented by a woman upon her knees with sweetmeats, water and coffee. With my three of four Turkish words, assisted with hands and eyes I contrived to stay about twenty minutes with them. When I got up to take my leave, Nouri Bey’s “great Wife,” as they call her, escorted me to the head of the stairs, while two women took hold of me by the arms and led me to the door.

On the 6th of May, we left Corinth very early in the morning notwithstanding which the heat was intolerable, and the road dangerous, having to ride over rocks upon the side of hills with immense large rolling stones; it is quite wonderful how the horses can keep their legs. After traveling near five hours we reached the Temple of Nemean Jupiter, it is quite a ruin only three columns of the Doric Order remain, immense masses they are, the blocks of stone are so entire that we antiquarians agreed it must have been overturned by an earthquake.

The Temple is built on the spot where Hercules is said to have killed the Lion. Other ruins are scattered over the plain, among some of which we dined, under tents which shaded us from the sun. After dinner I had some beautiful yellow chintz cushions laid down in the tent, and with my faithful Knight Masterman reclining at my feet and your old friend Lion at my side, who by the bye made the tour on horseback, we had a famous sleep. We were inclined to have gone to the Cave of the Lion, but we learnt it was at least an hour’s ride from Nemea, and as we still had a very long way to go before we could reach Argos, we were obliged to give up all idea of gratifying that curiosity. Some villagers and Caloyers [Greek monks] told us that the Cave still exists, but with nothing extraordinary in its appearance; it is on the side of a hill, and over it is built a Greek Monastery. It is astonishing how anxious the peasantry are to oblige and afford every information in their power.

We pursued our road and passed tremendous high Mountains, the valleys and sides of the hills covered with myrtles and other evergreens; on entering the great plain of Argos, we made about half an hour’s deviation to the left, to see the ruins of the city of Mycenae; great masses of the walls of the ancient citadel still remain, they are said to be the work of the Cyclops. At a short distance from these ruins is a stupendous vault, which is supposed by some to be the Tomb of Agamemnon, and by others, the treasury of the Kings of Mycenae. Two long walls of massive masonry lead to the door way of this subterranean building; but so much soil has been washed into it by the mountain torrents that it required no common courage to crawl through the hold by which it alone could be entered. I went in, after some hesitation, on all fours and was fully gratified by the scene.

The stone which forms the architrave of the door is of a dimension that exceeds everything in magnitude that I had seen at Athens. We measured it and found it twenty four feet long, seventeen feet thick, and near five feet high. The form of the vault is that of an immense hollowed sugar loaf, and composed of hewn stones; we lit a large fire in it and crept through a subterranean passage into another dome of much ruder work. I must tell you that young Logotheti, the hopeful son and heir of the Athens Logothetis [the Greek family who gave up their home to the Elgins while they were in Athens], who had strict charge to take care of himself (tho’ his Mama did allow him to go wherever I went) refused to follow me into the second vault—I saw the bristles on his skull were erect at crawling into the first vault, in which undertaking he knocked off his Calpack and sadly soiled his flowing robes.

We were told that the Aga of the adjoining village of Carvati, was the first who discovered the vault, and that he had found in it a sepulchral lamp of bronze suspended by a chain from the stone which crowns the building; finding it neither gold nor silver, he made a present of it to some Gipseys.

We then rode along the plain of Argos which is the most cultivated part of Greece.

The Voivode [Turkish governor) sent a number of horses superbly caparisoned, for Elgin and the party to ride into the city, the concourse of spectators was very great; the pompous entrance was extremely disagreeable to me for what with the people firing all different directions, and the find horses kicking, I thought myself exceedingly fortunate when I found myself safely landed at the house of our protected Baratly [a merchant with government-extended privileges], Valsopolo, where we found every possible sort of accommodation. He is rich and had entirely new furnished his house for our reception; they had even bought a quantity of new linen, everything in the English stile.

