The New Acropolis Museum was officially inaugurated on Saturday evening during a nationally televised and web-broadcast ceremony that brought together Greece's political leadership and scores of international dignitaries, boosting hopes that the purpose-built museum's opening will mark the "reverse countdown" for the long-sought return of the Parthenon Marbles.

In one of the most poignant moments of the evening, Prof. Dimitris Pantermalis, the director of the new state-of-the-art facility, pointed to numerous mutilated sculptures on display in the third-storey Parthenon Gallery, sculptures whose other half is found at the British Museum in London. Instead, white-coloured plaster replicas depict the missing friezes in the New Acropolis Museum most celebrated gallery.

Pantermalis personally gave a guided tour of the 25,000-square-metre museum to international dignitaries, including EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura, who addressed the ceremony, as well as to Greece's leadership.

"Today, the whole world can see, all together, the most significant sculptures of the Parthenon. Some are missing. Now is the time to heal the monument's wounds with the return of the marbles to where they belong ... their natural setting," Greek President Karolos Papoulias said in addressing the international audience and television viewers across the country.

Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis emphasised that the new 130-million-euro museum belongs to all of humanity and forms part of the world's cultural heritage.

"In the sacred hill of the Acropolis the world views the forms that ecumenical and eternal ideals take. In the New Acropolis Museum the world can now ascertain these forms, these ideals, reuniting them and allowing them to regain their radiance ... Welcome to a Greece of civilisation and history; together we are inaugurating a museum for the supreme monument of the Classical civilisation: the Acropolis Museum," Karamanlis said, while again referring to his namesake and uncle, Greek statesman Constantine Karamanlis, along with iconic Greek actress and culture minister Melina Mercouri, as protagonists in the decades-long campaign to build the new museum.

"The Acropolis Museum is a reality for all Greeks; for all the people of the world. It is a modern monument, open, luminous and is harmoniously intertwined with Parthenon itself. It permits the Attica sun to shed its light on the ancient works of culture and allows the visitor to enjoy and appreciate the details of the exhibits. This modern monument narrates the history of democracy, art, rituals and everyday life. It succeeds in harmonically linking antiquity with the modern world of the technology and imagery. That's why pioneering," Karamanlis told the audience of dignitaries, which included lead architects Bernard Tschumi and Michael Photiadis.

On his part, Greek Culture Minister Antonis Samaras opened his address by expressing optimism that "the (pieces) that are not here today, those that were separated and carted off 207 years ago will return. They will certainly return; the Parthenon and its sculptures were the victims of plunder. This crime can, today, can be corrected. The museum serves as the moral force to invite them back; to reunite them," he stressed.

In attendance were all of the country's past presidents, along with leaders from Cyprus, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, Slovakia, Finland, Montenegro, Vietnam and China, together with 21 foreign ministers from all over the world.

The tour of the Museum, with includes more than 4,000 exhibits spread over 14,000 square metres of exhibition space, began at 8:30 p.m. (local time) from the ground floor level and the first hall, which hosts exhibits (parts of pottery mostly) of a Neolithic settlement once located on the Acropolis' slopes.

Fragments of pottery dating to the 3rd century BC and believed to be from a foundation-laying ceremony of Classical antiquity were on display in a glass-covered crypt in the main concourse, with PM Karamanlis handing an intact pottery vessel to a museum official who placed it inside the crypt before it was encased with the glass cover.

Prof. Pantermalis then officially inaugurated the museum with a phrase in ancient Greek, "the Athenian goddess resides here. No evil may enter".