It has been 24 years since Melina Mercouri died this day in 1994 but her picture in front of the Parthenon that adorns the Acropolis Metro Station is engraved in the minds of millions of Greeks.
In her life Melina Mercouri was several things: a striking woman; a stage and movie actress; a patriot; an activist; a politician, but above all — and this is what she remains even after her death — she is a great Hellene.
Melina Mercouri loved Greece so much that she epitomized the Hellenic spirit to the point that she became its ambassador worldwide.
To the heart of every Greek, she was the first politician who fought for what is truly right: the return of the Parthenon Sculptures to their home, in the Parthenon, on the Acropolis.
It was 1982 when Melina Mercouri, with her overwhelming passion and the shine of the star that marked her, started her campaign for the return of the so-called Elgin marbles.
Her passion, her desire, her fight for the return of the priceless sculptures to their rightful home is summed up in the phrase: “I hope to see the marbles return to Athens before I die. But if they return later, I will be reborn to see them.”
The Parthenon Marbles were a special case since they were part of a monument and not a self-contained work of art, such as the Venus of Milos, exhibited at the Louvre Museum.
The campaign began at the UNESCO General Policy Conference in Mexico when Mercouri – then Minister of Culture and Science – put forward the Greek request for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures.
According to political legend, Melina’s internationally known name and her glamorous personality were the factors that contributed to the assignment by Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou of the enormous weight of such a difficult diplomatic endeavor.
“You must understand what the Parthenon Marbles mean to us. They are our pride. They are a tribute the philosophy of democracy. They are our ambition and our name. They are the essence of our Greekness,” Mercouri had stated during her campaign for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures.
The draft recommendation for the return of the sculptural decoration of the Parthenon to Greece was submitted by the Greek delegation in 1982, with 56 votes in favor, 12 against and 24 abstentions.
Two years later, in October 1984, Greece submitted a formal request for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures, but in April of that year the British side rejected it.
That year, Greece filed an official request for the return of marbles to UNESCO, which had initiated the agenda of the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation.
Ten years later, the precious sculptures were still at the British Museum when Melina Mercouri passed away. The British fought to keep them in their possession and they won. If one day the Parthenon Marbles return to Greece, the spirit of Melina Mercouri will likely rejoice.
Born Maria Amalia Mercouri on Oct. 18, 1920, she was the favorite granddaughter of Athens Mayor Spyros Mercouris and daughter of United Democratic Left party lawmaker and Minister Stamatis Mercouris.
Melina studied acting at the National School of Dramatic Art (1943-46) and made her debut on stage in 1944.
As a protagonist she was established in 1949 with Blanche’s role in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire”.
Her first cinema role was as the leading actress in Michael Cacoyannis’ Stella (1955). However, it was the role of Ilia in the Academy Awards Nominated “Never on Sunday” (1960), as well as the theater rendition of the movie in New York, that won Melina Mercouri an international reputation.
In 1965, she married American director Jules Dassin, who directed her in “Never Sunday” (1960), “Phaedra” (1962), “Topkapi” (1964) and “A Dream of Passion” (1978).
Melina Mercouri’s political activism was shown in her protests against the military junta from abroad. After the restoration democracy in Greece, she returned and became a politician.
She was elected for PASOK in 1981 and became Minister of Culture and Sciences, an office she held until the end of the first eight years of the Andreas Papandreou administration.
As culture minister, her vision was the return of the Parthenon Marbles from the British Museum. At the same time she created the Municipal Regional Theaters to bring the theater art to the provinces. Along with her French counterpart Jacques Lang, they created the institution of the “European Capital of Culture” in 1985.
Melina’s star faded out on March 6, 1994, but Greeks still call her only by her first name, as if she is a beloved relative.