The 7th of May we remained at Argos, and the following day after dinner, we set off towards Tripolizza having received the most pressing and repeated invitations from the Pasha of the Morea. We were accompanied by the dragoman of the Morea an a very numerous Turkish and Greek Escort, as well as an Albanian guard in the dress of the ancient Macedonians. In the evening we halted at a most exquisitely beautiful village; since I left England I have never been so captivated with any spot. I know how impossible it is for me to give you by my description, an idea of the picturesque beauties of Aklathò-Cambò. The houses are merely mud huts covering the side of an almost perpendicular mountain, and interspersed with a profusion of every sort of evergreens and trees of every shad e and form you can imagine. After walking among the rocks and groves which were filled with nightingales, we slept in a poor Albanian hut. At the bottom of the hill and through the middle of the village runs a small rivlet which was dried up when we were there, but in winter the water rushes down the hill and must add much to the scene.

There were several uncommonly beautiful lassies in this village, but from all accounts they possess none of the native simplicity you would have expected to have met with in such an out of the way place; they are declared to be the most dissipated ladies in the Peloponnesus; I think from what I have seen that is saying a great deal of them.

Next morning the 9th of May, the villagers preceded by their Priest and the oldest inhabitants came and entreated Elgin to ask the Pasha of the Morea’s permission to repair their little Church, which is now too ruinous for performances of Divine Service, and they dare not repair it without leave. Before setting out we were joined by Chiauves [Turkish messengers], Tartars, and other Officers of the Pasha, who brought a covered litter for me in which the Pasha’s Sultanas are transported from place to place. It was carried between two mules and guided by six men in the manner of a Sedan Chair; in some of the very bad places the men actually took the mules up in their arms and lifted them over. I was in it once at this manoeuvre which I did not at all admire, and begged to be let out the next time.

Masterman and I lay in it our full length, vis-à-vis to one another (like a sofa with fine embroidered scarlet cushions in it, covered all over with scarlet cloth trimmed with gold fringe, and ornamented with large gold tassels)—with two large lattice windows which I took the liberty of opening.

A Black, who was the principal manager of this tarta-a-van, seeing Elgin coming up to speak to me, beckoned him not to come up on that side because it was opened, but to go to the other where the lattice was closed. He took great care of me and did not allow the foxes to peep.

The method of getting into the tarta-a-van is, a man lays down and one steps on his back—would you like that? In Turkish they call him “The Step”! I assure you I found this conveyance useful and even comfortable, particularly during the violent heat in the most rugged and dangerous roads over the mountains.

We halted at the ruins of Amyclae, where 365 Churches dedicated to as many Saints are said to have existed; not a cottage now remains, and the ruins are by no means interesting being only a few ill built wall and an arched doorway. The Coffedgi Bashi [Chief of the Coffee Makers] of the Pasha met us here with his servants and apparatus, and made us some famous coffee in the Turkish stile. The Dragoman of the Morea hinted it would be better for me to make my publick entrance in the tarta-a-van than on horseback, I suppose he thought it more decent. I of course comply’d with his request, but was impudent enough to open both my windows, being quite determined to see the show.

We were met by all the Officers of the Pasha’s Court, on chargers richly caparisoned, and accompanied by Pages and Guards who played at the dgerit [a straight white stick thrown for sport] and other equestrian feats. I saw many of them who, after they had flung the dgerit, rode and picked it up where it was laying flat upon the ground, without getting off their horses; others had sticks with hooks at the end with which they pulled up their dgerits in the quickest manner. Their dexterity was wonderful, and the exhibition of this procession on the plain of Mantinea [note: the birthplace of the priestess Diotima prominently featured in Aspasia’s story] was one of the finest coup d’oeil in the world.

I was thinking all the time how you would have been delighted could you have seen our party, particularly, the General—; it was really a most magnificent sight. Three Parade horses were sent for Elgin, Mr. Hunt, and Doctor Scott, besides a great many led horses all with the most brilliant furniture, the Lieutenant Governor and the first Chamberlain riding by their side—the Dragoman of the Morea preceding-and a train of at least six or seven hundred on horseback following. All the inhabitants of the town in their best dresses, and well armed, lined the avenues to the gate; and as we approached, the great canon were fired from every fort round the walls of the city. One man out of a large embroidered box kept flinging money to the children and poor people on the road; there was something extremely grand in that.

