Ancient monuments give us a window into the past and help us picture what people lived like millennia ago. Sure, they might be crumbling relics now, but if you look past the faded marble you can imagine just how truly staggering they must have been in their prime.
But these ancient artifacts can be mired in controversy, too. Battles over ownership have bitterly divided entire countries. And one treasure in particular has had two countries locked in an epic battle that could redefine one history as we know it.
In the 1700s, there was a new trend in Europe: tourism! After their schooling was done, sons of rich families took three-year jaunts around the continent, taking in the sights. Those trips usually end where modern European civilization began…
Athens! But some of the majesty of Ancient Greece was already disappearing. By this point, Greece had been ruled by the Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years, and one important monument had gone through some changes as a result.
The Parthenon on the Acropolis is one of Greece’s greatest treasures and was built thousands of years ago as a temple to the goddess Athena. Under the Ottoman rule, it was converted into a garrison and, eventually, a mosque, and soon, trouble stirred on its doorstep.
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In 1687, the Ottoman Empire took up arms to defend themselves against an invading army from Venice. So the Ottomans did the only logical thing to do with a historic landmark: they used the Parthenon to store gunpowder.
That obviously left some lasting damage to the structure, but the situation went from bad to worse once the Venetians attacked. The entire roof was destroyed by a mortar and exploding powder, leaving only the columns that we still see there today. But the Venetians weren’t done yet!
Once the army was ashore, Admiral Francesco Morosini attempted to raid the Parthenon of its most valuable treasures but ended up destroying most of them. He even smashed an enormous statue of Poseidon into tiny pieces — whoops!
By the 18th century, the Parthenon was in a sorry state. Because it was already so decrepit, visitors felt no shame in stealing pieces when they could. This led to a lucrative black market business for collectors, but one aristocrat in particular changed everything…
Watercolor by Edward Dodwell.
Thomas Bruce was the Earl of Elgin, and he was looking at a promising career as a politician. But when he was called upon to act as an ambassador to Selim III, the Ottoman sultan, he embarked on an adventure that reshaped history.
He departed for Greece to meet with the sultan, but an architect who was designing a house for him had a small request. He loved Greek architecture and hoped Thomas could bring back as many drawings of it as he could. But that was easier said than done.
See, when Thomas approached the Ottomans to check out the Parthenon himself, he was denied access. They demanded Thomas obtain special permission, or a firman, from the sultan himself. So that’s exactly what he did.
When the firman arrived, no one could agree on what the cryptic message meant. It read, “When they wish to take away some pieces of stone with old inscriptions and figures, no opposition be made.” Thomas decided this meant he was allowed to remove anything he pleased, and the Ottomans didn’t stop him.
So Thomas and his men went to town. For the next two years, they removed countless artifacts from the Parthenon, packed them up in 200 boxes, and shipped them back to Britain.
Back in London, Thomas proposed displaying the relics in public so that they could be appreciated. The idea proved successful: tourists flocked from all over to see pieces of the Parthenon’s rich history.
However, Thomas’s other ideas weren’t so hot. He also planned a costly restoration of the artifacts he’d taken, but the process was poorly done. The pieces ended up more ruined than they’d been before.
The exhibit remained on display in various locations until 1938 when they were moved to storage to avoid damage from bombings during WWII. They wouldn’t reappear to the public for decades.
And 200 years later, the Parthenon is still fueling debate to this day. People all across the world are strongly divided on who the Parthenon’s marble collection actually belongs to. Even Amal Clooney weighed in and took Greece’s side!
Many Greeks naturally feel strongly that the pieces should be returned to their rightful home in Athens. The Greek government has repeatedly petitioned Britain to return the artifacts for almost two centuries.
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But as you might expect, Britain is not so keen to give up the marbles. Officials argue the art is representative of European culture as a whole, not just Grecian. And it probably doesn’t hurt that it’s one of the most popular exhibits at the British Museum.
Defenders of Britain argue that Lord Elgin was right to take the artifacts to protect the Parthenon from being looted even further. At least if they’re in Britain they’re still available to the public. But many aren’t so inclined to that view.
Many people criticize Lord Elgin for the insensitive way the art was treated once it was removed. Pieces were painted over or aggressively cleaned to the point that the surfaces of the marble were altered.
For now, the two countries are at a standstill, but that hasn’t stopped Greece from throwing some shade Britain’s way; the new Acropolis Museum of Athens was designed with an enormous empty space dedicated to the artifacts, you know, should Britain ever get around to returning them.
