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Most readers of these pages are familiar with the tale of the Elgin marbles, the ancient statues rescued by the seventh Lord Elgin from the Parthenon in Athens and now preserved in the British Museum. These, however, were only a part of the noble lord’s collection of antiquities which he acquired during his time as British ambassador to the Sublime Porte.
At the time Lord Elgin was restoring his ancestral home of Broomhall, on the north shore of the Firth of Forth and his original intention was that the Marbles should adorn his residence. With the same purpose in mind he kept an eye out in Istanbul for any coloured stone that could contribute to the beauty and splendour of Broomhall.
It was his mother-in-law, Mrs Hamilton Nisbet, who spotted some fragments of porphyry, a dark red or purple stone, lying around in the city. These were parts of pillars that had been brought from Egypt to adorn the buildings erected by Constantine and later Byzantine emperors, but which were now in ruins. Some of the pieces were actually lying in the sea, others had been built into later buildings.
One large piece, in particular, drew Mrs Nisbet’s attention. Known locally as the lid of the tomb of Constantine – an attribution impossible to prove or disprove, as Constantine and other members of his family were indeed buried in porphyry sarcophagii – it was lying in or near the mosque of Sultan Osman.
Lord Elgin made formal request to the Sultan for these pieces of stone and eventually, after some hard bargaining – for the Turks were convinced that the British knew some secret method for turning such stones into gold – the Sultan granted most of them to him, but not the lid, for there was the possibility of religious unrest if something should be taken from a mosque and given to an infidel.
The pieces of stone pillar, some as large as 7′ long and 3’6″ round, were duly fished from the sea and loaded aboard the Royal Naval ship Salamine and taken to Alexandria, where they were transferred to another ship which was already loaded with old stones, one of which came from Rosetta and was covered with indecipherable writing.
Lord Elgin persevered, however, and eventually the Sultan himself came up with the solution to the problem. He ordered that the sarcophagus lid should be taken to the Topkapi palace and stored near the Pearl Kiosk overlooking the Bosphorus. No True Believer, however fanatical, could object to a stone being taken by the Caliph of all the Faithful and the removal was accomplished without trouble. The fanatics failed to notice that the Pearl Kiosk was very close to a gate in the wall and a short time later the piece of porphyry, 7’8″ long and 5′ wide, was quietly taken out through the gate and loaded onto the Niger, another Royal Navy vessel.
In due course Lord Elgin’s appointment came to an end and he set out for home. It was his misfortune to land in southern France shortly before war was declared between Britain and Napoleon and he and his wife were detained in Paris until 1806 under conditions of such stress that Lord and Lady Elgin separated. The necessary expenses of supporting himself in the French capital and bribing various officials put an end to Lord Elgin’s grandiose plans for restoring Broomhall and eventually led to him selling the Marbles to the British Museum.
No one, however, was interested in lumps of broken pillar, no matter how rare the stone, and over the years the beautiful porphyry was used in various ways. When the 8th earl’s sister died and was buried in Westminster Abbey (she had been a favourite with Queen Victoria) some of the stone was given to the abbey to form the stairs leading up to the high altar. The 9th earl used more of the porphyry to form the border around the marble floor he constructed in the entrance hall of Broomhall.
The most remarkable use of the porphyry, however, came when the same 9th earl was invited onto the committee formed to construct a suitable memorial over the newly discovered tomb of Robert the Bruce – he of the spider – in Dumfermline Abbey. A splendid fake mediaeval brass of Robert the Bruce in full armour and standing on a heraldic lion was commissioned and Lord Elgin donated the lid of Constantine’s sarcophagus to hold the brass.
Poor Constantine. The bottom part of his sarcophagus is at present serving as a cistern in the Nur-i-Osmaniye mosque in Istanbul and the top has been used to cover the remains of a barbarian chieftan from a part of the world that was beyond the civilising influence of Rome. Constantine would be turning in his grave – except for the fact that he is no longer in it.