In the evening we alighted at the house of the Dragoman of the Morea, which was assigned for our residence, and were waited on by the Officers of the Pasha and Bey to congratulate us on our arrival, and an immense supper of 30 or 40 dishes dressed in the Turkish stile was sent from the Pasha’s Seraglio.

May the 10th—The Ceremonies were settled for Elgin’s audience of the Pasha, and two Turkish ladies were sent to me from Nouri Bey’s sister to present their Mistress’s compliments on my arrival. And the Pasha sent to desire I would accept of his Guard whenever I chose to ride into the country, or see the ancient ruins, etc.

The head Chamberlain was sent with a numerous guard and retinue to accompany Elgin to the Pasha’s Palace, with three horses richly caparisoned for him, Mr. Hunt, and the Doctor.

The little intercourse which the inhabitants of Tripolizza have with foreigners, made it impossible for me to be of the party; but Elgin told me that the Pasha received him with the utmost respect, and standing. The Grandees of his Court were not permitted to sit down in the Audience Chamber. He repeatedly said that he had endeavored to shew the British Ambassador every possible mark of respect, and had actually done more than he would have thought necessary for three Pashas of his own rank. So now I always call Elgin the nine tailed Pasha!

Mr. H. and Dr. Scott had ermine pelices given them, and a handsome one of sable fur was sent to Elgin, as the Pasha said he dared not invest a person of rank at least equal to his own. The horse on which he rode home was the best in the Pasha’s stable, and was presented to him with rich gilded and embroidered velvet trappings. A shawl, an embroidered handkerchief and two pieces of Indian stuffs were sent to me.

May 11th—The Pasha returned Elgin’s visit at a kiosk which commanded a fine view of the town; he was uncommonly polite and gave letters of permission for our Artists to make excavations at Corinth, Olympia, Elis, etc. in search of antiquities, and also to examine the Fortress on the Acro-Corinthus, which has been uniformly refused to every person. In the evening Nouri Bey paid us a visit, he is of the most wealthy and ancient Turkish family in the Morea. He sent me a shawl and an embroidered box.

May 12th—We set out on our return, the Pasha having seriously represented to Elgin the danger of proceeding to Liondaria, or any farther into Arcadia which we were anxious to have seen, but the innumerable bands of robbers who infest that part of the Peloponnesus, and bid defiance to the Porte, make it extremely dangerous for travelers. We dined at Amyclae, and after a heavy shower of rain in which I was well wet, reached Argos about eight o’clock at night. In our absence, the Voivode of Napoli di Romania had cleared the door way into the subterranean building at Mycenae. We found many fragments of vases and some ornamental marble pieces of a marble fluted vase of very good workmanship. The whole of the inside of this subterranean building has been covered with bronze nails many of which remain. I fear that looks like a Treasury, and I wish to imagine it Agamemnon’s tomb.

After a day’s repose at Argos, off we set towards Epidauria. On the road we saw the famous walls of Tyrinthus where Heracles used to reside, and which were supposed to be built by the Cyclops; they look like the work of some wonderful beings, I never saw such great massive walls. The view from the top of the Citadel is extremely picturesque. We left Napoli di Romania on our right, and passing various ruins of ancient Greek temples and Sepulchres, reached the village of Liguris at dinner time.

About an hour father we saw the Sacred Grove of Esculapius [the more familiar spelling is Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine], and the Theatre which is described as having been the most perfect model in Greece. The seats are still very entire, they are about 45 in number in a hollow circular range rising aboe each other so as to produce a fine effect; the stage and all the decorations of the front are gone, and the orchestra etc. are sown with corn. Some few of the marble seats have been taken away; and shrubs of the most beautiful foliage have grown in the place. It is a delightful situation; many other ruins are near it, such as Baths, Cisterns, and Temples.

