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Lord Elgin

Lord ElginAs Lords go, Thomas Bruce, the Seventh Earl of Elgin was in bad shape in 1798. His health was poor, he was a bachelor and he was broke. He was however well educated and had risen through the ranks of the military to become a lieutenant-colonel at the age of twenty-nine and had raised and commanded his own regiment, the Elgin Highland Fencibles and had established a respectable diplomatic reputation acting as special envoy in Vienna and Brussels as well as Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of Prussia. When he discovered that the British government was planning to send an ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in Constantinople he asked for the job and got it. The warm weather would perhaps cure his ailments and it would certainly be interesting work. He then courted and married Mary Nisbet of Earlton, a wealthy heiress and suddenly things were looking up for Lord Elgin.

It was known that the best models for Classical architecture were in Athens and not in Rome and Elgin's plan was to visit the ancient Greek capital with a few artists who would sketch and do paintings of the monuments, statues and buildings, make molds and bring these back to England. This was a time when educated people believed that Ancient Greek Art and Architecture was the highest expression of civilization and by bringing these sketches and copies back to England they could be used as a model for inspiration to the British architects and artists. It was also believed that by gazing upon great works of art a person could become somewhat enlightened by being infected by the spirit of the piece and of the artist. Lord Elgin's goal was to inject Britain with what was left of the culture of the ancient Greeks and raise the standards of his society. Clearly his purpose was a noble one and he would have been unhappy had he known that he would be regarded in the future as the perpetrator of one of the biggest heists in history. But he may have also had an ulterior motive. He was building a rather large country house and his architect Thomas Harrison, encouraged him to bring back drawings and plaster casts of surviving objects of the classical period to assist him with the design.

Lord Elgin, Elgin marblesLord Elgin arrived in Constantinople with instructions to watch over British interest, promote trade, look for new deals, get the Turks to open the Black Sea to British trade, and kick the French out of Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean, which were all part of the Ottoman empire. When Admiral Lord Nelson destroyed the French fleet in the Battle of the Nile, Turkey declared war on France and suddenly the British had a new friend and ally. When Elgin finally arrived with his new bride and entourage of artists, musicians and servants he was treated royally. The toughest parts of his job had also been taken care of. Napoleon and his French Army in Egypt were trapped and as good as defeated and the Black Sea had been opened to British trade. For the next several years he performed the role of Ambassador with vigor and was quite popular. Hours were long, however and the climate did not make him better and in fact made him worse. He contracted a severe skin disease which ate up his face and caused his nose to fall off and he had syphilis, asthma and rheumatism. Still he did not lose sight of what he perceived was his primary mission, the sketching and the making of molds of the great works of sculpture and architecture that had been left over from the golden age of ancient Athens and in August of 1800 his artists arrived in Athens, met with the Ottoman authorities and prepared for their work.

The population of Athens at the time was about 10,000 people, half of whom were Greeks, a quarter were Turkish Muslims, most of whom spoke Greek and no Turkish and the rest of the inhabitants were Albanians, Jews, Africans and some Western Europeans, known as 'Franks'. The town of Athens was clustered around the Acropolis, surrounded by a wall which took about 45 minutes to walk around. The Acropolis itself was fortified and the soldiers who were poorly paid actually lived in badly built shacks that fell down during heavy rains. It was ruled by two Ottoman officials, the Viovode, or governor and the Disdar who was the military governor. The Archbishop of Athens had a palace larger than the Viovode and was in charge of the education, welfare and rights of the Christians. The different communities got along relatively well and there had been a lively trade in ancient statues and antiquities for the last one hundred years or so.

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