History of the Marbles

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The Firman and the Legitamacy of the Aquisition

Dr. Jeanette Greenfield in her highly regarded book "The Return of Cultural Treasures" (First published 1989, 2nd edition 1998, Cambridge University Press) has this to say on the firman:

"Although there has been debate as to the extent that the firman empowered Lord Elgin, the real issue in my view, centres around the fact that the original firman was never produced by Elgin in the House of Commons Parliamentary Select Committee in 1816. Only a copy written from memory was produced. There is no direct documentary proof of the right to remove the marbles. Even regarding such documents as exist there are arguments over the interpretation of the alleged wording which would not have been stretched to justify destruction of the Parthenon."

In 1998, an eminent Greek historian/Turkologist, Professor Vassilis Demetriades, wrote an article on the real nature of the Turkish firman, following extensive research on Ottoman administration and having examined a huge number of Ottoman archives both in Greece and in Turkey (Constantinople). These are some of his findings:

"In the Ottoman Empire there was no legislative body to debate or enact the state's legislation. Only the 'holy law of Islam' was acceptable as the basis of the state and the Sultan's right to amend the provisions of the holy law, wherever necessary. This right was expressed in 'firmans'. Elgin claimed that he had secured such a legal document, but was the document presented as such a firman? Professor Demetriades questions this:

"Any expert in Ottoman diplomatic language can easily ascertain that the original of the document which has survived was not a firman. "Ferman" in Turkish denotes any order or edict of the Ottoman Sultan. In a more limited sense it means a decree of the Sultan headed by the cipher (tughra) and composed in a certain form. All firmans have some common features that distinguish them from documents of other types.

Professor Demetriades lists all these features in great detail and concludes:

As none of these features are present in the document produced, the document whose translation we have is not a firman." Professor Demetriades believes on present evidence that there has never been a "firman".

Some apologists of the British Museum have claimed that the British used the word "firman" to describe any official letter issued in the Ottoman Empire. That maybe so, but that suggests that the legal weight of a proper firman allowing Elgin's men to enter the Acropolis has never existed. Instead it appears that an obliging Vizier simply sent a letter of introduction giving instructions for Elgin's men to be allowed to enter the Acropolis with specific guidelines for acting there.

Guidelines that were most emphatically never followed.