Our ride from thence was along a bed of a torrent between very seep mountains and crags, covered with myrtles, arbutus, oleanders, olives, locust trees, brooms, and other extremely beautiful shrubs which grow there with the utmost luxuriance. I should certainly have been ruined could money have bribed the shrubs to have left the scorching sun of Greece for the cooling breezes of the Firth [of Forth, where Mary’s family home, Archerfield, was located]. It undoubtedly was quite without any exception, the most enchanting ride I ever took, quite in my stile; the road very dangerous and the mountains perpendicular. It was a sad hot day and we were eleven hours on horseback, I do not think I was ever more completely fatigued, the guides lost the road so it was quite dark before we reached the village of Epidauria. From the account which even the janissaries gave of the dirt and vermin of the cottages, I preferred sleeping in our tents, which I must say is by no means an agreeable expedient, for the heat was very oppressive and the damp penetrated quite through the canvas.

After seeing the ruins next morning the 15th of May, we embarked in a Spezziota fishing boat. The wind being contrary, we were prevented landing on the Island of Aegina, but we saw the ruins of the Temple of Neptune, and those of the Panhellenian Jupiter. Of the first, only two Columns remain, and of the other which is said to be the oldest in Greece, about 25 are still standing; they are of the Doric Order, of common stone and heavy proportions.

At night we reached the Piraeus [Athens’ port] and were fortunate enough to find horses at the Quay, which brought us to Athens about eight o’clock.
Excerpts from Lord Elgin’s testimony before Parliament concerning the purchase of the marbles.

Here he states his original intent:

My whole plan was to measure and to draw every thing that remained and could be traced of architecture, to model the peculiar features of architecture; I brought home a piece of each description of column for instance, and capitals and decorations of every description; friezes and moulds, and, in some instances, original specimens; and the architects not only went over the measurements that had been before traces, but by removing the foundations were enabled to extend them and to open the way to further enquiries, which have been attended since with considerable success.

In this excerpt he defends the scope that his originally modest project took:

From the period of Stuart’s visit to Athens (the early 1760s) till the time I went to Turkey (1799) a very great destruction had taken place. There was an old temple o n the Ilissus had disappeared. Every traveler coming added to the general defacement of the statuary in his reach: there are now in London pieces broken off within our day. And the Turks have been continually defacing the heads; in some instances they have actually acknowledged to me, that they have pounded down the statues to convert them into mortar: It was upon these suggestions and with these feelings, that I proceeded to remove as much of the sculpture as I conveniently could; it was no part of my original plan to bring away anything but my models. 

While Elgin’s original intent was to simply obtain moulds and drawings, letters from Reverend Philip Hunt written from Athens detailing the Parthenon’s beauty and degradation at the hands of the Turkish occupiers encouraged the ambassador to seek the controversial firman that enabled him to actually remove the treasures.

Letter to Lord Elgin from Philip Hunt (May 1801):

Of the Temples of Minerva (Athena). Theseus, and Neptune, I can say nothing that would convey an idea of the effect they produce. They must be seen to know what the union of simplicity and beaugy is capable of: and after having feasted the eyes with those exquisite specimens of Athenian Architecture, every deviation from them, even the edifices of Rome itself will almost disgust…

Lusieri (the artist supervising Elgin’s Athens project on the Acropolis) is employing his pencil on two general views of Athens which will embrace all the monuments and classic spots of the Citadel and the Town. He has also commenced near views of the Temples of Theseus, Minerva and Pandrosos. Positive Firmans must, however, be obtained from the Porte (the Sultan), so to enable the Architects and Modellers to proceed in their most interesting labours. Unfortunately the Temple of Minerva, Polias, and Pandrosos, as well as the famous Propylea (the Great Gateway) are all within the walls of the Acropolis, now a Turkish fortress garrisoned by mercenary and insolent Janissaries, so that every obstacle which National jealousy and Mohometan bigotry, seconded by French intrigue, could produce, have been too successfully sued to interrupt their labours. Till those Firmans are obtained, the bas-reliefs on the frieze, and the Groupes on the Metopes can neither be modeled nor drawn. The architects, therefore, in the mean time, are proceeding to make the elevations and ground plans, from the measures they had taken… 

Here is the firman from the Sultan giving the Elgins access to the Parthenon and its treasures, written originally in Italian. The controversial parts are italicized.

