Elly Symons: Passionate mission for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures

The Greek Australian vice-president of the Australian Parthenon Committee delves into the personal and cultural significance driving her relentless campaign for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures

About a decade ago, Elly Symons found herself with extra time on her hands. She used this time to reflect on the Parthenon Sculptures something she has been passionate about for a long time.

“I can think that the Parthenon marbles need to be returned to Greece, I can think that the Cyprus problem is really important and needs to be solved but what am I going to do about that?” she wondered.

Then, she decided: “Actions needed to take place.”

So, she “started to act.”

Actions speak louder than words

Elly Symons has been the vice-president of the Australian Parthenon Committee for a decade.

Along with her Co-Vice President, George Vardas, and other Greek Australians, they are advocating for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures from the British Museum to Athens.

Symons, whose parents hail from Ithaca and Cyprus, said the Australian Committee’s members have been “the most active online,” which is crucial nowadays, as “social media is where that daily public discourse happens.”

Elly Symons at the Acropolis Museum in Athens, holding a scarf specially made for her by a scarf maker. Photo: Supplied

Finding solace and purpose

Despite “promoting Greece, Cyprus, and the Parthenon Sculptures issue,” there was another reason to why Symons became active on social media.

Six years ago, she lost her son Samuel to cancer, at the age of 27.

She felt like her “world came crashing down.”

“Channelling that sadness into something constructive,” became a driving force, for her online engagement, and particularly her advocacy for the Parthenon Sculptures.

She now has a large audience across all major social media platforms, especially within the Greek Australian and Greek American communities.

“A lot of feedback I get is positive praise for pursuing good in the world despite personal difficulty.”

“It’s not always easy… but I try my best to always be constructive and to take action.”

Before his passing, Samuel received the Victorian health minister’s award for his services to the Peter Macallum Cancer Centre and the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre’s Youth Cancer Advisory Board.

Elly Symons looking at Caryatid sculptures at the Acropolis Museum in Athens. Photo: Supplied

“Samuel had cancer for 23 of his 27 years but was still passionate and determined to give back to the hospital which treated him during that time. His fellow board members significantly chose to honour him and nominated him to the Victorian health minister, and he won the award only months before he passed away. Samuel was also a proud and beloved volunteer for the Greek Community of Melbourne where his enthusiasm and humour won him many admirers,” Symons said.

Symons said she loves seeing the younger generation step up and show interest in preserving “our cultural heritage,” something Samuel also “felt strongly about.”

“Part of why I do what I do is to is to honour my family and make my family proud and continue the legacy of my parents and give back to my child, children and to people of younger generations.”

“A piece of the solution puzzle”

Besides the International Association, she said other international groups are also lobbying for the return of the sculptures.

Symons said, Roger Michel, founder of the Institute for Digital Archaeology at Oxford University, led a project to 3D-print a replica of the horse of Selene from the Parthenon using Pentelic marble, the same material as the original sculptures.

Despite the British Museum denying them permission to make a cast, Michel and his team created the replica using photographs.

The Greek ambassador in London arranged for Pentelic marble to be discreetly shipped to the UK for this purpose.

This replica is now being considered as “a piece of the solution puzzle,” proposing that copies of the marbles could be offered to the British Museum in exchange for the originals.

As recently published in Neos Kosmos, Michel and his team are using advanced 3D scanning technology to create replicas of the Parthenon sculptures.

They hope these 3D scans of the marbles will convince the British Museum to return the original marbles to Greece.

Elly Symons with Artemis Papathanassiou, from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Greece. Photo: Supplied

“We’re only asking for the Parthenon Sculptures”

Symons said eminent British born Australian, David Hill founded both the Australian Parthenon Committee and the British Committee. He also served as the first President of the International Association for ten years.

When most people first learn the basic facts about the Parthenon sculptures, their immediate reaction is that they should return to Greece.

“However, the British Museum and the British government remain intransigent and maintain that Lord Elgin acquired the Sculptures legally.”