Oddly enough, Greek artifacts aren’t the only items of historical significance that controversially made it into British hands. Another haul goes by Koh-i-Noor, Kohinoor, and Koh-i-nur, but it’s also fair to call it a big ole’ diamond. Its name translates from the original Persian and Hindu-Urdu to mean “Mountain of Light.”
Rather than glitter on Queen Elizabeth’s neck like a massive disco ball, the sought after jewel lies dormant, heavily guarded, taken out only for special occasions. So, by royal standards, you’re more likely to set eyes on a unicorn.
The Royals keep the massive jewel stowed away in bombproof cases along with all their other most precious valuables. It’s kept next to the Tudor Crown and St. Edward’s Crown in the Tower of London’s vault dubbed the Jewel House.
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But the famed diamond wasn’t always in the clutches of the British Royal family. In fact, it has a complicated and bloody past that paints a grim portrait of the Royals…
The first mentions of the Koh-i-Noor popped up in 1628. Nestled inside the heart of a peacock, the jewel was the prominent focal point of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s aptly named Peacock Throne.
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Funnily enough, the Koh-i-Noor wasn’t the most sought after jewel attributed to the throne. The Mughals were more impressed by the fiery color of the Timur Ruby, which was later determined to be a red spinel and not even a ruby at all.
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Mughal rulers were sitting pretty in their jewel-encrusted throne, presiding over a flourishing empire, for more than a century. That is until the temptations of their thriving realm caught the eye of power-hungry nations.
In 1769, the great diamond found a new owner when Persian emperor Nader Shah stormed the city of Delhi, ruthlessly seizing power and, of course, carrying away the Peacock Throne.
Once Nader spotted the Koh-i-Noor, he immediately had the one-of-a-kind diamond plucked, believing a stone that rare deserved to be shown off. So, the diamond, and the Timur Ruby too, found a new resting place on the arm of Nader’s coat.
The Straits Times
From India to what is now present day Afganistan, Koh-i-Noor ping-ponged from ruler to ruler for 70 years. Finally, in 1813, the diamond made its way home to India, under Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh.
Historian and journalist Anita Anand, a co-author of the book Kohi-Noor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond, points to this moment as a shift in thinking about the jewel. It went from being an impressive treasure to a symbol of capability.
“It becomes this gemstone like the ring in Lord of the Rings, one ring to rule them all,” Anand told the Smithsonian. Ranjit Singh returned the Koh-i-Noor to India, but its security was shortlived. After his death in 1839, the fragility of the next rulers left the diamond open to threats.
That’s where the British come in. They were eyeing the diamond and the temptation to add India to their vast collection of forced colonies for several years. When 10-year-old Duleep Singh took the crown in 1849, the Brits made their predatory move.
Victoria and Albert Museum
This is where the British history books veered off into a neater tale of how the jewel came into their possession. They’ve spun the events as a gift to the UK, rather than a token stolen from a bloody colonist regime.
In truth, British forces ambushed the young king, kidnapping his mother, Rani Jindan. Next, they coerced Duleep into giving up the Koh-i-Noor and handing over his claim to the Punjabi throne by making him sign the Treaty of Lahore.
Before anyone could stop it, the diamond was transported to London, where it was placed in the expectant hands of Queen Victoria. The Royals saw fit to display their haul, and 1851’s Great Exhibition was the perfect place for the debut.
Attraction seekers flocked from all over the world to witness the exhibits. When it came to glimpse Koh-i-Noor, they left disappointed. “Many people find a difficulty in bringing themselves to believe, from its external appearance, that is it anything but a piece of common glass,” printed The Times June 1851.
Prince Albert felt compelled to revamp the diamond to crown jewel standard. With a recut, and a fresh polish, the Koh-i-Noor was glitzy enough to put a disco ball to shame. Though there was one small consequence to the jewel’s makeover that no amount of diplomacy could fix.
Recutting the Koh-i-Noor reduced its size by half. Still, Queen Victoria was pleased with her new light refracting token. She had it affixed to a brooch, a most attention-grabbing accessory, and eventually, the diamond was fitted to a crown.
The Vintage News
The last time the diamond made a public appearance was for the funeral of the Queen Mother in 2002. The crown with the prominently placed diamond rested atop her casket. Since then, it’s been relegated to the Tower of London.
Numerous experts and historians have called into question Britain’s claim to the centuries-old diamond. Given the seedy circumstance under which it passed into their possession, the pressure for the Royals to return Koh-i-Noor to India has steadily turned up.
The Koh-i-Noor is just a cherry on the sundae as far as historical misrepresentations go; pretty much every country has moments they aren’t proud of. Sometimes the things you read in a textbook are just plain lies compared to the truths nations attempt to hush up.