It is hereby signified to you, that our sincere Friend his Excellency Lord Elgin, Ambassador Extraordinary from the Court of England to the Porte of Happiness, has represented to us, that it is well known that the greater part of the Frank [i.e. Christian] Courts are anxious to read and investigate the books, pictures or figures, and other works of science of the ancient Greek philosophers: and that in particular, the ministers or officers of state, philosophers, primates and other individuals of England, have a remarkable taste for the drawings, or figures or sculptures, remaining ever since the time of the said Greeks, and which are to be seen on the shores of the Archipelago and in other parts; and have in consequence from time to time sent men to explore and examine the ancient edifices, and drawings or figures. And that some accomplished Dilettanti of the Court of England, being desirous to see the ancient buildings and the curious figures in the City of Athens, and the old walls remaining since the time of the Grecians, which now subsist in the interior part of the said place; his Excellency the said Ambassador has therefore engaged five English painters, now dwelling at Athens to examine and view, and also to copy the figures remaining there, ab antiquo : And he has also at this time expressly besought us that an Official Letter may be written from here, ordering that as long as the said painters shall be employed in going in and out of the said citadel of Athens, which is the place of their occupations; and in fixing scaffolding round the ancient Temple of the Idols there; and in moulding the ornamental sculpture and visible figures thereon, in plaster or gypsum; and in measuring the remains of other old ruined buildings there; and in excavating when they find it necessary the foundations, in order to discover inscriptions which may have been covered in the rubbish; that no interruption may be given them, nor any obstacle thrown in their way by the Disdar (or commandant of the citadel) or any other person: that no one may meddle with scaffolding or implements they may require in their works; andthat when they wish to take away any pieces of stone with old inscriptions or figures thereon, that no opposition be made thereto.

We therefore have written this Letter to you, and expedited it by Mr Philip Hunt, an English gentleman, Secretary of the aforesaid Ambassador, in order that as soon as you shall have understood its meaning, namely, that it is the explicit desire and engagement of this Sublime Court endowed with all eminent qualities, to favour such requests as the above-mentioned, in conformity with what is due to the friendship, sincerity, alliance and good will subsisting ab antiquo between the Sublime and ever durable Ottoman Court and that of England, and which is on the side of both those Courts manifestly increasing; particularly as there is no harm in the said figures and edifices being thus viewed, contemplated and designed.

Therefore, after having fulfilled the duties of hospitality, and given a proper reception to the aforesaid Artists, in compliance with the urgent request of the said Ambassador to that effect, and because it is incumbent on us to provide that they meet no opposition in walking, viewing or contemplating the figures and edifices they may wish to design or copy, or in any of their works of fixing scaffolding or using their various implements; It is our desire that on the arrival of this Letter you use your diligence to act conformably to the instances of the said Ambassador, as long as the said five Artists dwelling at Athens shall be employed in going in and out of the said citadel of Athens, which is the place of their occupations; or in fixing scaffolding around the ancient Temple of the Idols, or in modelling with chalk or gypsum the said ornaments and visible figures thereon; or in measuring the fragments and vestiges or other ruined edifices; or in excavating, when they find it necessary, the foundations, in search of inscriptions among the rubbish; that they be not molested by the said Disdar nor by any other persons, nor even by you [to whom this letter is addressed]; and that no one meddle with their scaffolding or implements, nor hinder them from taking away any pieces of stone with inscriptions or figures.

In the above-mentioned manner, see that you demean and comport yourselves.

(Signed with signet)

Seged Abdullah Kaimacan