ATHENS, Greece (AP) -- The golden age of ancient Athens comes to life Saturday as Greece opens its new Acropolis Museum with a lavish party, bolstering its long campaign for the return of 2,500-year-old sculptures stripped from the citadel more than two centuries ago.
Years of delays and often vociferous criticism about the museum's hulking design and location in the capital's old district come to an end with a nearly ?3 million ($4.1 million) opening ceremony to be attended by foreign heads of state and government — though conspicuously not from Britain, where the sculptures currently reside.
The reinforced concrete and glass structure sits near the foot of the ancient citadel like a skewed stack of glass boxes. With UV coating on its walls of windows, air filters and climate control, the ?130 million ($180 million) museum is Greece's answer to the argument that it had nowhere to safely house the frieze pried off the Parthenon in the 19th century by British diplomat Lord Elgin and currently displayed in London's British Museum.
"This new state of the art Acropolis Museum now demolishes that excuse," said Culture Minister Antonis Samaras, who on Friday described the sculptures widely known as the Parthenon, or Elgin, Marbles, as being in "enforced exile."
Greece sees the return of the sculptures — part of a stunning 160-meter (525-foot) marble frieze mainly of a religious procession that adorned the top of the ancient citadel's grandest structure, the Parthenon — as an issue of national pride.
The Parthenon was built at the height of Athens' glory between 447-432 B.C. in honor of the city's patron goddess, Athena. Despite its conversion into a Christian church, and Ottoman occupation from the 15th century, it survived virtually intact until a Venetian cannon shot caused a massive explosion in 1687. Elgin removed about half the surviving sculptures in the early 1800s, when Greece was an unwilling part of the Ottoman Empire.
"On this momentous day, at this historic site, we appeal to everyone around the world who believes in the values and ideas that emerged on the slopes of the Acropolis, to join our quest to bring the missing Parthenon marbles home," Samaras said.
The British Museum has repeatedly rejected calls for their return. It says it legally owns the collection it bought from Elgin, who sold it to stave off bankruptcy, and that it is displayed free of charge in an international cultural context.
"I think they belong to all of us. We are all global citizens these days," said British Museum spokeswoman Hannah Boulton.
But on the top floor of the new Acropolis Museum, Greece's counter-argument — that the sculptures were looted from a work of art so important that the surviving pieces should all be exhibited together — is displayed in stark relief.
The glass hall with a 360-degree panoramic view onto central Athens and the Parthenon itself displays the section of the frieze that Elgin left behind, joined to plaster casts of the works held in London.
The soft brownish patina of the original marble contrasts starkly with the bright white of the plaster casts sent by the British Museum in 1845: battle scenes are cut jaggedly in half, with the torso and heads of warriors and horses in London and the legs in Athens. The attempt to shock is deliberate.
"Until the missing marbles are back, all people, Greeks and non-Greeks alike, who visit this museum will feel great pride and great anguish when they walk up to the Parthenon Gallery and see the inspiring sculptures from the temple interspersed with the replicas of the pieces in the British Museum," Samaras said.
"It is like looking at a family picture and seeing images of loved ones far away or lost to us."
But the museum is not only about the Parthenon Marbles.
With about 150,000 square feet (14,000 square meters) of exhibition space, it holds more than 4,000 ancient works, many of them never displayed before due to lack of space in the cramped old museum which sat atop the Acropolis hill.
Now, visitors can walk among statues and friezes with surviving traces of paint; view fragments of sculptures and coins still bearing scorch marks from the Persians' sacking of the city in 480 B.C.; gaze through three stories of glass floors from the top of the museum straight into the foundations, where construction revealed an entire underlying neighborhood of ancient and early Christian Athens.
The museum opens to the public on Sunday. Entry is at a nominal charge of ?1 ($1.40) until the end of the year, when it will increase to ?5. The first four days are already completely sold out through Internet sales.
On the Net:
Acropolis Museum: http://www.theacropolismuseum.gr/?pnameHome&la2