Letter of permission (firman) for Lord Elgin

AD 1801
Constantinople (now Istanbul), Turkey

Italian translation of the Ottoman letter of permission to excavate and remove objects from the Acropolis of Athens

This document is an Italian translation of the original Ottoman firman (letter of permission) that was issued in July 1801 by the Kaimakam (Acting Grand Vizier), the most senior authority in Constantinople (Istanbul) after the Sultan. The firman instructed the Voivode (Civil Governor) and the Cadi (Chief Justice) of Athens to ensure that Lord Elgin’s team of artists could draw, mould, excavate and remove ‘any pieces of stone with inscriptions, and figures’ that they wished. At the time, Greece was part of the Ottoman empire and had been for most of the previous 350 years.

The translation was made by the Venetian dragoman (translator and diplomatic negotiator) Antonio Dané so that Lord Elgin and the Rev. Philip Hunt might know exactly what the Turkish document said. The original was carried by a Mubàshir, a highly trusted member of the Ottoman Porte whose task it was to see that the terms of the firman were obeyed. He was called Mehemmed Raschid Aga and accompanied Philip Hunt in Greece during 1801 and 1802.

Faced by the continuing destruction of the buildings and antiquities on the Acropolis and his inability to prevent it, Hunt decided to request the removal of sculptures still on the building. With this translation he was able to judge exactly what might be permitted.  In particular Hunt knew that there was no exclusion clause concerning removal of material from buildings and walls. His request to remove two metope sculptures was agreed, and this was followed by further removals, supported by Raschid Aga, over the next two and a half years. In 1810 a final firman was issued by the new Kaimakam permitting the shipment from the Piraeus (the main port of Athens) of all the remaining cases of sculptures that had not been transported since 1803 when Lord Elgin’s embassy had ended.

The Turkish original of the 1801 firman was delivered by the Mubàshir to the Ottoman officials in Athens, where it was seen in 1809. It was presumably destroyed in the Greek War of Independence (1821-1829). A copy or record of the document may have been kept in Constantinople, but it has not yet been discovered.

D. Williams, 'Lord Elgin's Firman', Journal of the History of Collections (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009)

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GR 2006,0523.1.1

Formerly in the possession of the Hunt family; purchased from Mr. William St. Clair with the aid of the Pilgrim Trust, The Friends of the National Libraries and the Society of the Dilettanti.


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