“This is patently untrue” said Symons and just recently, Turkey at the UNESCO ICPRCP meeting in Paris announced that the Turkish Archive holds no record of Elgin’s purported Firman.

“This is an extremely welcome finding,” Symonds said.

Symons suggests that despite the floodgates argument— meaning that returning the Parthenon Sculptures could lead to broader restitution demands— “Greece’s request is very specific.”

“We’re only asking for the Parthenon sculptures.”

The importance of Philhellenism

As an active member of Melbourne’s Hellenic community, she has talked about the significance of framing her discussions around “Philhellenism” in recent years.

“I feel that it’s extremely important to create Philhellenes out of our Greek Australians and our Anglo Australians and our other multicultural voices.”

She highlighted the Parthenon marbles’ significance as both Hellenic heritage and World Heritage, noting their role as UNESCO’s emblem.

“As Greek Australians of the Diaspora, we have a civic responsibility to our Australian country and our Australian society. And we have a civic responsibility to our Greek heritage to make the most of both those things.”

Symons recently met with Artemis Papathanassiou, from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Greece, who attended the UNESCO meeting in Paris from May 29 to May 31, along with the director of the Acropolis Museum, Professor Nikos Stampolidis.

She said the “Parthenon sculptures” topic is the “longest-running unresolved” issue on the agenda at every meeting.

Elly Symons in Athens with the Acropolis in the background. Photo: Supplied

A path influenced by Greek and Greek-Cypriot heritage

After growing up and raising her family in Melbourne, Symons made the decision to relocate to Greece as she wanted to experience Greece ” more as a real Athenian rather than as a tourist.”

For the past six years, she has been living between Melbourne and Athens.

“My purpose is to experience that and try and understand at a deeper level what that Diaspora journey is like. And mine is in reverse, but the principles are the same.”

She reflected on the struggles her grandparent’s faced a century ago when they immigrated to Australia.

“My great-grandfather came from Ithaca to Melbourne in 1897 for only three years and had a fruit Barrow in Elizabeth St in the city. And I’m thinking. He didn’t speak English. How did he do that? What was his everyday life like?”

Her grandfather later arrived in 1924 and established himself in several cafes in Melbourne’s CBD.

Symons’s upbringing was deeply influenced by her Greek and Cypriot heritage. Her Cypriot father emigrated to Melbourne in 1951 and briefly studied Law at the University of Melbourne before establishing himself in CBD restaurants in the Greek Precinct of Melbourne.

His active involvement in the Cypriot community and the justice for Cyprus movement (SEKA) after Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus in 1974 instilled in her the importance of civic duty.

He led by example, showing that actions speak louder than words.

Symons said her advocacy extends beyond the Parthenon sculptures to promoting Greek and Cypriot culture.

“I take it upon myself to be a voice for both those Hellenic countries.”

“In the end it’s going to be a political decision”

Symons said the British Museum has one condition unique to Greece: if Greece wants to borrow the marbles, they’ll have to sign a waiver acknowledging the British Museum’s ownership.

She said when the British Museum lent a sculpture to the Hermitage in Russia about 10 years ago, no such acknowledgment was required.

“They didn’t require Russia to acknowledge ownership, but obviously they require this of Greece because they’re afraid that we won’t send them back.”

The Greek Australian activist said Greece’s Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis has placed the return of the Parthenon sculptures “high on his agenda.”

She said, “that’s been a fantastic breakthrough” because, “in the end it’s going to be a political decision,” between two prime ministers, “who are willing to come to a resolution.”

“All the activists around the world can have opinions and can be mouthpieces, but in the end, it is the Greek Government and the British Government who will solve this issue.”

Symons said her group has been actively speaking with Australian politicians who are all sympathetic on the issue.

“That’s what we do. We nudge our politicians.”

“Parliaments are the representative voice of the citizens, and Australian Parliament is a voice in the world parliamentary discourse.”

“It’s good for the UK to be reminded every so often.”

“We will continue our fight until justice is served and the Parthenon Sculptures are reunited at the Acropolis Museum in Athens where they belong.”