I remember as a child growing up watching the news and listening to Melina Mercouri talking about her love for Greece and her passion and determination for the Parthenon Marbles to be returned to their rightful place where they always belonged. I don’t think she was ever bitter in the manner they were taken when Lord Elgin controversially removed them, but she just wanted them back with all her heart and all her soul and this was what she was fought for until her last breath.

It was her dream, and she always believed that she would see the day when the Marbles would once again come back to Athens. I still remember the passion and the love she had for them in her eyes, and when she talked about them you could feel that it was heartfelt. She didn’t cry but you felt that her heart was crying and these are memories that I have as a child and they will always stay with me.

Melina Mercouri is one of the great women figures of Greece in the 20th century. A many-sided and vibrant personality, she played a leading role in the struggle against the Colonel’s Junta in 1967 — 1974 and was a great theatre and film actress of international fame. The parts she has portrayed have made cinema history. She was also a politician who left her mark on Greek culture.

Melina (the diminutive of her two names Amalia — Maria) Mercouri was born in Athens on 18 October 1920. She comes from a family of politicians and was the beloved grand daughter of Spyros Mercouris — one of the most successful and popular mayors of Athens, for more than 30 years — and the daughter of Stamatis Mercouris, a deputy of EDA (Party of the Greek Democratic Left) former Minister of Public Order and Public Works. A little after she had completed her secondary education, she was admitted to the National Theatre’s Drama School after reciting a poem by Karyotakis. She studied with the great teacher Dimitris Rondiris and graduated in 1944. She joined the National Theatre and interpreted small parts on the central stage and on the Piraeus stage.

I have carried this memory of Melina Mercouri with me and I now feel this is the time to do my little bit for her, which is to fulfill her dream and indeed my dream. Melina Mercouri’s last wish went: ‘MY SOLE WILL NEVER REST UNTIL THE PARTHENON MARBLES RETURN TO THEIR ORIGINAL BIRTHPLACE’. These are very powerful words coming from a person who was extremely passionate about her quest to have the Parthenon Marbles returned.

Before Melina Mercuri became the Minister of Culture, she was an actress and a very good one I believe. Her first movie was the Greek Language film ‘Stella’ (1955), directed by Michael Cacoyannis, the director of ‘Zorba the Greek’. The film received special praise at the 1951 Cannes Festival, where she met for first time the American film director Jules Dassin, with whom she would later share her life, as they got married in 1966. The following year she starred in the film ‘He Who Must Die’ and another Dassin’s film followed featuring Mercouri, such as ‘The Law’ (1959).

She became well known to international audiences when she starred in ‘Never on Sunday’ (1960) in which Dassin was the director and co-star. For this film, Mercouri received the Best Actress Award at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress and the BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role.

After her first major international success, she went on to star in Phaedra (1962), for which she was nominated again for the BAFTA Award and the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in Motion Picture Drama. The recognition of her acting talent did not stop though, as her role in ‘Topkapi’ (1964) granted her one more nomination, this time for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in Motion Picture Musical or Comedy. Mercouri worked with other famous directors as well, such as Joseph Losey, Vittorio De Sica, Ronald Neame, Carl Foreman, Norman Jewison, and starred in films like ‘Spanish Language the Uninhibited’ by Juan Antonio Bardem. She continued her stage career in the Greek production of Tennessee Williams Sweet Bird of Youth (1960), under the direction of Karolos Koun. In 1967, she played the leading role in Illya Darling at Broadway, for which she was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical, while her performance in Promise at Dawn (1970) gave her another Golden Globe Award nomination.

Melina Mercouri concentrated on her stage career for the following years, playing in the Greek productions of ‘The Threepenny Opera’ and, for a second time, ‘Sweet Bird of Youth’, in addition to the ancient Greek tragedies ‘Medea’ and ‘Oresteia’. She retired from film acting in 1978, when she played in her last film, ‘A Dream of Passion’, directed by her husband Jules Dassin. Her last performance on stage was in the opera ‘Pylades’ at the Athens Concert Hall in 1992, portraying Clytemnestra.

In the October 1981 elections, Melina Mercouri was appointed Minister of Culture, a post she would keep for the whole 8 years of the Pan Hellenic Socialist Party (PASOK) government, the first Minister of Culture in Greece to remain in office for so long. Amongst her wide-ranging activities at the Ministry of Culture Melina Mercouri:

– Started the campaign for the return of the Parthenon Marbles presently in the British Museum. At the same time, she gave special attention to the restoration of the Acropolis monuments and held an international competition for the design of the New Acropolis Museum.

– She commissioned a study for the integration of all the archaeological sites of Athens, i.e. the integration of Athens’ historic center at Iera Odos — Plaka — Temple of Olympian Zeus triangle, so as to create a 4 km archaeological park, a pedestrianised area free from traffic where residents and visitors could learn and enjoy the history of Athens.

– She introduced free access to museums and archaeological sites for Greek citizens as part of an overall education effort aimed at the people, youth in particular.

– She organized a series of impressive exhibitions of Greek cultural heritage and contemporary Greek art in all five continents.

– She gave priority to the protection of Greece’s recent architectural heritage, supporting the restoration of important buildings throughout the country and especially in Athens (Schlieman Mansion — Weiler building).

– She gave full support to the completion of the Athens Hall of Music (Megaron Mousikis Athinon). She bought and commissioned the reconstruction of the REX building.

– In 1989, she backed the Thessaloniki Byzantine Museum project; the largest Greek museum built in Greece in the 20th century.

– She was one of the devoted supporters of the Athens bid for the 1996 Olympics to commemorate the centennial of the first Modern Olympic Games of 1896.

– In 1983, during the first Greek presidency, she invited the Culture Ministers of the ten European Union Member States, at the time, at an informal meeting in Zappeion where she asked them to participate in a joint action to increase the people’s cultural awareness, since there was no reference to cultural questions in the Treaty of Rome. So, on her initiative the sessions of the EEC Ministers of Culture were established.

– One of her greatest achievements as Minister of Culture was the establishment of the institution of the Cultural Capitals of Europe, with Athens being chosen as the first capital in 1985.

– A fruitful and constructive dialogue with the countries of Eastern Europe began on her initiative when in 1988, during the second Greek presidency, she supported the idea of a cooperation between Eastern Europe and the European Union and tried to open up the borders despite the strong reservations of her European partners. The idea was implemented in 1989 with the celebration of the Month of Culture in Eastern countries.

Melina Mercouri died in March 6, 1994, at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre, New York City, from lung cancer, aged 73. She was survived by her husband, Jules Dassin. She received a state funeral with Prime Minister’s honors at the First Cemetery of Athens four days later. Thousands attended her funeral.

But more important to Melina Mercouri was that the love she had for the Greek people was returned to her and that her memory is revered and cherished by all

For many years, the Greek Government has been demanding the return of the marbles, wanting to restore a central part of its architectural and cultural heritage. I want to personally continue Melina Mercouri’s quest. I can only believe in my heart as she did, that one day The Parthenon Marbles will return to their birthplace.

Source: Greece4life.com

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